It would be a boring old world, and make for boring conversation if we all agreed. However, I did look at that poll and it had me scratching my old head. I believe that it was run by the Manchester United Magazine, but the question that I would ask is, what criteria was laid down to constitute a “best ever player”? Selecting a “best ever” player, is in my opinion, an almost impossible task – there are so many intangibles – the main one being the expanse of time between the different eras.
Now don’t get me wrong, great players are great players, no matter which era they come from. They all have that special “something’ which makes them a class apart, and takes them up to that “great” level.
Today I hear the eulogies of “world class”, “great”, “legend” etc etc, bandied about so freely and bestowed upon players, who in my own humble opinion, are anything but. It is not helped by this relatively new era of electronic media hype, and for the majority of players from eras that I have heard dubbed as “the black and white era”, and “the cloth cap era”, they are generally consigned to the historic garbage can.
Is that fair? I don’t think so. Today there are all sorts of historical records to look at when you look at the modern player – dvd’s, “You Tube” clips, even movie film. For those old players of long ago, there is nothing to gauge their abilities on apart from old newspaper reports, and micromesh film of old newsreels, stored away in the various city libraries archives. Their careers are marked by hard to get hold of books, out of date magazine publications, but mostly, they are remembered by word of mouth passed down through the generations of match going fans. Fans who actually saw these old players, and then passed on their recollections to their families and friends.
We all have differing views, and see things differently. A player, whom I think maybe “world class”, may well be dismissed as being “a donkey” by others. Fair enough, as the old saying goes, “one man’s meat is another man’s poison.” It’s all about opinion, and this is one of the main reasons why this wonderful game is attractive to us all as fans. However, I do find that players from bygone eras are all too easily summarily, and arbitrally, discarded these days. Their contributions to the game are far too easily forgotten, and that is a crying shame. I hear the same old stuff time and time again these days. “Oh he/they wouldn’t have lasted five minutes in the modern game” or, “there is no comparison, today’s players are much fitter, and both they, and the game are much faster.” Really?
I’ll concede that today’s game is quicker – but only marginally, and that I put down to the pristine playing surfaces which players have at their disposal week in, and week out; and also to the ball that is used today whereby it is at a constant weight and does absorb water like the old leather ball did. The ball moves across the surface quicker. As for fitness, yes again I’ll concede that today’s players are fitter, but for all the sports medicine and technology etc, again I’d say there is not a lot in it. You look at those grainy old films and pictures of the 50’s and 60’s and just look at the surfaces those old players had to contend with. The kit they wore was mostly cotton, and wool, and also absorbed water. For those old boys to get through 90 minutes on the pitches which, between October and April, only had a nodding acquaintance with grass, was great testament to their fitness levels and stoicism.
It would be interesting if say, we could see the likes of Best, Law, and Charlton, or Mathews, Lawton, and Finney, attacking today’s defenders. Just as interesting would be seeing the likes of Drogba, Torres, van Persie, Tevez, Rooney, lining up against the likes of Roy Hartle and Tommy Banks, Eddie Clamp and Ron Flowers, Tommy Smith and Ron Yeats. So let’s be under no misapprehensions – those old players from years ago, those who had “great” reputations, were just that – “great”. For a number of today’s wonderful players, they too fall into that same category – they truly are “great” players.
When you spend a lifetime watching the game, and your own team, you watch literally thousands of players, see some wonderful, extraordinary moments, (Wayne Rooney’s goal against Manchester City was one of them) and those memories get encased in your memory’s back pocket. Your memory has a computer image of all of these names, moments, occasions in your life, locked away, and as you get older and progress through your life, you do relive them over, and over again – especially when younger fans want to thirst on your knowledge. For example, today I was asked to recall “the three greatest goals that you have ever seen scored at Old Trafford” – it’s nigh on an impossible task, but I will sit down later and try to answer. It is fun.
I have been very fortunate in my life to have lived through the great football periods that I have. I’m blessed with seeing the many hundreds of truly “great” players that I have – both British, and Foreign. There have also been many wonderful teams to recall along my journey. Teams that played the game in the right way, and with style and grace, and who upheld the ethos of the game. But over the years, the questions which I have had to field more than any others are;
“Tell me about Duncan Edwards.” “Just how good was he?” “Surely, most of what has been written about Edwards is myth?” “It’s impossible for any player to be described as good as what Edwards has.” “Edwards can never have been that good because he never reached his full potential?”
Dear Duncan. It speaks so much of him, that even now, almost 53 years after his passing, (his anniversary is tomorrow February 21st) he is still probably the most talked about player in Manchester United’s long, and rich history. I was lucky enough to meet him so many times, sometimes to the point of being a nuisance to him. From the time he lodged at Mrs. Watson’s at number 5, Birch Road, Old Trafford, then after he moved to 19, Gorse Avenue, Stretford, and then on to 2, Barlow Road, Old Trafford.
Just how good was he? Let me assure you good people that there is certainly no myth as to regards Duncan’s playing abilities. He was simply the most “complete” player that the game has ever seen. That’s not sentiment speaking, nor is it any kind of sentimentality. It is not only my own opinion of him, but simply the judgement of his peers, and his contemporaries, the very people who played with him, alongside him, and against him. It is also the views of some of the most respected men in football’s great history. This is what some of those people had to say:
Sir Matt Busby; ‘I rate Duncan Edwards the most complete footballer in Britain – perhaps the World.’
‘He was a Colossus. Whatever was needed, he had it. He was immensely powerful. He was prodigiously gifted in the arts and crafts of the game. His temperament was perfect. His confidence was supreme and infectious. No opponent was too big or too famous for Duncan. A wing-half, he could have been a great centre-half, or a great forward striker. He would have been one of the great leaders with his sheer inspiration. If there was ever a player who could be called a one-man team, that man was Duncan Edwards. His death, as far as football is concerned, was the single biggest tragedy that has happened to England and Manchester United. He was then, and has always remained to me incomparable.’
‘We looked at Duncan right from the start and we gave up trying to find flaws in his game. (Remember – this was Edwards when he was just 16 years old). Nothing could stop him and nothing unnerved him. The bigger the occasion the better he liked it. While other players would be pacing up and down the dressing room, rubbing their legs, doing exercises, and looking for a way to pass time, Duncan was always very calm. He was a good type of lad too. Duncan didn’t want to know about the high life. He just wanted to go home or to his digs. He just lived for the game of football.’
Sir Bobby Charlton; ‘I find that I think about Duncan a lot. I have seen all the players who in their time have been labelled the best in the world – Puskas, Di Stefano, Gento, Didi. John Charles and all the rest – and not one of them have been as good as Big Duncan. There was no other player in the world like him then, and there has been nobody to equal him since. The man was incomparable.
Sometimes I fear that there is a danger that people will think that we who knew him, and saw him in action, boost him because he is dead. Sentiment can throw a man’s judgement out of perspective. Yet it is not the case with him. Whatever the praise one likes to heap on Duncan is no more than he deserved. He was out on his own at left-half and a First Division player in every other position. There was no one else to start with him.
I am not a person to dramatize things or dispense fulsome praise. It is not in my make-up. A man is a good player or he is not. A few are great, and they deserve respect. But Duncan Edwards was the greatest. I see him in my mind’s eye and I wonder that anyone should have so much talent. He was simply the greatest of them all.’
Sir Stanley Mathews; ‘Duncan Edwards, the boy-man, made his début for Manchester United at 16 and was an England regular by 18. You could play him anywhere and he would slot into that position as if he had been playing there season after season. For all of his tender years, he was the most complete player of his time and it was a tragedy that his life was taken in the Munich disaster of 1958. When the going was rough, Duncan would be as unmoved as a rock in a raging sea, but for all of his considerable size, he possessed the most deft of skills.’
Jimmy Murphy; ‘Duncan was the Kohinoor Diamond among our crown jewels. Whenever I heard Muhammad Ali on television say he was the greatest, I had to smile. There was only ever one greatest, and that was Duncan Edwards. There was nothing that needed to be coached into him – even at such a young age of 16 – he simply had it all.’
The eulogies about Duncan could go on, and on, and on.