Duncan Edwards - an author's quest to determine if he really was 'the greatest'

While it is easy and only natural to feel sad for Paul Gascoigne in his battle against the vicious combination of depression and alcoholism, some perspective is provided by recalling the fate of Duncan Edwards, 55 years on from Munich air crash that claimed his life and those of seven other Manchester United players among the 23 fatalities.

If Gascoigne's was a talent largely unfulfilled, arguably because of self-inflicted damage, Edwards was denied even the chance to realise his potential, the promise of greatness and glory extinguished when he slipped away in a Munich hospital 15 days after the United plane crashed attempting to take off from a snow-covered runway.

The story of Duncan Edwards has been told before but, many would argue, never with the depth of research behind it that James Leighton clearly invested in his biography, subtitled The Greatest, which is just out in paperback.

Leighton, who worked in the law before deciding he could no longer resist his passions for sport and writing, interviewed as many  surviving friends and team-mates of Duncan Edwards as he could track down, from the obvious -- including former coaches and teammates such as Wilf McGuinness, Harry Gregg and Kenny Morgans -- to the obscure, such as Dave and Pat Sharrock, who met Edwards at a Butlins holiday camp and introduced him to Molly Leach, the girl he intended to marry.

He produced a portrait of a star so deeply shy he would try desperately to avoid the spotlight, a boy who would introduce himself only as Duncan if he fell into conversation with a stranger, making no reference to his status as a Manchester United and England footballer.  He was happy to get around Manchester on his bicycle and bought a car only when it became impossible to travel on the bus without being mobbed.

The subtitle 'The Greatest' came from a comment attributed to Jimmy Murphy, who was Matt Busby's assistant manager at United during the Edwards years. “Whenever I heard Muhammad Ali on television say he was the greatest, I had to smile," Murphy said. "There was only ever one greatest and that was Duncan Edwards.”

What Leighton set out to do was not only to find out as much as he could about the working class boy from Dudley in the West Midlands but to establish how much of his reputation could be attributed to myth and how much was fact, to ask whether he really was 'the greatest'.

"I wanted to find out how people actually spoke of Duncan Edwards when he was still alive," Leighton said after the book made its first appearance in hardback in 2011. "Since his tragic death many revered figures in the game have said that he was the best ever but I had always wondered whether their judgement had perhaps been clouded by sentiment.

"Because of this I looked into the old newspaper archives to see what was being said of Duncan when he played and what I found staggered me. It seemed that journalists of the time used every superlative available to describe him. He was truly a boy wonder who people were talking about as the best in the world even before his death."

Edwards was the youngest player in the history of the First Division when he made his United debut in 1953, aged 16 years and 185 days. Two years later he played for England for the first time, at 18 years and 183 days, which made him England's youngest debutant since the war, a record that would stand until Michael Owen gained his first cap 43 years later.  In his five years in their line-up, United won two League Championships and reached the semi-finals of the European Cup.

According to the writers whose eulogistic praise Leighton unearthed, Edwards possessed pace and a powerful shot, could win the ball in the air and time a tackle to perfection.  He was comfortable on the ball in defence or going forward and could pass the ball with precision over even long distances. He played largely at left-half -- Bobby Moore's position -- for United but was equally comfortable leading the attack.

Had he lived it was expected he would be one of the stars of the 1958 World Cup and it might easily have been Edwards rather than Moore lifting the World Cup as England captain in 1966.  Some experts have suggested that Moore might not even have been in the team.

What happened in Munich, as the pilot of British European Airways Flight 609 tried in vain to get the United team home from a European Cup tie in Belgrade changed the course of football history.   Leighton's description of the crash has been hailed for being as vivid and poignant as any written.

Paul Gascoigne's decline into mental torture and addiction may be a tragedy but it is one from which he may yet recover, at least to the point of having some sort of life ahead of him. For Duncan Edwards, there was never that opportunity.

Duncan Edwards: The Greatest by James Leighton



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