The most well-documented part of Duncan Edwards’ life is, invariably, its premature end. The three attempted takeoffs, the Munich slush and his brave fight for life are part of footballing folklore, as is the perception of what he might have been had he lived. It doesn’t take a particularly vivid imagination to picture Edwards – and not Bobby Moore – lifting the World Cup in 1966.
Or even to consider what Matt Busby’s 1958 side might have achieved, had it not been so brutally decimated. The Busby Babes would almost certainly have won a European Cup and there’s plenty of testimony as to why. Chief amongst those reasons was Edwards himself, whose short professional career and the witness statements it bred have sustained his legend across generations and, now, some 61 years after his death.
But the younger Edwards – the boy from Dudley who would become a Manchester United player – has only ever been drawn in silhouette. That period of life has always been a loosely connected sequence of anecdotes, Chinese Whispers really, which amount collectively to a rough sketch of his physical prowess and technical skill. They’ve always been charming, the kind of stories which people want and choose to believe, but what their biographical merit is and in what context they belong is, unvoidably, hard to know.
But maybe Edwards was everything that he’s claimed to be. Published in late 2018, Black Country Boy To Red Devil adds a great deal of colour to the outlines and succeeds in being as definitive an account of Edwards’ short life as it would have been possible to write. It’s also a history which actually polishes his myth even further, which is testimony to both the work behind it and the rarity of its subject. On this evidence, he was owed every ounce of the hyperbole.
It isn’t Munich. It is in no way a re-examination of that tragedy or a further pondering beyond the dreadful ellipsis it created. Those events and their aftermath are covered, of course, but Black Country Boy To Red Devil is about the person: Who actually was Duncan Edwards? With an exhaustive trawl through his schoolboy and youth career and with the support of dozens of interviews with former teammates, friends, family members and opponents, and the early observations of national and local press, this is as close as those too young to have seen him play will likely get to knowing.
For Edwards enthusiasts, it’s obviously essential. But even for those just mildly seduced by the tall tales, it’s a quite fascinating examination of one of the greatest players England has ever produced, decorated with all sorts of archived photographs and items of memorabilia.
Like the player himself, a real treasure.