As the Munich air disaster recedes further into the past it does not take more than a cursory glance over the recollections of its survivors to realise the pain and horror remains brutally vivid.
Eight wonderfully gifted Manchester United footballers were among 23 people who lost their lives, with former England and Manchester City goalkeeper Frank Swift among the members of a cherished Manchester press corps who would never come home.
The Busby Babes were young men living an improbable dream of wowing spectators at home and abroad, with back-to-back league titles secured and the promise of a third. In their final game together, they secured a European Cup semi-final spot by seeing off Red Star Belgrade.
Such achievements and prospects pale next to the stark reality of the parents who lost their sons, wives widowed and children without their fathers. Geoff Bent, Roger Byrne, Eddie Colman, Mark Jones, David Pegg, Tommy Taylor and Billy Whelan left irreplaceable gaps in the lives of loved ones and the collective consciousness of a mourning city.
It does not pay to dwell too long upon those harrowing scenes from the slush-coated Munich-Riem runway 60 years ago today, so reflections will naturally turn towards the aforementioned achievements and the football those men played.
We are told how Matt Busby’s side captured the imagination of a nation and there is always one name lingered upon, one to which their admirers return, the symbol and talisman of that first truly great Manchester United line-up.
“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,” said Bobby Charlton of his dearly departed friend Duncan Edwards when he spoke around the 50th anniversary tributes in 2008.
“Yes, I know the great players – Pele, Maradona, Best, Law, Greaves and my great favourite Alfredo di Stefano – but my point was that he was better in every phase of the game.”
— Manchester United (@ManUtd) February 6, 2014
Eulogies concerning Edwards, football’s first teen sensation and United’s 21-year-old inspiration at the time of his untimely death, tend to centre on this very notion of an impeccable, complete footballer. The numbers only tell a fraction of the story but they are impressive enough.
The Dudley-born half-back made his professional debut at 16 years and 185 days against Cardiff City in 1953. By the time he turned 21 he boasted two league titles and was an established international. He played 177 times for United in total, scoring 21 goals.
European and World Cups for club and country were all in a dazzling future cruelly snatched away from a player of imposing physicality – ferocious in the tackle, with a thumping shot and vast range of passing.
Edwards’ position of half-back – a deep-lying midfield in modern terms – may be an anachronism but in his own book published after the Munich disaster, Tackle Soccer This Way, he added weight to the perception of a player being ahead of his time who would have succeeded in any era.
Duncan Edwards was born 1 October 1936. A phenomenal player, he died aged 21, 15 days after the Munich air crash. pic.twitter.com/p6HF5Xzh02
— Manchester United (@ManUtd) October 1, 2015
“Before a ball is kicked or a tackle made, the keynote of this position is stamina,” he explained, in a decade when a rigorous approach to fitness work was perhaps not the prerequisite it is for the top-flight stars of today.
“The wing-half is never still. Either he is foraging in his opponents’ half, or else back helping his own defence withstand pressure.
“The wing-half needs all the defensive skill, power of recovery and hardness of tackle of the full-back, yet he must ally these to the enterprise of the inside-forward.”
Here, Edwards could easily be describing the box-to-box midfielders so cherished by fans and coaches, with versatile and between-the-lines scheming thrown in for good measure.
He goes on to insist being two footed is a “must” in his position, while talking of how winning the midfield duels is fundamental. It is not hard to imagine the likes of Jurgen Klopp, Pep Guardiola and Mauricio Pochettino purring at the thought of such a player.
“My own idea of the top-class wing-half is that he should defend and attack with equal competence, and he should always remember that he is nearest thing to perpetual motion the game will ever see,” Edwards summarised. “It is a position that will sap a man’s strength both physically and mentally. Yet it is infinitely satisfying.”
— Manchester United (@ManUtd) April 4, 2017
A player of Edwards’ gifts and attitude in the modern game would undoubtedly be a social media phenomenon, throwing out viral video clips by the game. A crunching tackle, a lung-bursting run, a spectacular shot – all sights lapped up and shared thousands of times by fans today. They were Edwards’ calling cards.
To a large extent, he remains the benchmark at his former club. This notion of a “United Way”, something Alex Ferguson bent to his will and his successors have laboured under the weight of, harks back to a daring, high tempo, complete model of football. To crib Edwards’ own words, a style of perpetual motion that is intensely satisfying.
United’s celebrated “Class of 92” had greater resonance because they were part of a lineage that began with Edwards. The same will is true of Old Trafford’s latest homegrown stars.
“As youth players, the history of the club is instilled in us and it’s really important that we learn and understand about what happened in 1958 – not just about the air disaster, but also what an amazing team the Busby Babes were and the legacy they left,” said Jesse Lingard, leading the tributes from United’s current crop.
We can never truly know how the brilliant Busby Babe would fare across future eras but we can be sure Edwards will remain a reference point to help define them. It is wonderful legacy for a man universally acclaimed as a wonderful footballer; a certainty attached to English football’s great “what if?”.
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