Many superlatives have been used to describe Duncan Edwards, but seeing him slice his shot in the 1957 FA Cup Final (at 3 mins 18 secs of the clip linked here) reminds us that he was only human.
His death, together with those of fellow England internationals Roger Byrne, Tommy Taylor and David Pegg following the Munich air crash of 6 February 1958 not only devastated Manchester United, but deprived England of some of its most talented players before the 1958 World Cup.
Tommy Taylor made his debut for England against Belgium in the 1954 World Cup Finals, where they ultimately lost to Uruguay in the Quarterfinals. Until his death, Taylor played 19 times for England, scoring 16 goals.
Edwards made his international debut against Scotland on 2 April 1955 at the age of 18 days and 183 days, the youngest player to play for England until 11 February 1998, when Michael Owen made his debut for England. (Currently, the youngest player to play for England is Theo Walcott). By the time of the Munich air crash, Edwards had played 18 times for England.
England’s results from the start of the 1955-56 season had been impressive, with Byrne, Taylor and Edwards regulars in the England first 11. England’s record from the start of that season until the Munich air crash was as follows:
- Played 21, won 15, drew 4, lost 2, 60 goals for, and 20 against.
Byrne, Taylor and Edwards were also central to Manchester United winning successive league titles in 1956 and 1957, and they would surely have gone on to become the first club to do the league and cup double in the 20th century had it not been for the serious injury to goalkeeper Ray Woods early in the 1957 Cup Final (in the era before substitutions!) As a result, Manchester United played all but the first 7 minutes of the game with only 10 men.
One reason that has been postulated as to why the flight went ahead despite the atrocious weather conditions was that the late Sir Matt Busby was anxious to return to England in order not to miss their Saturday fixture.
The Football Association and the Football League had been opposed to English clubs taking part in the European Cup, as they felt it was an unnecessary distraction from their domestic commitments. For that reason, Chelsea, English champions in 1954-55, did not take part in the first European Cup competition in 1955-56.
Busby had defied the authorities in taking Manchester United into the European Cup in 1956-57, losing to Real Madrid in the semifinals.
Manchester United and Busby were warned that points would be deducted if they missed the domestic league fixture on the Saturday following the away leg of the European ties, which were played on the Wednesday.
Without Byrne, Taylor and Edwards, England failed to get beyond the group stages of the 1958 World Cup in Sweden (unlike Northern Ireland and Wales). The 1958 World Cup remains the only occasion a non-European country (Brazil) has won the World Cup on European soil (Sweden).
Despite reaching the semifinals of the European Cup or the Champions League 9 times, Manchester United have only reached the finals twice, winning the competition on both occasions. Only Real Madrid have lost more semifinals – 9 out of 21 (but have won the competition a record 9 times).
The Munich air crash changed the future of Manchester United, and of English football, forever.