The following article is reproduced with the kind permission of John White, Branch Secretary of the Carryduff Manchester United Supporters Club. You can visit their Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/carryduffmusc
Manchester United fans all over the world are mourning the passing of a Manchester United legend, Harry Gregg.
I had the pleasure of meeting Harry on many occasions and I recall visiting his home one evening in late 2011, when I asked him if I could have his permission to write to Manchester United and ask the club to send over a team to play a Northern Ireland XI in a game to celebrate his long overdue Testimonial. I was unaware that Harry had not been given a Testimonial by Manchester United, despite having spent ten seasons at Old Trafford, until his son, John, told me at the 20th Anniversary Dinner for Carryduff Manchester United Supporters Club in the Europa Hotel, Belfast on 22 March 2011. I then wrote to Sir Alex Ferguson and he instantly agreed to send a team over to Belfast in honour of Harry at the end of the 2011-12 season. Windsor Park was full to the rafters on 15 May 2012 when Sir Alex kept his promise and brought his United side over to Belfast to pay tribute to Harry’s Manchester United career.
Henry “Harry” Gregg was born on 25 October 1932 in Magherafelt, County Londonderry, Northern Ireland. He played for Linfield Rangers, Linfield Swifts (also known as Windsor Park Swifts) and Irish League side Coleraine before he accepted an offer to sign for Second Division Doncaster Rovers just before his 20th birthday.
He was delighted to sign for a club whose player-manager was a Northern Ireland legend, Peter Doherty. Coleraine received £2,000 for releasing him. Gregg played a total of 92 Division Two games for Rovers before Manchester United approached his club to sign him up. While Gregg was at Doncaster, Doherty was also in charge of Northern Ireland and awarded him his first international cap in a 2-1 away win over Wales in Wrexham on 21 March 1954 in a World Cup qualifying game.
United’s offer of £22,000 was instantly dismissed, so Matt Busby and Jimmy Murphy drove to Doncaster to ask Gregg in person to join United. By then, he had gone on to win nine caps for Northern Ireland and was changing the way goalkeepers operated, as he was one of the first to venture out of his box to shout encouragement to his team-mates in front of him. At the time, most goalkeepers rarely left the goal line, but the innovative Gregg liked to bark orders to his defenders if he saw one or two of them out of position.
The Old Trafford pair duly turned up at Doherty’s home just six days before Christmas to meet Gregg and discuss the terms of the transfer with Doherty and his player. Gregg liked what he heard and without a moment’s hesitation the big Irishman agreed to move to United. A fee of £23,500 was agreed, the second time the club had broken the world record fee for a goalkeeper. Gregg received a paltry £30 from the transfer fee, but as he said himself he would have gone to United for nothing. However, Busby had the utmost faith that the young Irish international goalkeeper would be worth every penny, and Gregg did not let him down.
Two days after signing Gregg, Busby gave him his debut and he put in a commanding, almost flawless, performance as United ran out 4-0 victors over Leicester City at Old Trafford in Division One on 21 December 1957. His attitude to training and dedication to the task in hand were exactly what Busby was looking for and he retained his place in the team, playing in 18 of United’s remaining 20 league games that season, which saw them finish ninth in the table.
By the time of Munich, United had not lost one of the ten games since Gregg’s arrival, and everyone was in buoyant mood having qualified for the semi-finals of the European Cup the previous evening. Gregg, who had been reading The Whip by Roger MacDonald, put the book down and gazed out the window as the third attempt to take off got underway. The plane crashed into a building at the end of the runway and burst into flames. Amid the wreckage and pandemonium, he clambered out of a hole in the fuselage, repeatedly returned to the burning aircraft to rescue the survivors, despite the danger that the plane might explode at any stage.
In an interview with The Times sometime after the disaster Gregg said he could still remember how dark and silent it was after the plane crashed: ‘I thought I was dead until I felt the blood running down my face. I didn’t want to feel my head because I thought the top had been taken off like a hard-boiled egg. I was so confused. It was total darkness yet it was only three in the afternoon – it was hard to reconcile. The first dead person I saw, did not have a mark on him. It was Bert Whalley, the chief coach, who’d been taken with us as a bonus for developing all those great young players. At first I thought I was the only one left alive. In the distance I noticed five people running away, they shouted at me to run. At that moment, the aircraft captain came around from what had been the nose of the aircraft carrying a little fire extinguisher. When he saw me he shouted in his best pucka English accent: “Run, you stupid bastard, it’s going to explode.”’
Then Gregg heard a baby crying: ‘The crying seemed to bring me back to reality and I shouted at the people running away to come back. But they were still shouting at me to run. I could hear the child crying and felt angry they were running away, so I shouted again, “Come back, you bastards, there’s people alive in here.” For me to shout that was difficult because, at that time, I was a God-fearing man and wouldn’t normally have cursed. But the people just kept running away.’
So he climbed back into the burning aircraft and found the baby: ‘She was beneath a pile of debris and, remarkably, she only had a cut over her eye. I scrabbled back to the hole with her and got her out.’
After Gregg handed the baby to someone close by, he returned to the smouldering wreck and pulled the baby’s mother, Vera Lukić, out of a hole in the fuselage. He then made a third trip back to the plane, ignoring cries for him not to given the likelihood that a further explosion could occur at any time. ‘I began to search for Jackie Blanchflower and I shouted out his name. Blanchy and I had been friends since we played together for Ireland Schoolboys as fourteen-year-olds and I was desperate to find him.’
But in his frantic search for Blanchflower, he soon came across Bobby Charlton and Dennis Viollet, both of whom were unconscious. Gregg dragged his two team-mates out of the plane and laid them on the snow a short distance from the plane before resuming his search for Blanchflower and, much to his utter relief and joy, he finally found him. ‘When I found Blanchy, the lower part of his right arm had been almost completely severed. It was horrendous, a scene of utter devastation.’
Quite amazingly, Gregg overcame the shock and horror of what he had seen and played in United’s next match, on 19 February, a fifth-round FA Cup tie against Sheffield Wednesday at Old Trafford. Famously, the section in the match programme where you would normally see the United team was left completely blank, while Jimmy Murphy had the task of trying to find 11 players to wear the famous red shirt of United. He had missed the trip to Belgrade as he was in Cardiff at the time, coaching the Welsh national team for an important 1958 World Cup play-off game against Israel.
Gregg told Murphy he wanted to play, as did fellow Munich survivor Bill Foulkes, and on a solemn night under floodlights at Old Trafford a young and inexperienced Manchester United side beat their opponents 3-0. Gregg wasn’t the only player with Irish connections in the United side, for the game marked the debut of Seamus Anthony ‘Shay’ Brennan. The Sheffield Wednesday players had no chance of winning the game, such was the emotion of the occasion. In the lead-up to the tie, football fans everywhere, regardless of their club affiliation, were so overcome with grief at the terrible loss of so many innocent lives in Munich that it seemed like everyone, including fans from the Steel City, was willing United on to win.
Players from both sides, as well as many fans at Old Trafford that night, wore black armbands in memory of those who had died.
For Gregg, the routine of playing football was vital at this time, so he was fortunate that the season did not end there. That summer he played in four of Northern Ireland’s six games at the 1958 World Cup finals in Sweden, where he was voted the tournament’s best goalkeeper. After drawing 2-2 with West Germany in Malmo on 15 June, Gregg played so magnificently in the game that the Germans, who needed a late equaliser from Uwe Seeler to save the game, lined up and applauded him and his team-mates off the pitch.
However, Gregg twisted an ankle against the Germans and after the game it blew up like a balloon, swelling to three times its normal size. He bathed it for a few hours in the cold sea water near the team’s hotel, but it was of no use and he hobbled to the next game, against the Czechs, aided by a stick. When the All-Star team from the tournament was voted on by the journalists covering the finals, Gregg received 478 votes, almost four times more than his closest competitor, the great Russian goalkeeper Lev Yashin, who received only 122 votes. His last appearance in the green of Northern Ireland was on 20 November 1963 at Wembley Stadium. Unfortunately, for him it was an embarrassing 8-3 defeat at the hands of England.
Gregg was a no-nonsense goalkeeper who could more than handle himself in a crowded penalty area at a time when referees offered them very little protection. He used his 6ft frame and weight of 12st 8lb to barge defenders out of his way. Put simply, he was not a man to mess about with, and this was proven when Blackburn Rovers visited Old Trafford on 6 November 1965. The Rovers players tried to bully Gregg at every corner and each time a ball was floated high into the United goalmouth. But he was having none of it and, to the amazement of most of his team-mates further up the pitch who were totally unaware of what had happened behind them, the referee sent Gregg off for allegedly kicking Rovers defender Mike England.
Gregg played in the first seven league games of 1966-67, but made his 247th and last appearance for United on 7 September 1966, against Stoke City at home. While at United, he kept 48 clean sheets. Busby had just paid Chelsea £55,000 for goalkeeper Alex Stepney, who was immediately handed the No. 1 jersey upon his arrival at Old Trafford, which effectively ended Gregg’s career at United.
In December 1966, Gregg moved to Stoke City, but he played only two games for them before retiring. And so the career of undoubtedly the greatest Irish goalkeeper in the history of Manchester United came to an end, just before United would go on to win the 1966-67 title, meaning that he yet again missed out on winning a major honour at the club.
In 1968, Gregg moved into management, taking charge of Shrewsbury Town, handing future United centre-half Jim Holton his league debut at the Shrews. After four years with Shrewsbury, he moved on to manage Swansea City (November 1972-January 1975), Crewe Alexandra (1975-78) and Kitan Sports Club, Kuwait (August-November 1978) before returning to United as their goalkeeping coach under Dave Sexton. He left the club in June 1981 soon after the arrival of new manager Ron Atkinson, before taking up a coaching position at Swansea City (1982), then he became Swindon Town assistant manager (July 1984-April 1985) and finally manager of Carlisle United (May 1986-87). When Gregg left football for good, he owned a hotel in Portstewart on the north Antrim coast which was appropriately called the Windsor Hotel, as he had begun his football journey at Windsor Park, Belfast.
Gregg was awarded an MBE in 1995 and in the summer of 2008 he was made an Honorary Graduate of the University of Ulster and awarded a Doctor of the University (DUniv) in recognition of his contribution to football. Earlier in the year, he had made a very emotional return to Munich airport for a BBC documentary entitled One Life: Munich Air Disaster, and stood at the scene of the crash that cruelly claimed the lives of eight of his team-mates 50 years earlier. It was the first time he had been back to Munich, and during the filming of the documentary he met the son of Mrs Lukić, who had been in his mother’s womb at the time of the disaster. Zoran Lukić said to him: ‘I have always wanted this moment, to look into your face and say to you, “Thank you”. I was the third passenger you saved, but, at the time, you were not to know that.’
Gregg blushed slightly before responding: ‘You’ve nothing to thank me for. I did what had to be done without thinking about it. I’ve lived with being called a hero, but I’m not really a hero. Heroes are people who do brave things knowing the consequences of their actions. That day, I had no idea what I was doing.’
In an interview with the BBC prior to the television documentary being shown on the channel, Gregg looked back at Munich and said: ‘I don’t want my life to be remembered for what happened on a runway. I don’t need the sheriff’s badge and I don’t want to play the hero. The wonderful thing to me about that period of time was the freshness of youth and the free spirit, the manner in which we played. I’m not a poet, but I always think “They laughed, they loved, they played the game together, they played the game and gave it every ounce of life and the crowds – they thronged to see such free, young spirits”. To me, that’s what I want to remember, that was the wonderful thing.’
I asked Sir Alex if he would like to say anything about Harry in the Testimonial Match Programme and the Boss penned the following tribute to Harry.
Harry Gregg – My Hero
It was with the greatest pleasure that I immediately accepted an invitation to bring Manchester United to Belfast and play in a Testimonial Match for Harry Gregg. We received the request on 7th January 2012 from The George Best Carryduff Manchester United Supporters Club and 12 days later the Board met and unanimously gave their seal of approval. All too often the word Legend is used in football but more often than not the word is merely used to describe a player who left an indelible mark on the world of football. Harry Gregg’s exploits for Manchester United and Northern Ireland, voted the best goalkeeper in the world at the 1958 World Cup Finals in Sweden, are beyond legendary and his place in the illustrious history of Manchester United football Club is enshrined. And so I am absolutely delighted to bring my Manchester United side to Windsor Park, Belfast this evening to honour Harry the footballer but much more importantly than that, to honour Harry the true gentleman and a true hero to many Manchester United fans in word and deed.
“I was a 16-year old schoolboy playing for Drumchapel Amateurs, and training every Thursday night with Benburb Juniors, when news of the Munich Air Disaster became known. I made my way to training at Benburb and when I got there I saw the senior players crying. It was at that moment I realised the seriousness of the disaster. When I got home my Dad was staring into the fire, everyone was numb with the shock. My brother, Martin, and I went to our bedroom and it was quiet place in our house at the time. Over the course of the next two days the full extent of the tragedy unfolded with the local paper listing the names of the people who lost their lives in the disaster including 7 Busby Babes who died instantly: club captain Roger Byrne, Geoff Bent, Eddie Colman, Mark Jones, David Pegg, Tommy Taylor and Ireland’s own Liam Whelan. Duncan Edwards became the eighth Busby Babe to die when he lost his brave battle for life 15 days later. Harry Gregg was on the flight and after regaining consciousness he felt the blood trickling down his face but was too afraid to put his hand up to his head thinking that part of it may be hanging off. Upon seeing a shaft of light he kicked a hole wide enough to crawl through and make his way on the snowy runway. Most mere mortals would have run for their lives but Harry Gregg does not fall into this category of man. Despite his own injuries, and warnings not to go anywhere near the burning fuselage, Harry made his way into the smoldering aircraft time and time looking for fellow survivors who were in need of help. Harry’s unselfish bravery in putting his own life on the line to save others, including a pregnant Mrs Vera Lukic (the wife of a Yugoslavian diplomat) and her daughter, Vesna, his fellow Northern Ireland international and best friend, Jackie Blanchflower, rightfully earned him the title of “The Hero of Munich.”
I first met Harry when I was the manager of Aberdeen. It was near the end of the 1980-81 season and Harry was a coach at Manchester United under manager Dave Sexton. We had invited United to participate in a 1981-82 pre-season Summer Tournament at Pittodrie which also included Southampton and West Ham United. Harry was asked by Martin Edwards, Chairman of Manchester United at the time, to carry out a sort of reconnaissance trip ahead of the tournament. Harry was, and to this day, remains an absolute gentleman and the consummate professional. We had a long chat about numerous subjects with the exception of The Munich Air Disaster which I would have liked to have asked him about but dared not to given the level of respect I had for him. Nowadays Harry will jokingly tell you that he was sent to Aberdeen to suss me out as a replacement for Dave Sexton who regrettably was sacked at the end of the 1980-81 season. However, I still had so much more I wanted to achieve at Aberdeen and very much doubt if it would have been the right time to move south of the border had the opportunity presented itself. Needless to say when Manchester United did approach me in November 1986 I had no hesitation in accepting the job as the manager of the greatest football club in the world.
Harry Gregg has always been a most reluctant hero and the description does not sit comfortably for him on his big broad Irish shoulders. I will forever remember what Harry said when he went back to Munich on the 50th anniversary of the disaster and met Zoran Lukic (the little boy who was in his Mum’s womb at the time of the plane crash). Zoran looked at Harry and said: “I have always wanted this moment, to look into your face and say to you, ‘thank you’. I was the third passenger you saved, but, at the time, you were not to know that.” Typically Harry replied: “You’ve nothing to thank me for. I did what had to be done without thinking about it. “I’ve lived with being called a hero but I’m not really a hero. Heroes are people who do brave things knowing the consequences of their actions. That day, I had no idea what I was doing.”
Harry once said that the Munich Air Disaster changed Manchester United from a football club into an institution. Few will disagree with Harry’s view and even fewer will disagree with the part a young man from Tobermore, Northern Ireland played in the aura and mystique which resulted in the worldwide following that Manchester United enjoys today. If I was asked to describe Harry I would call upon the words from a beautiful poem by Nicola Burkett:
A hero thinks of others before they think of themselves
A hero will die to protect
A hero can be of any age, any colour
A hero can be man, woman or child
A hero is courageous, loving and brave
A hero will never complain
A hero can be made in one act of compassion
Or years of tender loving care
Some heroes are remembered, whilst many are left forgotten
Heroes are angels in disguise, saving precious innocent lives
Harry for this 16-year old boy from Govan you were and remain my Hero. I wish you and your family a most enjoyable evening and on behalf of Manchester United Football Club, thank you for the part you personally played in making Manchester United the greatest football club in the world.”
Sir Alex Ferguson CBE
Manager, Manchester United
Harry, Rest in Peace.