David Meek remembers England and Manchester United's original boy wonder, Duncan
David Meek remembers England and Manchester United's original boy wonder, Duncan Edwards - one of the players that Manchester United and England tragically lost in the Munich air disaster of 1958...
England, as well as Manchester United, lost some of their finest players in the Munich air disaster of 1958.
Eight years after the crash, England won the World Cup. It might have been sooner had not Roger Byrne, Tommy Taylor and Duncan Edwards been among the passengers who all perished as their plane failed to take off at the third attempt following a refuelling stop on their way home from a European Cup tie against Red Star Belgrade in Yugoslavia.
Duncan was only 21 when he died from his massive injuries, 15 days after he had been dragged clear from the runway carnage, but already he had more than made his mark with the promise of so much more to come for club and country.
He had already won 18 caps and, after captaining the England Schoolboy team and the Under-23 side, he was regarded as the natural successor to Billy Wright at senior level.
He had been the youngest to play for England in the 20th Century when he was given his first cap in April 1955, at the age of 18 years and eight months, incidentally a debut marked by beating Scotland at Wembley 7-2.
Walter Winterbottom, the England manager of that era, had no doubts about the player's international worth when he said: "Duncan was a great footballer and he had the promise of being the greatest of his day. It was in the character and spirit of Duncan Edwards that I saw the true revival of British football."
Jimmy Armfield who went on to captain England himself and who also played with him during National Service in the Army says: "With Duncan in the team I believe England would have at least reached the final of the 1958 World Cup.
"The first thing that struck you was his enormous build. He almost had the physique of a weight lifter and when he played against people his own age he appeared to carry almost twice their strength.
"I can still see this powerful figure stalking the dressing room and at the time I would think: "I'm glad he's playing for us."
"But it wasn't just power that made him a first-class player. He had great technique and never thought about losing. He was the perfect footballer, one of the finest all-round players I ever saw, or am ever likely to see."
His shooting was eye-catching and even impressed the Germans. His shots packed so much power when he played in England's 3-1 win in Germany that when United landed in West Berlin a few months later for the start of a pre-season tour, German fans were calling for 'Boom Boom'.
Legendary United trainer Jimmy Murphy recalled in his book United, Matt and Me: "If I shut my eyes I can see him now. Those pants hitched up, the wild leaps of boyish enthusiasm as he came running out of the tunnel, the tremendous power of his tackle - always fair but fearsome - the immense power on the ball. He played wing-half, centre-half, centre-forward and inside-forward with consummate ease.
"When I hear Mohammed Ali proclaim 'I am the greatest' I have to smile. You see, the greatest of them all was an English footballer named Duncan Edwards. The real professional.
"When I heard the sad news of Duncan's death, I broke down and cried. The club and England had lost a great footballer. I had lost a friend, a very dear friend."
Born in Dudley, Worcestershire, United signed him as a schoolboy from under the nose of Wolves, much to the annoyance of Stan Cullis, and he soon stood out in the youth team.
United won The FA Youth Cup five years in succession from its inception in the 1952-53 season and Edwards played in the first three.
He was the youngest ever professional to appear in the First Division when United gave him his League debut against Cardiff City at Old Trafford on April 4th 1953, at the tender age of 16 and 185 days.
United lost 4-1. He didn't play again that season, but the following year he strode majestically into action as Sir Matt Busby unveiled his Busby Babes.
He played superbly as Busby's freshly built young side won the Championship in the successive years of 1956 and 1957. He also scored in United's remarkable 5-4 First Division win at Arsenal, just before the team flew out to Belgrade for their fateful European Cup quarter-final against Red Star. Tragically, it was his last game on English soil.
A bigger-than-life bronze statue now stands in the market place in his hometown of Dudley, and in the nearby St Francis Church there are two stained glass windows, unveiled by Sir Matt Busby in 1961, dedicated to his lasting memory.
For those who saw him play, though, the memories of this stunning young player remain even more vivid.
Edwards' England goals
v West Germany in Berlin on 26.5.56 (England won 3-1)
He swept past three tackles before crashing an unstoppable shot past Herkenrath's right hand.
v Denmark at Wolverhampton on 5.12.56 (England won 5-2)
He met Stanley Matthews' crossfield pass brilliantly to unleash a ferocious shot, almost bursting the net. Then scored again with another fierce shot after Matthews' clever flick.
v Scotland at Wembley on 6.4.57 (England won 2-1)
He scored the winner with six minutes left, steaming onto Matthews' square pass and hitting the ball with power and precision.
v Northern Ireland at Wembley on 6.11.57 (England lost 2-3)
After a move which went the whole length of the field, suddenly the ball was in the net as he moved in swiftly to hammer a low shot past Gregg.