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Born: Thursday 1 October 1936, Dudley, England
Died: Friday 21 February 1958, Munich, West Germany (aged 21)
Position: Half Back
It is a great testimony to the ability of Duncan Edwards that even though he lost his life in the Munich Air Crash at the age of just 21, he is still widely considered to be one of England and Manchester United's greatest ever players. In a senior career that lastest a little under five years, he won several major honours as part of the great 'Busby Babes' team and gained a reputation as one of the most versatile players in the game.
Edwards was born in the West Midlands town of Dudley on 1 October 1936. When he was still at junior school he was already displaying a dominant presence on the pitch and was tipped to play for England by his teachers. He quickly moved through the ranks of school, county and district teams and in 1950 made his debut for England schools, aged just 13. Both Manchester United and nearby Wolverhampton Wanderers had already been alerted to Edwards' abilities and both were keen to secure his signature.
In the summer of 1952, with Edwards approaching his 16th birthday, Manchester United swooped to secure his signature on amateur forms. Wolves were furious at missing out on such a talented player who had grown up on their doorstep, but Edwards himself was always adamant that Manchester United were the only team for him. He had joined one of England's leading teams, league champions in 1952, but with an ageing team languishing in eighth place in the spring of 1953 manager Matt Busby took the decision to try out a number of young players.
The 16-year old Edwards was one of the new generation introduced into the team, making his debut in a 4-1 home defeat to Cardiff City on 4 April 1953. He did not appear again until nearly seven months later, at the end of October, but when he did he quickly became a fixture in the first team. As soon as he turned 17, he was given his first professional contract as United moved quickly to ensure that their new star stayed at the club.
First and foremost a wing-half (a modern day defensive midfielder), perhaps Edwards' greatest gift was his versatility. He was comfortable in any outfield position and could fill in wherever the team needed him. His physical strength, aerial presence and superb timing made him a formidable presence defensively, while his immense range of passing and powerful shot allowed him to come forwards effectively when required. Although a quiet and private person off the pitch, Edwards also commanded great respect among his team-mates and was a great natural leader. Team-mates and opponents alike considered him to be one of the most complete players they had ever seen.
For his first couple of years in the Manchester United first team, Edwards continued to play for the youth team as well, helping them to win the FA Youth Cup three years in succession from 1953 to 1955. Remarkably, the third of those successes came after his full debut for England, with the selection of an international player for the youth team bringing some criticism from the media. Edwards' international career had begun on 2 April 1955, in a British Home Championship match against Scotland. At 18 years 183 days old, he was England's youngest player since before the Second World War, a record he continued to hold until 1998.
United's young team had seemed set to challenge for the league title in 1954-55, but after a good start faded in the spring to finish fifth. The following season, Edwards was called up for National Service in the army but was allowed to continue playing league football, although he appeared in army matches as well. Although both he and Bobby Charlton were on National Service at the same time, Edwards was still able to help Manchester United to dominate the First Division in 1955-56, as they finished a full 11 points clear of Blackpool at the top.
He added to his fast-growing reputation in England's 3-1 friendly win over West Germany in Berlin at the end of that season, opening the scoring with his first international goal. Captain Billy Wright hailed his performance as one of the finest he had seen and Edwards was soon being talked of as a possible successor to the 32-year old Wright as captain when the time came for him to retire.
In the 1956-57 season, Edwards formed part of the Manchester United team which became England's first representatives in the European Cup, where they reached the semi-finals before losing to Real Madrid. In another dominant season, he also helped United to retain their league title. They also reached the FA Cup final, although their double hopes were wrecked by an injury to goalkeeper Ray Wood early in the match as they were beaten 2-1 by Aston Villa.
Edwards also starred in England's successful campaign to reach the 1958 World Cup, scoring twice in the 5-2 win over Denmark in the opening qualifier, and was expected to be one of the stars of the finals in Sweden. Early in 1957-58, it appeared that Manchester United were on course to win a third consecutive title but despite a fantastic start to the season, they stuttered through the autumn and by early 1958 were six points behind leaders Wolves with a third of the campaign remaining.
United had however made excellent progress again in the European Cup. Reaching the quarter-finals, they beat Red Star Belgrade 2-1 at home and in the second leg in Yugoslavia, gained the draw they needed to reach a second successing semi-final. The match was Edwards' 177th senior game for Manchester United, and tragically proved to be his last. Under pressure to get home in time for a vital league game against Wolves, disaster struck during their return journey to England on 6 February 1958.
The team's plane had stopped off in Munich to refuel, but in extremely poor weather failed twice to take off. When a third attempt was made, the plane lost power on the slush-covered runway and crashed through a fence, hitting a house. Seven of Edwards' team-mates were killed immediately and he suffered terrible injuries. It appeared that even if he was able to survive, his football career was likely to be over. He fought for his life in a Munich hospital for more than two weeks, but his kidneys had been severely damaged in the crash and on 21 February, Edwards died of kidney failure at the age of just 21.
At his funeral in Dudley, thousands of people lined the streets to pay their respects. Many of his contemporaries believed that with Edwards and his Manchester United team-mates in the side, England may have been able to win the World Cup later that year in Sweden. By the time England did win the World Cup on home soil in 1966, Edwards would still have been only 29 and many have suggested that it may have been him who lifted the trophy as captain. Although rightly regarded as one of English football's legends, the game was left wondering just how great Edwards might have become. He may well have gone on to be one of the very best players the world had ever seen.
References (all accessed 30 October 2012):
- Published on Tuesday, 30 October 2012 15:03