“I used to call him Spartacus. I could hide behind him”

David Partridge is standing in front of a picture taken 70 years ago. He’s in his mid-80s now and his wife, Heather, says that that he’s shrunk a touch in recent years. But in 1949, dressed in a goalkeeper’s roll-neck, he stands proudly above the rest of the Worcester Boys side. He also stands above Duncan Edwards, who would become perhaps the greatest of the Busby Babes before his death at Munich, away to his left in the photograph on the wall.

On 6 February 2019, the Copthorne Hotel in Dudley opened its permanent tribute to Edwards. As the football world was pausing to pay its respects to those lost at Munich, in this small part of it – in a place twined with Edwards’s many myths – there’s a determination to celebrate life instead.

I meet Jim Cadman in a Wolverhampton hotel the week before. He’s the chairman of the Duncan Edwards Tribute, a self-funding arm of the Black Country Sporting Heritage Fund formed in 2017. There’s some unwitting symmetry, too, because Wolverhampton Wanderers retreat here before their home games. As we talk, Premier League footballers traipse past, lost in in their smart phones, Instagram accounts and thoughts of facing West Ham that evening.

Jim’s passionate. He speaks about Edwards with affecting enthusiasm. In the past, when we’ve spoken on the phone, our conversation has quickly drifted to the bedrock tales of his career. To the stories of Edwards returning to Dudley after an England youth international and joining in a kick-about in his blazer. Or to the two years he spent completing his National Service and how he balanced that obligation with his burgeoning Manchester United career.

To call Jim a curator would be wrong; it would be reductive. The tribute does fulfil an integral preservation function and many drawn to it are enraptured by the tales at its heart, but he doesn’t view Edwards as a benign figure or as someone whose relevance should just be allowed to dissipate. The scarce footage of him playing hasn’t aged particularly well, but, to Jim, Edwards is a valuable contemporary source of inspiration and someone whose life’s parable remains pertinent today.

I first visited Dudley in the winter of 2017. The Midlands sits high above sea level, and recent snow had clumped on the pavements. The roads from the station to the town swing up and around, climbing gently towards Dudley itself. It was a trek in the snow: up over the site of the old station, where Edwards departed for Manchester, underneath and beyond the castle, which stands guard on a hill, and then up sharply into the town.

The station is long gone, lost to the Beeching reforms of the 1960s, and so is the energy which once kept time with the beat of the industrial revolution. That’s nothing unique – high street decline is a nationwide epidemic – but the clear skies above Dudley betray what has been lost. It’s not a ghost town – a busy bus terminal serves Wolverhampton, Birmingham and West Bromwich – but its commercial pulse is very weak. In the 1980s, the Merry Hill Shopping Centre opened, dragging many major retailers down the road to Brierley Hill; the impact on Dudley is very clear.

But Edwards is still here and he remains one of the town’s defining features; his statue stands at the head of the town, greeting you when you arrive. It’s smaller than expected, but it’s packed with all the power that’s been ascribed to him over the decades. He stands in front of the local market, with his right foot cocked and left arm splayed, ready to thunder one last shot down into the valley below.

The cemetery is on the other side of town. Go up past that market, over the crest of the hill, and then down into the residential heartland. Eighteen months ago that was a treacherous route. The pavements still hadn’t been gritted and the snowfall had become harsher, driving rain. He was easy to find. His gravestone is tall and proud, its black marble is in perfect condition and it was decorated with sodden Manchester United scarves and a small, sagging football.

What a strange moment that was. People of my generation have no connection to Edwards – we’ve never seen him play, we don’t even know the sound of his voice – and yet standing in front of him is a moving experience. Some see a romance in dying young; well, it doesn’t seem that way. There, in that graveyard, Edwards is just a boy who died half a century too early. It’s also where his father, Gladstone, took a gardening job just to remain close to his son.

The Copthorne Hotel is a couple of miles beyond. In February, train delays leave me on a tight schedule, so I bundle into a local minicab and head across town. My driver doesn’t speak much English, but he knows enough statistics to paint a gloomy picture: unemployment is a couple of percentage points above the national and regional average, wages are below both. He’s not much of a football fan, he admits, but he does know Edwards. He slows by the graveyard as we pass, giving me the abridged history and telling me how many people he’s dropped here over the years.

The hotel is slick, welcoming and modern and it’s a stone’s throw from the Merry Hill Shopping Centre. The installation and opening of this new permanent room is part of a wider project, one which lies at the heart of Jim Cadman’s work. Over the years, the memorabilia from Edwards’s career have migrated to Manchester, leaving Dudley with very little and loosening the town’s grip on its favourite son.

Jim’s work isn’t preservation for its own sake, rather his aim is to reclaim part of the Edwards legacy and ensure that it remains alive and in its natural home. Those, after all, were the wishes of Sarah Edwards. Jim developed a relationship with Edwards’ mother in 2001, while working on The Full Report, a book chronicling her son’s playing history with Manchester United, England and the army.

“Sarah was very keen for his memory to be kept alive in the Black Country. At that time, all of his memorabilia was in a swimming bath in Dudley. All of it: shirts, medals caps. I was worried about the chlorine, because he had everything to do with his career in there. I did try to buy some of it, but she wasn’t keen.

“‘It can’t move out of Dudley, Jim,’ she used to say.”

Sarah died in 2003 at the age of 93. After her passing, the memorabilia found a home in the Dudley Museum and Art Gallery. In 2017, however, after the museum’s closure, it was sold to Manchester United, with the club agreeing to loan items back for display in the Dudley Archives and Local History Centre.

The economics of the situation were inflexible. The collection would likely have been worth many hundreds of thousands of pounds, and Dudley Council simply could not afford to keep it. Jim recognised Edwards’ immeasurable worth to Manchester United, but worried that with just static reminders left in the Black Country, his memory would fade and elude future generations. “There’s a statue in the town centre and a stained-glass window, but those are immobile objects. The only way to re-inflate the legacy of Duncan Edwards is to have something living, in a place where people talk to each other.”

He’s right; there is a certain tone to those landmarks. The statue is well-placed and the sun shines at its back in the middle of the afternoon, but – like any civic installation – over time it fades into the landscape. It becomes a meeting point or part of a set of directions, rather than something of deeper value. The stained-glass window suffers in the same way. It’s lovely within its context, but looking at it fixes the mind on the tragedy – on the snow on the runway and the mangled Elizabethan.

The Duncan Edwards Tribute envisages something different and this latest event and the opening of the new room at the Copthorne is part of that. In 2018, a 60th anniversary dinner at the hotel was a great success, so much so that the Tribute was urged to turn it into an annual event. They went one better and, with the co-operation of Stuart Fleming, the hotel’s manager, agreed to create a permanent installation. It’s a tribute room, but it’s functional: local businesses can hold their events here, it’s available to hire for meetings and formal gatherings.

The intention wasn’t to produce another memorial or another sombre place in which people could pay their respects. Instead, it was to tell the story of Edwards’s life, frame by frame. From his childhood, to his rise as a schoolboy international and, of course, those precious few Manchester United years which sustain his legend. He’s there with his school teams, with England and then in his army fatigues, and also painted with Harry Gregg and Bobby Charlton. It’s an elegant room, but one which comes with a message about how much Edwards accomplished in his short life and how sharp his trajectory was.

It’s officially opened by the Mayor Of Dudley, Cllr Alan Taylor, but before the ceremony begins, Jim leads some of the elderly guests around. They’re former teammates and friends, among them Edwards’s oldest living relative, his cousin Betty Cooksey.

It’s a moving scene. These are not famous men and women, nor people who even played football professionally, but instead a loose community of those who lined up alongside him as teenagers or knew Edwards when he was just another boy in Dudley. For people like me, who can only trace his outline from anecdotes and books, watching them look into his eyes again is as close to Munich’s human cost as it’s possible to get. To me, he’s a concept – an ideal, really. To them he was a person. Duncan from Dudley. Chunky Edwards from the Priory Estate. It’s different.

That’s true, says Heather, speaking after the ribbon has been cut. Her husband, David, is a bundle of energy. Even in his eighties he looks ready to fist away a couple of corners. He’s also full of stories. Sixty years later, he also hasn’t quite forgiven football for rejecting him. He was briefly a reserve player for Aston Villa and although Danny Blanchflower admired his goalkeeping, that faith wasn’t shared further up the club. He did once break Ron Atkinson’s toe, though.

“It still upsets him,” said Heather, and she’s not talking about Villa or Atkinson.

Billy Hunt played alongside Edwards art County level in 1952-53 and he did go on to play for Villa. He’s in a wheelchair now and speaks in a gentle whisper, but like everyone else he talks of Edwards with a slightly distant reverence. He tells a story about changing with Edwards before a county game: “We were all getting changed – except for Duncan. I asked him where his kit was. Then this chap came in, opened a case and laid out Duncan’s kit. His boots were polished while mine still had the mud on from the previous match.

“It turned out the chap was from Manchester United.”

Billy’s health isn’t great and he’s likely told that story quite a few times, but his eyes still shine a little when he does.

Talking with these people is a rare opportunity; a real privilege. Descriptions of Edwards are often so abstract and draw so heavily on arcane language and hyperbole, that to hear those anecdotes repeated in blunt English and sometimes by their actual source is remarkable. But, then, this is one of the Tribute’s great successes and the culmination of a lot of hard work.

By early 2018, enough press clippings, photographs, match programmes and artefacts had been gathered to warrant a new three-month exhibit back in the Dudley Archives. It was very well-received and, more importantly, helped to breed something organic. Jim tells stories of children recognising their grandfathers in photographs, of letters and memorabilia being dug out of attics and boxes and, most importantly, of new conversations beginning. Remarkably, 61 years after his death, the community around Duncan Edwards is thriving.

Later last year, Jim again worked with Iain McCartney, this time to publish Black Country Boy to Red Devil, an anthology of Edwards’s journey from childhood to the professional gameIt’s an engaging and deep piece of work, visually rich and full of the pictures and detail which so much time and effort has gone into procuring.

The Tribute team have also created an educational heritage pack, which includes a gorgeously drawn storyboard of his life. It’s Billy’s Boots-style and begins with the young Duncan at his father’s knee, listening to stories of Wembley and deciding then, somehow, that he would one day play there. It’s simple, intended for children and it’s easy to imagine the effect on pliable minds.

The intention isn’t to preach hard work in school or even good manners, the kind of lessons which turn children’s expressions blank, but to capture their imagination and show that the kind of journey Edwards made is possible. It’s basic and effective and, while not really for an outsider to say, the re-imagination of a character like that – someone who occupies this unreachable part of football’s consciousness – has an obvious worth. Particularly as it’s a true story, borrowed from an essay Edwards wrote while at school.

For him, Wembley was the shimmer of light which pierced the Black Country’s dark skies. That’s a little on the nose perhaps, but then his was a career which grew from the humblest beginnings – from outdoor toilets and tin baths. Those were staples of working class life, of course, and the stories of many, many other footballers begin in exactly the same way. No matter: in Dudley its resonance seems particularly vital.

There, Duncan Edwards is special. He is in the rest of the country, too, of course, because his handsome face and career’s ellipsis have always preserved his memory, but in Dudley he exists in more tangible form, in which those striding runs and raking passes matter less than the path he took.