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Harry Gregg (1932 - 2020):
Footballer


Harry Gregg was a Northern Irish footballer who would become a hero twice over: on the pitch he was the frequent first choice goalkeeper for one of the élite teams in England, Manchester United Football Club, in the 1950s and 1960s; one of the many players from Ulster who contributed to the club’s ascent to the pinnacle of European football; and he played for Northern Ireland to international acclaim, especially at the World Cup Finals in Sweden in 1958, despite a series of injuries. However, off the pitch came heroism of an incomparably greater order: he survived the horrendous plane crash which laid waste the Manchester team in 1958, and at which Gregg was praised for his selfless help to fellow-survivors (there were many fatalities) in the immediate aftermath of the disaster. There is little doubt that he saved lives, and at grave risk to his own. His lifelong sobriquet became “The Hero of Munich”.

Henry Gregg (universally known as Harry) was born at Magherafelt, County Londonderry, the eldest of six children, and grew up in Coleraine in the same county. His interest in, and talent for, football was spotted early and he decided to dedicate himself to the game professionally, leaving aside an initial thought of a career in the police. His first club football came with Linfield Swifts, part of the major Belfast club, and Coleraine FC but he was taken across the water to Doncaster Rovers by their Northern Irish manager, Peter Doherty. He excelled in their goal, taking advantage of natural bravery when rushing at a threatening opponent’s feet, and of his height of six feet, which was considered tall for a goalkeeper at that time, giving him longer reach.

He spent five years at Rovers and so never then played in the First Division of the Football League, but this changed when team manager Matt Busby brought him to Manchester United in 1957 for a then record fee for a goalkeeper of £23,500. Busby was in the process of building a team to become English champions, which they achieved in 1956 and 1957, and European champions which they eventually did as the first English team to do so, in 1968 though after a long road studded with tragedy. The entire squad had an average age of 20 and 21 for their two championship wins, prompting the sobriquet “Busby Babes”, originally coined by Manchester Evening News journalist Tom Jackson in 1951.  

And so on 5 February 1958 the English champions found themselves in Belgrade facing the Red Star club, champions of Yugoslavia, and widely acknowledged to be a challenging side. United came away with a creditable result: 3:3, a draw with three “away” goals, but a draw was all which was required after the first-leg win, by 2:1. They were now semi-finalists, a highly respectable level of advance in the prestigious competition. The following afternoon, 6 February, the players, team officials, and Busby himself, together with a press corps, boarded BEA flight 609, flying in an Airspeed Ambassador aircraft chartered by the club following an awkward journey back from Prague in the previous round. Long haul flying at the time was still in development, so that flight 609 would require a refuelling stop, which was to take place at Munich airport, Riem. This having been completed, normally the flight would take off for the second leg of the journey back to England. Two attempts to take off (“rotate”) were aborted due to engine problems, and it was decided to take the passengers off the aircraft and stay overnight at Munich. However, hoping to avoid such a delay as had been experienced after the Prague match, it was decided to attempt take off again. But the wintry weather in the Bavarian capital meant that the runway was covered in slush, which has the effect of slowing the plane attempting to or take off, which requires a minimum speed, and fresh snow was already falling. In the event, the aircraft, with insufficient speed for take-off but crucially, having passed the safe speed for aborting the take-off, careered off the runway, across a road, demolishing a house and hitting a hut containing a quantity of highly flammable fuel, to add to that already leaking from the stricken aircraft.

Later, a German inquiry would blame the pilot, Captain Thain, for the crash, alleging that he had failed to de-ice the wings properly, though subsequently this was challenged and the runway conditions were held to be the principal cause.

Harry Gregg was temporarily incapacitated after the crash, losing consciousness for a short time. He would later recall that when he regained consciousness he took the flames licking round in and about the aircraft to be those of Hell. In fact, in the words of a leading football writer:

"Having forced his way out of the wreckage – and ignoring a general order to run for cover to avoid a possible explosion – Gregg dived back into the burning debris to pull out a number of his fellow passengers. They included Vera Lukić, the pregnant wife of a Yugoslav diplomat, and her young daughter, Vesna – as well as the United players Albert Scanlon, Ray Wood, Jackie Blanchflower, Bobby Charlton and Dennis Viollet, the last two of whom he had to drag away, unconscious, by their trouser waistbands. All [he rescued] survived, although eight players were eventually among the dead."

Of these named, Ray Wood was another goalkeeper at the club, and somewhat of a rival to Gregg; Jackie Blanchflower, already a Northern Ireland international player, suffered injuries which were serious enough to force him to retire from the game; Bobby Charlton recovered from his to become one of the all-time football legends. Gregg, who was known as a plain speaker, all his life would play down his behaviour, usually preferring to recount his footballing performances.

The club under Busby was determined to fight back. Gregg for one, despite his injuries, which would continue to plague him, was back in goal within two weeks of the crash as United enjoyed a run in the FA Cup into the final which they contested against Bolton Wanderers. Although Manchester lost 2:0, their opponents’ star player, Nat Lofthouse, had a goal allowed even though he had bundled the ball and Gregg together into the net. For many, including neutrals, this was a poor decision for unsportsmanlike play (at least). Oddly, the runner-up medal he won that day would be his only club honour, as rules at that time laid down strict minimum appearances counts and Gregg’s unfortunate injury count brought him below these.

The year 1958, which had begun in such shocking fashion, was a busy year for Gregg on the international football scene as well. Already he had débuted for Northern Ireland in 1954, and he was first choice goalkeeper for the team’s challenge at the World Cup finals in Sweden. This would turn out to be a notable triumph for what is, in footballing terms, one of the smallest countries in the world. The qualifying rounds before the finals themselves had pitted Northern Ireland against Portugal and, not least, Italy one of the true giants of world football. At the finals Gregg’s team first played Czechoslovakia, a strong side, but they were seen off by 1:0. Next came Argentina, who won by 3:1. Northern Ireland’s final group match saw them take on West Germany, one of the top teams in the world and the reigning World Cup holders. The 2:2 result was no mean achievement and was sufficient to see them into a playoff. Wide opinion of Gregg’s performance in the West Germany match was that perhaps this was his greatest. Some years later one of the leading West German players that day, Uwe Seeler, would recall Northern Ireland’s “remarkable keeper” “springing like a panther” and “stopping everything”. This despite an ankle injury which required emergency treatment after the match. During the match itself, though, Gregg blocked a forward move from West Germany, not by kicking or catching the ball but, calmly, by taking off his cap and heading it.

The playoff against Czechoslovakia produced a 2:1 victory and a place in the quarter-finals. Here the opposing France team proved too strong for Northern Ireland and defeated them 4:0. Nevertheless this was a more than admirable achievement for a small country, especially given that some key players suffered injuries in the course of the tournament.

After the finals, a specially selected panel of journalists was convened to select the “Team of the Tournament”. Gregg was ajudged to have been the best goalkeeper (even better than Soviet legend Lev Yashin). 

Back in England, in 1961 he suffered a serious injury which put him out of the game for a number of months, during which he suffered a tragic bereavement when his wife, Mavis Markham, whom he had married in 1957 died of cancer aged just 26; the Greggs had two young daughters. Despite these responsibilities Gregg worked hard to win back his place as first choice goalkeeper, though when the club reached another FA Cup final in 1963 Busby preferred David Gaskell to Gregg in goal., doubtless due to Gregg’s terribly bad luck with injuries, many of which were to arms, collar bones, shoulders and legs  and required surgery. 

In 1966 though he was back as first choice for the European Cup tie against another Belgrade team, this time Partizan but this time Manchester United lost on aggregate, 2:1. Later that year Busby signed a new young goalkeeper, Alex Stepney, effectively replacing Gregg who moved to Stoke City on a free transfer. He thus missed United’s biggest triumph when in 1968 they finally won the European Cup, only the second British club to do so, Glasgow Celtic having broken this duck the previous year. Appearing – and scoring – for United were Bobby Charlton whom Harry Gregg had rescued a decade before, and a brilliant young player from Northern Ireland, who was legendary in his own way, George Best. Bobby Charlton had won the World Cup with England in 1966.

At Stoke, Gregg played just two games. He then went into football management, taking charge of Shrewsbury Town from 1968 to 1972, Swansea from 1972 to 1975, Crewe Alexandra from 1975 to 1978, and Carlisle United between 1986 and 1987. He returned as goalkeeping coach to Manchester United under manager Dave Sexton, and in 1986, when the post as manager became vacant, Busby recommended him. However the role went to Alex Ferguson who would in the opinion of many become the club’s most successful manager of all. But equally, others opine that without Busby there might never have been a Ferguson.

Harry Gregg later owned a hotel in Portstewart, a coastal resort near Coleraine, where he liked to jog along the celebrated beaches until a stroke out an end to this. He had also suffered from cancer ten years before. He published an autobiography in 2002 and alleged illicit practises at Manchester apparently involving match fixing and pharmaceutical misuse.

In 1965 he married again, to Carolyn Saunders; the couple would have five children.

He was appointed MBE in 1995 and OBE in 2019. The Harry Gregg Foundation; based in Coleraine and attached to Coleraine Football Club where he played, is “a local charity catering for all sections of our community; to promote positive changes, and provide opportunities to fulfil dreams” for example through their youth leagues.

Tributes to Gregg were numerous. Pat Jennings succeeded him in the Northern Ireland goal and was himself an acknowledged great. He said: “What a man he was to go back into that wreckage and pull people out. Most people would be running away. That tells you what he was about.” Sammy McIlroy played for Manchester United, and for Northern Ireland whom he also managed: “He was a fantastic goalkeeper. Brave as a lion and brave as a lion off the field as well…going into the burning wreckage and pulling people away from it.” And Sir Bobby Charlton the great football legend who owed so much to Gregg:

"For all the matter of fact things Harry said about that night in Munich for me he will always be remembered as a heroic figure. It’s incredible to think that he went on to play in a match against Sheffield Wednesday just 13 days after that tragic night. A shining light both on and off the pitch. For so many reasons, he deserves to be remembered as one of the greatest names in Manchester United's history."

And, one should add, in Northern Ireland's.




Born: 27 October 1932
Died: 16 February 2020
Richard Froggatt
References:

 

Bibliography:
Obituaries: The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph, The Irish Times; The Times; The Independent; staffslive.co.uk/2020/02;/harry-gregg-obituary; www.manutd.com; www.alamy.com/germany-against-northern-ireland-2-2-at-the-1958-fifa-world-cup; Malcolm Brodie: 100 Years of Irish Football (Belfast, 1980)