Boy Wonder: Duncan Edwards makes his Manchester United debut on April 4, 1953

Manchester United manager Matt Busby (c) and two of his players, John Berry (l) and Duncan Edwards (r).

We’ll never know just how good Duncan Edwards would have been because his career, like his life, was cut cruelly short at the age of 21 at Rechts der Isar Hospital on February 21, 1958; but one thing we can be sure of; he was one of the most exciting and promising players of his generation and still regarded as one of the greatest ever to play for Manchester United.

After excelling at youth level Duncan Edwards was that good he was thrust into Manchester United’s first team at the earliest opportunity, running out to make his Reds debut against Cardiff on April 3rd 1955 aged just 16 years and 185 days, making him the youngest player in English top-flight history – incredibly United lost 4-1.

Born on October 1, 1936, in Dudley in the West Midlands, Edwards was a natural athlete, as well as a keen Morris Dancer, but opted for a career in football; eventually going on to play for the English Schools XI which he would captain due to a maturity beyond his years with a physique and temperament to match.

Not surprisingly it wasn’t long before he began to catch the eye of a number of top-flight clubs with Manchester United scout Jack O’Brien reporting back to manager Matt Busby in 1948 that he’d: “Seen a 12-year-old schoolboy who merits special watching. His name is Duncan Edwards.”  

Signing as an apprentice for United in 1952 Edwards became a pivotal part of the youth set-up at the club which would eventually be christened the “Busby Babes” and played a hugely influential role in the team which went on to win the FA Youth Cup, but such was his rise to stardom by the time of the final he had already made his debut for the first team that April.

In the days leading up to his first senior United appearance George Fellows wrote in the News Chronicle: “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,” and he wasn’t disappointed.

The hype that surrounded Edwards was akin to that enjoyed by George Best, Paul Gascoigne and Wayne Rooney in years since yet that didn’t seem to affect a young man with a wise head on his shoulders who more than held his own against older and more experienced opponents while also turning out for United’s youth team, who would go on to win five FA Youth Cups in succession; because for Duncan Edwards playing football was all he wanted to do.

At 12st and 5ft 10ins he was born a man but he didn’t simply bulldoze his opponents out of the way, he had the balance of a ballerina and a touch to match. On his debut for England, in which Edwards was instrumental in a 7-2 victory over their old foe, Scotland’s Lawrie Reilly apparently turned to team-mate and future United boss Tommy Docherty to say: “Where the hell did they find him? They’ve built battleships on the Clyde that are smaller and less formidable.”

His appetite for football was unwavering, something which was demonstrated in 1955 when Edwards was called up for national service and played for the army side while also turning out for Manchester United and England; appearing in around 100 matches that season along with fellow recruit Bobby Charlton.

As soon as he was discharged from the army he returned to Old Trafford where he played 33 times in the 1955/56 season as United won the First Division title by a massive 11 points from their nearest challengers Blackpool before retaining the trophy the following season with Edwards playing a further 34 games during that campaign.

That league title success earned United the right to play in the relatively new European Cup once more having reached the semi-finals the previous season with a young and inexperienced side which had eventually succumbed to Real Madrid, complete with the great Alfredo Di Stéfano; but now a more experienced and hungry group of players had the chance to go one better against Europe’s finest.

But Edwards and his United teammates would never get the chance to test themselves against the continent’s elite despite progressing to the quarter-finals of the competition with wins over Shamrock Rovers and Dukla Prague. And after playing what would be their last ever game on English soil at Highbury in a thrilling 5-4 win over Arsenal on February 1, 1958 the “Busby Babes” headed to Belgrade for the second-leg of their European Cup quarter-final against Red Star.

Already holding a 2-1 advantage from the first leg a 3-3 draw was enough to see United progress to the semi-final 5-4 on aggregate; but Edwards, like seven of his fellow players and 23 people in all, would not live to see the game as the aircraft that the team were travelling home on crashed after skidding on an icy runway following a fuel stop in Munich; smashing into buildings on the edge of the airport before bursting into flames.

Edwards initially survived the impact and was taken to hospital suffering from broken ribs, multiple leg fractures and badly damaged kidneys and when Matt Busby’s assistant manager, Jimmy Murphy, visited him in his hospital bed he even asked: “What time is the kick-off against Wolves, Jimmy? I mustn’t miss that match.”

He never did make that league game against Wolves the following Saturday, passing away almost two weeks after the crash due to the extent of his injuries and was buried five days later in his home town of Dudley with over 5,000 people lining the streets for the funeral of one of the biggest sporting stars of the time.

His death means we are left with more questions than answers. Just what would that United side have gone on to win with him in the heart of the midfield? Would he and Pelé have provided the world with one of the greatest footballing rivalries of all time? Rather than Bobby Moore, would it have been Edwards lifting the Jules Rimet trophy at Wembley in 1966? Sadly we’ll never know.

The vast majority of football lovers today only have some grainy black and white film to go on as well as the testimony of the people who saw this force of nature in person but even so, the evidence is pretty strong. “Duncan had everything,” Bobby Charlton once said of his former friend and colleague. “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.”

But perhaps the greatest tribute came from one of those responsible for honing a talent and producing one of the greatest footballers ever seen before his sad and untimely demise; Matt Busby’s assistant Jimmy Murphy who once explained: “When I used to hear Muhammad Ali proclaim to the world that he was the greatest I used to smile. The greatest of them all was a footballer named Duncan Edwards.”

Article written by Matthew Crist on behalf of RedArmyBet, the only bookmaker giving 50% of net profits back to Manchester United fan causes. Check out their latest odds on United today.

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