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Clayton, Edwards and Man United's historical English Midlands links

Manchester United play in West Bromwich on Monday, the town which is part of an area of the English Midlands known as the "Black Country," which produced Duncan Edwards, one of the club's greatest ever players.

Had the game not been on a weekday evening when motorway traffic will be heavy, more United fans would stop off in nearby Dudley, to pay their respects at his statue in the town centre, his grave in the cemetery or the two stained-glass windows commemorating Edwards in St. Francis' Church.

Edwards' life was tragically cut short in a Munich hospital 15 days after the 1958 air disaster which claimed the lives of eight Manchester United players in total.

His former teammate Bobby Charlton still says Edwards was the best footballer he ever saw. He was given a United shirt at 16, two years younger than Charlton. He was ready.

"Such overpowering self-confidence, no doubt, was the aspect of Duncan's play in which [assistant manager] Jimmy [Murphy] gloried the most," recalled Charlton in his autobiography.

"As he proved when he came to face the cream of European football in Real Madrid, he was simply beyond intimidation. Victory was not a challenge but a right. There was no point holding him back. Duncan was already a finished article."

Duncan Edwards had played 177 times for Manchester United by the time of his death at age 21.

If you leave Dudley and pass through Tipton, birthplace of legendary Wolves striker Steve Bull, you reach Wednesbury, a market town. West Brom fans have a terrace chant about a supporter called "Johnny T from Wednesbury," who's got "a stall on the market."

Gordon Clayton was born in Wednesbury. A goalkeeper, he was Edwards' best friend as they moved through the football world, playing together at Birmingham Boys and England Schoolboys, before joining Manchester United.

In contrast to Edwards, Clayton is hardly remembered; indeed, one United book refers to him as two people -- "Gordon" and "Clayton." His personality was big enough for two but there was definitely only one.

It's surprising that two talented young Midlands footballers did sign for United when they had so many great clubs on their doorstep. The pair even trained on a Tuesday and Thursday night at Wolves.

The club was known as the best team in the world for a time in the 1950s, an unofficial honour bestowed after a series of famous floodlit victories over great sides from Honved, Moscow Spartak and Real Madrid et al.

Born within a month of each other in 1936, Edwards and Clayton were Wolves fans and stood on the huge South Bank Terrace at the club's Molineux ground.

As Edwards' mother Annie said: "All the clubs were after Duncan as a schoolboy and we would have loved him to play for the Wolves, or the [West Bromwich] Albion, or the [Aston] Villa. But he said that Manchester United were the greatest club in the country and nothing would stop him from going to Old Trafford."

The pair were sold on the idea of playing for United by the club's Midlands scout Reg Priest, plus chief scout Joe Armstrong. United had impressed their young minds before Wolves and invited them to Old Trafford. It worked.

On a Monday, June 9, 1952, with the pair still only 15 years old, Edwards and Clayton moved to Manchester. Edwards boarded a train at Dudley and saved a seat for Clayton, who boarded at Stafford as he lived in nearby Cannock. It wasn't necessary, for the train was empty, but Edwards still saved the seat and waved out of the window as the train approached the station.

Bert Whalley, a United coach, met them at Manchester's London Road Station and, on the Wednesday the pair started work: Edwards as an apprentice carpenter in Trafford Park, Clayton at a factory in Altrincham. All they wanted to do was play football, but apprentices needed a job.

They lived in a house full of young footballers at Mrs. Watson's near Old Trafford, where the players slept two to a bed. Clayton and Edwards were among the first to introduce themselves to Charlton.

"We stuck together," Clayton told Eamon Dunphy in "A Strange Kind of Glory." "Duncan was a little bit introverted when he came to Manchester. He wouldn't go to the bank on his own, for example. He hated filling in forms and stuff. He never really enjoyed a big group. He wasn't one for 'the birds' ... he was very shy with girls."

That being said, when Clayton and Edwards went to a nearby ice rink one night, the latter met a girl called Molly. "She was his first love," recalled Clayton. "He was a strong character and as soon as he set eyes on her you knew that was it. She was a bit upmarket for us, not what you'd call a footballer's girl."

Clayton and Edwards played in the Manchester United team that won the inaugural Youth Cup final in 1953 -- beating Wolves 7-1 at Old Trafford and drawing 2-2 away. By that time, Edwards, David Pegg and Eddie Lewis had already played for the first team. Teammates Eddie Colman, Billy Whelan, Albert Scanlon and Ronnie Cope would all go on to make it.

The youth team were strengthened by Charlton and Wilf McGuinness the following season when, again, Midlands clubs would provide the main rivals.

United beat West Brom 7-1 over two legs in the semifinal before, once more, facing Wolves in the final. The first leg finished 4-4 and a crowd of 28,651 saw United win the second 1-0 at Molineux. United would win the cup again in 1955 -- beating West Brom -- as well as 1956 and 1957.

While Edwards became a star, Clayton played just twice for United's first team. He made his debut against Wolves (again, how bizarre) in March 1957 and played his second and final game against, you've guessed it, West Brom, a month later.

The players who excelled at youth-team level had become known as the "Busby Babes" -- although their manager, Sir Matt Busby, hated that term -- and made their bow in the European Cup after becoming champions of England.

Clayton was still at the club in February 1958 but injury meant he didn't fly to Belgrade for the second leg of a quarterfinal game. The arthritis that would ultimately end his career had been diagnosed.

Clayton heard the news of the air crash and rushed to the nearby home of Mark Jones, whose pregnant wife wasn't in. He then went to Jackie Blanchflower's house and sat with his wife, Jean, answering the phone and the door as the news from Munich filtered through. They knew Jackie was alive but had no idea of his condition. He survived, but his career was cut short by the injuries sustained.

A memorial at Old Trafford, which bears the names of the 11 Manchester United players and officials who died at Munich.

Clayton would represent United at the funerals of the players, eight of his closest friends including Edwards, his best mate, who was buried in Dudley. Over 50,000 people came out to salute his funeral cortege, and Clayton was a pallbearer.

"Gordon Clayton and I went to the funerals," recalled McGuinness. "The survivors were kept away, which was understandable. There were no counsellors in those days for parents and relatives. They just had to battle through."

In 1959, Clayton signed for Tranmere Rovers for a fee of 4,000 pounds. Later, as a close friend of McGuinness, who succeeded Busby as United's manager, he was enlisted as a United scout.

I knew Gordon Clayton. He was my father's manager at the now-defunct Urmston Town in the early 1980s. We knew him as a former United player -- so he may as well have been the legendary Busby to my brother and I, aged 11 and 8.

Clayton was great with us. He asked us to sell programmes, collect the turnstile money and let us sit on the bench during a derby cup tie at Irlam. He stopped the team coach to Colwyn Bay to buy us sweets and, once, on the bus to Bacup Borough he got me to stand up and tell the players what I'd learned about volcanoes in school that week.

"You'll know more than these lot," he laughed.

Because of his United connections, he fixed it for Urmston to train at the Cliff training ground, which meant we got to go in the same dressing rooms that the United players used. My father would "liberate" the odd tube of Deep Heat, a muscle lotion beyond his usual expense.

"Gordon was a wonderful talker who got the team buzzing before we went to play," recalls my father. "He was a large man -- he'd been a goalkeeper -- and would tell us stories about his time with United, about Duncan Edwards. We listened to his every word.

"He once pulled me to one side and said 'You haven't scored for a bit, I'm going to rest you next week,'" Dad continued.

"I told him that I was a centre-half and only playing centre-forward because he'd asked me. I scored that day and stayed in the team."

Gordon Clayton died of a heart attack, aged 54, in 1991. Both he and Duncan Edwards couldn't have foreseen how the journey, which they began from the Midlands on that empty train, would end.

Andy Mitten is a freelance writer and the founder and editor of United We Stand. Follow him on Twitter: @AndyMitten.

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