Following the loss of eight Manchester United players in the Munich Air Disaster on 6 February 1958, which also claimed the lives of fifteen other passengers, including three members of the Old Trafford staff, Manchester United were a club sitting on the edge of a cliff made of sand. It just seemed like their whole world was crumbling away with a seemingly impossible task of keeping the club alive falling upon the broad Welsh shoulders of Jimmy Murphy, Matt Busby’s right hand man who missed the trip to play Red Star Belgrade away in the second leg of the European Cup quarter-finals. United were participating in the European Cup for the second successive season, having lost out to Real Madrid in the semi-finals the previous season, 1956-57. However, Murphy was not only Busby’s second in command at United, he was also in charge of the club’s Junior Athletic Club which spawned the world famous Busby Babes, and he managed the Wales international football team from 1956-64.
The away tie against the Yugoslavian Champions was being played on the same night that Wales had a crucial game versus Israel in a 1958 Fifa World Cup qualifying match played at Ninian Park, Cardiff. The Welsh won the first leg 2-0 in Tel Aviv, Israel and just had to avoid a loss by three goals or more to join England at the 1958 Fifa World Cup finals which were being hosted by Sweden. Wales won the home leg 2-0 and qualified for the tournament with a 4-0 aggregate victory.
The day after the disaster, Murphy flew to Belgrade along with the wives of the players and family members of those who were on-board the fateful flight to check on Busby, who was in a coma, and the players who survived the crash, including Bobby Charlton and Duncan Edwards. Sadly, Duncan succumbed to the terrible injuries he received and died in his hospital bed in the Rechts der Isar Hospital, Munich, West Germany on 21 February 1958. He was aged just 21 years, 4 months and 21 days. Regarded by many Manchester United fans, including those who were not alive when he played 177 times for the club, scoring 21 goals, as the greatest ever Manchester United player of all time, he made his senior debut on 4 April 1953. He was aged 16 years, 6 months and 3 days old when he played in Manchester United’s 4-1 loss at home to Cardiff City in the English First Division Championship on 4 April 1953 (scorer: Roger Byrne).
Born in Dudley on 1 October 1936, at 23 Malvern Crescent, Holly Hall, Dudley, Worcestershire, England, he played schoolboy football with Wolverhampton Street Secondary School, where his skills and talent were harnessed and was soon playing regularly football with Dudley Schoolboys and Worcester County XI. Despite interest from several clubs, Duncan always wanted to play for Manchester United, and on 31 May 1952, that wish became a reality when Jimmy Murphy and Bert Whalley (coach, who died in the Munich Air Disaster) secured his signature as an amateur, at his Dudley home. He eventually signed his professional contract on 1 October 1953. 23145376 Lance Corporal Edwards D also served in the Army for two years doing national service, serving mostly at the Ammunitions Depot at Nescliff, Shropshire, England.
Quite sadly, Duncan had announced his engagement to his girlfriend, Molly Leach, a few days before he played his last ever for Manchester United.
Duncan had already played 18 times for England and scored 5 international goals. He made his debut for England on 2 April 1955, England 7 Scotland 2, a British Championship match at The Empire Stadium, Wembley, London, aged 18 years 183 days.
When Murphy walked into Busby’s room at the hospital, he could literally feel his brain shutting down accompanied with the equivalent feeling of a dagger being thrust deep into his heart, as he saw his close friend lying in an oxygen tent. Busby had inhaled the fumes which came from the aircraft’s burning fuselage as he lay motionless, strapped into his seat on the slush covered runway at Munich International Airport. Jimmy sat on a chair beside Matt’s bed, just like the two had sat side-by-side for many games in the dugout since 1945 when Busby was appointed the manager of Manchester United and made Murphy his first ever signing. Jimmy hoped that maybe his Welsh brogue, as opposed to the German voices of the hospital’s doctors and nurses, would stir Matt from his coma but he was so badly injured he would be given the Last Rites twice. In many ways Jimmy found a little bit of solace in knowing that Matt had no idea about the enormity of the tragedy as the deaths of 7 of his Babes (Duncan became the eighth) were still as of yet unknown to him. The eventual bearer of that heart breaking news would fall upon Matt’s wife, Jean, who never left his bedside. If Matt was going to wake from his slumber then her face was the first she wanted her husband to see. Murphy left the room in tears to visit his boys in their rooms and although they were not as badly injured as their manager, it was all too much for a man who grew up in Pentre, a tough coal mining village in the Rhondda Valley, South Wales.
As he walked out of the hospital the enormity of the job he faced when he returned to Manchester suddenly hit him. How could he possibly go on? He had no manager, he had lost his coach and trainer and an entire team was effectively lost. But he had to do it for his close and personal friend, for his manager, Matt Busby. Jean said to Jimmy: “Keep the Red Flag flying Jimmy. It’s what Matt would want you to do.” How could he possibly refuse? Her words proved to be the motivation he needed to be able to set aside his own grief and get Manchester United playing again in memory of the seven boys he could no longer hand a red jersey to.
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