Tuesday, 19 February 2008

Nick Rocks in the Guardian

Dear Editor,

Labour have at last found the bottle to 'nationalise' something. I hope they get the taste for it. They should come out fighting on Northern Rock. None of the Building Societies that converted to Banks have been seen to be viable long term businesses. With Northern Rock eight out of ten have been eaten up by bigger banks reducing competition in the mortgage sector. Only Bradford and Bingley and the Alliance and Leicester remain - how long do we give them as independent businesses? Demutualisation was a stupid piece of Thatcherite dogma. Financial engineering that stole millions in value from members to enrich managers whilst producing higher mortgages for millions. Labour should not apologise for clearing up this Conservative mess. My only complaint is that they should do more of it clearing up the similar mess the Tories created in other sectors like the railways and the utilities.

Yours sincerely,

Nick Matthews

Wednesday, 13 February 2008

Remembering Duncan

"The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there."

The very moving events marking the fiftieth anniversary of the Munich Air Disaster have shone a light into L.P.Harley’s foreign country that is the past in a very interesting way. The world of 1958 and in particular the footballing world of 1958 could not be more different from the footballing world of today.

Take for example the description in the Daily Mail of Manchester United's 2007 pre-Christmas Party.

“United's 19-year-old defender Jonny Evans was questioned today over the alleged rape of a woman at the club's party before being bailed until February 23 pending further inquiries. The players had reportedly paid £100,000 for Monday's party and invited around 100 girls back to the £395-a-night Manchester hotel. The event is said to have been organised by Ferdinand who is reported to have held a whip round to which 25 players gave £4,000 each. Wives and girlfriends were not invited.
…. A total of 35 players, including many multi-million pound stars, began the day with lunch at the Manchester235 casino complex where they were entertained by drag queens and dancers. After three hours, stars such as Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, Gary Neville and Owen Hargreaves, accompanied by junior squad members, headed to Coronation Street star Liz Dawn's pub The Old Grapes for more drinking.

Later a group including Rooney and Ferdinand drove to a lapdancing club but left without going inside after seeing photographers outside. For the night they had booked out the 30-suite Great St John Street Hotel - a converted Victorian school featured in top hotel guides - where they continued partying into the early hours. One female guest described the party as "a horrendous cattle market" She said: "I like the United players but they were out of control. They were treating girls like pieces of meat. "We got special invites but if we ever get asked again there's no way we would go again." Another said: "A lot of the players were really letting their hair down. Waitresses were handing out pink champagne to whoever wanted it.
"The players seemed to be drinking beer, vodka and whisky. Lots of drink was flowing and there were a lot of the girls there simply trying to bag a footballer for the night. It was all very sleazy."

As Rod Liddle said in the Times , “Yes, of course, the whole business is vile and repulsive on a scale we should, by rights, feel difficult to comprehend. But these days we comprehend it all too well. The obscene extravagance of the party, the gallons of pink champagne flowing down the gullets of pampered and witless imbeciles, the coarseness, the sheer utilitarian intent behind that noble tradition, the harvesting of the slappers. But it would surely not surprise anyone any more. Almost everything our Premier League footballers do is an affront to decency, the result of fairly stupid young people being afforded unlimited incomes and unlimited adulation.
These players think that they can do anything, without censure. By and large they are right. But our sympathies should not be with the equally witless young women who, in effect, colluded in this moronic festival. It should instead be with the state of our national game and with the fans who subsidise such behavior.”

It is that type of behavior that I think that is part of the reason we look back to 1958 with such fondness, it is not simply with rose tinted glasses, there is certainly a degree of nostalgia but nostalgia for the values of a lost age. Compare that coverage on the United players of today with the coverage from the Guardian of old fans who congregated at Old Trafford to remember the exact moment 50 years earlier when the Munich tragedy occurred.

People like Derek Taylor, a supporter for more than 50 years, who carried flowers and a remembrance card with the words from The Flowers Of Manchester, a poem and song tribute to the victims. Taylor was a newspaper copy boy at the time of the crash. "I took the copy from the teleprinter announcing that the aeroplane had crashed," he said. "I was totally devastated. It was just unbelievable, like losing one of your family.

"When I first met Duncan Edwards, he used to come to Old Trafford on a bike. When they realised their value had gone up, the club told them they had to come on a bus!
"Sir Matt Busby used to turn up in his car, put his arm around my shoulder and ask, 'How's my team playing for me?' He was like a granddad for the fans."

In Germany, hundreds of fans attended a memorial service at the site of the tragedy outside Munich. But if the day was marked by solemnity, it was also leavened by moments of humour, not least at a tribute hosted by the television presenter and United fan Eamonn Holmes. The Babes' goalkeeper, Harry Gregg, who risked his own life to pull three others from the plane wreckage, recalled how he returned to the football field just two weeks after the crash.
"We didn't have counsellors or psychologists - trick cyclists, I call them - in those days, we just got on with it. There was no point in sitting at home moping," he said.

Nobby Stiles, a 15-year-old apprentice with United in 1958, and later a 1966 World Cup winner, assessed the talents of those who died, including Duncan Edwards ("The greatest player I've ever seen") and Eddie Coleman ("My idol").

As ever, though, Sir Bobby Charlton, who went on to fulfil the lost legacy of fallen colleagues by winning the European Cup in 1968, fashioned the perfect epitaph for a glorious team.
"I'll never forget what Sir Matt said to us one day when he pointed across to Trafford Park, which at the time was the largest industrial estate in Europe," he said, his voice cracking with emotion. "He told us: 'The people over there work hard all week long and it is your job to go out on the field and provide them with some entertainment'.
"And that is what we tried to do; we played for the team, for the club and for the country."

Be in no doubt football in the 1930’s, 40’s and into the 1950’s was the theatre of the working class.

J.B.Priestley in the opening chapter of The Good Companions (1929) said :

"To say that these men paid their shillings to watch 22 hirelings kick a ball is merely to say that a violin is wood and catgut, that Hamlet is so much paper and ink... for not only had you escaped from the clanking machinery of this lesser life, from work, wages, rent, doles, sick pay, insurance cards, nagging wives, ailing children, bad bosses, idle workmen, but you had escaped with most of your mates and your neighbours, with half the town, and there you were, cheering together, thumping one another on the shoulders, swopping judgments like lords of the earth, having pushed your way through a turnstile into another and altogether more splendid kind of life, hurtling with conflict and yet passionate and beautiful in its art."

Priestly was far from being naive about the role of commercialism in football even before the war in An English Journey, his account of a tour of the country in 1933, he describes a game between Notts County and Notts Forest:

“Nearly everything possible has been done to spoil this game; the heavy financial interests; the absurd transfer and player selling system; the lack of any birth or residential qualification for the players; the betting and coupon competitions; the absurd publicity given to every feature of it by the Press; the monstrous partisanship of the crowds (with their idiotic cries of 'play the game Ref' when any decision against their side is given); but the fact remains that it is not yet spoilt and it has gone out to conquer the world.”

I would contend that in 1958, the game was still, “not yet spoilt”, thanks to post-war austerity football was still cheap and attracted huge crowds desperate for some entertainment. Enter into this era the "Busby babes"!

Matt Busby had arrived at Manchester United in 1946 after a pre-war career as a player with Manchester City and Liverpool. Born in a miner's cottage in North Lanarkshire his father and all his uncles had been killed in the First World War. He was an immediate success with United , FA Cup winners in 1948, football league runners up in 1947, 48, 49 and 51 before winning the title in 1952. It was however his commitment to young players that set him apart. United won the FA Youth Cup, in 1954, 55, 56 and 57. The club bought no players at all for three seasons between the 1953/54 and 1956/57. The youngsters he bought through gained United the league championship in 1956 and 1957.

Of these youngsters the best of the bunch signing for United when he was 16 in 1952 was a lad from Dudley. A lad who had played for Wolverhampton Street School, Dudley Schools, Worcestershire County and Birmingham and District and had made his debut for England School Boys at just 14.

Wolves who the Daily Mail had christened the Champions of the World after they had beaten Honved in December 1954 had missed out on Duncan and on what might have been.

As Robert Philip wrote in the Daily Telegraph,

"As early as 1948, a handwritten letter from United's chief scout in the Midlands, Jack O'Brien, landed on Busby's desk. "Have today seen a 12-year-old schoolboy who merits special watching. His name is Duncan Edwards, of Dudley. Instructions please." O'Brien's recommendation was promptly passed on to coach Bert Whalley with the added instructions: "Please arrange special watch immediately - MB."

With the young man in question turning out for Wolverhampton Street Secondary School, Dudley Schools XI, Worcester County XI and Birmingham & District XI, arranging a 'special watch' represented something of a full-time occupation. At the age of 13, he walked out at Wembley on April 1, 1950, to win his first 'cap' for England Schoolboys against Wales Schoolboys in front of a crowd of 100,000; at 14 he was appointed England Schools captain - a position he would hold for two seasons.

With Wolverhampton Wanderers hovering, on June 2, 1952, United pounced, Whalley banging on the Edwards front door at 31 Elm Road on the threadbare Priory council estate at 2am, brandishing amateur forms. Having put pen to paper, young Duncan, still in his pyjamas, left Whalley and his father, Gladstone, to sort out the details while he climbed the stairs to bed, muttering: "I don't know what all this fuss was about. I've said all along that Manchester United were the only club I wanted to join."

Ten months later Edwards made his first-team debut at left-half aged 16 years and 183 days against Cardiff City at Old Trafford; not that the date April 4, 1953, is writ large in the history of Manchester United, a 4-1 defeat leaving the reigning champions in the no-man's land of mid-table. Busby was fully aware that despite his side's league title success the previous season, the majority of the United players belonged to the over-the-hill gang and Edwards' fellow 'Babes', David Pegg, Dennis Viollet, Bill Foulkes, Mark Jones and Jackie Blanchflower, were also introduced during the closing weeks of the season."

His personality shines through in the comments people make of him, "A permanent fixture in the England Under-23 side from the age of 17, United's teenage sorcerer may have grown in fame with every passing game but he remained engagingly modest throughout his all-too-brief career. "He might have been the Koh-i-Noor diamond among our crown jewels," Murphy explained, "but he was an unspoiled boy to the end, his head the same size it had been from the start. Even when he had won his first England cap but was still eligible for our youth team, he used to love turning out with the rest of the youngsters. He just loved to play anywhere and with anyone." (He had one known vice as a child - as well as representing his school at football, he was also a member of the Morris dancing team.)"

What Morris Dancing in Dudley! He continues,

"According to Busby, ". . . the bigger the occasion the better he liked it", and there were few bigger occasions than England's 1956 international against World Cup holders West Germany in the Olympic Stadium in Berlin, where Edwards scored a goal. With 25 minutes gone and the score 0-0, he gained possession on the edge of his own penalty area and set off on a run that left a trail of West Germans in his wake before smashing the ball into the net from 25 yards."

"By the mid-fifties Manchester United had caught the imagination of the country. Duncan Edwards played his first game for the club in 1953, at the age of fifteen years and eight months. Two years later he won his first England cap and Walter Winterbottom, then England manager, referred to him as ‘the spirit of British football’. On £15 a week and living at Mrs Watson’s boarding house at 5 Birch Avenue in Manchester, Edwards was the most prized of the ‘Busby Babes’."

Writes Gordon Burn in his book Best and Edwards. Duncan was no saint after all he did two years national service in the army as 23145376 Lance Corporal Edwards D. He did most of his 2 years at the Ammunition Depot at Nescliff on the Welsh border, serving in the same regiment as Bobby Charlton.

In the Daily Telegraph John Russell, who was 23-year-old civil servant in 1957 and acquaintance of Edwards said, "I knew him faintly. I'd see him riding around on his bike near my home in Sale. I'd meet him in the Ashton on Mersey cricket club. We used to bump into the United lads going to the match, walking down the Warwick Road to the ground, or on a Saturday night in the Plaza or Ritz ballroom in Manchester or the Sale Locarno. We'd chat to them, say 'Good match, Dunc'." Munich was such a tragedy."

James Lawton in the Independent asked the question, was Duncan, "The greatest Footballer that ever lived?"

The tragedy of 1958 meant that, "there will be one regret above all others. It was that we never got to see if it really was true that Duncan Edwards was the greatest player who, despite his epic fight, never got to live. Not in the fullness of his talent. Not in the haunting reach of all his possibilities."

On his debut Duncan was the youngest player to play in the First Division he played, 177 games for United scoring 21 goals, and received 18 England Caps scoring five times. He once scored 6 goals in an England under 23 match playing as a centre forward.

He is one of those lost boys whose story gets stronger in the telling as the values of now and then collide. We cannot believe that modern players with all their money and their boorish behaviour are a patch on the players of old. For all their wealth they do not have the common touch and how can they? Making more in one week than the players then made in a lifetime. Television corrupts everything it comes into contact with and part of the joy of celebrating Duncan's life is that there are so few pictures or so little film of his playing days.

When I visited his Grave twenty five years ago it was subject to vandalism even then and was not easy to find in the Stourbridge Road Cemetery today there is a statue in the Market Place and an exhibition at the Museum to join the glass windows in the St Francis Church in Laurel Road. His family and in particular his mum worked all their lives to tend his memory. His father, Gladstone, actually ended up working at the cemetary and his mum turned their home, on Elm Road , into a shrine to Duncans playing career. Much of the contents can now be seen in Dudley Museum. Sarah Anne Edwards passed away on 15th April 2003, aged 93.

Still it's good to know that a lad born on Woodside and raised on the Priory is still considered by Bobby Charlton as the best he ever played with.

"He was incomparable, I feel terrible trying to explain to people just how good he was, his death was the biggest single tragedy ever to happen to Manchester United and English football. I always felt I could compare well with any player - except Duncan. He was such a talent, I always felt inferior to him. He didn't have a fault with his game".

For more about Duncan in Dudley see: www.duncan-edwards.co.uk