Yet another book I have been associated with, this time with fellow Manchester United historian Ian McCartney, is the biography of Duncan Edwards which was subsequently reprinted in the 1990’s. Duncan died two weeks after the crash, the only person who was not killed outright or survived for many years. Looking at all the papers and reading all the notes, I am personally convinced that the realisation hit Duncan that he would never have walked again if he survived. I am sure that thought was the one that drove the life out of him. Imagine being such a fit, marvellous footballer, the whole world at your feet and not being able to walk again, I believe it destroyed him…
Doing the book about his all too short life, there were some memorable stories, such as when he was England’s left half (number six) as well as a leading light for Manchester United with championship medals in his possession as he served his National Service. Again a reminder of those times, up until 1960 anybody over eighteen had to do their National Service, whoever you were, for two years unless you had a medical dispensation. So, England and Manchester United’s leading light in football came home one weekend with a pass out to play a game and promptly got on his bike from his Old Trafford digs to visit his girlfriend in Stretford. Whilst he was pedalling away, he was stopped by a policeman and promptly fined 10/6 (53p) for riding a bike without lights!
A question I am always asked when they know I actually saw quite a bit of Duncan’s career at Manchester United, is just how good was he? Ok then, let’s imagine a football pitch is split into three. From the goal you are defending think Vidic. Then you have the third from your end to the opposition end, so think Keane. Finally, you have the third in the opposition box and surrounds, think Hughes. Think Duncan Edwards as doing ALL those roles!
He was that good. I saw him play at numbers five, six, nine and ten for Manchester United and he played some of them positions for England. What I want to stress though, is that whilst Duncan was that good, to show you how good Manchester United’s Busby Babes were is that he was always part of a great team, with each individual completely filling their own role but dovetailing into the team ethos (or philosophy of the day!!) From his youth team days, where he was simply awesome, to becoming England’s finest player, Duncan Edwards achieved so much in his six year career at Old Trafford. When he was in the youth team I once saw him take a penalty at the Stretford End and he honestly blasted the ball through the back of the net. When he was a regular in the Manchester United side, he also had a real hard streak in him, which a lot of players had in those days when the words hard man fitted quite a lot. In doing his biography, Denis Evans was the Arsenal full back and played for them in that famous 1958 Highbury 5-4 match against Manchester United. He recalled an incident. ‘My mate was Derek Tapscott our inside right, who was more than clattered by Duncan early on, indeed he went right through him. I thought if you come near me and I can do you I will. I never got near him, but when I heard about the disaster I often thought what if I had caught him and injured him so he missed the flight?’
Wilf McGuinness, in a lot of ways, was a ‘nearly man’ twice. He was the direct replacement for Duncan if he was ever unavailable playing for England, or moved into another role or on the rare occasions of injury. Then, in later life, he was deemed the replacement for Sir Matt Busby as Manchester United manager. On the first task, Wilf suffered a broken leg in December 1959 which virtually ended his playing career, whilst replacing Sir Matt was virtually impossible for the next to be to follow. Others who had the task of following Duncan or being compared to him, were Maurice Setters, Nobby Stiles, Martin Buchan, Bryan Robson and Roy Keane. How Sir Alex threw in Phil Jones must have been after a bang on the head!
Duncan Edwards was a magnificent footballer, whose true greatness lay ahead of him. What really brings that into focus is if you imagine ‘What if?’ Again in ‘The Unfulfilled Dream’ I did a chapter of what the next ten years after Munich might have brought. Some conclusions were;
Roger Byrne was captain of Manchester United at the time of the crash and probably had four or five years in his career. By then, Duncan Edwards would have been twenty six and the perfect choice to lead his club. That would have taken you up to about 1963, three years after that, England staged the World Cup and Duncan Edwards would have been twenty nine totally in his prime. The question I always throw in when discussing his future is would Bobby Moore even have played for England never mind captaining them to the World Cup. Duncan’s main position was number six, the shirt Bobby Moore wore in 1966.
I will finish this question with the final paragraph of my book ‘The Unfulfilled Dream’ it covers the thought of the crash not happening and how Manchester United would have evolved. I had the side in the 1968 European Cup Final against Benfica as; Stepney, Brennan, Dunne, Colman (or Crerand or Stiles), Foulkes, Edwards, Best, Law, Charlton, Sadler and Aston. Just look at those numbers at six, seven, eight and nine! As you will see number four caused me real problems. If Eddie Colman had not been killed would we have signed Pat Crerand? At the time of the crash Nobby Stiles was already on the books but could play in different positions. The commentary could have gone; ‘The ball is picked up by Edwards, a glorious sweeping pass out to Best on the right wing. He collects, drops a shoulder, beats a man, flights the ball over to the edge of the penalty box for Charlton to meet on the volley. What a shot, what a save, but the goalkeeper spills it and there is Law to turn it into the net.’
A glorious dream of an unfulfilled one.