Anyone seeking a marker against which to set Wayne Rooney's exhilarating England debut last week could do worse than to examine the tragically short career of Duncan Edwards. The Manchester United legend broke into the England team at 18, having made his League debut as a 16-year-old, and by the time he lost his life at 21 from injuries suffered in the 1958 Munich air disaster, he had accumulated 18 international caps, scoring five goals in the process.
Where Rooney can lift an entire stadium and indeed the viewing millions with his intuitive football brain, Edwards would bestride the pitch like a young Colossus. The Liverpudlian has supreme awareness as we saw with the cute touchline back-heel to David Beckham and the attempted one-two to play Paul Scholes in, and he possesses immense upper body strength, whereas Edwards had broad shoulders and thighs like tree trunks coupled with a delicate touch when he needed it.
Nominally, Edwards played wing-half, but he loved to surge forward and shoot from the edge of the area. The assistant manager of Manchester United at the time, Jimmy Murphy, was doubling as manager of the Welsh team and was giving his team talk prior to a match against England. After Murphy overlooked Edwards in his briefing, Reg Davies, the Newcastle United inside-forward, who was likely to be marked by the Manchester United man, mentioned the matter tentatively. "Son," replied Murphy, "there's nothing I can say that would help us. Just keep out of his way."
Sir Bobby Charlton, who was a year younger than Edwards, speaks of how, as United youngsters, they used to play against teams drawn from older factory workers and how his mature colleague had no difficulty whatsoever in holding his own. In those days before substitutes Edwards could readily adapt to central defence or attack as required.
Sir Tom Finney, who celebrated his 81st birthday on Saturday and has recently published a fascinating and moving autobiography, played with Edwards for England and recalls his astute use of the ball as much as his commanding presence. Finney expresses concern about the growing hysteria surrounding Rooney, notwithstanding the efforts of the Everton manager, David Moyes, to shield him from the worst excesses: "I'm really worried about all the hype, but I do believe that Moyes is doing a tremendous job in trying to keep his feet on the ground."
There are interesting parallels that can be drawn between Edwards and Rooney as teenage stars. Football was surely simpler nearly 50 years ago. The players were not properly paid. They had not been taught their "professional" foul. All they really wanted to do was attack. Edwards played the game with a joyful exuberance and his complete lack of nerves is matched by Rooney's composure now.
Rooney lives at home in Croxteth, but for how much longer, sadly, can he enjoy the normal growing up process of an ordinary kid? Edwards had left his Dudley home, completed his National Service in the Army, and, at the time of Munich, was living in digs with Mrs Dorman in Gorse Avenue, Stretford. He sent her a telegram to inform her that the fateful flight was delayed.
As Everton have always been Rooney's team, so United were always Edwards' choice, despite the fact the scouts were buzzing around like bees at a honey pot following his appearances for England Schoolboys.
Edwards scored his first England goal, much to the delight of the many servicemen in the packed Berlin stadium, in a 3-1 win over reigning world champions, West Germany, in 1956. It was an occasion when his powerful 5ft 11in, 13st physique stood him in good stead as he surged through the entire opposition defence to finish with his trademark unstoppable blast from the 18-yard line.
Looking at photographs of Edwards, invariably waiting impatiently for a kick-off, hands on hips or hitching his shorts up towards his gigantic rib cage, one almost begins to wonder: "What if?"
Then again, perhaps not. That is a road with too many unknown turnings. For every dangerous thought about Edwards and Bobby Moore playing together, there is another which leads to Roger Byrne, Manchester United's wonderful captain and Edwards' team-mate at left-back in the England defence from 1955 to 1958. Byrne was a Munich victim too and an Old Trafford successor of similar style marked down for great things not many years later, Bobby Noble, unfortunately had his career abruptly terminated by a car crash.
So, in this very different world, in this very different game, let us hope that Rooney's precious talent is kept safe and able to blossom and that he enjoys in peace the riches it may bring. He amply justified Sven Goran Eriksson's faith in him and helped to put England in an excellent position.
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