THE GREATEST ENGLISHMAN THAT NEVER WAS
ABHISHEK DASH | 2nd August 2020
When then-Wolverhampton Wanderers manager and a man who’s gone on to achieve immortal status within the club in Stan Cullis unfortunately, or fortunately, missed out on a youngster, he had his eyes on to Sir Matt Busby insinuating that he didn’t agree with the way Manchester United did business to put things mildly. And I suppose he expected for it to be reviled and frowned upon. However, these were rumors and not proven facts, much like Cullis’ claim that the fresh acquisition, a 16-year-old midfielder from Dudley was biased towards joining the Lancashire-based club, then at the peak of their powers. A proven fact on the other hand was that Cullis, similar to the rest of the world of football, would rue what was to happen in the following years for the rest of time. For 1953’s United however, it was a sign of things much bigger than their expected standards, about to mesmerize football with determined, unfathomable domination for a woefully short period of time.
If you tell a modern day 7-foot freak of nature goalkeeper that just a number of decades ago being 5’11’’ would get you the prefix of Big before your name, they’d laugh in your face and ask you about the climatic conditions down south in your vicinity. Be that as it may, it offers us perspective on sport and life; size does not equal stature. This is where our aforementioned 16-year-old prospect comes in. ‘Big Dunc’ as he was known to people around him, was said to have been a unit; an absolute tank likened to the infamous Big Bertha in full flow. His birth name, Duncan Edwards, would roam across the football spectrum as another example of greatness taken away from us by death.
To have the distinction of having played every single outfield position on offer in arguably the greatest Manchester United side of all time is terrifying yet undoubtedly curious. But such was the life of Edwards, who not only played all positions, but was said to have been indomitably outstanding at every single one of them. And this praise did not just come from the common fan of English football in the 50s. It was fiercely echoed by established greats such as Stanley Matthews, who was quoted as saying, Duncan was like “a rock in a raging sea,” and “ the only player who made me feel inferior” by Sir Bobby Charlton, the second-highest goalscorer for a historically world-beating Man United.
To provide context in modern footballing terms, a defensive midfielder, like Duncan’s supposed most intimate position was, would have to not only excel at plugging all the gaps but also be able to be a playmaker, winger and target man, among others. Take a moment and let that sink in.
That was the terrifying part. For the curious, we take an actual look at the youngster’s style of play.
Dunc was way ahead of his time, proof being he was played as both a deep lying playmaker-destroyer hybrid and a ball playing centre-back, both concepts unheard of in his time. Strong yet fleet-footed, immensely confident and determined, he was able to keep the ball glued to his feet and play line-breaking passes while having the ability to protect his defence against the said kind of passes. Tough as nails, he was a dedicated tackler, rushing in to thwart anything that came his way and screening the back four like it was nobody’s business. To think that such a player could also bomb down the wing and hurl unstoppable crosses, as well as deputize as the centre forward is well, intimidating. Combined with natural talent, Duncan Edwards was as close as we got to getting a literal complete player in the history of the beautiful game.
Maybe it is fair in a sense then, to say that the half-decade we got from the bullish England international and probable future captain, was indeed his prime. The mid and late 50s saw the rise and the painful fall of the historical Busby Babes, and Edwards was the lifeblood and centerpiece of Sir Matt’s greatest experiment. He established himself as a bonafide starter in the ‘54-55 season, scoring six goals and earning an international call-up after an initial botched showing for the England B side. The Three Lions then made him the youngest player to play for them after the Second World War aged just 18 years and 183 days. This record would not be broken for 43 years. Then criticized for the selection, it would have to be defended by Sir Matt himself, in an article for a national newspaper. The legendary midfielder also completed two years of compulsory service for the British Army, while playing army football along with fulfilling his club duties, going on to play almost a 100 games in a single season.
Edwards was once again instrumental in the Championship-winning United side of ‘55-56, playing 33 games despite missing two months of playing time courtesy of an influential bout, as the Babes narrowly missed out on a double at the hands of Aston Villa in a 2-1 defeat. He was also to be a key member of the travelling squad for the 1958 World Cup as a replacement for veteran captain Billy Wright. That call-up would never see the light of day however, as among interest from top Italian teams, Big Dunc would play the last game of his career, and life, in the 3-3 European Cup draw against Red Star Belgrade which saw the Busby Babes fly high; their last hurrah. He would succumb to injuries sustained in the Munich air disaster with twenty-two of his teammates. A lesson in hope, expectation and the power of death over all aspects of life bar none, such was the prowess of Duncan Edwards, that he was included in the inaugural English Football Hall of Fame in 2002.
To be considered the greatest of all past yourself in your sport after your career ends at a professional level is an incredible achievement, but to be considered as the absolute greatest in your formative years might never be repeated in sport, ever again. Duncan was only 21.