‘It was in the character and spirit of Duncan Edwards that I saw the true revival of British football’

  • March 25, 2019 12:21
  • Jon Henderson

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.


Next-door neighbours – but they fell out big time in a World Cup match

  • March 22, 2019 13:12
  • Jon Henderson

Northern Ireland excelled themselves in the world finals in Sweden in 1958 after it nearly went all very wrong in the opening match


Picture the scene.

Northern Ireland are getting into their stride in their crucial opening match of the 1958 World Cup finals in Halmstad, Sweden – and then this happens…

Opponents Czechoslovakia have started at a rush. ‘They bombed us for about ten, 15 minutes,’ Peter McParland, Northern Ireland’s left winger that day, says, ‘but it didn’t help that our little left half, Bertie Peacock of Celtic, got on to Harry Gregg, our goalkeeper, for not coming off his line to take a ball that had come across the goalmouth.

‘Bertie was the next-door neighbour to Harry where he was born in Ireland but this did not stop Harry from taking offence and running after Bertie.

‘Meanwhile their outside right’s got the ball. I’d come across to stop him from getting a cross in, holding him out on the wing, but behind me Harry’s still running after Bertie to give him a punch and Alfie McMichael, our left back, is shouting, “Get back in the goal, Harry.”

‘Luckily they did not score. If they had they might have destroyed our World Cup.’

As it was, Northern Ireland won 1-0 and went all the way to the quarter-finals after beating the Czechs again, 2-1, in a play-off.

It was an extraordinary feat by the Irish who had put out former world champions Italy in qualifying and then been drawn in the ‘group of death’ in the finals in Sweden. World Cup holders West Germany and the 1957 South American champions Argentina were the other two teams in the group.

Danny Blanchflower’s astute leadership and McParland’s goals – he scored five of the team’s tally of six – were the foundations of Northern Ireland’s achievement.

McParland is the first to admit that Blanchflower deserved most of the credit. ‘We had four or five players who could play in midfield,’ McParland says, ‘and Danny would set it all up, crowding the middle of the park when necessary, but also getting players forward at the right time.’

For their five matches in those 1958 finals, which were crammed into twelve days in three different cities, the Northern Ireland players each received £250. ‘Subject to tax’, McParland points out, with feeling.


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


Why Tommy Banks was horrified when asked to stay on in the army

  • March 21, 2019 16:23
  • Jon Henderson

No footballer was ever more patriotic than Tommy Banks, but in the 1950s serving King and Country meant far less to him than returning to serve his Football League club


As far as Tommy Banks was concerned the end of his compulsory national service in the army could not come soon enough. He could not wait to step out of uniform and get back to playing for Bolton Wanderers.

Initially, while he was working underground as a miner, Banks was exempt from being called up. After he surfaced to start as a full-time pro with Bolton, he lasted only a few weeks before His Majesty’s Armed Forces – George VI was still on the throne in 1950 – sought him out.

He was packed off to Aldershot to be drilled in the ways of army life with the 17th Training Regiment Royal Artillery, after which he volunteered to join the Parachute Regiment.

The Paras were also stationed at the Hampshire base and Banks, never scared of a bit of hard physical toil, watched admiringly as the men in the maroon berets were put through rigorous routines.

‘They were always running, running, running,’ he says. ‘They never stopped. Carrying heavy kit as well.’ He pauses before adding with  a beaming smile: ‘It were terrible.’

But his ambition to join the Paras was thwarted because the army had other ideas for him. As a professional footballer he was barred from joining the rugby-playing parachutists. ‘You’re stopping with us, Banks,’ he was told. He was kept on to be a physical training instructor and play in the regimental football team.

Banks thought it was a very poor substitute for playing in the Football League. When the army offered him an extra twelve months’ service so he could attain the rank of sergeant – and play a bit more football – he was horrified.

As soon as his two years were up he caught the first train home to continue his quest for the one thing he wanted in life, permanent ownership of the left back’s No 3 shirt in the Bolton first team.

Banks, who was eighty-nine last November, was on Bolton’s books from 1947-61. He played for them more than two hundred times, including in the 1958 FA Cup Final, when Bolton beat the Manchester United side whose strength had been depleted by the Munich air crash.

He also made six appearances for England, including playing all four matches in the 1958 World Cup finals in Sweden.

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


‘If I stood in one place for two minutes my feet would start sinking in’

  • March 19, 2019 16:48
  • Jon Henderson

Seriously muddy pitches, heavy leather balls and builders’ boots were regarded as normal by the Saturday afternoon entertainers of old.


If there’s one thing, other than money, that footballers who played for buttons in the 1950s and ’60s envy their modern counterparts for it’s the pitches they play on nowadays. Oh yes, and the balls and boots, too.

‘It’s a different game from when I played,’ Roy Wood, Leeds United’s fine goalkeeper in the Fifties, says. ‘For a start, the playing surface is virtually the same every week. I look at the television and they’re playing on a blinking billiard table.

‘I remember the Chelsea ground. If I stood in one spot for two minutes my feet would start sinking in.’

‘Stamford Bridge was always a bog,’ Terry Neill, once a stalwart of Arsenal teams, recalls. ‘Upton Park was like a beach by the end of September but at least after Ron Greenwood went there as manager it was like a well-rolled beach.’

‘You look at White Hart Lane today and the pitch is immaculate. It is unbelievable and it will be like that at the end of the season,’ Cliff Jones, Spurs’ dashing winger, says. ‘When we played, at the start of the season the pitch was OK, come autumn it wasn’t too bad, come the winter and it was fuckin’ awful.’

But mud was not the only problem. Pitches had quirks. Bolton’s was the most notorious. It used to be the widest in the Football League and was cambered so that from one touchline you could not see the other one. The pitch was surrounded by a gravel running track and a three-foot drop, known as the moat.

The bottom of the moat is where many a winger’s mazy run came to an end, notably when ushered into it by Tommy Banks and Roy Hartle, Bolton’s uncompromising fullback pairing.

Neill remembers another way in which Bolton’s pitch created problems for opponents: ‘When Brian Pilkington, a five-foot-nothing, tricky little winger, was taking a corner he’d disappear down this slope and then all of a sudden he’d come up in instalments and the ball would come over… it was one of the greatest tactics ever.’

The ancients are almost as abusive about the ball they used as the pitches. ‘When I was at Chesterfield,’ Bill Leivers, who went on to play for Manchester City, says, ‘they would take the old leather T-ball, fasten a brick to it and put it in the plunge bath with enough water to cover it. This was on Friday, ready for the game on Saturday. So it weighed half a ton to start with.

‘They used to do that and people just won’t believe it. I don’t know why they did it. I never queried why they did it but they did it. If you headed it it knocked your damned head off.’

The logic behind giving the ball a bath would be interesting to know. The fact is that it was only when it was soaked that the old leather ball was heavier than the non-absorbent synthetic leather ball used now. The dry weight has remained at 14-16oz (410-450 grams) since 1937. Which may surprise some, particularly old footballers, but hardly explains why anyone would want to dip a match ball in a plunge bath.

Invariably, given the nature of English winters, the leather ball did absorb some moisture even without a pre-match dousing, which may mean heading has become safer. Time will tell.

As Dave Whelan, a Blackburn Rovers player before he became known as the owner of Wigan Athletic, points out, the weight of a leather ball when wet was not its only unwelcome characteristic.

‘In my day,’ he says, ‘not only did the leather balls become much heavier by taking water in, they had big, protruding laces in them. If you caught that lace on your head it would hurt, cut you even. Bang. But you had no option. The ball now is a constant weight. It doesn’t matter if it’s raining or whatever – the ball doesn’t get any heavier.’

The synthetic ball with its smooth surface also behaves differently. Wood, a goalkeeper who knew where he stood with the old leather ball, says: ‘I think a lot of goals today are scored by accident because with the ball they use anything can happen.

‘The old ball was a different kettle of fish altogether. If some of them had to play with the old ball on a muddy ground we’d see how good they are. They wouldn’t be able to do all the tricks they do today, back-heeling and God knows what.’

Boots have undergone the greatest change in the kit players wear. The heavy, natural materials once used to make shirts, shorts and socks were abandoned long ago, but this was mere window dressing compared to the effect that modifications to footwear would have.

The boots England played in at the 1950 World Cup in Brazil would not have looked out of place on a building site. And three years later before the Hungary match at Wembley the England captain Billy Wright was deriding the Hungarians before kick-off for wearing boots that looked as though they came from a fashionable shoe shop.

Bolton’s policy was to allow each player one pair of what would now be regarded as ludicrously heavy boots. These had to be purchased from Albert Wood’s sports shop in the centre of town – and any player paying more than two pounds for a pair risked the wrath of the club secretary, who scrutinised receipts.

‘At Chesterfield they gave you a pair of boots twelve months in advance,’ Leivers says. ‘So you had two pairs of boots, one that you were wearing and another pair that you had to wear now and again and they were for the following season.

‘Some of them had metal toecaps inside. Totally different from the carpet slippers they wear nowadays.’

What we played was football,’ Wood says, ‘what they play today ought to be given a different name.’

This is an edited extract from When Footballers Were Skint by Jon Henderson / @hendojon published by Biteback Publishing


'That night we could have beaten anybody, I don't care who they were'

  • March 18, 2019 13:36
  • Jon Henderson

Now we know, Crystal Palace will be Spurs' opponents when they play their first competitive match at the new White Hart Lane on Wednesday 3 April. So what was Tottenham's finest match at the old ground. This has to be a contender...


Cliff Jones, an outside left of rare quality, has vivid memories of Tottenham’s stirring bid to win the European Cup in 1961-62, only the seventh time the competition had been held and when it was still without a British winner.

It was not until early April 1962 that Spurs were edged out in a dramatic semi-final – but it was the preliminary round tie the previous September, when the team set out on an adventure unprecedented in the club’s history, that sticks in Jones’s mind.

His account of the victory over Polish side Gornik Zabrze is full of wide-eyed wonder at, what he sensed immediately, was the potential embodied in international club competition.

Jones had played with distinction for Wales at the 1958 World Cup finals in Sweden, where visiting teams received limited support. But a home tie against foreign opposition in a club competition was of a completely different order. He describes the second leg against Gornik at White Hart Lane as the ‘one match that stood out for me during my time at Spurs’.

The away leg, Tottenham’s debut in Europe, was dramatic enough. Spurs came back from 4-0 down soon after the break to narrow the deficit to 4-2 with Jones’s goal the first by a Tottenham player in Europe.

‘We were in with a shout, but Bill Nicholson wasn’t impressed with us, he wasn’t pleased,’ Jones says. ‘The press, they weren’t pleased with us either, they gave us quite a bit of stick. It was because of this, I think, that for the second leg we were really buzzing, we just couldn’t wait to get out there.

‘As we came out onto the White Hart Lane pitch with the Gornik side the noise from the 62,000 crowd was just incredible. They were amazing, they lifted us.

‘We were looking at the Gornik players and straightaway they were on the back foot. In Gornik the atmosphere hadn’t been great. There was the ground, then there was the running track, and then there was something else – so the crowd was well away from the playing area. But at White Hart Lane the crowd was on top of them and you could see they were in trouble.

‘Right from the off we just got at ’em. Bobby Smith had a shot, the goalkeeper tipped it over the bar and from then on the noise was just one complete roar.

‘I was fortunate to get a hat-trick and I would say I have never experienced an atmosphere like it. The final score was 8-1, 10-5 on aggregate.

‘It was the start of the glory nights as they were called, and that night we played… I don’t think there’s any team who’s been or will ever be – and I’m including Barcelona, Real Madrid, Man United – who could have lived with us. That night we would have beaten anybody, I don’t care who they were. We just slaughtered them. And Gornik, they were a top side. The majority of them were Polish internationals. But they just never stood a chance. We overran them.’

Tottenham also swept through the next two rounds, against Feyenoord and Dukla Prague, victories that put them into a semi-final against Benfica, the defending champions.

Two towering contests followed. Benfica won the first leg in Lisbon 3-1 in front of 86,000. Jimmy Greaves and Bobby Smith had goals ruled out for offside. Unconfirmable reports have it that Smith’s was disallowed despite two defenders being posted on the line.

Benfica went 4-1 up on aggregate in the second leg at White Hart Lane, where 64,448 spectators jammed the stands. Spurs then hit back with two goals, the second a Danny Blanchflower penalty, but in a desperate finish in which the post twice saved Benfica and Dave Mackay’s header landed on the crossbar the visitors held out.

Blanchflower observed later of the European Cup that it was hard to imagine ‘a more potent or popular soccer competition’ and described playing in it as ‘the greatest emotional experience of my career’.

The following month Benfica beat Real Madrid 5-3 in the final to retain the trophy.


This is an edited extract from When Footballers Were Skint by Jon Henderson / @hendojon published by Biteback Publishing.