In search of Duncan Edwards and an enduring love…

Date published: Tuesday 6th February 2018 9:59 - Sarah Winterburn

Getting to Dudley isn’t easy. In 1964, its town centre railway station fell victim to Dr Richard Beeching’s sweeping cuts across the country and today the town is served by satellite stops on its perimeter. Main roads sweep in from Wolverhampton in the north and Birmingham to the east, but on a harsh December day it’s a mile-long trudge across slushy pavements.

Dudley Castle guards the approach. It sits solemnly in the rain and dark cloud, sentry-like on a hill, and visitors pass underneath as they climb towards the town itself. Sam Allardyce was born here, Lenny Henry too, and even one half of Hale and Pace can trace his roots back to this part of the Black Country. It’s very much what you might expect from somewhere once at the vanguard of the Industrial Revolution: a place with a keen sense of its own history, but where modernity remains elusive.

The statue appears almost immediately, sitting at the head of a bustling street market with traffic flowing to the side. The eyes are fixed intently on the ball at its feet, arm and leg muscles are bulging, and the figure, with England’s crest on his front and the number six on his back, is coiled for one more booming shot.

This is where Duncan Edwards was born. This is where he lies today, too.

Edwards is English football’s background silhouette. In 2018, it will be sixty years since his fight for life ended in that Munich hospital and yet the broad outline of who he was – and what he might have one day been – remains remarkably vivid. But it is only a broad outline; Edwards’ legend is constructed almost solely from anecdotes and for younger generations he exists only in the wind.

Certain aspects of his life have been preserved forever. We know that Sir Bobby Charlton has always believed him to be the finest player he ever lined up alongside or against. We also know, of course, that Charlton played with George Best, Bobby Moore and Denis Law, and against Pele, Franz Beckenbauer and Eusebio. We’re also aware of the anecdotes that have woven the texture of his legend: the power, skill and humility, and the 15-day rejection of his own mortality.

Dig deeper, in fact, and you find a list of tales which would make Paul Bunyan blush. James Leighton’s detailed biography of Edwards, The Greatest, contains stories of schoolboy games in which ferocious shots would strike goalkeepers and rebound the length of the field. Opponents are also regularly reduced to a mess of limbs by his ferocious tackling and Edwards, seemingly, would regularly surge the length of the field, scattering defenders like bowling pins.

The accounts of him as a teenager are described vividly and earnestly. And, ultimately, they depict him more as a character from Homer’s Iliad than professional football. To a contemporary audience, conditioned to believe in the awfulness of everything, it’s a tough sell and yet, somehow, Edwards remains alive in the modern consciousness.

It’s a difficult relationship to define. Nobody under the age of 70 is old enough to have actually watched him and he played in an era long before every touch of the ball was archived and recorded for posterity. In fact, even the footage which does exist is only useful in the abstract. Edwards can be found on YouTube, but while those clips do hint at his power and often show him surging past opponents, the context does him an obvious disservice. It looks like an entirely different sport.

And yet he endures. In spite of natural cynicism and the way the game has changed, there remains a great reverence. Most never got to watch him and fewer still know the sound of his voice, but nobody in this country would ever challenge the theory of his greatness.

Perhaps that’s because Edwards, the idea, is so seductive. He was a character the government might use to encourage children to drink milk, perhaps, or could easily have been cast as the hero figure in a military recruitment poster. Big and strong, honourable and pure. With time’s passing his role has receded but, you suspect, for a long time his was the reflection English football wanted to see when it looked in the mirror. To this day, he embodies almost all of the celebrated, timeless tenets of the sport in this country and so, unlikely as it sounds, his name continues to chime with those ideals.

Walk past the market, beyond main streets and up past the parish church, and the road descends almost into a valley. The cemetery, a few hundred yards down, slopes to the left and is walled by black iron railings. The graves are clustered and bunched together and the settled snow urges respect, but take the path and he’s there.

His headstone is in perfect condition. Even in the dead of winter it gleams. Were it not for a few bedraggled Manchester United scarves and some drooping flowers, it could well have been laid yesterday. In The Footballer Who Could Fly, Duncan Hamilton tells the story of how in the years following his son’s death, Gladstone Edwards worked as a gardener in the cemetery, directing those who wished to pay their respects to the right plot. Following his own passing and the death of his wife, another relative has tended the grave every fortnight.

Maybe that’s as close as it’s possible to get to Edwards now. In Dudley Cemetery he remains a footballer, but also just a young man who died many years before either of his parents. There’s no warm hyperbole, it’s just stark and upsetting. His transcendent quality, according to authors, sportswriters and teammates, was life. Energy, lots of it. This is no place for someone who should still be taking curtain calls at Old Trafford.

If the colourful portraits of Edwards are to be treated with license and the footage of him playing is too archaic to be truly relevant, then perhaps the only way to grasp what he was and what he meant is through the accounts of the grief that followed his death. Bobby Moore remembers sobbing at the news, Bobby Charlton was evidently deeply wounded by the loss, and Matt Busby was consumed by survivor’s guilt for Edwards and the others who perished in Munich.

Elsewhere, the books and articles which recall the public reaction describe a communal mourning, a sense that the country itself fractured with a sense of loss. In the chapter on Edwards in his book, Hamilton recalls a conversation with his father:

‘All the miners on my father’s shift were football fans. The game sustained them. Some couldn’t bring themselves to drink a pint that day or the one after. It seemed disrespectful to enjoy yourself.’

Although clearly a response accentuated by the magnitude of Munich and the number of lives lost, it portrays the depth of feeling towards those players and implies the necessity of perpetual awareness. For Edwards, the grief was multiplied by that awful, never-ending ellipsis in his career and, as time passed, the knowledge that he could and should have been properly immortalised at Wembley in 1966 and again in 1968.

The response to him, then and now, is part recognition for his humble beginnings, his humility, and his footballing ability, but also a determination to reward him with the gravitas that he would have earned had he survived. To give him what he deserved but didn’t have the time to claim. It’s as if, generation to generation, our unspoken, unprompted duty is to keep carrying him through the streets forever.

Seb Stafford-Bloor – follow him on Twitter

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