Born In Dudley, died at Munich

February 4, 2008
By Peter Madeley

Stourbridge Road Cemetery, on the outskirts of Dudley town centre is the resting place for Duncan Edwards, the young English player who just could have been the greatest of them all.

GettyImagesDuncan Edwards pictured in 1956. At 19, he was already a star for both club and country.

Edwards was 21 years old when he was tragically killed in the Munich air disaster. He was the man who could play anywhere, a shining star in the team that many thought would conquer the world. February 6 2008 marks the 50th anniversary of the Munich tragedy, a time when football fans worldwide will remember the great generation of players christened 'The Busby Babes'.

Even among so many great players, Edwards stood out as a precocious talent. Despite his tender years, he was already an established England international at the time of his death. Possessing a combination of power, strength, dribbling ability, an excellent range of passing and shooting accuracy made him almost the complete player. In terms of ability, no English player has rivalled Edwards since.

When I last visited the cemetery, several Manchester United scarves adorned Edwards grave, along with England shirts, flowers and hand written eulogies. The grave itself is well kept and understated, despite being awash with a sea of red and white memorabilia.

A lady tending to a nearby grave, noticing my interest, told me that football supporters regularly visit the cemetery to pay their respects. It is clear that for many, Duncan Edwards legacy lives on. This was not only a supremely talented player with an incredible work ethic and desire to improve, but also a modest, affable man with his feet firmly planted on the ground.

Childhood fried Jack Wardle had the pleasure of witnessing Duncan's development first-hand: 'I had been away in the RAF when I received a letter from Dunc inviting me down to Wembley to see England play Czechoslovakia. Although we still corresponded regularly through letters, I hadn't seen him for over a year by this time.

'We arranged to meet at the train station and I couldn't believe my eyes when this enormous, powerful chap appeared. Where was little Duncan Edwards from the Cedar Road pitch? But his personality hadn't changed at all. The tears rolled down my cheeks when I watched him at Wembley that afternoon, knocking balls all over the pitch and looking every bit a top level player.'

Growing up in Dudley in the 1980s it was impossible not to be influenced by the man they called 'Kid Dynamite'. I attended the Priory School, as Duncan himself had done many years earlier.

As is the case with most young lads, football was far more important than doing schoolwork, and games on the adjacent fields were plentiful and long in duration. For every one of us who longed to be Cyrille Regis, Gary Shaw or Andy Gray, there would always be a Duncan Edwards.

Of course, none of us had ever seen him play, not even on television. We had looked in awe at the England shirts and caps on display in the school reception, and tales of his prowess had been passed down via dads and granddads almost like family heirlooms.

It seems that every man in Dudley beyond a certain age has a story to tell about the time they tackled Big Dunc or put the ball through his legs. In our eyes Edwards was a footballing superstar, up there on a pedestal with other mythical figures like Eusebio and Pele. What's more he was from Dudley, and therefore became our very own homegrown superstar.

And as I grew older I realised my childhood visions were actually rather accurate. Edwards came through at a time when English football was struggling to come to terms with the fact that they no longer dominated the game they invented.

GettyImagesDuncan Edwards' grave remains well tended and regularly visited.

In November 1953 the national side had been soundly beaten by Hungary at Wembley, their first ever defeat on home soil. The following May England travelled to Budapest and were trounced 7-1 by the 'Magical Magyars'. The era of Billy Wright, Tommy Lawton et al was coming to an end, and there were sure signs that the rest of the world was catching up quickly.

In club football, the English Football League held a derisory view of continental competition. It may be hard to believe in a current climate where the Champions League reigns supreme, but they had forbidden 1955 champions Chelsea from taking part in the newly established European Cup. When Manchester United were crowned First Division champions in 1956, they were also refused permission to enter.

However, they had not counted on the stubborn nature of United manager Matt Busby. He had spent years building an exciting young team, and quickly became enchanted with the idea that they could become Kings of Europe.

The scene was set for Busby to openly defy the Football League, and his team entered the 1956-57 competition.

After beating Anderlecht, Borrusia Dortmund and Athletico Bilbao, United were eventually knocked out at the semi-final stage by Spanish champions Real Madrid, on their way to the second of five consecutive European Cups. United won the league with ease in 1957, and the following season the Busby Babes embarked on what was to be their final journey into European competition.

Having beaten Shamrock Rovers and Dukla Prague, United won a tight quarter final first leg encounter with Red Star Belgrade at Old Trafford. The second leg in Belgrade ended in a 3-3 draw, thus ensuring progression to a second consecutive semi-final. What followed, of course, is one of the most tragic events in the history of football.

In all, 23 people lost their lives as a result of the crash on that Munich runway on February 6th 1958, including eight of the Busby Babes. News of the crash gradually began to filter back to England.

Initially the magnitude of the event was lost on many. A joke doing the rounds in Dudley that afternoon was that Manchester United had attempted mass suicide so they wouldn't have to play the Wolves the following week.

Most people thought that Duncan Edwards would pull through, but it wasn't to be. Despite suffering horrific injuries, Edwards battled for his life for two weeks before dying in a German hospital on 21st February 1958. Manchester United had lost the heart of their great team, and Dudley one of its finest sons.

GettyImagesA stained glass window in St Francis' Church pays tribue to Dudley's fallen idol.

Before I left the cemetery back on that August day, an elderly man approached me and told me there were plenty of others buried there, people who died fighting for their country in equally tragic circumstances.

He was completely correct, but the continuing legend of the Busby Babes reveals that while football may be 'only a game', it has the rare ability to touch the hearts and minds of millions.

I am reminded here of the often misquoted Bill Shankly comment about football being far more important than life or death. While this was probably said partly in jest, it invokes the passion that so many hold for the game, as players, coaches and supporters. Duncan Edwards epitomised that passion, and his legacy lives on to this day.

On the morning of Thursday February 21st a service will be held in Dudley to commemorate the loss of our sporting hero. We will never know just how great he could have been, and the subject is still regularly discussed in pubs around Dudley town centre.

In an age where mediocrity is often mistaken for greatness, Duncan Edwards will forever remain a true football great.


Footnotes:

The Duncan Edwards Exhibition

An interesting display featuring a range of memorabilia, including international caps, England shirts and archived newspaper clippings.

Duncan Edwards statue

Erected in 1999 in the main shopping square in Dudley town centre, the statue shows Edwards striking a pose in his England kit.

Market Place, Dudley, DY1.

Stourbridge Road Cemetery

The final resting place of Duncan Edwards can be found here, on the outskirts of Dudley town centre. The grave is in section C, plot 722. He is buried with his sister Carol Anne, who died in 1947 at the age of 14 weeks. Directions can be found here: www.duncan-edwards.co.uk/cemetery/directions.asp

St Francis Church

Small church on the Priory Estate features a pair of stained glass windows commemorating the life of Duncan Edwards. This was also the venue for Duncan's funeral on February 26th 1958. You can book a visit in advance by contacting Fr. Geoff Johnson on 01384350422.

Duncan Edwards Close

A cul-de-sac of housing association homes, near to the Stourbridge Road Cemetery was renamed Duncan Edwards Close in 2003.

The Duncan Edwards Public House

In 2001 the Wren's Nest pub on the Priory Estate was refurbished and renamed in the great mans honour, The Duncan Edwards. Sadly the pub was burned to the ground in an arson attack in May 2006, after closing down some six months earlier.

Thanks to: Graham Bunch, Jack Wardle, Carl Baines, Jean from Netherton.

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