Duncan Edwards – A Myth – or – Just a Marvel?

Notice, Busby and Mathews both said, ‘Complete Footballer’. This is what I try to tell people when I am asked about him. In this day and age of overblown media hype, Duncan’s name seldom gets mentioned when it comes to these “best ever” polls. Mostly, he isn’t even mentioned. It is ridiculous really, because Duncan is without doubt, the most complete player to ever pull on the Manchester United shirt.

One myth that I would like to dispel about Duncan was that he was huge in size. He wasn’t, standing just under six feet tall, he weighed 13 and a 1/2 stones. However, his frame was large and bulky, and solid muscle. His thighs and legs were huge, but for all that, he was quick, and moved with the speed and elegance of a gazelle. He had nimbleness as well as strength, flair as well as calm.

Duncan’s favourite position was what was called back then, left-half. He loved that position because he was always in the game. But he could, and did, play for both United, and England, in different positions. Centre-half, centre-forward, inside-forward, it didn’t matter to him as long as he was out there on the field. He could mould his play to whatever position he had been asked to play and still be the most outstanding player on the field. As I have noted, for such a big lad, Duncan was exceptionally quick over the ground, read the game so well for one so young, was ferocious in the tackle, distributed the ball immaculately with either foot, and he could also shoot with such power with either foot. It was almost impossible to see which was supposed to be his weaker foot although in his early years he had been naturally right footed. His heading prowess was another strong point in his game. His temperament was unflappable and he had such great belief in himself and his abilities. In the era in which he played, there were some very famous names and reputations, but they never fazed Duncan in any way whatsoever. He just eclipsed people by the power of his own performance.

People are so quick to tell me that “he never realized his full potential”. I have never agreed with this statement, and I never will. I will agree that his career never “peaked”, but there is a huge difference in not reaching your potential and your career peaking. By the time of his passing, Duncan had played for five years at the very top level, and had been an established England international for three years. It’s difficult to imagine that he could have improved as a player even more. He was already the finished article.

Between 1953, and 1958, at the top level of English football, there were only two competitions in which a professional footballer could take part. The Football League, and the FA Cup. European competition did not start for English teams until 1956. Edwards had an insatiable appetite for playing. In 1956-57, he played an astonishing 94 games at different levels – Football League Championship, FA Cup, European Cup, Full Internationals, and he also represented the Football League XI, England “B”, England U-23, and the Army. He won 2 First Division Championship winner’s medals, an FA Cup Runners-Up medal, 18 full international caps – and those at a time when they were not given away so freely as they are today. He’d played in the European Cup, World Cup Qualifiers, and had been capped at every level for England from Schoolboys (where he still holds the record for being the youngest ever player capped at that level at just 13 years of age) through to full international. There were so many wonderful players around in that era (Stan Mathews, Tom Finney, Nat Lofthouse, just to name a few) who never achieved half of what Duncan did. Yes, his career never peaked (and God knows how much he would have gone on to achieve in his career but for the tragedy) but his potential – no question from me – as I said, he was the complete finished article.

I have so many memories of him. His modesty, shy smile, his broad West Country accent, his habit of calling people “chief”. Even today, I can close my eyes and still be thrilled by the memory of him winning tackles in midfield and surging forward with the ball. His pure strength and ability to play the long or short ball. His tremendous reading of a game and to anticipate what was going to happen. His ability to come up with goal when the going was tough, his strength and determination to be everything he wanted to be – simply the best.

Myth or Marvel? No doubt in my eyes. The myth being that he didn’t reach his potential. The marvel being that for me, and many, many others, that quite simply, he is and was without doubt the most complete player in Manchester United’s great history.

As you can tell from this piece Tom has been around for a long time and has seen some our best players in action. More of his work can be read in our weekly serial on United’s captains.