Periodically, newspapers and other media outlets run articles and pieces along the lines of ‘Who is the Greatest?’ or ‘Who is the Best?’ whereby a club’s greatest players are ranked, or best teams are chosen, or managers are given precedence – that kind of thing.
That these articles are often run during international breaks might leave the cynics amongst us wondering if they are not written with at least half an eye out on filling column inches rather than anything else.
Judging players and teams over different time-periods tends to be both subjective and emotive, and just arriving on a general consensus regarding the rubrics for judgement can be as difficult, time-consuming and ultimately, tiresome as the production of the lists themselves.
There seem to be some givens or ‘rules’ to follow when talking about ‘Greatest Evers’. For example; ‘The Greatest Player in the World Ever’ is Pele (or Maradona), and ‘The Second Greatest Player in the World Ever’ is Maradona (or Pele). The ‘Greatest Save Ever’ is Gordon Banks’ save from Pele in the 1970 World Cup, while ‘The Greatest Team Ever’ is the Brazil World Cup side of 1970.
These are just the rules. They cannot be debated. I could go on.
However, I digress. As much as I am not particularly a fan of these lists and articles (really?) they can sometimes be thought-provoking and stimulate conversation and debate if the tried and trusted formula of ‘who shouts loudest’ is ignored. Should there be more than just a cursory glance at those other than the big name players, then the exercise perhaps becomes a little more worthwhile.
Manchester United’s Greatest: The Debate
That all said, let’s now amuse ourselves by pondering who deserves the accolade of Greatest Ever Manchester United player. Is it George Best? Bobby Charlton? Eric Cantona? Bryan Robson, maybe?
How about none of these? How about one of the young men cut down tragically in their prime following the Munich Disaster of February 6 1958?
Duncan Edwards was just four months past his 21st birthday when he lost his fifteen-day battle for life in the Rechts der Isar Hospital in Germany following the horrific air crash that ultimately claimed the lives of 23 of the 38 on board, including eight players and three members of the Manchester United staff.
Despite his relatively young age, Edwards had been established in the Manchester United team for almost five years, and the England team for almost three. This meant that despite his tender years, it was not just a great loss of potential to the game that his death brought about, but a great blow to the here and now.
Edwards: A nation expects
Great things were expected of both Manchester United and England in 1958, and Duncan Edwards was synonymous with these expectations. The World Cup in Sweden was fast approaching, and with eighteen games and five goals already in his locker, Edwards was hoped to have a good tournament and possibly help England to make a breakthrough on the world stage.
Likewise, United were chasing a third successive league title, still in the FA Cup and had just gone through to the semi-finals of the European Cup courtesy of a 3-3 draw at Red Star Belgrade, and so were chasing an unprecedented treble.
Edwards was born in 1936 in Dudley in the West Midlands and soon made his mark in schoolboy football. At the age of thirteen, he made his debut for English Schools and was soon made captain. Rising quickly to national prominence, he attracted the attention of scouts from local teams such as Aston Villa and Wolverhampton Wanderers, but it was Manchester United who made the first move for him.
The legendary Joe Mercer, then working as a coach to the English Schools team, recommended Edwards to his great friend, Matt Busby, and so in 1952 Edwards signed for United as an amateur.
The Manchester United youth side of 1953 won the FA Youth Cup, beating Wolves 9-3 on aggregate in the final to signal the start of five successive victories in the fledgeling competition.
However, by the time the final was played, Edwards had already made his full debut for Manchester United. At the age of 16 years and 185 days, Edwards became the youngest ever player in the club’s history, a landmark that continues to this day.
The following season, 1953-54, saw Edwards’ breakthrough continue. Matt Busby was building a young team around such players as Edwards, Dennis Viollet, Bobby Charlton and Jackie Blanchflower that came to be known collectively as the Busby Babes, but there was nothing in the least childish about either the appearance or the demeanour of Duncan Edwards.
Described by many a wise sage as a boy in a man’s body, Edwards was barrel-chested and at sixteen had both the physical appearance and strength of character of someone a decade older. Very quickly it was apparent that here was not just a great player in the making, but someone who was going to be truly world-class.
Deployed as a left-half, or a defensive midfielder, Edwards was in effect at home in practically any position on the pitch. He could tackle, he could run, he had two perfect feet, he had vision and he had the temperament to match. He was seen as a natural leader and a future captain of both club and country, even though by some accounts he was slightly reserved off the pitch.
As Busby’s youth policy kicked in, Manchester United raced to successive league titles in 1956 and 1957. By this time Edwards was making his mark with the England national team, and in fact, by the time he made his debut against Scotland in 1955 at the age of 18 years and 183 days, his appearance was seen in many quarters as long overdue.
Despite now being a fully-fledged international, Edwards still turned out for the Manchester United youth team in the FA Youth Cup final that year in a move that caused a degree of controversy at the time.
As the 1957-58 season kicked off, Edwards was linked with big money moves to Italy and was also being touted as a possible successor to Billy Wright as England captain, such was his confidence and authority on the field.
The Final Games
In February 1958 Edwards played what proved to be his last two games of football, and, somewhat poignantly, they were both crackers in which United raced into three-goal leads before hanging on desperately.
Firstly, Manchester United took on Arsenal at Highbury in a vital First Division match and goals from Edwards, Charlton and Tommy Taylor gave the men from Old Trafford a seemingly unassailable 3-0 half-time lead.
Three remarkable second-half minutes saw Arsenal unbelievably level the scores, before further goals from Viollet and Taylor again put United 5-3 ahead. The drama was not over yet, though, and a late fourth from the home side saw Edwards and his teammates holding on for a nervous 5-4 victory.
So, to Belgrade for the second leg of Manchester United’s European Cup quarter-final with Red Star Belgrade with United defending a slender 2-1 lead from the first leg.
Once again, United raced into a three-goal half-time lead with goals from Viollet and a brace from Charlton. Once again, their opponents hit back with three goals in quick succession, and once again United were left hanging on. That they were able to do so for more than half an hour at 3-3 saw them through to their second successive semi-final.
The loss to Manchester United and England following the tragic events of February 6, 1958, will never be forgotten. Although it is somewhat futile to live in a world of ‘what-ifs’, one cannot help but grieve for all the poor souls who lost their lives that awful day and wonder what they would have made of their lives.
Duncan Edwards: A Legacy
Had Duncan Edwards lived there are many who believed he would have carried on breaking records and would have probably ended up captaining England for many years to come in as many as three or four World Cup tournaments. Bobby Charlton described Edwards as ‘the only player who made me feel inferior’, while Tommy Docherty was just one man of the opinion that had Edwards lived, he would have become the greatest player of all time.
Yes, debating who was the ‘Greatest Player of All Time’ really can be an exercise in futility at times.
Simply because one contender for the title never really got the chance to lay stake a decent claim.