"When I used to hear Muhammad Ali proclaim to the world that he was the greatest, I would always smile. The greatest of them all was a footballer named Duncan Edwards."
These were the words of Jimmy Murphy, former Wales manager and assistant manager to Sir Matt Busby at Manchester United.
"He was the best player I've ever seen and the best footballer I ever played with. I always felt I could compare well with any player - except Duncan. He was such a talent, I always felt inferior to him."
The words of Manchester United legend Sir Bobby Charlton CBE, who made over 750 appearances for the club, scoring 249 goals.
Pele, Diego Maradona, and Alfredo Di Stefano; they all have significant claims to being the greatest player to have ever graced the modern game of football.
Sadly, had he not perished in the 1958 Munich Air Disaster, there would only be one name associated with the title of "Greatest Player of All Time".
For those that surprisingly haven't heard of this talent, Duncan Edwards was a Manchester United and England player between 1953-1958.
He made his debut for United in 1953 at just 16 after coming through the club's youth academy. He went on to make 151 appearances, scoring 20 goals in five years at Old Trafford.
His international career was just as promising. He made his England debut in 1955 at just 18 years of age, becoming the youngest ever England international until Michael Owen in 1998. In three years, Edwards won 18 caps for his country, scoring five goals.
Though predominantly a defensive midfielder, Edwards reportedly was able to play in any outfield position, always making him an integral part to the England and Manchester United team.
1948 was the year in which the name Duncan Edwards would later become synonymous with Manchester United fans.
United's chief scout for the Midlands at the time, Jack O'Brien, put a handwritten letter on manager Matt Busby's desk. It read:
"Have today seen a 12-year-old schoolboy who merits special watching. His name is Duncan Edwards, of Dudley. Instructions please."
This recommendation from O'Brien was swiftly passed on to coach Bert Whalley with the additional instructions:
"Please arrange special watch immediately - MB [Matt Busby]."
The 12-year old Duncan Edwards was playing for Wolverhampton Street Secondary School, Dudley Schools XI, Worcester County XI and Birmingham & District XI at the time.
After several Wembley appearances as a 13,14, and 15 year old for the England Schoolboys in front of crowds reportedly up to 100,000 per game, it was not long before Duncan Edwards became far too good for the Manchester United youth team.
Aged 16 years and 183 days, Edwards made his first-team debut against Cardiff City at Old Trafford. Not that anyone knew it, but a dismal Apr. 4, 1953 4-1 home defeat was where it all started for the boy who would later become one of the greatest footballers the world has ever seen.
To be the greatest, a player has to have the right personality and mentality, on and off the pitch. And what makes the case of Duncan Edwards even more sad was that he seemed perfect off the pitch as well.
He was a permanent fixture in the England U-23 side up until 17, regularly outshining all other players in the U-23 games. As Jimmy Murphy explained:
"He might have been the Koh-i-Noor diamond among our crown jewels, but he was an unspoiled boy to the end, his head the same size it had been from the start."
"Even when he had won his first England cap but was still eligible for our youth team, he used to love turning out with the rest of the youngsters. He just loved to play anywhere and with anyone."
When it came to the very highest, elite level of international football, according to Sir Matt Busby:
". . . the bigger the occasion, the better he [Edwards] liked it."
And hence why he proved his undeniable talent to the world in England's 1956 international against World Cup holders West Germany, at the Olympic Stadium in Berlin.
Scores level at 0-0 with 25 minutes to go, Edwards produced his finest strike on the highest stage of elite football.
He gained possession on the edge of his own penalty area and set off on a run that left a trail of West Germans in his wake, before smashing the ball into the net from 25 yards. Inspired by Edwards' 'wonder goal', England went on to win 3-1.
Captain for that game, Billy Wright, said of his midfielder:
"The name of Duncan Edwards was on the lips of everyone who saw this match; he was phenomenal. There have been few individual performances to match what he produced that day."
"Duncan tackled like a lion, attacked at every opportunity and topped it off with that cracker of a goal. He was still only 19, but was already a world-class player."
Despite initially surviving the 1958 Munich Air Disaster on 6th February 1958, after "amazing" doctors for 15 days fighting for his life, Duncan Edwards sadly died on 21st February 1958 as a result of injuries. He was only 21-years old.
More than 5,000 people turned up for his funeral in Dudley, where Jimmy Murphy said:
"If I shut my eyes now I can see him; the pants hitched up, the wild leaps of boyish enthusiasm as he came running out of the tunnel, the tremendous power of his tackling, always fair but fearsome, his immense power on the ball."
"The greatest? There was only one and that was Duncan Edwards."
With special thanks to:
- The Daily Telegraph