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 By Andy Mitten

Nearly 60 years after he died, Duncan Edwards' Man United legend lives on

The FC crew assess whether Manchester United have actually improved or are benefiting from a favourable run of fixtures.

With no club football to watch because of the international break, Manchester United fans have turned to other pursuits. Many enjoyed a football-free weekend, while those with sleep problems watched England for a cure. And thousands of regular match-goers saw United-supporting, Mancunian boxer Anthony Crolla triumph at the city's arena on Saturday night.

Support for the nationwide Non-League Day was also strong; Manchester is also a hotbed of semi-professional football, while 74 fans -- young and old -- filled a double-decker bus and headed south toward Dudley in England's West Midlands, birthplace of Duncan Edwards, who would have been 81 on Saturday.

One of the greatest players in the history of Manchester United and England, Edwards was just 21 when he died from injuries sustained in the 1958 Munich air disaster. Having made his debut aged 16 years and 185 days -- making him the youngest player in English top-flight history -- he went on to play 177 times for United. He also won 18 England caps and, aged 19, scored the winning goal against world champions West Germany.

When United's plane crashed on its third attempt to take off from Munich following a refueling stop after the club had played at Red Star Belgrade in Yugoslavia, Edwards sustained fractured ribs, multiple leg fractures and severely damaged kidneys.

Unlike seven of his teammates, he didn't die instantly and, from a Munich hospital bed, was able to ask assistant manager Jimmy Murphy: "What time is the kick-off against Wolves, Jimmy? I mustn't miss that match." Edwards died on Feb. 21, 1958 and is buried in his home town. Five thousand people came to his funeral, while that game against Wolves was postponed for 10 weeks.

On Saturday, after watching a film called "And then came Munich," the visiting United fans were inaugural guests on the Duncan Edwards tour, a heritage trail around the working-class town that honours its most famous son. Among those present was Edwards' cousin, Keith.

Several years ago, United fan Brian Mulholland travelled from Manchester and found the statue of Edwards, erected in 1999, looking neglected. He took up the cause with the local council and Dudley mayor Steve Waltho got involved.

"He might be a Liverpool fan, but he's a good man and he became a good friend of ours," said Anthony Crook, another who was present on Saturday. "And his successor Dave Tyler is also a Liverpool fan. He, too, is a good man."

Tony Crook Duncan Edwards memorial
Manchester United fan Anthony Crook stands beside a plaque dedicated to Duncan Edwards in Dudley.

The statue was moved to a more central location in the town and re-dedicated in 2015. The stonework is inscribed with Murphy's description of the versatile wing-half as: "The most complete footballer I have ever seen."

Teammate Bobby Charlton described Edwards as: "The greatest player I have ever played with and possibly the most skilful I have ever seen. He was the only player who made me feel inadequate". Former England manager Terry Venables claimed that, had he lived, Edwards, would have lifted the World Cup in 1966.

In Dudley's Priory Park, a blue plaque in honour of Edwards states: "Footballer of genius. Grew up on the Priory Estate and attended Priory Primary School." It also bears a quotation from his old primary schoolmaster Geoff Groves who, in a letter to a friend in 1947, wrote: "I've just seen a boy of 11 who will play for England one day."

In St. Francis' Church, stained glass windows -- unveiled by Edwards' former manager Sir Matt Busby in 1961 -- depict the player in his United and England shirts. There's a coat of arms of Manchester United and Munich. Thousands have visited, while scores of fans go to Munich each February on the anniversary of the disaster. 

There is also a permanent exhibition to Edwards in Dudley that features his trophies, medals, England caps and newspaper cuttings. A batch of memorabilia from the collection was recently purchased by United for the club museum for a substantial, but undisclosed, fee.

Edwards' grave lies in section C, plot 722 of Dudley Cemetery -- "I've been several times and there are always fresh flowers," says Crook -- and the six-foot black granite headstone is only marginally taller than the man they called "the tank" due to his sturdy build. The stone bears an engraving of Edwards taking a throw in and, on the grave, is a granite vase in the shape of a football. Another football-shaped flower holder was stolen, only to be returned following appeals by his mother.

There's also a Duncan Edwards Close, Duncan Edwards Way and a Duncan Edwards Games area, opened by Charlton in 2006, more dedications to a United player in an area where Wolves, West Brom, Walsall and Aston Villa are the most popular teams.

Edwards was inducted into the Hall of Fame at the National Football Museum in Manchester and there are other memorials to him in the city. One is in the Quadrant pub close to Old Trafford, while a blue plaque marks 19 Gorse Avenue in Stretford, where Edwards lived when he was a star of the Busby Babes.

Interest in Edwards continues almost 60 years since he passed away. A short film called "The Boy Who Had It All" was recently released after a successful crowd-funding campaign. Best And Edwards, a 2006 book by the novelist Gordon Burn, remains one of the best to be written about Manchester United.

"The hero is the creature other people would like to be," wrote the scriptwriter Arthur Hopcraft. "Edwards was such a man and he enabled people to respect themselves more."

The United fans, mostly the same people on the same coach, who went to Dudley will travel to Anfield this coming Saturday to watch their team play Liverpool. They are looking forward to what comes next in the never-ending soap opera of Manchester United, yet remain aware of the club's great history and those people who made it.

Andy Mitten is a freelance writer and the founder and editor of United We Stand. Follow him on Twitter: @AndyMitten.

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