We’ll never know just how good Duncan Edwards would have been because his career, like his life, was cut tragically short following the disastrous events of February 6, 1958; but to say he was one of the most exciting and promising players of his generation would be something of an understatement.
The Munich air crash obliterated one of the greatest teams in the history of the game with eight of Matt Busby’s all-conquering “Babes” eventually perishing, including Duncan Edwards who was seen by many as the greatest talent they had ever seen.
Having made his Manchester United debut aged just 16 years and 185 days - making him the youngest player in English top-flight history - he went on to play 177 times for the club as well as winning 18 England caps having made his debut against Scotland in a 7-2 thrashing of the old enemy.
“Duncan was never a boy, he was a man even when we signed him at 16,” was how his manager Matt Busby described Edwards who was built like a tree trunk and was almost impossible to barge off the ball.
His strong, domineering physique and quickness of foot meant the midfielder was the complete all-rounder on the football field in the same mould perhaps as Paul Gascoigne or Wayne Rooney; only much, much better according to those who had the pleasure of seeing him play.
He was one of the game’s first superstars who was able to create the kind of unbridled excitement that George Best would go on to enjoy several years later with people turning out in their hordes just to see what he would do next with the ball at his feet.
Edwards was born on October 1, 1936 in Dudley, in the West Midlands, and as well as being a keen footballer was also something of a promising Morris Dancer, but would ultimately opt for a career in soccer; eventually being chosen to play for the English Schools XI which he would go on to captain.
It wasn’t long before Edwards had caught the eye of a number of First Division scouts, one of which was Manchester United’s Jack O'Brien who reported back to manager Matt Busby in 1948 that he had "Seen a 12-year-old schoolboy who merits special watching. His name is Duncan Edwards."
Edwards signed for United as an amateur in 1952 and would spend his entire career, which was to be so cruelly cut short just six years later, at Old Trafford. He initially shone in the youth team which won the first ever FA Youth Cup in 1953, but by the time of the final had already made his debut for the first team when he played a First Division match against Cardiff City on 4 April 1953.
In the years that followed Edwards established himself as a first-team regular, more than holding his own against those older and more experienced than him while also turning out for the youth team, who would eventually win no less than five FA Youth Cups in succession.
These days a first team player being asked to pull his weight in the youth side wouldn’t go down well and would be seen as something of a slight; but for Duncan Edwards it was simply an opportunity to play more football in the way that only the most gifted players seem to relish.
This insatiable appetite for playing the game was highlighted in 1955 when Edwards was called up for national service, and along with Bobby Charlton played for the army side while also turning out for Manchester United at weekends; appearing in around 100 matches for United, the army and England that season.
Bobby Charlton later described Edwards as: "The greatest player I have ever played with and possibly the most skilful I have ever seen. He was the only player who made me feel inadequate."
Having been discharged from the Army, Edwards slotted straight back into his United duties playing 33 times in the 1955/56 season as they cruised to the title with a margin of 11 points over Blackpool, while the following campaign he made another 34 league appearances as United retained the trophy.
In their first foray into Europe to participate in the newly formed European Cup a relatively inexperienced United side had reached the semi-finals 12 months before, eventually losing out to the formidable Real Madrid side which featured the likes of Alfredo Di Stéfano; but a year on they now they had the chance to prove their worth once more against the continent’s elite.
But Edwards and United would never get the chance to show their potential in Europe. Having played what would be their last ever game on English soil at Highbury in a thrilling 5-4 win over Arsenal on February 1, 1958 Edwards and his United team-mates headed to the Yugoslavian capital Belgrade for the second-leg of the European Cup quarter-final against Red Star.
Already 2-1 up from the first leg a 3-3 draw was enough to see them through to the semi-final 5-4 on aggregate; but Edwards, like seven of his fellow players and 23 people in total would not live to see the game.
Following a routine fuel stop in Munich on the way home from the tie the aircraft that the team were travelling in crashed on take-off after skidding on an icy runway, smashing into a house on the edge of the airport before bursting into flames.
Seven players died at the scene but Edwards survived having suffered fractured ribs, multiple leg fractures and badly damaged kidneys and was taken to the nearby Rechts der Isar Hospital. When Matt Busby’s assistant manager, Jimmy Murphy, visited him in hospital the next day he was even able to ask: "What time is the kick-off against Wolves, Jimmy? I mustn't miss that match."
But Edwards never made that game, eventually succumbing to his injuries and passing away on February 21, 1958, some two weeks after the accident. His body was flown home and he was buried in his home town of Dudley with over 5,000 people lining the streets for the funeral.
“When I used to hear Muhammad Ali proclaim to the world that he was the greatest I used to smile,” Jimmy Murphy later claimed. “The greatest of them all was a footballer named Duncan Edwards.”
We can only imagine what Duncan Edwards would have achieved but for that tragedy in Munich and it’s difficult not to think about what Manchester United might have won if his life had not been taken so soon.
Then there’s England. Just how good would the Three Lions have been with Edwards rampaging through the midfield at the World Cups of 1958 and 1962 before he reached his peak playing alongside the likes of Bobby Charlton, Bobby Moore, Martin Peters and Geoff Hurst in 1966?
For one man who had the privilege of witnessing Edwards’ ability first-hand there’s little doubt how things would have turned out. “Duncan had everything,” explained Bobby Charlton on the 50th anniversary of the tragedy. “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.”