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Old 16th October 2004, 03:15   #1
tomclare
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Default Duncan Edwards - The Early Years

The Early Years

Four small bundles of jackets and jumpers were the goalposts, while the pitch was a small area of waste land behind the school. It was a far cry from Villa Park, Molineux, or Wembley, but for those kicking the worn out football around on it, this was their ?Stadium? where they held make-believe Cup Finals and other fantasy games, and each player took on the identity of their footballing hero.

For one of those young lads, his dreams were soon to turn into reality and the waste ground would become the terracing and stands of Old Trafford, Manchester, and the next decade of youngsters would be taking on the identity of Duncan Edwards in their make-believe football games.

Duncan was born in the heart of the industrial West Midlands, in Dudley, on October 1st, 1936. he was the first child of Sarah-Ann and Gladstone Edwards, and sadly became their only child, as his younger sister Carol, died at the age of fourteen weeks.

The family lived in Elm Road, on the Priory Estate, and in the trouble torn days of the Second World War, life for them was no better than for thousands of other families throughout the country.

His mother was quick to recognize his early interest in playing with a ball, and would pick him up and swing his legs so that he could kick away. He could kick a ball before he could walk, and would kick anything and everything. An object to kick was no problem, but items to kick were. Footballs and football boots were a luxury in those days, which only a few could afford, while others waited patiently for birthdays or Christmas to come along to get such things as presents.

Duncan grew veryy quickly, but his footwear was more likely to be replaced through wear and tear than becoming too small. It was not unusual for him to arrive home from school with his shoes covered in mud or with the toe caps burst open.

A ball was never far from his feet, and the sight of Duncan dribbling a ball to and from school was a common one for the people of Dudley. Even when his parents went visiting, and Duncan had previously been forbidden to take a ball with him, he always somehow managed to sneak one out of his coat pocket. If none was available, a bundle of rags tied in a spherical shape, or even a stone was kicked about as a substitute.

Duncan?s education began at Priory Road Junior School, just a few hundred yards from his home. He is still so well remembered there today, there are team pictures on the wall and also a painting of him in action, so that the pupils of today don?t get a chance to forget the school?s former star pupil.

He is also still remembered by former pupils of the Priory Road School, two of whom were Mrs. Dorothy Haden and Mrs. Joan Davies. Both of these ladies not only went to school at the same time as Duncan, but they all lived close to one another on the Priory Road Estate.

Mrs. Dorothy Haden was two classes below Duncan at school, but can still remember him as a schoolboy. ?The only thing that he was ever interested in was football? said Dorothy. ?and if you were ever wanting him, he was usually to be found on the waste ground at the back of the school, playing football with anyone and everyone. In those days, I wasn?t particularly interested in football, but I used to hear the lads in my class who played in the school team alongside Duncan, talk about him with something like hero-worship. Perhaps this was brought about mainly because he was instrumental in the Priory Road School achieving success in local competitions. One thing that always struck me about him? Dorothy went on, ? was that he was so flipping big, head and shoulders above all the other lads of his age, I?ve never seen anything like it!?

The other near neighbour from the Priory Estate was Mrs. Joan Davies. Joan was fortunate enough to have been a classmate of Duncan?s. Remembering Duncan today brings a smile to her face, but it wasn?t always like that as Joan explains. ?I can?t remember how old we were at the time, but that doesn?t matter. We were sitting next to each other in the class one afternoon, when for some reason that Duncan knew best, he gave me an almighty thump on the nose with a text book. This had a rather instant effect on my nose and it began to bleed rather badly. Sadly for Duncan, the teacher spotted his action and he was immediately sent to the Headmaster?s study where he received his punishment in the form of a few strokes of the cane. Some years later, in 1957, I met him at a bus stop in Dud whilst he was home visiting his parents, and during our casual conversation, Duncan brought the incident up, and we had a right good laugh about it.?

Joan also recalled Duncan playing in the school team. ?Although he went on to play for England Schoolboys, he was not the best player in the schools team at that particular time, but he was very popular with all of the older boys and was considered a vital member of the team.?

One of those inter-school games in which Duncan was involved in, was for Priory Road against St. John?s, a team coached by a Mr. G.D. Meddings, who actually went on to teach at Priory Road after Duncan had left the school. This was Mr. Medding?s first encounter with young Duncan, and he remembers it well. ?It was obvious that he was something special, even though he was only ten years old, He covered every inch of the field, taking goal kicks, throw ins, corners, and free kicks, and also managing to halt every attack made by my very useful side. Three times during that game he made solo runs, similar to the one he made against West Germany nine years later. His play inspired Priory road boys to a 3-0 victory that day.?

At Priory Road school, Duncan did not shine academically, in fact he moved through in the ?C? stream. He was only interested in football, and would spend all his daylight hours on his special part of the waste ground behind the school. So, in the summer of 1948, he moved to Wolverhampton Street Secondary School, to continue his education with book and ball.
Soon after his arrival there, he came to the attention of Mr. Eric Booth, the then secretary of the Dudley Schools Football Association. With Duncan, it was always a case of once seen, never forgotten, and in Eric Booth?s instance, it was no different.

?He was eleven at the time, Captain and centre half of his school junior side, and we knew right away that we had something special. In his first year at Wolverhampton Street School, he was chosen to play for Dudley Schoolboy?s side, where he came up against boys who were fifteen years of age. For once in his life, he looked a comparative midget alongside them, but he was still such a wonderful, outstanding player for his age.?

Eric Booth continued ?. ?Although he had been playing at centre half, we played him at outside left, to keep him out of trouble, and the rough stuff in the middle of the park. We were also a little afraid in case Duncan would be a little overawed, but then ? and throughout his footballing life ? he never, ever showed any sign of nerves.?

Although the Dudley Schoolboys side was selected from boys attending all the local schools, and Duncan was the only one from Wolverhampton Street, he was not unfamiliar with one of his team mates. He was Dennis Stevens, his Second Cousin, who was also Duncan?s partner on the left wing. ?When we met up in that schoolboy team? recalled Dennis, ?I was some three years older than Duncan. His age did not come into it though, all that mattered was that he could play. He had a beautiful balance, could turn on a sixpence, and was so strong in the tackle. I played for Holly Hall School on the other side of Dudley from Duncan?s, but we had still heard about how promising a player he was. You could see even then that he was going to make it to the top, and we often had a laugh and talk about the old times, when we met up in later years.?

Another member of that Dudley team was William McConnell, who attended St. Joseph?s School, and played at right back. ?I can still remember those schoolboys games quite well? said William, ?I played in my normal school position of right back, but Duncan who usually played centre half for his school team, played at outside left, with his cousin, Dennis Stevens at inside left. Dennis was also Captain of the team. Like Duncan, dennis went on to play professional football with Bolton Wanderers, and Everton, and they were the only two from that team to do so.? It wasn?t really a football family from which Duncan came. His father Gladstone, played right back and his brother George left back in the Cradley Heath League, but they were just ordinary, run of the mill players. Duncan?s Grandfather, on his Mother?s side, also played a lot in local league football, but one relation did manage to play at professional level. He was Duncans Uncle, ray Westwood, who played for Bolton Wanderers and England during the 1930?s.

?One of those schoolboy games I remember? William McConnell continued, ?was in the English Schools Shield, against Kings Norton at the Dudley Sports Centre. I think that I remember if more for the own goal that I scored than for Duncan?s performance! The lads from Kings Norton were a far better side than us, and for once, the twelve years old Duncan got little opportunity to shine. If you didn?t know it, however, you would not have suspected that there was three years difference between Duncan and the rest of the teams.? That particular game was played in October 1948, and at the end of that year, everyone except Duncan left their particular school to start work, as they were all then fifteen years of age.

The biggest influence on Duncan?s footballing outlook at this age was Eric Booth, as Duncan himself readily acknowledged. Eric taught him how to improve his basic skills which he so obviously had. Heading, trapping a ball, taking throw-ins etc. were all correctly taught to the young Edwards, who all the time was straining at the leash just actually to get into a game.

Whilst tactics were left out of his football education, one particular sound bit of advice was emphasized. This was the tendency of schoolboys to want to hold on to the ball and dribble. Duncan was told never to carry the ball unnecessarily, but to push it or pass it to a team mate in a better position, then move run to a spot where he could receive it if required. See things as quickly as possible and then do it, was part of the advice that Duncan never forgot during his career.

Although left half became his recognized position, it was the left foot which was slightly the weaker when he was a schoolboy. He constantly found that he was transferring the ball to his right foot, and in doing so, losing chances and the time to open things up in front of him. Therefore, with Eric Booth?s help, he restored his confidence in his left foot by forcing himself just to use that one foot, until he began to accept the ball as naturally on that side, as well as on his right. At every opportunity, Duncan would be playing in the street or park with lads of nineteen, or twenty, getting used to the hurly burly of the game and giving as good as he got on many occasions, and always practicing his skills.

At this time, his Mother was not aware that Duncan was playing with boys, and sometimes with men, so much older than her son, and it was just by accident that she found out about it. One day, when returning from the shops, she was passing a bit of waste ground where a kick about was in progress. She didn?t give the game too much thought or attention until she recognized the figure running downfield with the ball! On noticing that the other participants in the game were much older, she shouted at Duncan to come home, but one of the older boys went over to her and calmly reassured her that her son was more than capable of taking care, and looking after himself!

The school year of 1948-1949 was Duncan?s most hectic as a schoolboy footballer yet. Not only did he play for his school team, but he also represented Dudley Boys, Worcester County XI, and the England Schoolboys under14 team. Duncan just loved his football and would have played for anyone, anywhere. If there had been a game arranged on the Outer Hebrides, and transport had been available, Duncan would have gone. Mr. Meddings was very much involved with Duncan around this time, and he now takes up the story.

?Duncan was regarded by some who really didn?t know him as a tough character, using his exceptional strength to overcome lesser opponents. Here is an example about the more sensitive side of Duncan?s nature. During a trial for the Birmingham and District team, Duncan was involved in a tackle which resulted in a boy breaking his leg. It must be stressed, that Duncan was in way responsible, or to blame for this, as it was a completely fair tackle. Anyway, a week later, Dudley Boys were playing away in Birmingham, and as they ran out onto the pitch, the injured boy was standing on the touchline on crutches, with his leg in plaster. Duncan?s face paled, and it was obvious that this had a very big effect upon him, and he went on to have the only poor game that I have ever seen him play. It took a long time for him to accept that what had happened was an accident, and that he was not to let such things get on top of him and effect his game.?

?As well as having a serious side to his nature, Duncan also had a sense of humour. I can recall him after a Dudley Schools match buying a bottle of ginger beer and putting his thumb over the part of the label and announcing ?Look Sir, we?re on the beer!?

?Coaching sessions were such that he would pick up in an instant on a new skill ? trapping with the outside of the foot, or with the chest ? etc. I would then send him across to half the team and let him coach them, while I took the other half!?

?A particular match comes to mind in the Worcester County Schools Trophy. It was a very windy day at the Dudley Sports Centre, and we had the advantage of a howling gale during the first half, but we just couldn?t score. In fact most of the time was spent retrieving the ball from the car park situated behind one of the goals. At half time I told Duncan that the only way we would score against the wind, was for him to have a go on his own. This he tried from his own penalty area. At the end of this amazing run, he hit a shot which hit the goalkeeper?s legs and the ball rebounded right down the field and out of play at the other end for a goal kick to us! The final score in that game was 0-0, but we had no problems in the replay which we won 7-0.?

Eric Booth who had played a major part in the development of Duncan?s play, was also involved with him during this period. ?I had seen Duncan play in different positions all over the pitch, and as we had developed his left foot sufficiently, we decided to get him more into the game. So, we began to play him as inside left, and then moved him across to right half. Then the funniest thing happened. I recommended Duncan for an England under-14 International trial at Oldham Athletic?s Boundary Park, and we were actually surprised when he was selected to take part, because you have to remember that he was still only twelve years old! We were even more surprised when he was selected to play in the trial at centre forward! However, he had such a good game that he was selected to play against Ireland!?

Duncan however, almost didn?t take part in that International trial, due to something very much unconnected with football, and something that you would never associate with him with ? Morris Sword and Folk Dancing! He was due to have taken part in a National Festival at Derby, being a star member of his school?s team, and having already competed in the Leamington and Birmingham Festivals. However, Duncan decided that football was his true love, and he went on to Oldham and his subsequent selection for the England Schoolboys.

So on Saturday, May 6th 1950, Duncan pulled on the white shirt of England for the first time at Boundary Park, Oldham. Looking through the programme for that Schoolboy match against Ireland, it is interesting to note Duncan?s team mates on the left hand side of the forward line. They were Ray Parry of Derby Schools, and David Pegg of Doncaster Schools, who were both to figure in the career of Duncan Edwards, in later years. At the end of the school term and football season, Duncan?s involvement in the game didn?t take a couple of months rest like many schoolboys and professional players, because he went on an E.S.F.A. Coaching Course at Blackpool. This was a new venture for school teachers to take the F.A. Coaching Award, using England Schoolboy caps as the pupils, and Duncan went along with Mr. Meddings, who was taking the course.

Mr. Meddings remembers the days at the seaside as he recalls ?????? ?The boys stayed in Stanley Mathews? hotel on the South Shore, and it was very interesting to remember that a few years later, Duncan and Stanley (who had first been capped for England before Duncan was born), played together in the same England team.?

?One of the coaches at Blackpool was Joe Mercer, the Everton, Arsenal, and England star, who was very impressed with this boy from Dudley, and predicted a great future for him. Joe was also impressed by Duncan?s schoolboy team mates Ray Parry, and David Pegg, who were also on the course. During the stay at the seaside resort, an amusing incident occurred. After a full day?s training, the boys would make their way to the place which is still the biggest attraction for youngsters today ? the Pleasure Beach. Once there, they would make for one particular side show, and that was ?beat the Goalie.? You can imagine what sort of chance the poor goalie had against 24 of the best young schoolboy footballers in England! The owner of the side-show was unaware of this as well, but soon found out after giving most of his prizes to the boys. However, he was quick to spot a good thing, and so made arrangements with them so that they could have free shots, and attract customers to the stall!?

Season 1950-51 brought Duncan further representative honours for the England under-14 side and also a step up to the under-15 side, with the highlight of his career so far coming on Saturday, April 7th 1951. That was the day that Duncan was selected to play for England Schoolboys at Wembley against the Welsh Schoolboys, at left half. The programme for that game contained a piece which could have been a direct reference to Duncan. On page four, it read ??..?Big Boys for schoolboys? you?ll say as you watch them walk out from the Olympic tunnel at the far end of the Stadium. Look at their heights and weights on our ?Pen Pictures? page. Yet every player on the field today has been closely scrutinized from the age angle. Each one is still attending school and was under 15 years of age on August 31st last.? Duncan?s pen-picture read as follows???..?Duncan Edwards (Wolverhampton Street Secondary Modern School, Dudley), left half, Captain of Worcestershire County S.F.A. Selected to represent Birmingham and District S.F.A. Age, 14 years and 6 months. Height 5? 9?. Weight 10 st.12 lbs? He was a year younger than the rest of his team mates, but equal if not superior to them in height and weight.

The dreams of Wembley Stadium acted out on the waste grounds and parks of Dudley, had now been realised???

Now settled in the left half spot, Season 1951-52 brought Duncan the ultimate honour of England Schoolboy Captain, with matches against Wales, Scotland (twice) and an appearance at Dalymount Park, in Dublin, against Eire schoolboys.

During his three seasons as an England Schoolboy International, he had accumulated nine caps, which was a record for an England Schoolboy. He was also the first Dudley schoolboy to win International recognition in more than forty years. Naturally, he was under the spotlight of all the leading clubs, and of course he did live on the doorstep of such famous named clubs as Aston Villa, Birmingham City, West Bromwich Albion, and Wolverhampton Wanderers. Two other clubs, both Lancashire rivals, were also alerted this youngster who potentially was going to be even better than John Charles. They were Bolton Wanderers and Manchester United.

Perhaps the local Midland clubs felt that Duncan was bound to choose one of them, but the Lancashire sides took nothing for granted and made strenuous efforts to sign him. Bolton Wanderers were in fact the first to be alerted to him. The year before they had signed Duncan?s schoolboy International Captain, Ray Parry, and would dearly have loved parry?s left wing partner David Pegg, and also Duncan, to complete the left side triangle.

Ray Parry actually became the youngest player ever to appear in the First Division, when at the age of 15 years and 207 days, he played for Bolton Wanderers against Wolverhampton Wanderers and went on to have a long, and distinguished career with Bolton, and another couple of clubs in the North West, as well as winning two full England Caps.

He well remembers Bolton?s attempts to bring Duncan to Burnden Park ??.. ?The Bolton Wanderer?s Chief Scout in those days was frank Pickford, and he convinced Manager Bill Ridding that as he had already signed me for inside left, if he could get Duncan Edwards for left half, and David Pegg for outside left, we would soon be able to transfer our very successful results as England Schoolboy players, to the hurly burly of the First Division. So one day, frank took me down to Dudley to try and persuade Duncan that Bolton were the team for him. I sat in the car outside of the Edwards? home whilst Frank was inside speaking to Duncan?s parents, and after a while, Duncan came out and got into the car besides me. However, it seemed as if our journey was fruitless as Duncan said to me ? ?Sorry Ray, thanks for the interest, but there is only one club that I want to join, and that is Manchester United???it wouldn?t have mattered if he had had the opportunity to join any side in the world, he only had eyes for Old Trafford and becoming a Manchester United player. And with that, Duncan had informed all interested parties that his mind was made up!?

Incidentally, the roles were nearly reversed, as Ray Parry continued ?.?Matt Busby had asked me to join Manchester United the year before, but for some reason or otherI decided to join Bolton Wanderers, who were in all fairness, one of England?s top sides at the time. It always added a bit of flavour when we played against each other, but United were a great side in the middle to late fifties. Bolton were something of a bogey team to them though, and had more than a decent record against them. But, I can remember the last time we played against them before the Munich Disaster, on January 18th, 1958. We were simply hammered, over run, and outclassed with United winning 7-2 and Duncan scoring a couple of blockbusters. Even today, it does make me think as to if I would have been on that aeroplane if I had joined Manchester United instead ?.?

Another reason for Bolton?s confidence at this time in their pursuit of Duncan Edwards, was the fact they had Duncan?s Second Cousin, and former Dudley Schoolboys team mate, Dennis Stevens in their line-up. Looking back, Dennis recalls??.?From what I gathered, Bolton were very, very confident about signing Duncan, and naturally, being part of the family, and knowing what a player he was going to develop into, I was quite looking forward to him joining me at Bolton. At least he would have had someone he knew at the Club.?

In later years, Dennis Stevens himself became an excellent inside right, winning an F.A. Cup Winners medal for Bolton Wanderers, against Manchester United in the 1958 Final, before he moved on to Everton where he won a League Championship medal in 1963.

Staying with the Bolton Wanderers attempt to obtain the signature of Duncan Edwards, we get the story from the man closest to doing it, Frank Pickford, their Chief Scout for so many years. His account of how Duncan ended up at Old Trafford and not Burnded Park, is still vivid in his mind, even today.

?Duncan Edwards was the boy who had the lot,? began Frank. ?From the first sighting, George Taylor (who was Bolton?s Chief Coach at that time) and myself both realised what a grand player he was going to become. We saw him in a trial match at Dudley Port, but missed him after the game, so off we went to the local police station to find out the lad?s address. ?Thirty Four, Elm Road, Priory Estate, Dudley? we were told, and I?ll never ever forget it.?

Frank?s voice trailed away at the memory of the finest talent that he had ever come across. A talent he was so sure was destined for Burnden Park, Bolton. But, after a short pause, Frank continued???I didn?t honestly believe for a minute that any other Club would get him. I got on well with his Father and Mother, and in fact his dad and I often enjoyed a couple of pints together in the Royal Oak pub opposite their house.?

?Duncan even came up to Bolton on one occasion to have a look around, but while we waited, Manchester United must have got the nod about the lad. When matt Busby went for him, he must have sold himself well. At the end, I couldn?t get down to Dudley on this particular Sunday, as I was over in Belfast looking at another young player, so Matt and Jimmy Murphy got that illusive signature of Duncan?s?

Having lost out to Manchester United, Frank Pickford and Duncan Edwards next met up at a Lancashire F.A. Youth trial at Leyland Motors ground a couple of months later. ?I was crossing the car park, and Duncan came over to me and said, ?sorry Frank, it just wasn?t to be?. I wished him well, but have regretted losing his signature ever since.?

Manchester United?s move for Duncan started with a nudge to Manager Matt Busby from Joe Mercer during a conversation regarding another schoolboy player. Looking back to that meeting, matt recalled?..?I was very interested in a Merseyside lad named Alec Farrall, who played inside right for the England Schoolboy team. He was a prolific goalscorer, and once scored four in a trial match. As he lived in Hoylake, close to Joe, I asked him about him. Joe, who helped coach the England Schoolboys team in those days simply told me to forget about him as the boy was Everton daft, and that I had no chance whatsoever of signing him. However, he asked me if I had not seen one of Alec?s schoolboy team mates, a lad named Duncan Edwards, who Joe reckoned was a much better prospect. Duncan, although a member of the same team, was a couple of years younger and therefore could not be approached. Our scout in the Midlands at that time was Reg Priest, and when I checked, he had already marked our Chief Scout, Joe Armstrong?s card about him. Joe reckoned that there was no exaggeration, Duncan was indeed ?the boy wonder.? Fortunately for us, Reg also lived in dudley, and was on the doorstep should anything begin to happen quickly.?

?When I actually watched him for myself, what everyone had told me about him was so true. It was more than obvious that here was a young boy who was going to be a player of exceptional talent. He was so easy on the ball, perfect first touch, two footed, perfect balance, legs like oak trees, and the perfect temperament to match. We had to have him, but there was always one thought at the back of my mind. Would Duncan, like the Farrall lad, want to play for his local side, which was Wolverhampton Wanderers? I had no need to worry, because as soon as I met with him, he told me that he thought that Manchester United were the greatest team in the world, and as soon as he was old enough, he only wanted to sign for us.?

In the end, the simple fact that Duncan Edwards was so impressed by Manchester united as a club, and Matt Busby as an individual, swung the day. Although when you unearth talent as rare as Duncan, the waiting until he actually puts pen to paper and signs for you must be unbearable.

Aware of the continued interest of Bolton Wanderers, even though Duncan had told Matt Busby that he only wanted to join Manchester United, a careful eye was kept on the situation, with Chief Scout Joe Armstrong, Coach Bert Whalley, Jimmy Murphy, and Reg Priest, all watching Duncan at every opportunity.

One afternoon, however, things began to hot up, and it looked as if Bolton were going to make one final attempt to snatch Duncan from under the eyes of their Lancashire neighbours and rivals. Hearing of this move, Reg Priest got on the telephone to Old Trafford right away, and told them to get somebody down to Dudley right away. So, off went Bert Whalley to the Midlands, only for his car to break down still some distance from his destination. All he could do then was hitch a lift back to Old Trafford, where he arrived late at night. Waiting for him was Jimmy Murphy, who had received another phone call from Reg Priest. It was decided that Matt and Jimmy would hire a car, and Matt drove down to Dudley immediately with Jimmy in the passenger seat.

They arrived in Dudley in the early hours of the morning, and naturally, the Edwards? home was in darkness. Having traveled all this way, there was only one thing that they could do, and that was to knock on the door and wake the sleeping inhabitants. After a few, nervous, silent minutes for the two United men, a noise was heard inside the house. The front door was opened by Duncan?s Father, and Matt and Jimmy explained their reasons for such a late visit. They were invited inside, and after a talk, Gladstone Edwards went upstairs to awaken Duncan who was asleep, unaware of what was going on in the living-room below.

Minutes later, the living room door opened and the pyjama clad figure of Duncan entered, rubbing the sleep from his eyes. He explained to the visitors that they should not have put themselves out, as he had given his word that he would only sign for Manchester United!

So, in the early hours of that morning, Duncan signed for Manchester united, and he went back to bed looking forward to starting life as a footballer, some eighty odd miles away, while matt and Jimmy, set off on their return journey to that same city, happy in the fact that they had beaten the rest of the country?s football clubs in signing one of the players of the future.

As Duncan lay in his bed after signing, he must have had a few doubts and worries in his mind, about leaving home and going from school life into his first job, just like anybody else would. But, unlike most others, Duncan had all the tools of the trade with which to succeed in the world of professional football.
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