February 6, 2018, marked the 60-year anniversary of the Munich air disaster, a moment that still haunts English, if not world, football. The incident occurred after Manchester United drew 3-3 against Red Star Belgrade, before being forced to divert their flight to Munich-Riem airport on its journey home. After two aborted attempts to take off from Munich after refueling, the plane attempted take off for a third time, but unfortunately it failed to do so and crashed into the border of the airport, and then into a house. Of the 43 passengers on the plane, 23 died including 8 members of United’s famous, “Busby Babes.” Sir Matt Busby, the manager of the team, as well as future England and Manchester United record goal scorer Sir Bobby Charlton, were both read their last rites at the hospital before making miraculous recoveries. Of the 23 victims of the crash, this piece will focus on one: Duncan Edwards, a young man who might have been the greatest footballer in the world.
My grandfather saw the Busby Babes when he was growing up, and I used to ask him about Charlton, and later on George Best and Dennis Law; however, one statement he made has always stuck with me. He told me that while Sir Bobby Charlton was sublime, Duncan Edwards was simply always the best player on the pitch. I had always heard of Edwards, but I knew so little about him that I felt I needed to learn more. Edwards burst onto the scene at only sixteen years old, which George Follows covered for the News Chronicle when he wrote, “Like the father of the first atom bomb, Manchester United are waiting for something tremendous to happen. This tremendous football force they have discovered is Duncan Edwards.”He continues to go into detail about how he appears to be talented at every facet of the game, but his comparison to the atom bomb demonstrates how influential he could be.
Edwards made his England debut against Scotland in a 7-2 win at the age of 18 years and 183 days, a record that stood until Michael Owen debuted in 1998. During this game, Scotland’s Lawrie Reilly told his teammate Tommy Docherty, “Where the hell did they find him [Duncan Edwards]? They’ve built battleships on the Clyde that are smaller and less formidable.” Later on, Tommy Docherty would say, “There is no doubt in my mind that Duncan would have become the greatest player ever. Not just in British football but the best in the world. George Best was something special as were Pele and Maradona, but in my mind Duncan was much better in terms of all-around ability and skill.”
While we have a few statistics to characterize Duncan Edwards’ talents, such as he led Manchester United to back to back titles in 1956 and 1957 and that Duncan Edwards finished 3rd in the Ballon d’Or voting in ’57, most of what we know about Edwards relies on the words of others, such as Tommy Docherty and Lawrie Reilly. The man who likely knew him best was Sir Bobby Charlton, who served his national service alongside Edwards as well as playing together on the club and international level. Charlton’s praise has been consistent as his statements over the years have varied from, “He was more than a great. Sometimes he seemed like a bright light in the sky,” to “Duncan Edwards is the one person I felt inferior to. I’ve never known anyone so gifted, so strong and with such a presence.” There are countless others who praise Edwards and his ability (neatly put together here), but Wilf McGuinness, his former teammate and future manager of United, may have given the most complete description when he said, “He as 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 had the ball he was our best defender.”
In 2018 Edwards is almost a forgotten man outside of England as video highlights and recent memory have begun to dominate the football world. Any football fan around the world knows about Pele, Messi and Maradona, but how many know that there was an English midfielder who might have been better than them all. This is largely due to the lack of video existing of him (with only this and this surviving on youtube). It is also difficult to remember him as one of the greatest of all time, because he was only 21 years old when he passed away. As we’ve seen with the history of most soccer players, Duncan Edwards was likely far from his peak and might have continued to get better. When discussing the great midfielders of the past, instead of starting the conversation with Zidane, Xavi, Scholes, the world may have had a consensus number one. The Munich air disaster led to the death of 23 people, and among them might have been one of the greatest talents football will ever see.