Coming soon: A new Duncan Edwards biography

Wednesday 21 September 2022 08:00

Duncan Edwards will always be a colossal figure in Manchester United history and, since his tragic passing in 1958, tales of the late great Busby Babe have become legendary.

Dudley’s favourite son was 21 when he passed away as a result of injuries sustained in the Munich Air Disaster, yet his legacy lives on and he is still described by many as the greatest player there ever was.

A new biography written by esteemed United writer Wayne Barton attempts to interpret Duncan’s iconic life and career, and it has been fully authorised by the family of the lost genius. 

The book is called 'Eternal' and its cover was officially unveiled last week, causing a huge surge in demand from supporters on social media. It even topped Amazon's ‘New Releases chart based on pre-orders alone.

Here, you can learn more about the upcoming Edwards book from its author, Barton, who has previously written respected biographies on George Best, Eric Cantona and Jimmy Murphy to name just a few...

How did the process start with this book – what made you want to write about Duncan?
“I’d been in contact with the family going back to 2018. After I did the Jimmy Murphy book, I was invited down to St Francis’ [Church, in Dudley]. They were having a memorial service down there for Duncan and the other Babes. That’s how I connected with some of them – Keith [Edwards, first cousin], Lawrence [Brownhill, second cousin]. There were other family members too, but they are the ones who are most prominent in the media. Over the following years, they’d make it known in conversations that there was a wish in Duncan’s family [to do a book]. There’s obviously been books on him before, and rightly he’s had this legendary, mythical status. But they just wanted some sort of record on him that portrayed him as a normal, every-day lad, and the person they knew. That was how those conversations started. I went down to Dudley a few times and I was talking to different people, and everyone that’s been to Dudley will know the regard that he’s held in. It seems like there’s something about him on every street corner. There’s a lot of pride down there. The penny started to drop in terms of how they wanted to portray him in a different way. Yeah, he’s this mythical son and they are so proud of him; they want the local kids to know that it’s aspirational; that a local ordinary lad did this. But once I knew the angle they wanted to go at, and that it was something different to the way that the story has been told before, I was excited. But also a little bit apprehensive, because it’s Duncan!”


There’s a real weight of responsibility given Duncan's reputation, and the love United fans feel for his memory…
“It was terrifying! In the same way as doing the book on George [Best]. I felt so confident at the end of writing that, and I did a book on Jimmy Murphy before. People might disagree, but if you were to name five precious people in United history, Duncan, Jimmy and George are probably in that five. They might even be the top three you’d speak of, in terms of how precious the stories are and how careful you’ve got to be in telling that story. You want to do it because you want to challenge yourself, but also it’s so precious. I thought: I’m going to tell that story by doing it in a contemporaneous way. Yes, I’ll use some interviews from after Duncan passed, but I used a lot of interviews from the time and press reports from at the time. I’ve tried to tell Duncan as he was and try and remove the hyperbole of the post-Munich stuff, so you get an idea of how he actually was. As I was going along, you look at the match reports and you see that there are some teething problems in his game. You can identify them. As you’re telling that story you think: am I actually criticising him here?! But the more I went along I thought: no, actually, this is realistic. Finding the faults and identifying them and talking about them… firstly it humanises him and, secondly, it finds a clearer way to articulating how good he could have been. Once you start addressing how he could improve, you get a clear idea of how he could have improved. After that, I felt on a much more confident footing.”
People who played against him and alongside him say he was already one of the best they’d ever seen, so if he could have improved from that, that elevates him in a way…
“Yes, and you also have the passage of time. He finished third in the Ballon d’Or in the year before he died. Other players that were older than him were getting recognition, but I think because the award had been fairly newly established, they were kind of like the legacy awards! Without being too disrespectful! But Duncan got there on quality. And he was seen as up there. The reports before he died talk about him being one of the best players ever. You can recover the lens of post-Munich with that, because they were speaking about him in current terms. There was one season where he conceded something like four or five penalties for handball. It was because he was present all the time; he was trying to be somewhere and influence the game. Once he’d realised that he didn’t have to win the game on his own all the time, and he could trust his team-mates, you would probably seen his game evolve. Little things like that [came out in the research]. He was one of the best of his time. He was regarded as the best in the game, so to see how he could have improved… it was almost like [George] Best, in that he was competing against himself to be the best, in a way. The sky was his limits. Everything that they said about his reputation at the time was certainly true.”
Duncan Edwards: Eternal is set to be released in February 2023.

Does it end with Munich and the aftermath, or have you talked about his legacy and the way he’s been remembered, what the family deal with afterwards? Or is just strictly his life and his career?
“Both those things are in there, but new information has come to light in the 21st century. In doing the research for this book, someone discovered all of his schoolboy playing records, and they passed them to me. Every single county and school game he played, and the positions he played, and the match reports, how well he was doing – all that sort of stuff is in there. I tried to write the book without even referencing Munich; to ignore Munich until it actually happens in the story. Apart from the first two or three pages where I’m introducing the book, there’s nothing about it. I’m not talking about how it enhanced or influenced his legacy. I’m trying to tell the story of his career and his life as faithfully as he can, without the influence of how his life ended. Through working on Jimmy’s book and liaising with a lot of the families, they had a lot of new stories. New stories from the Gregg family about Harry, which they’d kept back, because he was so embarrassed about the reputation he already had as a hero. They didn’t want to share more. But because he’s passed away, they passed some of those stories on to me, and some of them include Duncan, so I was able to include those in the book. There are a couple of news reports from the time as well, that feature things that happened to Duncan in the hospital that aren’t included in the other records. They are scarily emotional. As someone writing something, they literally stop you. You have to stop, have a cry, and go back and read it again. ‘Oh my God, is that really how that happened?’ What I’m trying to say is that the first part of it is his life and career, told through that lens, without trying to mention Munich and reference that. Because obviously we know what is going to happen. I’ve dealt with the disaster in the most careful way I can. Then I’ve dealt with the legacy of what he’s left as a player and the impact that it had on his family afterwards as well. But mostly, I’ve tried to make it a straightforward biography, the same way I did with the George Best book. Everything in George’s life is underpinned by alcoholism [in the popular perception], so I tried to remove that from the story. I’ve tried to remove Munich in the same way with Duncan, and then hopefully it will connect with people. When I read it back on the first edit, Munich hits like a freight train because it hits everything. It’s kind of scary, because I haven’t drip-fed it in. I think that really hits home the finality of it, do you know? Because that’s the way it happened.”


How were the family to deal with?
“The two prominent people that are most often in the press since Sarah [Duncan’s mother] died were Keith Edwards and Lawrence Brownhill. The idea of him is that he was 7ft 6in or something! But he wasn’t. He was 5ft 11! They wanted to bring him down to earth; they wanted to have it in more prominent literature to say that he was proud of where he came from and that they were proud of him and that he was just a normal lad. That’s the drum that they’ve been beating since Sarah died, and I know that that was part of what Sarah wanted. She was always saying you’ve got to keep Duncan’s legacy alive. Sadly, Keith passed away the week before I was going to interview him. But I’ve had to make sure they’re okay with the book. I wanted it to be authorised. Lawrence was dead excited about the book and the cover. He feels it’s a really good representation of Duncan. The idea of having something out there that tells the story of Duncan how it was. To a lot a people, it might be sacrilege… that you’re scratching away the myth and the legend, but I feel it’s important to do that for some of these people. In analysing his game and what it actually was, you get a fairer picture and it really enhances his legacy. It normalises him. Don’t get me wrong, he was like a comic-book hero at times. That stuff is in there. All the stories – like the one Wilf McGuinness tells about Jimmy saying ‘Just give the ball to Duncan’ – they are true. They are not embellished. The super-human element to it still exists, but you’re putting it the frame of a normal man. That’s what I hope comes across.”

Duncan Edwards: Eternal is set to be released in February 2023.