The Beautiful Game.
Dudley Museum & Art Gallery

A Review by Patrick Talbot

The football season 2005-2006 was not a good one for the West Midlands, with Blues and Albion relegated from the Premier League, Villa just hanging on, Wolves falling away in The Championship and Walsall being relegated from Division 1. Although the exhibition The Beautiful Game at Dudley Museum & Art Gallery was intended as a celebration of West Midlands football generally, it could not have been better timed to remind us fans that in the past there have been many local successes! This exhibition is something of a morale booster, then.

Such has been the exhibition's impact, in fact, that it has been extended. Originally planned to run from 8th July to 9th September, it will now run until the middle of November.

The exhibition is a veritable collection of memorabilia covering the Black Country clubs Albion, Wolves and Walsall, as well as Brummie neighbours Aston Villa and Birmingham City. The information boards about each of them provide a springboard from which to view some quite specialist items. There are programmes, ticket stubs, photographs and autographs from these five sides. For instance, Wolves fans can enjoy viewing a postcard of the 1908 FA Cup winning side and photos of Billy Wright and the great 1950s side who were Football League champions on three occasions. Albion fans are reminded that they have indeed won the FA Cup with photographs of the 1888, 1931 and the 1968 winning teams. There is also Don Goodman's autographed Albion shirt against Chelsea from 1988-89.

The Sports Argus has, of course, just ceased production and fittingly there are examples of issues of the past reminding us of how much its immediacy of reporting and the record keeping of its headlines will be missed. Marking FA Cup successes, from 1949 there is: Cup Success No. 3 for Wolves ; from 1954: Albion's Cup and from 1957, marking a day when three West Midlands sides were in the FA Cup semi-finals: Villa-Albion replay. End of the road for Blues.

I was delighted also to see that the exhibition was prefaced at the door of the room by framed pictures that the Black Country Society had put together for the launch of White Shirt, Black Country, the record of Black Country-born English internationals. The exhibition actually marks the success of one of those internationals, Joe Smith, an Albion player from Netherton. He played two games for England in 1919 and 1922. One of his England caps and a heavy wool material shirt with the Three Lions badge are on display.

With so many and varied items of ephemera on show, the exhibition could have seemed to have lacked a real focus - but there is one. For, no football display in Dudley could be mounted without reference to Duncan Edwards, born in the town and so tragically killed in the Munich Air Crash of 1958. This brings us to the most comprehensive aspect of the exhibition. Duncan's collection of medals, awards, trophies and souvenirs are there. So are many of his England caps and opposition shirts swapped after the match. Together, they make a formidable collection. Indeed, it is the collection given originally to Dudley Borough by Duncan's mother and kept on display in the Leisure Centre but loaned to the Art Gallery for this exhibition. There has been some disappointment expressed at the Leisure Centre that it may be given a permanent home in the Art Gallery.

The spaciousness of the exhibition, however, has allowed the continuous showing of Pathe Newsreels of the 1950s contemporary with Duncan's career. There is Villa's defeat of Manchester United in the FA Cup Final of 1957, including Duncan's left-wing corner to Tommy Taylor for their consolation goal. There is an England win in Berlin against West Germany in 1956, and an Edwards goal where, in the words of the commentator, he "cuts through the defensive line like a knife through butter." There is also a report of the Munich Air Crash itself, at which time Duncan was injured in hospital.

The films and the displays serve as a reminder of the lost generation of The Busby Babes and indeed of the greatest of them all, Duncan Edwards. His legend endures because of his greatness as a footballer and perhaps because a player who had already achieved so much in his brief life had a lot more to give. He could have played in the World Cups of 1958, 1962 and 1966! The topicality of our recognition of him is illustrated in the exhibition by the 2002 award of Inaugural Inductee to the National Football Museum Hall of Fame and in a wooden miniature for the competition to create Duncan's recent statue in Dudley Market Place.

Wherever its location will be, the Duncan Edwards collection should surely form a specialist exhibition in itself. After all, it will be fifty years since the Munich Crash in 2008.

There is a lot to see at this free exhibition if you enjoy looking at football material. With so much evidence of the past successes of our teams, it serves to remind us of the strong football heritage of the West Midlands. In White Shirt, Black Country, I revealed that there had been as many as 54 England internationals born in the Black Country. Yet October 1993 marked the last occasion when a Black Countryman played for England (both Lee Sharpe and Carlton Palmer, in fact). How many more years will it be before the next one?!

Patrick Talbot is author of "White Shirt, Black Country" available from the Black Country Society, click here for details