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Football: Dudley's jewel in the crown... Busby Babe Duncan Edwards died 50 years ago today, aged just 21. ROGER CLARKE gives his personal account of a sporting legend and the tragedy of Munich.

Byline: ROGER CLARKE

IT IS a supreme irony that those who died in the Munich air crash on that gloomy afternoon on February 6 in 1958 achieved immortality.

Twenty one lives were extinguished that day when BEA flight 609 disintegrated into a fireball at the end of the slush-covered runway while two more were to die in hospital.

Twenty three in all perished out of the 44 on board the ill-fated Lord Burghley.

Their names became enshrined in folklore, woven into the soul of Manchester United and the fabric of football.

But one name stood out above the rest: Duncan Edwards - quite possibly the nearest to perfection we will ever see in a footballer.

For 15 long, dark days Dudley's finest son battled against the odds, being willed to live by a nation gripped by the regular bulletins from Munich's Rechts der Isar hospital.

On February 7, the day after the crash he was critically ill . . . but alive.

Edwards was more than just a footballer. He was hope. The Second World War was still painful and raw to many and austerity was a way of life.

When Edwards made his debut at the age of 16 years and 185 days on April 4, 1953, sugar and butter were still rationed as meat and bacon would be for more than another year.

There was a romance about the Busby Babes, the team Matt Busby was building at Old Trafford.

They were young, exciting and cavalier, a shining beacon in the drab, grey world of post-War Britain with the likes of Tommy Taylor, 144 goals in 208 games for club and country, scoring for fun in a team born to entertain.

The jewel in the crown, though, was Edwards who had mastered every footballing art yet was still learning.

We had lost Bent, Byrne, Colman, Pegg, Taylor, Billy Whelan and Jones but we still had Edwards.

By February 10 the nation breathed a sigh of relief. Edwards was reported to be out of his coma and had even taken some soup.

I had seen Edwards play once. My father's cousin lived in a back street by the Stretford End and we visited two or three times a year with the citadel of Old Trafford at the end of the street.

Why not go to a match and come back for tea she always said - and one day we did.

It was about two years or so before the crash.

I was eight. My father was an ex-Oldham rugby league player so I often went to Watersheddings with him and he took me to Boundary Park to see Oldham Athletic - both within walking distance of home.

But Old Trafford was something else. It was a train and bus ride away. I had never been in a stadium so large, seen so many people or heard so much noise.

I wish I could say I remember Edwards as a God strutting about the Theatre of Dreams but there was so much else to take in.

I remember United always seemed to have the ball and scored at will against Newcastle.

The records showed it was probably the 5-2 thumping in March 1956 but, whenever it was, United were the heroes in red in a small boy's mind.

February 11, the following day, Edwards was reported to be unconscious again and doctors were alarmed at the level of nitrogen in his blood.

Edwards came from a footballing family. His father, uncle and grandfather had played in the Cradley Heath League while another uncle, Ray Westwood, had been a pro with Bolton in the 30s, even playing for England.

Edwards was a big lad and selected on size rather than age for the Priory Road Junior School team where he ran the show.

Next was Wolverhampton Street Secondary School - where he joined the morris and sword-dancing team!

His performances as skipper and centre-half in the football team, though, soon had him selected for Dudley Schools at the age of 12 - despite the other lads being 15.

From there he played for Worcester County, Birmingham and District and England Schoolboys. The professional clubs were circling his home on the Priory Estate.

His parents, Gladstone and Sarah, would have loved him to have gone to Wolves, Albion or Villa. Bolton Wanderers were sure he was in the bag.

But Duncan had set his heart on what he thought were the greatest club in the country - Manchester United.

In a comical episode United moved quickly as soon as young Duncan was free to sign schoolboy forms.

Fearing other clubs might nick the prize they arrived at the Edwards' family home after midnight and at 2am on June 2 1952 the 15-year-old, in his pyjamas, signed his way into history.

By February 12, Edwards was put on an artificial kidney and his parents hurried to his bedside from Dudley fearing the worst.

But the following day, the 13th, he regained consciousness and had asked for a cup of tea. He had been given a little milk. Hope returned.

My father, a boilermaker, had had a small win in a pools syndicate at work which virtually paid for our Pye Continental TV set.

The night of the crash BBC and the new ITV company, Granada, whose studios were within walking distance of Old Trafford, suspended programmes. Along with neighbours we clustered around the black and white screen Grainy newsreels of United matches were shown accompanied by solemn music, news was sketchy and contradictory.

At one point they showed a film of United and played the Last Post. My father asked quietly of no-one in particular: "Why are they bloody playing that - they don't bloody know who's dead yet?" It was the first time I had heard him swear.

On February 14 Edwards had a relapse and the following day there was a plea for blood donors. The artificial kidney had reduced the ability of his blood to clot and he was bleeding internally. By the 16th he was conscious again and amazing the doctors.

In the summer of 1957 Lance Corporal Edwards was officially demobbed having completed his National Service.

During his two years as a squaddie he had played 180 games for club, country and Army.

Edwards played 177 times for United in his brief career scoring 21 goals and at the age of 18 years and 183 days became the youngest post-War player for England - a record which lasted for 43 years until Michael Owen made his debut in 1998. He had collected 18 caps for England scoring five goals.

February 19 and Edwards was "showing signs of distress" after a restful time the previous night. But hope refused to die. By the 20th there was a "slight improvement".

In Sweden in June, England were knocked out of the World Cup by the USSR in a group-stage play-off.

It was the World Cup when Pele first captured the imagination but it is no exaggeration to say that if Lord Burghley had taken to the skies and landed at Ringway, Pele would have had real competition for the plaudits and with Edwards, Taylor and Byrne in the England line-up who knows what could have happened?

After Chile in 1962, England could well have been defending their title in 1966 with Edwards, not Moore, lifting the trophy at Wembley.

February 21 his life briefly rallied after injections then flickered out. It was 2.15 am.

Nurses wept at the bedside, his parents and fiancee were told at their hotel. Hope had gone.

Still in hospital recovering was Matt Busby and Capt Kenneth Rayment, the co-pilot, who was to become the 23rd victim when he died of head injuries six days later.

In Dudley thousands lined the streets at Duncan's funeral.

There is a stained glass window dedicated to his memory in St Francis Church, the parish church of the Priory estate, and visitors still make the pilgrimage to his grave in Dudley cemetery.

The tributes are not really necessary, though.

Whenever a kid dribbles a tennis ball around dustbins or ties his boots and runs out on a muddy parks pitch with the cheers of the crowd for Ronaldo or Rooney ringing in his head, then Duncan Edwards lives on.

Only just old enough to vote when he died, he was living the dream and every kid who kicks a ball in hope carries that dream on.

CAPTION(S):

YOUNG LION... Duncan Edwards in action for England. The Dudley-born legend won 18 caps before his life was cruelly cut short at Munich.; BABES IN ARMS... Matt Busby shares his knowledge with some of his young United players, with Duncan Edwards in the centre. Right: Edwards pictured with his caps during National Service.; GIANT AMONGST MEN... Edwards in training.
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Title Annotation:Sport
Publication:Birmingham Mail (England)
Date:Feb 21, 2008
Words:1457
Previous Article:Football: A fixture of mixed emotions.
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