Mike Gibbons

Mike Gibbons is an aspiring young journalist from the UK who has followed the World Cup with passion from an early age. He will share his views about the past, present and future of this event.

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The ghost of 1958

    It is fair to say that, prior to 1950, English football had something of a god complex. The English FA refused to enter the pre-war World Cups, a sign of their narrow-minded views, and still employed the outdated notion of a selection committee to select the team. The myth of world dominance, helped by a 4-0 thrashing of Italy in Turin in 1948, led many to make them one of the favourites for the World Cup when they at last stepped in line with the rest of the world and entered in the 1950 competition in Brazil. After all, this was the game England gave to the world. Their arrogance was their undoing as they lost to the United states 1-0 in Belo Horizonte, one of the greatest upsets ever in the World Cup, and crashed out in the first round. Many English news reporters back at home thought the score was a misprint and thought it was probably 10-1.

    At the time it seemed like an outrageous fluke, but two absolute hammerings from the great Hungarian team, 6-3 at Wembley and 7-1 in Budapest in 1953 and 1954 respectively, brought the truth home. In the 1954 World Cup they were given a master class by the defending champions Uruguay in the quarter-final and returned home in the knowledge that they were far, far behind their rivals.

    Something had to change. It’s not that the players weren’t there – manager Walter Winterbottom had some of the finest ever England players at his disposal, like Tom Finney, Johnny Haynes, Nat Lofthouse and Billy Wright. He eventually persuaded the blinkered old men of the Football Association to allow him to pick a squad of 30 players and develop it for a crack at the 1958 World Cup in Sweden. What coincided with this plan was the rise to prominence of the players from Manchester United, and the famous ‘Busby Babes’ that were pioneering English participation in European competition. Two of the United team, Roger Byrne and Tommy Taylor, were taken to the 1954 World Cup but were bit part players in the infancy of their international careers. Neither however carried the same freight of expectation as the leader of the Busby Babes, a young man named Duncan Edwards.

    He had the lot. In all areas of the game – passing, running, tackling, heading, shooting – he excelled. Older members of my family saw him play, and the memory is burned into their consciousness, and that is almost universally true of anyone who ever saw this giant of a player on the pitch. You would struggle to find any player or coach from that era who considers him anything less than one of the greatest players they have ever seen, if not the greatest.

    Duncan Edwards made his England debut at 18 years and 183 days old against Scotland in 1955. Within a year he was a fixture in the team, and for the next two years England lost once in eighteen matches. In the period May 1956 – November 1957 they defeated Brazil (4-2) and France (4-0) at Wembley, and world champions West Germany in Berlin (3-1, triggered by a screamer from Edwards in maybe the greatest game he ever played). Throw in a hard fought 0-0 draw in Stockholm against Sweden, and England had the measure of what would be the semi-finalists in the 1958 World Cup. This is all from the days when an international match was a fiercely contested, prestigious event and not some half-hearted kickaround by overpaid mercenaries with their minds on other things.

    All the while, Edwards became more and more the comic book hero. In a World Cup qualifier against Denmark in 1956 he scored a pair of spectacular goals, made all the more special as the match was in Wolverhampton, bare miles from where he grew up. The following spring he scored a late winning goal against old rivals Scotland with another twenty-five yard thunderbolt that nearly snapped the post on its way in. On the club scene, he and the Busby Babes won the league championship in 1955-56 and 1956-57 and began making serious in-roads into the European Cup the following year, after narrowly losing out to the great Real Madrid side the previous season (Alfredo Di Stefano called them one of the best teams he had ever seen).

    Things were looking good for England at the start of 1958. Tommy Taylor was averaging nearly a goal a game up front, and Roger Byrne defied any selection committee to drop him and was on a run of 33 consecutive internationals. World class players such as Billy Wright, Johnny Haynes and Tom Finney were all performing at their peak, and new talents like Don Howe at full-back and a certain Bobby Robson in midfield were coming through. Another Busby Babe, David Pegg, had also recently made his debut. The jewel in the crown though was Edwards. Even at this early stage of his career, he had a case for being one of the best players ever to wear the England shirt, his star shooting ever further into orbit. With the World Cup just months away, England were one of the best teams in international football.

    Most of you reading this have known where it is going. For those that don’t, on February 6th 1958 a plane carrying players and officials from Manchester United crashed after several attempts to take off from a snow covered runway in Munich, on what was a re-fuelling stop as United returned home from a European Cup quarter-final against Partizan Belgrade. Eight players died in the tragedy, including Roger Byrne, Tommy Taylor, David Pegg, and, a few days later in hospital, Duncan Edwards.

    The disaster all but wiped out the Manchester united team, and tore the heart out of the England side. Two months after, with post Munich emotions still running high, England beat Scotland 4-0, amongst the scorers a young Bobby Charlton, who had survived the air crash and was making his debut. The wheels were not far from coming off though, and after scraping a home win against Portugal, England were hammered 5-0 in Belgrade by Yugoslavia on the eve of the finals. Everything England had been building towards now seemed to be falling apart.

    The 1958 World Cup was a forgettable one for England, drawing all of their first round games with the USSR, Brazil and Austria. Tom Finney injured his knee so badly in the opener with the Soviets that he missed the rest of the competition. Forced into a play-off to make the quarter-finals, England were humbled 1-0 by the USSR, and they were out.

    Inadvertently, England did play a small part in creating World Cup history. After the sterility of the goal-less draw between the two in Gothenburg, Brazil decided to throw into the fray two maverick but as yet unproven talents – a couple of players called Pele and Garrincha. The rest, as they say, is history.

    The depression would continue for a while yet, and England won only four of their next sixteen matches. A few prospects were touted as ‘the next Duncan Edwards’ – specifically Terry Venables – but this was soon given up. Edwards was a unique, a one-off, a bag of unlimited potential. Fate cruelly took away the opportunity to capitalise on it, and this haunted both Manchester United and England for years. Would England have won the 1958 World Cup if the Munich air crash had not happened? We’ll never know, but it was certainly within their grasp.

    When Bobby Moore lifted the World Cup for England on home soil in 1966, it ended the English quest to re-assert themselves at the summit of world football. Had he been alive, Duncan Edwards would have been twenty-nine years old. Had he not perished after Munich, and bearing in mind most players reach their peak from 27-31, you can only wonder what heights he would have achieved were he not taken from us.



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