Remembering the “Big Fella”
The morning of Friday, February 21st 1958, dawned. I was just 13 years old. It was around 7:30 a.m. and I was awakened by a gentle hand shaking my shoulder. My Mum was sat on my bed as I sat up and began rubbing the sleep from my young eyes. She gave me a minute or two to so that I could become fully awake and aware, before she gently, and softly, almost whispered, the words that I never ever wanted to hear; “Son, I am so sorry, but Duncan died early this morning.”
50 years have now passed since that morning, but I can still very clearly hear my Mum’s gentle voice passing on that tragic news to me. In seconds, my world was once again shattered and the tears flowed down my young face unabatedly. It seemed so unreal, so unfair, and I couldn’t cope with what I had been told and nor did I want to believe it at all. Duncan just couldn’t die like that. He was a giant; a colossus; nothing could defeat Duncan either on the field or off it. He was immortal in my eyes and I suspect that the kids of my age at that time felt exactly the same way.
For two long weeks he had battled against the injuries which he had suffered as a result of the disaster at Munich’s Reim Airport on February 6th. His medical condition was the subject of daily news bulletins on both the radio and the television services. Some days he had improved, some days he had deteriorated, but everybody was hoping that he would pull through. There was so much optimism for his survival, and his eventual recovery as we had entered that second week after the crash. Others it seemed, like Jackie Blanchflower, Johnny Berry, Frank Taylor, and Sir Matt, had more serious injuries and it was they who were in more immediate danger than Duncan. It was their state of health that we should be more worried about – Duncan would pull through surely! If there was one person who I wanted to survive it was the big fella’.
I dressed, went downstairs, and there lying on the kitchen table was a copy of the day’s Daily Mirror. On the front page under the banner was a full sized picture of Duncan’s face and shoulders and he was wearing the white 1957 F.A. Cup Final shirt. The headline across it read; “Edwards of United Dies.” I can still see that front page even today. I went so cold and the savage gut wrenching empty feeling of pain, once again engulfed my young body. It was there before me, real, he had gone – I would never ever see him again. It broke my young heart, and even today, I get so emotional just thinking about him.
Duncan’s first class career spanned just four and a half seasons. But the impact that young man had on the game of football and what he achieved in such a short span of time, was nothing short of phenomenal. I can’t think of any other player who made the same sort of impact from such an early age as he did, and I include Di Stefano, Pele, Beckenbauer, Cruyff, Maradonna, Best, Charlton, Law, and many, many others in that assessment.
His exploits as a schoolboy footballer were just “Roy of the Rovers” stuff. He was in his school, town, and county teams, three years ahead of when he should have been. The school year of 1948-1949 was Duncan’s most hectic as a schoolboy footballer. Not only did he play for his school team, but he also represented Dudley Boys, Worcester County XI, and the England Schoolboys under14 team. Duncan just loved his football and would have played for anyone, anywhere. If there had been a game arranged on the Outer Hebrides, and transport had been available, Duncan would have gone!
There are some wonderful stories around of his school days particular In Ian McCartney and Roy Cavanagh’s book “Duncan Edwards – A Biography” His schoolmaster Mr. Meddings at Priory Road School:
“A particular match comes to mind in the Worcester County Schools Trophy. It was a very windy day at the Dudley Sports Centre, and we had the advantage of a howling gale during the first half, but we just couldn’t score. In fact most of the time was spent retrieving the ball from the car park situated behind one of the goals. At half time I told Duncan that the only way we would score against the wind, was for him to have a go on his own. This he tried from his own penalty area. At the end of this amazing run, he hit a shot which hit the goalkeeper’s legs and the ball rebounded right down the field and out of play at the other end for a goal kick to us! The final score in that game was 0-0, but we had no problems in the replay which we won 7-0.”
He later moved to Wolverhampton Street Secondary School, and it was here that he came under the influence of a certain Mr. Eric Booth who as well as being a teacher at the school, was also Secretary to the Dudley Schools Football Association. Duncan always acknowledged the huge part that this schoolmaster played in his development. Mr. Booth said;
“He was eleven at the time, captain and centre half of his school junior side, and we knew right away that we had something special. In his first year at Wolverhampton Street School, he was chosen to play for Dudley Schoolboy’s side, where he came up against boys who were fifteen years of age. For once in his life, he looked a comparative midget alongside them, but he was still such a wonderful, outstanding player for his age. Although he had been playing at centre half, we played him at outside left, to keep him out of trouble, and the rough stuff in the middle of the park. We were also a little afraid in case Duncan would be a little overawed, but then - and throughout his footballing life - he never, ever showed any sign of nerves.
Coaching sessions were such that he would pick up in an instant on a new skill - trapping with the outside of the foot, or with the chest etc. I would then send him across to half the team and let him coach them, while I took the other half!
I had seen Duncan play in different positions all over the pitch, and as we had developed his left foot sufficiently, we decided to get him more into the game. So, we began to play him as inside left, and then moved him across to right half. Then the funniest thing happened. I recommended Duncan for an England under-14 International trial at Oldham Athletic’s Boundary Park, and we were actually surprised when he was selected to take part, because you have to remember that he was still only twelve years old! We were even more surprised when he was selected to play in the trial at centre forward! However, he had such a good game that he was selected to play against Ireland!?
Duncan however, almost didn’t take part in that International trial, due to something very much unconnected with football, and something that you would never associate with him with - Morris Sword and Folk Dancing! He was due to have taken part in a National Festival at Derby, being a star member of his school’s team, and having already competed in the Leamington and Birmingham Festivals. However, Duncan decided that football was his true love, and he went on to Oldham and his subsequent selection for the England Schoolboys. So on Saturday, May 6th 1950 aged just 13 years, Duncan pulled on the white shirt of England for the first time at Boundary Park, Oldham. Looking through the programme for that Schoolboy match against Ireland, it is interesting to note Duncan’s team mates on the left hand side of the forward line. They were Ray Parry of Derby Schools, and David Pegg of Doncaster Schools, who were both to figure in the career of Duncan Edwards, in later years.
Season 1950-51 brought Duncan further representative honours for the England under-14 side and also a step up to the under-15 side, with the highlight of his career so far coming on Saturday, April 7th 1951 at aged just 14. That was the day that Duncan was selected to play for England Schoolboys at Wembley against the Welsh Schoolboys, at left half. The programme for that game contained a piece which could have been a direct reference to Duncan. On page four, it read ….”Big Boys for schoolboys you’ll say as you watch them walk out from the Olympic tunnel at the far end of the Stadium. Look at their heights and weights on our ”Pen Pictures” page. Yet every player on the field today has been closely scrutinized from the age angle. Each one is still attending school and was under 15 years of age on August 31st last.” Duncan’s pen-picture read as follows ....”Duncan Edwards (Wolverhampton Street Secondary Modern School, Dudley), left half, Captain of Worcestershire County S.F.A. Selected to represent Birmingham and District S.F.A. Age, 14 years and 6 months. Height 5’ 9” Weight 10 st.12 lbs” He was a year younger than the rest of his team mates, but equal if not superior to them in height and weight.
The dreams of Wembley Stadium acted out on the waste grounds and parks of Dudley, had now been realized. Now settled in the left half spot, Season 1951-52 brought Duncan the ultimate honour of England Schoolboy Captain, with matches against Wales, Scotland (twice) and an appearance at Dalymount Park, in Dublin, against Eire schoolboys.
During his three seasons as an England Schoolboy International, he had accumulated nine caps, which was a record for an England Schoolboy. He was also the first Dudley schoolboy to win International recognition in more than forty years. Naturally, he was under the spotlight of all the leading clubs, and of course he did live on the doorstep of such famous named clubs as Aston Villa, Birmingham City, West Bromwich Albion, and Wolverhampton Wanderers. Two other clubs, both Lancashire rivals, were also alerted this youngster who potentially was going to be even better than John Charles. They were Bolton Wanderers and Manchester United.”
There was never any doubt as to what Duncan Edwards was going to be once he had left his school days behind him. So many club scouts ploughed a furrow to the Edwards household on the Priory Estate in “ Dood –lie” in the West Midlands, as Duncan in his Black Country brogue, used to call his home town. There was only ever one club that he was going to sign for though, much to the chagrin of Stan Cullis at Wolves, and Bill Ridding at Bolton Wanderers, and that club was Manchester United. He had admired what was going on at Old Trafford and wanted to be part of it as he thought that was the place where youngsters would truly be given the chance to make the grade in the professional game.
Again, quoting from McCartney and Cavanagh’s book:
“On the 16th August 1952, Duncan took to the famous Old Trafford playing field for the first time in the Club's junior public practice match, which took place before the senior game. Played in real cricket weather, an appreciative crowd saw the 'Reds' with Edwards at number 6, beat the "Blues" 5-0, and a young man called Bradshaw scored a hat-trick. (I wonder whatever happened to him!!)
Some other members of the winning side were Gordon Clayton in goal, Geof Bent at left back, Ronnie Cope at centre half, and David Pegg at outside left. Playing opposite for the "Blues" were Albert Scanlon at outside left, and a young Salford schoolboy who came on in the second half as a substitute, Eddie Colman. Duncan was selected for the Colts the following week for his first competitive League appearance, playing against Heywood St. James in the Manchester Amateur League at the Cliff training ground. Another encouraging display helped United to a 6-1 victory, and further victories in the following two matches, quickly earned Duncan a place in the "A" team. The fixture was at Leek against the local team, Ball Haye Green, with Billy Foulkes, Albert Scanlon, and former Club Secretary, Les Olive, all in the same United team who ran out 4-3 victors. Les Olive, incidentally, turned out at outside right in this match, just one of the many playing positions he filled for Manchester United including, like Johnny Carey, even goalkeeper for the First Team in later years.
Duncan's fixture list contained matches against varying teams as Ferranti, and Walkden Yard, who included hardened players looking to give young aspiring footballers a quick lesson in the playing fields of life. His first reverse in a Manchester United side came in October, and this in his first competitive cup match. Adelphi Lads club, traditionally a very strong Salford side, beating the Colts 2-1 in the Arthur Petitt Cup.
Having joined Manchester United along with many other top class youngsters, Duncan was somewhat fortunate in that his first season was also the first of a new competition for Under 18's, The F.A. Youth Challenge Cup. The original idea even had the Final earmarked for Wembley Stadium, but the earlier rounds were played in the slightly quieter surroundings of the Cliff training ground in Salford, and Leeds United presented the very first opposition. Edwards was made Captain of the Youth team which won their first ever match in that competition against Leeds United 4-0, with one of the goals being a spectacular own-goal by a certain Jackie Charlton! Victory was rewarded with a further home tie against Non-League Nantwich Town, with United recording, what is still today the highest ever score in that competition - 23-0! Both Edwards and David Pegg scored 5 each, and Duncan’s goals being his first in a Manchester United shirt. A 2-0 victory over Bury at Old Trafford in late November quickly installed United as one of the Youth Cup favourites and also earned Duncan recognition by the Lancashire County F.A. appearing as an inside forward.
A week after Bury Youth were defeated, the National press became aware of the talents belonging to the young Duncan Edwards, when a reporter from the Manchester Guardian (going under the initials of P.W.T.) reported on a match between a United XI and Northern Nomads on December 3rd. The match was played under floodlights at the Cliff training ground and resulted in a 4-3 win for Nomads, but the scribe from the Guardian was correct in his assertions of Duncan. In his report he wrote; 'The encouraging thing about the game was that it showed a player of real promise in Edwards, aged just 16. He is remarkably fast, and tackled well, but best of all shot with real power in either foot. Even Rowley would not have criticized several of Edwards' drives for strength and direction.'
During that game, Duncan also showed two thousand-odd spectators that he was capable of playing in more than one position, when he switched from left half to inside right with the ease of a veteran. Although he failed to score in that particular match, he did come close on several occasions, the readers of the Manchester Guardian were made aware of the special talent unfolding at Old Trafford.
Burnley became the first side to face a Central League side which included Duncan Edwards, on December 6th with a further appearance the week after against Preston North End. On the same day at the other end of the East Lancs Road, another of the 'find them young' policy was making his full team debut at Liverpool. The debutante went on to become a regular first team colleague of Duncan's, he was Billy Foulkes, a twenty years old full back. Only a week before two others had made their league bow. Their names were John Doherty and David Pegg, both were just seventeen years of age.
Back to the F.A. Youth Cup. Everton were the visitors on 4th February to Old Trafford for a Wednesday afternoon, 2.30p.m. kick-off, still pre-floodlighting of course. United won 1-0 despite being without Eddie Lewis and David Pegg, both of whom were required for the First Team’s F.A. Cup replay with Non-League Walthamstow Avenue, played at Arsenal's Highbury Stadium. Three days after his Youth match, Edwards scored in United's 2-1 Central league defeat at Wolverhampton Wanderers, which must have been some consolation on his return to the West Midlands.
With his Championship side of 1952 off the pace at the top of Division One, and also suffering a 5th round F.A. Cup defeat at Everton, Manager Matt Busby moved to strengthen his hand early in March 1953, by signing centre forward Tommy Taylor from Barnsley. Two weeks later, Barnsley were linked to Manchester United with the appearance of their Youth side at Old Trafford for a tie which attracted a crowd of 12,400, with incidentally, only 7,406 watching Barnsley’s First team playing Birmingham City at Oakwell on the same day in a Division two match. Edwards, McFarlane, and Scanlon, scored United’s goals in a 3-1 Youth team victory, which took them through to the semi-final and a two-legged tie with Brentford.
However, on 4th April 1953 the Saturday before the first leg was due to be played, Duncan found himself called upon for his Football league debut at the tender age of just 16 years and 185 days of age. Jackie Blanchflower had been injured the day before, and with Henry Cockburn also on the injured list, it was up to Duncan to step in and fill the gap. The match was at Old Trafford and United's opponents were Cardiff City, who were making their first appearance at the ground since October 1928. The Welsh club surprisingly won 4-1, but the result is of little importance to our story.
Duncan himself recalled that first team call-up from Matt Busby, “The thought of making my Football League debut was not terrifying after having twice played at Wembley before I was 15. On leaving school I did not have to face the difficulty of finding a job, like some youngsters, as football was my future. I thought my future would be better away from the Midlands. United had a great reputation for giving plenty of opportunities to young players, and treating them in the best possible manner. The first time that I walked into the dressing room to meet other players I wondered if I was in the right place as there was so many youngsters there. I found it very easy to settle down and make friends. I went round one Friday morning and was called to Matt Busby's office. He quietly told me that I was selected for the First team. All I could think about was letting my parents know the news.”
Alf Clarke of the Manchester Evening Chronicle, and also a contributor to the United Review the official programme of Manchester United, had witnessed a brilliant display from Duncan in the defeat of Ashton United in the Gilchryst Cup Final at the Cliff the previous Wednesday and he was present to witness Edwards’ debut against Cardiff. In the Evening Chronicle’s Saturday "Pink" he wrote: 'The only ray of sunshine that filtered through the United gloom was the display of the boy debutante Duncan Edwards, who did all that was asked of him, including taking a shot from 30 yards that was only just wide." These words of praise were alongside an action picture of the debutante on the front page, while more encouraging words were written in the match report on the centre pages. In his report, Clarke continued; “Edwards had the right ideas when he tried another long range effort and was instrumental in setting United on the move with a glorious pass up the middle arising from which Berry forced a corner.” This was just in the opening minutes of the second half and Duncan went from strength to strength.
P.W.T. of the Manchester Guardian who had first brought the name of Duncan Edwards to the attention of the National Sports pages in his match report versus the Nomads, wrote of Duncan on his debut, “He had the misfortune for this to be his first senior game. He showed promise of fine ability in passing and shooting but will have to move faster as a wing half. However, he cannot be judged on this match.”
Sportswriter Frank Taylor of the News Chronicle was another who witnessed the debut of Duncan that Saturday. He readily agreed with his fellow journalists that he looked a wonderful prospect, but looked a bit thick around the hips. Luckily, Duncan's size and weight were to be of no hindrance to him in the future, and he trained as hard as anyone which helped him develop an excellent physique. The final words on Duncan’s entry into the Football league rests with Johnny Carey who said in the Sunday Chronicle the day after the match; “He's a good 'un, the best I’ve seen for his age.”
The semi-final Youth Cup tie against Brentford at Griffin Park ended with United having a 2-1 advantage to take into the second leg at Old Trafford. In that second leg, a place in the first ever Final was assured as United Youths crushed their southern opponents 6-0. Wolverhampton Wanderers were the team that stood between United and the distinction of being the first ever winners. On 4th May, the teams faced each other at Old Trafford in the first leg. Like so many teams before them, the young Wolves were no match for the free-scoring United lads and they lost 7-1. Although Duncan did not get on the scoresheet, he gave a polished performance and helped his team mates to victory. The United goals in that memorable victory came from McFarlane 2, Lewis 2, Whelan, Pegg and Scanlon, the complete forward line. By the way, Billy Whelan was signed from Ireland to replace the injured John Doherty just before this match. At Molineux in the return leg, the Wanderers put up a much better show and obtained a creditable 2-2 draw. This gave United an aggregate 9-3 victory, and most importantly, became first ever winners of the F.A. Youth Challenge Trophy!
All three Manchester United junior sides won their respective leagues that season, a season which saw Duncan Edwards rise from the lowest junior side to the First Division!!”
The rest of course is history, and you can see just why this young boy was so idolized by his contemporaries of that time. He was so unassuming and shunned the limelight. This was a kid who by the time he was 18, had become a full international player and had played at every international level below that. Back then it was unheard of. There was no ego about the lad, and whenever the pressmen made a bee line for him he would just shoo them away and tell them that it was the other players that they really needed to speak to. I personally recall a time when he left the stadium by the old ticket office door and was accompanied by the late Henry Rose, the reporter from the Daily Express. As Duncan stood there with that old bike propped against his leg as he was want to do, signing away for all the kids, he was in conversation with Henry. The line I will always remember is; “doesn’t matter how good you are Henry, it’s what you’ve got in the bank at the end of your career that counts”. He was just 17 years old at the time, but so mature in his outlook. Henry’s face was a picture!
His appetite for the game was so infectious and he just couldn’t play enough. In 1956 during his National Service days it is recorded that he played somewhere around 107 matches in the year! He just loved to play at whatever level that the game was. He would give the same determination, concentration, and will to win, be it in a junior game or full international – playing the game was his all.
He endeared himself not only to Manchester United fans, but also to the fans throughout the country and Europe. In all the years that I have lived, I have never ever heard or read a single bad word about Duncan Edwards. He was never in the news for the wrong reasons and even though he was such a huge star, he kept a very low profile. He was the epitome of the perfect athlete, the perfect player, the perfect human being. I know it’s hard for people today to acknowledge just how good he was. The words “World Class”, “Legend” etc., are all to freely bestowed upon players these days. But there are just no superlatives that can describe the lad enough for me. Most of the so called “great players” in the recent past have all been forwards – but how many of them could do what Edwards could do? He could play anywhere, and still have the biggest impact upon a game. At the back, in midfield or up front. Believe me, Duncan had it all, and in abundance. As Jimmy Murphy told Sir Matt Busby just a few short weeks after Duncan had joined United; “Matt, there is nothing at all I can coach into this kid – he’s got the lot!” You just couldn’t get any higher praise than that – especially when you consider just what a hard taskmaster Jimmy Murphy was.
50 years have passed since that sad February morning when he left us. I blink my eyes and can still see him, hear him shouting to his team mates. Still see him covering every blade of grass on the pitch. Still see that steely determination inside of him, that never say die spirit. But I also remember the gentleness of the giant. The time that he had for the kids, the boyishness of the young man that he became and the wonderful human being whose battered frame finally succumbed in the early hours of February 21st 1958.
Just as with those other dear boys, I still miss him as though he was one of my own. He left us with such wonderful memories and I just wish that some of today’s highly paid, and over rated so-called stars, would take a leaf out of the big fella’s book and find just a small percentage of the love of the game and of people that that dear boy had.
Sleep on in peace dear Dunc’ – your place in our great club’s history is assured and your legend and memory will never ever be allowed to fade