In my book When Footballers Were Skint, I picked an England XI of players whose careers started before the £20 maximum wage was abolished in 1961. Selection was based on the testament of players I interviewed for the book.


Some players gained selection in a photo finish with at least one other. Not Duncan Edwards. His place in the half-back line of my 1950s England XI was unopposed.

Cliff Jones, the greatly admired Wales and Tottenham winger, remembered Edwards from the British Army team. ‘They were a terrific side,’ he said. ‘I was in the team with Duncan Edwards, the great Duncan Edwards. What a player he was going to be. The best there’s ever been.’

In his tributes to Edwards, Bobby Charlton, Edwards’s Manchester United teammate, has said: ‘If you asked such players as Stanley Matthews and Tom Finney about Duncan their answers were always the same: they had seen nothing like him.’

Walter Winterbottom, the manager who made Edwards England’s youngest international for more than 70 years when he picked him in 1955 aged 18 years 183 days, was banking on Edwards: ‘It was in the character and spirit of Duncan Edwards that I saw the true revival of British football.’

Winterbottom’s revival hopes ended with the Munich air crash in February1958, 15 days after which Edwards died from kidney damage. Seven of Edwards’s Manchester United teammates had died in the crash itself.

Edwards bestrode the football field, a six-foot-three athlete with strength and stamina, who dribbled with the deftness of a much smaller man, hit long, precise passes and shot with meaning with either foot.

Born in Dudley, Worcestershire, Edwards appeared on the radar of leading clubs while still in his early teens. He met all the criteria of a Busby Babe, the name given to the youthful recruits enrolled by the Manchester United manager Matt Busby because the club were too impoverished to sign established players.

United duly won the race for his signature and took him on as a full-time professional on 1 October 1953, Edwards’s seventeenth birthday.

By then he had already set the first of his youngest-ever records by appearing in the Football League First Division aged sixteen years 185 days.

His first international appearance was against Scotland at Wembley where he played with poise and without a hint of nerves in a 7-2 victory.

At the time of his death, at the age of 21, he had already played 151 times for United and 18 times for England.

Interestingly, though most of my interviewees mentioned Edwards among their favourite players, there were few anecdotes, just expressions of quite how formidable he was.

Jackie Sewell was the only one of my interviewees who recalled an episode involving Edwards. It took place during the 1957 Charity Shield match at Old Trafford between Manchester United and Aston Villa – won 4-0 by United – and disposes of the idea that Edwards was without a single rough edge.

Not only did United handsomely avenge their 2-1 Cup Final defeat at Wembley earlier in the year, in which their goalkeeper Ray Wood was injured, Edwards exacted a little retribution of his own. Having felled Sewell with a clonking tackle, he told his stricken opponent: ‘That one’s for Wembley.’

Edwards’s grave in Dudley remains a place of pilgrimage and he is depicted in a stained-glass window in a local church.

My 1950s XI (traditional WM or 2-3-5 formation): Gordon Banks (Chesterfield, Leicester City, Stoke City); Bill Leivers (Chesterfield, Manchester City, Doncaster Rovers), Walley Barnes (Arsenal); Danny Blanchflower (Barnsley, Aston Villa, Tottenham Hotspur), John Charles (Leeds United, Juventus, Roma, Cardiff City), Duncan Edwards (Manchester United); Stanley Matthews (Stoke City, Blackpool), Jimmy Greaves (Chelsea, AC Milan, Tottenham Hotspur, West Ham United), Brian Clough (Middlesbrough, Sunderland), Jimmy Hagan (Derby County, Sheffield United), Tom Finney (Preston North End).


This is an edited extract from When Footballers Were Skint by Jon Henderson / @hendojonpublished by Biteback Publishing and now out in paperback.