Duncan Edwards (1st October 1936 to 21st February 1958)

 

Here I am at the headstone of one of the “Busby Babes” Manchester United football team who died following a failed plane take-off on 6th February 1958 at Munich-Riem Airport. Aboard were 44 people - the football team, supporters and journalists. Twenty people died immediately and another three died later in hospital. Duncan was one of these three people, dying two weeks after the crash. The local folk have not forgotten him. Though he died in Munich he’s buried in his hometown and there’re signposts in the cemetery telling you where the grave lies. It still gets many visitors.

 

Duncan was born near this grave, the first child of Gladstone and Sarah Edwards. There was a sister called Carol Anne but she died weeks later. He was an outstanding footballer from a young age, playing for county district teams. He could have chosen another career though - on the same day he could play a trial for the English Schools Football Association's under-14 team he could have competed in the National Morris and Sword Dancing Festival (he was a good Morris dancer.) Had he chose the latter he would have probably lived a much longer life.

 

He didn’t have to worry about getting a job when he left school. He was spotted by a Manchester United scout who reported to Matt Busby that he had "today seen a 12-year-old schoolboy who merits special watching.” At the time Duncan could have gone playing for local teams Wolverhampton Wanderers or Aston Villa but he went to Manchester United (Matt Busby himself or coach Bert Whalley called at the Edwards family home soon after midnight to get Duncan’s signature.) Should football not pay a wage Duncan began an apprenticeship as a carpenter when he left school.

 

Aged 16 years and 185 days he made his professional debut for Manchester United, new talent Matt Busby was eager to encourage. He made 36 first-team appearances and started scoring goals. Aged 19 he was selected for the England squad which travelled to Europe for matches against France, Portugal and Spain. The Second World War interrupted life and he served in the Royal Army Ordnance Corps for two years (he was stationed near Shrewsbury along with Bobby Charlton.) After the war he returned to football and in total played 177 games for Manchester United (I won’t go into his short but bright career here.) By the time he died aged 21 he was playing regularly for England and was expected to become the captain.

 

He was an instinctive player, physically big and strong, effective at short and long passing with any foot. He was mainly a defensive mid-fielder but was so versatile he could play anywhere. His imposing physique and tough playing earned him nicknames "Big Dunc" and "The Tank". He didn’t touch alcohol, was quite private and not comfortable socially. Very much a local unspoilt lad he spoke with a strong Black Country accent - so strong his teammates impersonated him regularly. Away from the field he enjoyed fishing, playing cards and going to the cinema. At the time of this death he was engaged to be married to Molly Leech, a 22 year-old who he’d met at a hotel function at Manchester.

 

His early death is put down to slush on the airport runway in Munich. Returning home from Belgrade the plane landed in Germany to refuel. It crashed on its third attempt to take off. Seven players died instantly but Duncan survived with broken legs, crushed ribs and damaged kidneys. At hospital doctors expected him to live but not played professional football again. An artificial kidney was fitted but it reduced the blood's ability to clot properly. Although Duncan came round from the operation he bled internally and died through the night on Friday 21st February 1958.

 

He was lowered into this grave where I’m stood five days after his death (joining his sister Carol Anne.) More than 5000 people lined the streets of Dudley for the passing cortege. The words on his tombstone read: "A day of memory, Sad to recall, Without farewell, He left us all." What a waste. Had he signed up for another team he’d have probably gone on to have a long football career and children. I did a hearty salute and left.