The obvious thing to do is to leap straight into the football career, as though that in itself should be enough to justify a lifetime. And in the case of Justin Edinburgh, who died yesterday at the tragically young age of forty-nine, it was a certainly a career well-lived. We lose people from professional football all the time, of course. Ghosts from our childhoods, preserved in sepia in our memories from a world that we will never see again. Thankfully, though, when we lose a majority of players, it comes at a point when we can celebrate their lives and pay one final thank you for what they gave us. It’s sad to have to say a final goodbye to anyone, but at least their passing can be marked with a degree of observation that the particular player concerned reached the end of their life story.
Justin Edinburgh was forty-nine years old. The news of a death at this age comes like a punch to the stomach. It seizes the air from our lungs and forces our mouth open, agape that something so unthinkable has happened in the first place. The news that Edinburgh had been taken ill came earlier in the week, but this hasn’t diminished the news of his death at all. We may assume that, if we don’t hear anything for a few days, the process of recovery should already be under way. We may also assume that, in the case of a professional footballer, the fitness levels should aid and assist with this recovery. Sometimes, though, nature finds a way to confound both our expectations and our hopes. That this should feel like such a body blow to so many is certainly no surprise at all.
It’s only been a matter of weeks since Leyton Orient were celebrating a return to the Football League engineered by Justin Edinburgh after an absence of two years. It’s difficult to put into words what it feels like, for a Football League club to drop into the National League. Automatic promotion and relegation have muddied the line between “League” and “non-league” football, but the British sure do love the class system, and the existential fear that blows through a Football League club should it be relegated from League Two is real. This was especially true of Leyton Orient, whose drop from coming within a penalty shootout of promotion to the Championship in 2014 to relegation from the Football League in 2017 was so precipitous that it felt at that time as though it might never be steadied.
Edinburgh arrived at Brisbane Road in November 2017, and it says a lot for the condition of the club at that time that finishing the season in thirteenth place in the table felt like an achievement at that time. Last season, the club found itself as underdogs in a race for the National League title with the moneyed Salford City, but Edinburgh managed to steady his ship and, as Salford started to feel the heat throughout the final weeks of the season, end it as champions. The National League is littered with former Football League clubs who have found non-league football to be considerably easier to tumble into than it is to clamber back up from. Winning this particular league is an achievement for any manager to be proud of. Doing so with the cloying breath of a financially doped club on the back your neck is something else altogether.
The sadness at his passing passes beyond Brisbane Road too, though. Edinburgh’s playng career took in Southend United, Tottenham Hotspur, Portsmouth and Billericay Town, where he cut his managerial teeth before going on to become something of a lower division and non-league stalwart, spending time with Fisher Athletic, Grays Athletic, Rushden & Diamonds, Newport County, Gillingham and Northampton Town before ending up at Orient. It is his spell with Spurs, however, for which he is best remembered. Edinburgh made more than two hundred appearances for the club over a period that lasted a decade, including an overblown sending off in the 1999 League Cup final against Leicester City, which Spurs won even without him on the pitch.
All of these memories mean something to people, whether they relate to events from a few weeks ago or twenty years ago. Footballers touch people’s lives in ways that other forms of celebrity can’t. But Justin Edinburgh was a father, a husband, a family member, a colleague, and a friend. His passing is a human tragedy because he hadn’t yet reached the end of what we assume will be the story of anybody’s life. As football supporters who benefitted from his skills, we have all lost something this weekend, and the supporters of Leyton Orient have lost something far greater. But our hearts should be going out to his family on this saddest of days. They will not see his like again. We can only hope that they can take comfort from a career that gave so many happy memories to so many.