“Tackle Soccer This Way” by Duncan Edwards

(By the way, note that “Soccer” there in the title, any of you who are still sufficiently ignorant to think that the word’s of American coining and bigoted enough to think that there’s a worthwhile joke in it. “Tackle Soccer This Way” was published in the UK in late 1958 after the death of its young author in the Munich Disaster).

It turned out to be a small hardback book, bound in simple black with no dustcover. I took it back to my desk out in the middle of Humanities One where it immediately sought to merge with my heaped moleskine notebooks. Around it, the room yawned wide and high, expensive imported woods and other top quality materials combining to make that unique ambience of Ikea and airport lounge that is the modern British Library. In the old Reading Room, it would have come as no surprise had you felt a tap on the shoulder from whichever Georgian, Victorian, Edwardian author you had open on the bookstand before you. Humanities One just tells you they’re dead. This isn’t Montaigne’s library, and you can’t converse with them through their works. In here, you have Capgras’ Syndrome; the books feel like the accurate reproductions of things whose original existence has since been disproven by research.

The Munich disaster being what it was, it has never felt right, to me or to however many others, that Duncan Edwards, his team mates, their coaches and the accompanying journalists are dead at all. (That’s in spite of the intervening years. Only one of Frank Swift’s 46-47 England colleagues still lives, and Edwards’ England successor died young). The crash is just one of those events that leaves you half convinced that if only the subsequent investigations can be thorough enough, painstaking enough, then some kind of rewind button can be found and we can stop it all. I’ve always had that feeling about Munich. About the Shuttle disasters, too: I’m the one bellowing “Listen to Feynman!” when the grim TV documentaries start on the “o” rings.

But the rewind button turns out to be elusive, and the introduction to “Tackle Soccer This Way” could not be more different from its colleagues in the genre or more out of kilter with the main body of the text. The publishers approach the young hero of English soccer for his thoughts on the game – he responds with enthusiasm – the completed manuscript is delivered to them by its author who then goes straight on to the airport. Then, immediately, Munich. Edwards hangs on by a thread for a few weeks, then dies.

The publishers debate the morals and merits of publication, and then decide to go for it, as some kind of memorial, they say. And so, almost fifty years later, here I am, sitting with the book in my hands, alternately longing for coffee, thinking I’m making too much of an ancient tragedy, trying to twist the ache out of my shoulders, contemplating the pub, preferring the Bodleian and wishing the book had an index.

And wondering if my fellow readers know if they’re born. But I do eventually pull my act together and read what Edwards had to say. I’m guilty of treating it as a text, rather than a football book, I’m afraid:

Was it ghost-written? Either that, or the manuscript was very heavily edited. The book holds together, something which, if you haven’t haven’t had to put a book together, you might not recognize as a matter of training and knowledge rather than art.

The book’s voice is convincing as that of a keen, young footballer – and I wonder if it isn’t some lovestruck assigned journalist’s idea of what a keen young footballer would sound like. My best guess is that the book comes from a long series of fairly in-depth interviews, written up subsequently by a professional.

It’s hard to picture Edwards coming up with 150 typed pages (300 handwritten) on his own, because to do that demands a background that he just didn’t have. Nevertheless, the sheer density and knowledge displayed in the book is what you’d expect from someone of high intelligence and reflection (which does fit Edwards’ description) who had taken his profession utterly seriously from day one and sought to communicate everything he’d learned along the way.

The contents begin with a brief autobiographical sketch – the usual stuff about street football, its advantages and disadvantages. Edwards isn’t one of the blowhards who, long after their career has ended, claims that street football was the best education and where they learned all their skills. This shouldn’t be too surprising: Edwards was writing in 1957-8, and the street-educated footballers who’d been made to look so inept and clumsy by the Hungarians were almost all still his playing colleagues. Edwards goes on to describe an exhaustingly large number of football drills he’d either devised himself or picked up from others designed to develop and improve specific skills, to practice specific match situations. It’s the real story of how great players develop: he’d had the talent, but he’d had the interest, and the willingness to work hard. (Today, the most dedicated trainers at Manchester United are reputed to be Rooney and Ronaldo).

There are a lot of these drills, and I have to say that reading about them is probably a lot less fun than actually doing them. Perhaps the book was part of the reaction to those defeats in ’53 and ’54, a counterpart to the work e.g. Joe Mercer started among young people at that time?

The bulk of the book, and this might come as a surprise, is taken up by detailed tactical breakdowns of specific situations that might arise on the field. I mean “detailed”, too. Each position is analysed, even over-analysed, at least to a reader who has to make it to the final page at this one sitting. The “Revie Plan” is there – and criticised – and put into historical perspective: so are the Magyars, and the 5-man Manchester United attack that Munich would destroy. Then come dozens of different possible situations with less famous labels; you are assumed to be interested in them nevertheless.

This is, I have to say, the most detailed and comprehensive account of the way the game is played that I’ve come across so far. There are now, and have been in the past, hundreds of football skills guides, many of which will cover ten or twenty match situations in addition to teaching you how to control the ball or make a pass. Edwards’ book is on a wholly different level and on a different scale.

I’m trying to imagine who the intended audience might have been. Boys aged ten to fourteen, I’d expect – but they’d have to be exceptionally intelligent boys, with strong visual imaginations (there are no diagrams, and what few photographs there are are all of Duncan Edwards in action or looking huge and amiable in team groups. There’s one of him running behind Matthews and Finney in training where he looks like a Blue Peter presenter smilingly demonstrating to the country’s children how to mug the elderly).

I wonder if the book was originally intended to contain more pictures and diagrams than it eventually did? In the circumstances, any thought of the finished book being of use to young players would have been simply macabre to contemplate, and making it so useful a crime against taste and decency.

Which just adds to the sense of waste and tragedy. This little black book is the incomplete carcass of the best training manual the game would have seen up until then (and, so far as I am aware, since). The real book, one imagines, rewinding Munich out of history, would have been on the Christmas lists of hundreds of thousands of boys, and would have had an impact. What that impact would have been, Munich shrouds from us.

And it’s only a book, and it’s only a game, and I’m making too much of an ancient tragedy, and maybe too much of a pleasant, gifted young man who ran out of luck at the same time as his mates and colleagues.

It’s too small a book to make closing it any kind of ceremony, so I just pop it under “Herbert Chapman on Football” and walk back to the issue desk, which is forty feet wide and striplit, hand it to a man whose clothes look even more tired and less interested than their wearer, mutter “Hamilton” at him, and leave. No tap on the shoulder, not even a breath of presence. In the British Library, about suffering, how out of date, how out of the question they feel, the Old Masters..

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2 responses to ““Tackle Soccer This Way” by Duncan Edwards

  1. Not wholly on topic, but I don’t understand this bit:

    expensive imported woods and other top quality materials combining to make that unique ambience of Ikea and airport lounge that is the modern British Library

    Surely the defining feature of Ikea (and a feature of an airport lounge) is the cheapness of the materials? I’ve not, admittedly, been in the British Library reading rooms, and I can imagine they are of lesser quality, but the public rooms are about as far from Ikea as you can get, no?

  2. The old Reading Room looks nothing like Ikea, of course, but with regard to the new one, although it’s far better as a place of study (books arriving within the hour; controlled temperatures for conservation purposes; infinitely better staff conditions)when it comes to actual appearance and atmosphere I’m with the PoW.

    Most of the staff I’ve met have been superb – especially considering the sheer amount of nonsense from the public that most librarians have to endure.