James Leighton’s Duncan Edwards: The Greatest

leighton

First things first, this is an exceptionally good book by the often low standards set by a) biographies generally b) football biographies particularly and c) football autobiographies especially. This last class of book is often rightly openly derided as little more than pulp used to capitalise on a scandalising story in the footballer’s life or a peak in their career in most cases. But more of that below, first to Leighton’s biography of Edwards.

Leighton’s work on Edwards reflects a number of things: namely, the author’s ability to apply at least some context to Edwards’ remarkable rise through the ranks of English football and his ability to apply some general context to the era in which the Busby ‘Babes’ were formed as a construct. This is indeed one of the best and most insightful passages of the book. On top of that, Leighton, a trained legal professional provides us with a sparse but not unwelcome select bibliography of works that helped him in the writing of the book which is well-written, driven forward by a nice clean prose for the most part, and by a compelling narrative about the almost-fulfilled potential that Edwards’ story is particularly stark in conveying about why the Munich Air Disaster of 1958 was indeed so tragic. And yet, I can’t help escape the feeling that this excellent book could have been something more. Another thing to praise it for is this – with the fullness of time and the distance that now stands between us and Edwards’ era the ability to reflect on his abilities, those of the Busby ‘Babes’, is there and occasionally taken advantage. Equally, since this a biography written by someone far removed from Edwards personally, it might be more critical of him, but it isn’t – nonetheless it’s refreshing to read a book about a player written not as a ghosted-biography but as an assessment of them from a reasonably objective standpoint.

One of my major gripes with the books is one that I have in general with a lot of these books that look back to the halcyon days of post-War British football – that the antics of these players was more innocent than those of footballers today, that generally things were better then – footballers were more connected to their communities. While this is certainly true on many counts, Leighton ultimately falls into a trap that I hadn’t expected. He manages to contradict himself on this stuff particularly. For instance, he notes rightly that there wasn’t the same invasion of privacy by the press in Edwards’ era as there is now and yet he writes of the building pressure of the bustling football world where the ‘Babes’ are the games first great super stars. The fact is, this is the era where footballers began to more openly court media engagement. As the work done by Joyce Woolridge on the player autobiography shows – Edwards’ era was one of growth for the player autobiography:

Years No. of Autobiographies
1930-9 4
1940-9 8
1950-9 40
1960-9 66

Source: Adapted from Table 1 in Joyce Woolridge, ‘These Sporting Lives: Football Autobiographies 1945–1980’ Sport in History, 28:4 (2008), 620-640

Not only that but of course Leighton depicts a world where it is both positive and negative that a player like Edwards is stuck on a maximum wage of £15 –  which helps keep him in touch with his background, but he also for his entertainment quality is clearly above so low a wage. Doubtless had Edwards lived to see the abolishing of the maximum wage then he would surely have been one of its key beneficiaries  So which is it? Are these footballers who would be at home in the modern world or are they like some early modern man, almost at home with their subjectivity? I’m no big fan of Premier League era English football in terms of its social and cultural disconnect from reality but the idea that players now don’t know how lucky they are is, I think at least for the majority, rather false. It might be that Edwards and his generation were spared the trouble of being disconnected from their roots – having to deal as a young man with that kind of monetary freedom (to say nothing of parents eager to cash in and friends looking for never-ending loans) isn’t necessarily something that doesn’t weigh heavily on many modern footballers.

cloughMy other problem with this book, and I should repeat that it’s thoroughly enjoyable and well-worth reading, is that it isn’t written by Jonathan Wilson. Obviously enough, there’s very little that James Leighton can do about this. The reason I bring this up is that the previous two non-academic football books I’ve read since Christmas were Wilson’s biography of Brian Clough, Nobbody Ever Says Thank You and his history of the goalkeeper, The Outsider. Both of these books, like his majesterial history of tactics, Inverting the Pyramid, bring a near scholarly sense of contemplation to their topics. Wilson, in the biography of Clough is acutely aware I would think that Clough’s image in recent times has been shaped in large part by David Peace’s intriguing novel, The Damned United and by Michael Sheen’s portrayal of Clough in the screen adaptation of the novel. In other words, we are now in a world where a highly fictive Clough co-exists with the real man – someone who it is fair to say was more than capable of his myth-making and self-aggrandizing, playing to the gallery, playing a role expected of him to play. Wilson’s book by taking in the entire breadth of Clough’s life and being critical of him and questioning not only his own accounts, but also Clough’s motives, presents to us a way around the sticky issue of how to write about footballers, or managers.

Joyce Woolridge, again writing about the footballers autobiography notes that it comes in basically three categories – the exemplary life, the confessional, and the ‘tell-all’ exposé style biography. Most football autobiographies of course now fit into the latter two categories, driven as they are by a need for scandal to sell the lives of still-playing footballers and capitalising often the serious psychological and substance-abuse troubles many of the young men in the sport suffer from, or are victims of. I don’t know if James Leighton has read any of Joyce Woolridge’s articles on the pre- and post-war footballer, but I think they would have helped him in his biography of Edwards immeasurably. Obviously, Leighton’s target audience wasn’t academic but nonetheless there is rigour to Leighton’s work which he might have bolstered.

For instance, there can be no doubting that our image of Edwards is coloured almost entirely by Munich, and there have been screen depictions of him, notably by Sam Claflin in the BBC film United as well as the testimony of people like Bobby Charlton in documentaries. Gavin Mellor in an article in Soccer & Society took an intriguing look at how the discourse around Munich developed in the immediate aftermath of the disaster, when Manchester United won the European Cup in 1968 and how it continues to be a part of the ‘imagined community’ of Manchester United fans. Indeed, this is more or less the framing narrative of the BBC film United. Part of this narrative of loss and recovery is surely that of Edwards, though lost he is through books like Leighton’s recovered. I think its a missed opportunity of Leighton’s not to engage with this kind of work as much as he might have done, as much as you would expect Jonathan Wilson might have done.

Further Reading:

Gavin Mellor, ‘Flowers of Manchester: The Munich Disaster and the Discursive Creation of Manchester United Football Club,’ Soccer & Society, 5:2, 265-284

Dave Russell, ‘We All Agree, Name the Stand after Shankly’: Cultures of Commemoration in Late Twentieth-century English Football Culture, Sport in History, 26:01, 1-25

Joyce Woolridge, ‘These Sporting Lives: Football Autobiographies 1945–1980’, Sport in History, 28:4, 620-640

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