MANCHESTER, England — Take Franz Beckenbauer, Zinedine Zidane and Johann Cruyff and merge them into one athlete. Chances are you’d end up with a soccer player like Duncan Edwards.
The 1958 Munich air crash killed 23 people, including Edwards and seven other Manchester United players, and robbed the game of one its greatest emerging stars — almost certainly the best to wear an England national team shirt.
Bobby Charlton and Bobby Moore, who both won the World Cup in 1966, are widely considered the best Englishmen to have played the game but both view as Edwards the standard-bearer and mourn that he wasn’t on that triumphant 1966 lineup with them.
"I totally believe he was the best player I ever saw or am likely to see," said Charlton, who played alongside Edwards and survived the Munich crash. "He was the only person I felt intimidated by. I was never going to be as good as him."
Moore, the England captain who received the ’66 World Cup trophy at Wembley, died of cancer in 1993. He saluted Edwards in his autobiography.
"I once played truant from school to watch Duncan play at White Hart Lane," he wrote. "He put two (goals) past Tottenham. He was the Rock of Gibraltar at the back, dynamic coming forward. There will never be another player like him."
Terry Venables, who played for and coached England, saw Edwards play before he launched his own career. He believes Edwards, rather than Moore, should have collected that World Cup trophy from Queen Elizabeth II.
"Duncan Edwards played in the position, No. 6, as Bobby Moore and, in the summer of 1966, would have been only 29," Venables said. "How could you ever pick Moore, great player though he was, ahead of Duncan?"
Edwards, who was 18 when he made his debut for England, only played 18 games for his country, scoring five goals. Had he survived the crash, he would almost certainly have played in the next three World Cups.
A powerfully built six-footer, Edwards could play in central defence, spray 60-metre passes from midfield, or score with long-range shots or firm headers.
Such a player would be worth US$100 million in today’s transfer market. Edwards also had a reputation as a quiet-mannered man who shunned publicity and the limelight.
His career was over at age 21, however, when he died in a Munich hospital from the injuries he received in the crash.
With snow on the runway and the airplane’s wings icing up, the pilot had already aborted two takeoff attempts. On the third try, the plane failed to take off and crashed.
Seven United players — Tommy Taylor, Roger Byrne, David Pegg, Eddie Colman, Liam Whelan, Geoff Bent, Mark Jones — died in the crash, and Edwards succumbed 15 days later. The other 15 fatalities included eight reporters, while Charlton and manager Matt Busby were among the survivors.
Edwards had multiple leg fractures and severely damaged kidneys. Doctors the Rechts der Isar Hospital were amazed at Edwards’ fight for life but couldn’t save him.
Busby and Charlton recovered to play major parts in United’s revival, which culminated with a thrilling 4-1 extra time victory over Benfica in the 1968 European Cup final at Wembley. Charlton scored two of the goals and Busby, still the coach, joined in the celebrations at the end of the game.
The triumph came 10 years after the crash, and Charlton had even more reason to think back to Edwards.
"I knew him more than anyone else. I was closer to him than anyone else because we literally were in the same (army) billett in Shrewsbury," Charlton said. "We used to play together for Western Command and for Army teams and, on Friday night, we would jump on the train to get back to Old Trafford to play and I was very close to him.
"Duncan Edwards I unhesitatingly say was the best player I ever played with. I never thought I could be as good as him. Never. Never."