Could Duncan Edwards Have Been the Greatest Player Ever?

Sam Pilger@sampilgerContributing Football WriterJune 17, 2013

MANCHESTER, UNITED KINGDOM - FEBRUARY 06:  A bouquet of flowers lays next to a memorial stone to 'Busby Babe' Duncan Edwards, one of the victims of the the Munich disaster.  February 6, 2008, Manchester, England. The club will be holding memorial events later to remember the 23 people who died in an airplane crash at Munich Airport 50 years ago. Eight Manchester United players were among the dead.  (Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)
Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Less than four months before his life was tragically cut short, Duncan Edwards played one of his last internationals for England against Wales at Ninian Park in Cardiff. 

On that day in November 1957, the Welsh manager was Edwards’ mentor and Manchester United’s assistant manager Jimmy Murphy. 

Before the game, Murphy stood in the centre of the Welsh dressing room, going through the strengths and weaknesses of each member of the England side in great detail. 

As detailed in the book Manchester United Greats by David Meek, Murphy talked about 10 players, but not Edwards, prompting Reg Davies, the Newcastle inside-forward, to put up his hand. 

“What about Edwards?” 

“Just keep out of his way son, there’s nothing I could say that could ever help us.” 

Edwards inspired this kind of rare awe in all those who saw him play in the five years between his debut and his premature death. 

The greatest Busby Babe of all, he has become an almost mythical figure, forever young. His legend is kept alive by only a few black and white newsreels and the memories of those who shared a pitch with him. 

I once asked Sir Bobby Charlton to describe how good he was, and sitting in a box overlooking Old Trafford, he turned and looked at the pitch Edwards had once bestrode. 

“He was the only player who made me feel inferior,” he said. 

“Duncan was without doubt the best player to ever come out of this place, and there’s been some competition down the years. He was colossal and I wouldn’t use that word to describe anyone else. He had such presence, he dominated every game all over the pitch. Had he lived, he would have been the best player in the world. He was sensational, and it is difficult to convey that. It is sad there isn’t enough film to show today’s youngsters just how good he was.” 

By the time he died at 21, Edwards had already played for United 177 times, winning two league championships, three FA Youth Cups, an FA Cup runners-up medal and 18 England caps. He had become both the youngest player to appear in the first division at just 16 years and 184 days and the youngest England international of the 20th century, aged 18 years and 183 days, a record which stood for nearly 43 years before Michael Owen claimed it. 

“When I used to hear Muhammad Ali proclaim to the world that he was the greatest, I used to smile. You see, the greatest of them all was an English footballer named Duncan Edwards,” Jimmy Murphy has said as recalled in the book Manchester United Greats

“If I shut my eyes know I can see him. 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. The number of times he was robbed of the ball once he had it at his feet could be counted on one hand. He was a players’ player. The greatest…there was only one and that was Duncan Edwards.” 

Edwards was revered for his all-round game and versatility, and how he could excel at almost every position on the pitch, whether it was centre-half, centre-forward, inside forward or half-back. 

However, he would make the majority of his appearances as a left-half, a hybrid between a defender and a midfielder, which was his favourite position as he was constantly involved and could use both his defensive and attacking abilities. 

“Most players, they are good at certain things; in the air, or good with their left or right foot, they read the game well, or they have pace. But Duncan had it all, he really was better at everything than anyone else,” Charlton told me. 

“From the first moment I saw him he could play anywhere and do anything. He was brave, great in the tackle, could pass it long or short and score goals. When I arrived at United Duncan was the only player who could do things I knew I wasn’t capable of.” 

Edwards measured 5'11", so was by no means the tallest member of this United side, but his broad torso and thick legs gave him the biggest presence. 

Former teammates and opponents all speak in hushed tones about his power, and how players would merely bounce off him. 

Edwards could muster a shot of extraordinary power. The Germans would call him "Boom Boom" for the goal he scored against them for England in Berlin in 1956, while Jack Rowley, the scorer of 211 goals for United, said he wished he had Edwards’ shot. Charlton distinctly remembers a goalkeeper once ducking a shot from Edwards and conceding a goal rather than trying to save it. 

But Edwards’ game was not simply based on his strength and size, he also possessed an impressive skill and flair. “Despite his massive muscular stature, he could bring off the most delicate of manoeuvres,” fellow Babe Bill Foulkes has said, quoted in the Manchester United Encyclopedia. “When he wanted to he was all flicks and swivels, almost like a conjuror.” 

Edwards was Sir Matt Busby’s greatest discovery. “We used to look at players in training to see if we might have to get them to concentrate more on something,” Busby has recalled, as quoted in The Lost Babes by Jeff Connor. “We looked at Duncan, and gave up trying to spot flaws in his game.” 

The former England captain Jimmy Armfield has said, also in The Lost Babes, “With Edwards, [Roger] Byrne and [Tommy] Taylor we would have won the World Cup in 1958 and then four years later. England could have had a hat-trick of World Cup wins.” 

He captained England schoolboys, England Under-23s, and had he lived would surely have succeeded Billy Wright as captain of the senior side. It is difficult to play the "What if?" game, but it has often been argued Edwards would have captained England during the 1960s, severely hampering the career of a certain Bobby Moore. 

I once asked Charlton if Moore would have captained England’s World Cup winning side at Wembley on that day in 1966, ahead of Edwards, who would then have been 29? “Probably not,” he replied. 

As league champions in 1956 and 1957 with Edwards in the side, United became the first English side to play in the fledgling European Cup, and in it Edwards thrived against the finest players on the continent, helping United reach the semifinals in their first season before they lost to the eventual winners Real Madrid

Edwards came third in the 1957 European Footballer of the Year poll behind the winner Alfredo di Stefano and Billy Wright. 

In February 1958 United qualified for the semifinals of the European Cup for a second consecutive season with a 3-3 draw against Red Star Belgrade. 

On the way back from Belgrade, United’s plane stopped to refuel in Munich. Amid the snow and ice, United’s plane twice aborted it’s take-off, and the passengers returned to the terminal. Once inside, Edwards assumed they would stay overnight and sent a telegram to his landlady Mrs. Dorman in Stretford: "All flights cancelled. Flying tomorrow. Duncan.” 

But the captain of the BEA Elizabethan decided to make one final attempt to take-off, which ended in the crash that would kill 23 people, including seven of Edwards’ teammates. 

Edwards sustained terrible injuries, including damaged kidneys, broken ribs, a collapsed lung, a broken pelvis and several fractures of his right thigh, and for 15 days he bravely clung to life. 

During those dark days, Charlton recalls visiting Edwards in his bed, and seeing how much pain he was in. A distressed Edwards also asked where the gold watch Real Madrid had presented to him was, prompting Murphy to order a search of the wreckage, which recovered the battered watch and was strapped back on to Edwards’ wrist, bringing him some relief and happiness. 

But on February 21 at 2:15 a.m. Edwards finally succumbed to his injuries. He was dead at only 21. “I have seen death many, many times, but not like this,” said one of the surgeons who tended to Edwards, as quoted in the book The Day A Team Died by Frank Taylor. 

“In all my years I have never seen a hospital staff so upset. This boy we have never seen before, he is so young, so strong…so brave. Ach, but he had no chance.” 

Maybe the passage of time has dulled the impact of this loss to English football, but imagine if Wayne Rooney or David Beckham had died at the same age. It is too dreadful to contemplate. 

In the corridors of the youth academy at Manchester United’s training ground there is now an enormous 10ft poster of Duncan Edwards to inspire the generations that seek to follow him. 

If Edwards had survived, it was believed his injuries were so serious he would almost certainly never have played football again. 

The sports writer Frank Taylor, who survived the crash at Munich, and recovered in the same hospital as Edwards, wrote about his harrowing experience in his book The Day A Team Died. 

“One of Duncan’s nearest and dearest friends told me: ‘Maybe it was better this way. The doctors said, had he lived, he might have had to spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair. Duncan couldn’t have stood that. Now I can remember him as he was, the greatest thing that has happened in British football for years.”