Transcendent talent who might
have become the greatest of them all
by Wilf McGuinness
Duncan Edwards was, by common consent, the most brilliant of the Busby Babes and might have gone on to become England's greatest player. Phil Shaw, seeking to separate the man from the mythology, visits an understated memorial in his home town and hears the vivid recollections of his United "shadow", Wilf McGuinness.
"Open for prayer" says the sign on the steps, although the only soul inside is the parishioner on vandal watch. Coming upon it now, this unimposing church on a housing estate in a Black Country town, it is difficult to conceive of its connection with sporting greatness or its status as a shrine of the times.
At another place of worship, 85 miles to the north, a giant action image of Duncan Edwards adorns the facade of the neon-lit Manchester United Megastore. It is a sign of the times in more senses than one.
But at St St Francis' Church in Dudley, which Edwards attended as a boy and where his funeral took place, the memory of the transcendent talent of his age is honoured in a manner befitting the self-effacing man remembered by his friend and understudy, Wilf McGuinness.
In a corner of the building, almost hidden away, stand two small but exquisite stained-glass windows. One depicts Edwards in the red and white he wore for the last time in the European Cup tie in Belgrade from which United were returning when their plane crashed at Munich, the other in the England strip he graced on 18 occasions.
At the time of the disaster, in which Edwards sustained kidney damage that ended his fight for life after two weeks, the vicar was an Everton supporter. Duncan had been brought up a few hundred yards down the road and kicked his first ball in the nearby park. He was the definitive local hero. The windows, which cost £300, seemed a fitting tribute.
Matt Busby officially unveiled them three years later. Hundreds crowded around the church to welcome the United manager, who had been critically ill in a German hospital when 5,000 lined the same streets to see Edwards' final journey.
Forty years on, Busby has himself been laid to rest while McGuinness, who succeeded the great man, analyses United's exploits on BBC local radio. But still the pilgrims come to Dudley: middle-aged men who were starry-eyed boys when they witnessed the majesty of Edwards, sons and grandsons who feel that to walk the pavements he walked is somehow to touch his spirit.
From St Francis', many go to the borough cemetery. His mother Anne, a widow of 88, has noticed that flowers often appear on his grave when United play in the Midlands. They also visit the exhibition of his international caps and mementoes at the town's leisure centre.
Edwards' passing, at 21, ensured he would be frozen in time, like all who die young, beautiful and famous. McGuinness, now 60, is used to hearing people say "he sounds too good to be true", but insists there really was no dark side to him either as a person or a player.
He is well placed to judge Edwards' place in the pantheon. One of the Busby Babes himself - he would have been on the ill-fated flight had he not torn a cartilage - he took over his left-half position with United (and, briefly, England). He has since watched hundreds of their matches in one capacity or another.
How did Edwards compare with, say, Best, Law, Charlton and Cantona? "They all had a full career, more or less, whereas Duncan had played less than five years. For me, Bobby Charlton was this country's best-ever player - yet he reckons he wasn't fit to lace Duncan's boots."
Uniquely in McGuinness' experience, Edwards was a world-class performer in numerous roles. "He was essentially a half-back who could defend as well as he attacked. But I got my championship medal because whenever anyone was injured, Duncan slotted into that position. He played centre-half, centre-forward and inside-left, all equally well."
In the modern game he detected a modicum of Edwards' dynamism in Bryan Robson. There were similarities, too, with Bobby Moore, in terms of his timing and reading of situations, although McGuinness stresses Edwards' superior pace and power.
One hypothesis has Edwards, rather than Moore, running the show for England in the 1966 World Cup. He would have been 29, arguably at his peak. "Dunc would've been there, that's for sure," McGuinness says, breaking into a laugh, "but it would've been Jack Charlton who didn't get a look in!"
Edwards' completeness made him, in his old colleague's view, the finest of his generation. He was good with both feet, had range and vision in his passing and shot ferociously. As for his tackling: "It was like being hit by a tank. He wasn't dirty, but he was a big lad (6ft, 13st) and nothing went past him."
Topping it all off was an equable temperament. "He never lost his temper. The only time it nearly happened was when Peter McParland of Aston Villa ran into Ray Wood (United's goalkeeper) in the 1957 FA cup final. Dunc took two steps towards him but thought better of it."
No wonder Busby considered him indestructible. The Scot, who coveted Edwards from the age of 12 and arrived at his house in the early hours of his 16th birthday to be sure of signing him, said many years after Munich that he was certain England's youngest international would have grown to be the oldest.
Now the Liverpool prodigy, Michael Owen, is tipped to claim the former title. McGuinness, whose son Paul is part of United's youth coaching team, admits he would be "saddened" if Edwards' record went: "No disrespect to Owen, but it reminds people of Duncan's greatness."
He need not worry. Dudley will not let the world forget Duncan Edwards. As long as the light catches that noble, stained-glass smile, the legend will live on.
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