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A Great Goalkeeper, An Even Better Man and A Reluctant Hero

Memories of Harry Gregg who died last week aged 87

Soccer - FA Cup - Manchester United v Fulham - Villa Park
A colossus. Harry Gregg pushes a shot wide in the 1958 FA Cup semi-final against Fulham at Villa park. The game ended 2-2.
Photo by PA Images via Getty Images

“I’m Henry Gregg, 34 Windsor Avenue, who played football. Who was useful at it on good days and rubbish at it on bad days.

“That’s what I want to be remembered for – not something that happened on the spur of the moment.”

To say Harry Gregg was a reluctant hero is to massively understate fact. No summary of the life of this Manchester United and Northern Ireland goalkeeping great is complete without reference to the hugely significant part he played on that snow-filled Munich runway 62 years ago, but the way Harry himself preferred to be remembered was for his deeds on a football pitch.

At the 1958 World Cup he was voted top goalkeeper. A selected few of those before and since to earn the accolade roll off the tongue. Banks, Buffon, Casillas, Grocsis, Goycochea, Kahn, Maier, and Zoff. Harry was in some company... and so were they!

Harry in action for Northern Ireland against West Germany at the 1958 World Cup in Sweden. The smallest country to qualify, the Irish drew 2-2 with the World Champions and progressed to the quarter-finals, Gregg’s performance prompting Uwe Seeler to liken him to a ‘springing panther’.

When he moved from Doncaster Rovers to Manchester United in December 1957, the fee, 23,500 pounds was a world record for a goalkeeper.

He relayed the story of his transfer. “I was asked to go to a certain place. There would be a car there with a dark blanket on the back seat. I had to get into the car and cover myself with the blanket, which was only removed when I arrived at another house..

“I wondered what the heck? What was I getting myself involved in? When the blanket was removed I was sat facing Matt Busby. He introduced himself and asked me, ‘Do you want to play for Manchester United?’

“Before he could half-finish his sentence, I’d already said, ‘Yes!’

“But then he said, ‘Wow, son, before we go on... there is no signing-on fee. Manchester United do not pay signing-on fees.’

“‘Yes!’ I said. Where do I sign?”

Humble
Gregg remained humble, a down-to-earth no-nonsense straight-talker, typical of his Northern Irish working class roots, throughout his life. This writer never had the pleasure, but on more than one occasion admired the man’s stature from close-ish proximity.

You see, formative years for those of my era in Northern Ireland brought heroic tales of ‘58, when the country reached the World Cup quarter-finals, despite taking a squad of only 17 players to Sweden, and of tragedy, when all the adults seemed to know exactly where they were when they heard the news of the BEA plane carrying the Manchester United team had crashed.

It was my grandmother on my father’s side who first mentioned the name Harry Gregg to me. Not a football fan, her team was Norwich City, because, “... they were always good for a draw on the football pools.”

She’d tell me about this great man who was in the air crash, how he was from Northern Ireland and how he rescued others from the wreckage, including the pregnant wife of the Yugoslav attache to Britain and her baby daughter.

Gregg had long stopped playing before my initiation, but during those Sunday’s watching The Big Match in my grandmother’s, my appreciation and admiration for a colossus of a man grew through her repetitive references and my inquisitive nature.

Harry would probably have had a go at me for writing about him without ever having interviewed or chatted directly, as he might with people who wrote books about the Munich tragedy without being there or speaking with survivors. He didn’t really like that, nor did he suffer fools gladly.

Albert Scanlon, another Munich survivor once described Gregg as ‘mad’. The late Bill Foulkes, former centre-back and team-mate once talked about his bravery, how he would go through a brick wall, about opponents being intimidated by the forceful custodian, adding that it wasn’t only opponents... during a game, we were frightened to death of him too.

Harry pictured with his dog at Downhill Strand, Castlerock near his Coleraine home in 2008.

Off the pitch he had a deeply sensitive side, caring deeply about Manchester United as he did about Northern Ireland, particularly young Irish players who’d been given opportunities at the Manchester club. Harry would always be on the prowl asking if they were being looked after properly, that they felt content and happy enough despite being away from home.

George cleaned Harry’s boots...
Such was his stature as a goalkeeper and national icon, a sixteen-year-old George Best couldn’t wait to tell his dad at home in Belfast, he’d cleaned Harry Gregg’s boots.

Harry after all had won his second Irish cap at Wembley in 1957 producing a Man of the Match performance to defy the might of England, Northern Ireland holding on to win at Wembley for the first time ever.

A Wembley victor with little Northern Ireland in 1957, Harry was winning only his second international cap and departed the famous old venue with Man of the Match honours.

Although he payed 247 times for United over nine seasons, winners medals were to elude Gregg, his bravery often resulting in injury, and only twice did he play more than 30 league games in a season at Old Trafford. He was injured in 1963 when United defeated Leicester City in that year’s FA Cup Final, didn’t play at all in 1964/65 when United won their sixth title, and left for Stoke City early in 66/67 when they collected their seventh.

Munich
Gregg never wanted events at Munich to define his life or career.

Three days after the crash, Harry, Bill Foulkes and Busby’s trusted assistant, Jimmy Murphy travelled by train and boat back to Manchester. Within ten more days he and Foulkes were the only two players involved in the crash (the rest were either dead or injured) to play in United’s first match after the disaster, an FA Cup fifth round tie against Sheffield Wednesday. United won 3–0 and went on to reach the final, which they lost 2–0 to Bolton Wanderers. The second goal in the final was scored in controversial fashion as Nat Lofthouse barged Gregg, and the ball with him, into the goal.

He was reluctant to talk of the Munich tragedy, although at different times through the years Harry did indeed open up.

In one documentary interview he described how he felt in the immediate aftermath.

“There was a sudden crash and debris began bombarding me on all sides,” said Gregg.

”One second it was light, the next dark. There were no screams, no human sounds, only the terrible tearing of metal. Sparks burst all around.”

Gregg escaped from the burning wreckage but went back in despite the pilot, Captain Jim Thain shouting, “Run! You stupid bastard. It’s going to explode!”

Harry Gregg meeting the Lukic family he rescued, for the 2008 documentary Re-United. Vesna (left) the baby he carried from the burning wreckage of the plane, Vesna’s mother Vera (second right) and her son Voran (right), with whom she was pregnant in the aeroplane. Vera’s husband passed away only two month’s prior to this meeting, he and Gregg going through life without ever meeting.

As well as Mrs Lukic, the Yugoslav attache’s wife and her baby daughter, Gregg pulled Bobby Charlton (now the only remaining survivor of the team), Denis Viollet and the boss, Matt Busby from the wreckage and tended to international team-mate Jackie Blanchflower. It’s entirely credible to assume had 25-year-old Harry not been there, the death toll, 23 from a manifest of 44 would have been higher.

“I don’t live with it all the time. I swear I don’t live with it. When this crops up every so often, then I live with it.

“I’d be telling lies if I said I thought about it every day. If I did, I’d go insane.

“When it happened football saved my sanity. Getting back to football was the thing that saved me.”

BBC Documentary
He questioned himself in 2008, as he did throughout most of his life, when he went back to the scene of the crash, part of making a highly viewable BBC documentary, Re-United. He met people who arrived at the scene of the crash 50 years before, hospital staff that tended the injured, and asked himself, “Could I have done more?”

The trip was one that he wanted to make, but never wanted to admit it. It was an exorcising of sorts. Afterwards, he was glad and relieved he’d done it.

In later years after becoming an established world star, George Best himself added some more insight into the man when he commented, “What Harry Gregg did at Munich was less to do with bravery, it was more to do with goodness.”

Privilege
I’m not always ‘home’ in Northern Ireland, and consider it a privilege to have been in Coleraine, County Londonderry last week to pay my respects and witness Harry Gregg take his final journey.

Stood alongside hundreds more outside St Patrick’s Church of Ireland in fine drizzle, we watched as Manchester United luminaries alighted from black limousines, funnelling past the crowds and into the church. Sir Alex Ferguson, Sir Bobby Charlton and the former King of the Stretford End, Denis Law, another whom Gregg shared a dressing-room with, were all present.

All present at last Friday’s funeral in Coleraine, Northern Ireland, Sir Bobby Charlton, Denis Law and Sir Alex Ferguson.

Prayers were said, eulogies, one serious and detailed, another light-hearted, were delivered. Poems followed, one written by Gregg himself, the other by Pablo Doherty, nephew of the great Peter Doherty who signed Harry for Doncaster Rovers and gave him his first Northern Ireland international cap.

Harry’s son John thanked all the mourners and had the presence of mind to mention his father was being laid to rest on the 62nd anniversary of the day Duncan Edwards finally gave up his fight for life in Munich’s Rechts der Isar Hospital. A fitting acknowledgement as members of Edwards’ family were present in the church.

And then... it was time to go.

As one of the eulogists, BBC’s Steven Watson said, “We may never see your like again.”

The one hour service had been a fitting tribute to a truly remarkable life.

Respects were also paid at Old Trafford this afternoon (Sunday), before United’s Premier League match against Watford which was preceded by a minute’s silence, all the players wearing black armbands. A surfer banner featuring an image of Harry was also unfurled.

After finishing with football which included several under-whelming years as a manager in England’s lower divisions, Gregg owned a hotel in Portstewart, near his hometown of Coleraine to where he returned in retirement. He was appointed MBE in 1995 and OBE last year.

Harry Gregg’s first wife, Mavis (nee Markham), whom he had met while he was playing for Doncaster, died of cancer three years after Munich. He is survived by his second wife, Carolyn (nee Maunders), whom he married in 1965, and by five children, Linda (from his first marriage), Julie, Jane, Suzanne and John-Henry (from his second). Another daughter, Karen, predeceased him.

Harry (Henry) Gregg, footballer, born Tobermore, County Londonderry, 27 October 1932; died Coleraine, County Londonderry, 16 February 2020