There shall never be an end to the debate over who the greatest player ever to play the game was. We have seen the likes of Pele, Sir Bobby Charlton, Eusebio, Bobby Moore, George Best, Eusebio, Johan Cruyff, Franz Beckenbauer, Diego Maradona, Zinedine Zidane, and now Lionel Messi come and go, and each can be considered to have been the greatest in their own right. Bar Messi, who continues to add to his legacy, each of these names, and so many other contenders from a time before television, enjoyed full playing careers, with thousands of senior appearances on the biggest stages football has to offer. They won European titles, lifted World Cups, and enjoyed individual plaudits befitting their talent. They scored hundreds of goals, and traveled the world to play in front of fans of all nationalities. They can each call on remarkable individual feats seared in the memories of the thousands who watched them when proclaiming their right to the throne. However, talk to anybody who watched a certain Englishman named Duncan Edwards play for Manchester United between 1953 and February 1958, and you will be told in no uncertain terms that Edwards was, and remains to this day, the greatest to ever have played the game.
Even though I don’t usually do this in these articles, I think it is appropriate that I briefly discuss the events of Edwards’ fleeting career, one that was cut short by his death on 21st February 1958 to kidney failure following from the airplane crash in Munich. The accident is reported to have left him with damaged kidneys, a collapsed lung, a broken pelvis, multiple fractures of his right thigh, crushed ribs and several other internal injuries. Notice for a second that most existing accounts of Edwards’ career ironically begin at the very end, and I unconsciously stuck to this pattern. Perhaps it is fitting. Anyway, Edwards signed amateur terms with Manchester United on 1st June 1952, before his 16th birthday (although some accounts have the date as 1st October 1953), and made his Football League debut aged 16 years and 185 days on 4th April 1953 against Cardiff City. His debut for the England national team came almost 2 years later, against Scotland on 2nd April 1955 (age 18 years and 183 days), making him the youngest post-War England debutant, and the holder of this distinction for nearly 43 years. In a little more than 4 years, he amassed 177 senior appearances for United and 18 for the national team, yielding 21 and 5 goals respectively.
I have compiled quotes on Messi, Xavi, Paul Scholes, Michael Laudrup, and Zidane for this blog, and what strikes me as I write this article is that we have almost no frame of reference to use to truly understand how great Edwards was. We have been lucky enough to follow the careers of some of the players I mentioned earlier, and have been inundated with stories about the others. Yards of column space and hours of TV footage can be found on most of the players I mentioned. When it comes to Edwards, however, TV clips available on YouTube are few and far between, and the ones we get our hands on are grainy and unclear. Too little has been said about Edwards on public platforms to wide audiences, given that the people best qualified to speak about him are approaching their 70s and 80s, and the most well-informed and articulate accounts are not easily accessible. The thought that in a few years, very possibly within the next couple of decades, not a single person who saw Edwards play will be alive to recount their memories of the boy behemoth, is chilling, and only adds weight to the ultimately tragic story of a man who was destined for greatness.
This makes it absolutely necessary that Duncan Edwards’ story is not allowed to fade from our memories. Given that all manner of praise has been showered on him by the likes of team-mate and close friend Sir Bobby Charlton — and who better a player to judge his greatness, given that Sir Bobby has seen them all, from Sir Tom Finney to Messi, and was a mighty player himself — scouring the internet for quotes about Duncan Edwards has been a pleasure, and indeed an honour. I hope you’ll enjoy these next few moments of sharing in a story that has meant so much to so many over the decades, and not always for the joy that Edwards gave to those who were lucky enough to watch him play.
I’d like to note that I shall not be restricting myself only to quotes by famous footballers and managers, as has been the case with my earlier articles; this is to paint a more complete picture of the effect Edwards had on those who watched him, and because, as I said before, too little has been said about him to do justice to his short but powerful legacy.
” [ . . . ] seen a 12-year-old schoolboy who merits special watching. His name is Duncan Edwards, of Dudley.” — Jack O’Brien, a Manchester United scout reporting on Edwards to manager Sir Matt Busby in 1948
” [ . . . ] he showed promise of fine ability in passing and shooting, but will have to move faster as a wing half.” — Manchester Guardian, reporting on Edwards’ first team debut for Manchester United in 1953
“He was incomparable, I feel terrible trying to explain to people just how good he was. His death was the biggest single tragedy ever to happen to Manchester United and English football. I always felt I could compare well with any player – except Duncan. He was such a talent, I always felt inferior to him. He didn’t have a fault with his game.” — Sir Bobby Charlton
“He was the best player I ever saw, or am likely to see in my life. If I was asked to name a team of the players I played with, his name would be the first one I would put in, no question about it.” — Sir Bobby Charlton
“I never thought I could be as good as him. Never. He had every talent, he was the best short passer, he was the best long passer. He had terrific vision. His 60-70 yard passes with a heavy ball were pinpoint accurate. He had an enthusiasm for the game, he never stopped talking about it. He’d pick you up if you were losing. He was absolutely sensational, fantastic. He was a great loss to England, and he would probably have played in the 1966 World Cup final because he was young enough. Probably also the United team that won the European Cup in 1968.” — Sir Bobby Charlton
“Duncan could do anything. If the goalkeeper kicked the ball downfield, he would be heading it, if there was a corner kick he would be knocking the ball in, and if someone was running through he would be the one to dispossess him. So many times he made the rest of us feel like pygmies.” — Sir Bobby Charlton
“If you look at most players they’re good at certain things; in the air, with their left or right foot, they read the game well, or have pace. But Duncan had it all – he really was better at everything than anyone else. 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 I was told there were a lot of good players, but Duncan was the only one who could do things I knew I wasn’t capable of.” — Sir Bobby Charlton
“The last time I played with Duncan was in Belgrade, when we qualified for the semi-finals of the European Cup the day before the crash. I was convinced we were going to win the trophy against Real Madrid at the second time of asking, and I believed that, with him, England would march on to win the World Cup later that year in Sweden. Pele stole everyone’s attention in that tournament, but if Edwards had been there I swear he would have had a challenger.” — Sir Bobby Charlton, about United’s European Cup campaign in the 1957-58 season
“Duncan had everything. He had strength and character that just spilled out of him on the field. I’m absolutely sure that if his career had had a decent span he would have proved himself the greatest player we had ever seen. Yes, I know the great players – Pele, Maradona, Best, Law, Greaves and my great favourite Alfredo di Stefano – but my point was that he was better in every phase of the game. If you asked such players as Stanley Matthews and Tom Finney about Duncan their answers were always the same: they had seen nothing like him.” — Sir Bobby Charlton
“Duncan was without doubt the best player to ever come out of this place (Old Trafford), 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.” — Sir Bobby Charlton
“As he proved when he came to face the cream of European football in Real Madrid, he was simply beyond intimidation. Victory was not a challenge but a right. There was no point holding him back. Duncan was already a finished article.” — Sir Bobby Charlton
“If I had to play for my life and could take one man with me, it would be Duncan Edwards.” — Sir Bobby Charlton
“He was already the complete footballer. Mighty in the air. Unbreakable in the tackle. Rampaging tirelessly across the pitch. Perfect first touch followed by raking 40, 50-yard passes with either foot. Unstoppable on the run with the ball. Deadly in front of goal. He was already a colossus.” — Sir Bobby Charlton
“Ask me who is the greatest footballer the world has ever seen. Ask me who is the greatest footballer I ever played with. Ask me who is the greatest footballer I ever played against. Same answer: Duncan Edwards. Don’t ask me how much greater he would have become. It defies imagination. What’s bigger than a colossus? Think about that. Then remember that I played not only with George and Denis but with Bobby Moore. That I played against Pele. They were truly great, but Duncan was the greatest.” — Sir Bobby Charlton
It is evident that Sir Bobby Charlton, a year Edwards’ junior and a great friend during their shared time at Manchester United, has been effusive in his praise for Edwards, and it is always a pleasure to read and hear what he has had to say. Watch this short video of the dedication of a plaque to Edwards outside the house he spent most of his life in; Charlton says a few things about Edwards, and how his name is inextricably associated with the great Munich Air Disaster, and will forever be part of United’s rich history.
“What is beyond dispute is that Duncan Edwards, at the age of 21 was the finest young player in this country at that time and surely would have gone on to be one of the greatest players the world has ever seen.” — Sir Bobby Robson
“Despite his massive muscular stature, he could bring off the most delicate of manoeuvres. When he wanted to he was all flicks and swivels, almost like a conjuror.” — Bill Foulkes, former Man United defender
“There is no doubt in my mind that Duncan would have become the greatest player ever. Not just in British football, with United and England, but the best in the world. George Best was something special, as was Pele and Maradona, but in my mind Duncan was much better in terms of all-round ability and skill.” — Tommy Docherty, former Manchester United manager, and Edwards’ opponent during his England debut in 1955
“He was Roy Keane and Bryan Robson combined, but in a bigger body. He could play as an attacker, creator or defender and be the best player on the pitch… He was world class when United had the ball, and when the opposition has the ball he was our best defender.” — Wilf McGuinness, Edwards’ team-mate at United, and future United manager
“When United won the League in 1956, they were losing to Blackpool and…they turned to Duncan at halftime and said: ‘Come on Duncan get us going’. So you’ve got John Berry and all these experienced players in the team and they turned to Duncan Edwards as their savior at just 19. That tells you everything about him.” — Sir Alex Ferguson
” [ . . . ] a truly amazing boy.” — Sir Matt Busby
“When he first came to Old Trafford I tried to find fault with Duncan, but I couldn’t find one. He was never really a boy; in football terms, he was always a man.” — Sir Matt Busby
“We used to look at players in training to see if we might have to get them to concentrate more on something. We looked at Duncan, and gave up trying to spot flaws in his game.” — Sir Matt Busby
“I am convinced that Duncan would have been a fixture in the England team well into the 1970s. Whatever was needed in a player, he had it.” — Sir Matt Busby
” (the most) complete footballer in Britain — possibly the world.” — Sir Matt Busby
“He was so strong people could only see the power, but he had a most delicate touch. [ . . . ] It is very sad to think what he might have done if he had been allowed. Unquestionably he would have been in the very highest rank.” — Sir Tom Finney
“I met Big Duncan when I was first called up by England, shortly before he died in 1958 and he was a true gent. He could have been anything – a great central defender or midfielder, probably a striker too. He would have been at his peak at the 1966 World Cup, he would have won everything the game had to offer.” — Jimmy Greaves
“One of the greatest players I ever saw. [ . . . ] A lot of younger fans will have heard of Duncan but won’t know just how gifted he was. [ . . . ] He was a colossus, he would come forward and score and then be back defending. Make no mistake, he’d have absolutely no problem playing in the modern game.” — Graham Taylor
“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 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, assistant manager to Sir Matt Busby at Man United
Since I have mentioned Jimmy Murphy, whose admirable role in leading United through the immediate aftermath of the Munich Disaster in Sir Matt Busby’s absence, and his influence throughout the club’s resurrection over the next decade simply cannot go unmentioned, I should add a couple of fascinating anecdotes involving him and Edwards. These really reveal more about the reality of Edwards’ talent and presence than simple quotes can.
Before an important youth match against Chelsea, at that time when Edwards dominated all around him, Murphy was worried that teamwork might be suffering in the shadow of one player’s talent. So he said: “I want you to develop your own games; when you get the ball, don’t automatically give it to Duncan. Look for a few options.”
At half-time, United were trailing and Murphy was contemplating a rare and unthinkable defeat. His team talk was brief: “Remember, boys, I said not to give Duncan the ball at every opportunity. Well, forget it. Give him the fucking ball whenever you can.”
They did and United won, comfortably.
And one more, this time from one of Edwards’ last England appearances, against Wales in Cardiff, in November 1957. Jimmy Murphy was Wales’ manager (Murphy was not on the plane that crashed in Munich, since he was away with the Welsh national team).
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.
He talked about ten 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.”
“United had just caused a stir by beating Bolton 7-2, and everyone was talking about Duncan Edwards. So I persuaded my dad to come with me to Highbury to see United play Arsenal. It was an unusual trip for two committed Spurs fans, and a day that I will never forget. It took Duncan Edwards ten minutes to show what all the fuss was about … he opened the scoring with a cracking shot. We had travelled in to see him … and he had me turning to my dad with a ‘Did you see that?’ look. There were eight more goals in a fantastic match, but Duncan’s, and his overall performance, are all I really remember. Afterwards, I just couldn’t get it out of my head how good United were. Duncan was marvellous. Everything he did comes back to me as if it were yesterday. Such strength, such poise. We are talking about a long time ago, but I can still see him, and that tremendous power of his, even now.” — Terry Venables, reminiscing about Duncan Edwards’ last ever performance on English soil
“You don’t hear many professionals talk lightly of greatness because it is so rare, but that is what I saw in Duncan Edwards the first time I set eyes on him. He reached the same fabulous standard at left-half, centre-half, inside-left and centre-forward. He is the kind of player managers dream about.” — Don Revie
“You can play him anywhere and he would slot into that position as if he’d been playing there season after season. When the going gets rough, Duncan is like a rock in a raging sea.” — Sir Stanley Matthews
“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.” — Walter Winterbottom, then-England manager, after Edwards’ death in 1958
I’d like to end with another short video featuring Sir Bobby Charlton, with brief glimpses of Edwards in action, and by saying that these glowing words from some of the English games greatest names might seem repetitive and overly emotional, (rightfully) embellished with a sense of what could have been. But that should not take anything away from our appreciation of what watching Edwards glide along the grass, running 20 meters to make a thumping defensive header or a crunching tackle, and make raking diagonal passes for the first time must have been like all those decades ago. After all, as the video shows, Edwards was good enough to convince a young Charlton of his greatness, despite Charlton having had Manchester United assistant manager Jimmy Murphy wax lyrical about Edwards’ abilities.
What better note on which to conclude my attempt to do my small part in making sure the story of Duncan Edwards shall continue to be told in the decades to come.
Late edit: In fact, I found an even more powerful note on which to end this article. I believe this excerpt from Sam Pilger’s “Best XI Manchester United”, the book I mentioned earlier, will cement the emotional resonance that Edwards’ life, career, and passing would have had had they occurred during our time.
“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.”
For a few quotes from newspaper clippings from Edwards’ career, and other interesting anecdotes, most notably from his England national debut, read this wonderful article by Daniel Taylor, published in The Guardian.