It was sad news this week to learn of the death of Harry Gregg, the Manchester United and Northern Ireland goalkeeper, at the age of 87. Manchester United had won the League Championship in 1956 and 1957 with the famous Busby Babes but in the next season faltered somewhat. Matt Busby, the manager bought Gregg from Doncaster Rovers for a world record transfer fee for a goalkeeper of £23,500. Busby’s thinking was that with Gregg’s forceful personality he would be something of a ‘minder’ for his young team. Just two months later after drawing in an European Cup match away to Red Star Belgrade that team was all but wiped out in the Munich Air Disaster.
The European Cup was created in 1955 but that first season the English Champions Chelsea were discouraged from taking part by the English Football League. The following season Manchester United ignored this advice and broke new ground by entering the competition and reaching the semi-final stage. Since then five different English clubs, Manchester United, Liverpool, Nottingham Forest, Aston Villa and Chelsea have won the competition, more than any other nation.
After beating Red Star Belgrade 5-4 on aggregate in the quarter-final of the 1957-58 season United were looking forward to playing AC Milan in the Semi-Final. They flew back to Manchester on 6th
February and stopped at Munich to refuel. The conditions were very wintry and the BEA pilot Captain Thain twice tried unsuccessfully to take off in his Airspeed Ambassador 2. The passengers disembarked and waited in the terminal building. Thain then decided to try again and this time the plane skidded off the runway, hitting a fence, a house and a hut. The tail and the wing were torn off and fuel was leaking. Of the 43 people on board 23 lost their lives as a result of the crash. Of these eight were Manchester United players including some who were among the best in the world. But it could have been more had it not been for Harry Gregg.
For many years Gregg did not like to talk about the crash and disliked any talk about him as a hero. But his actions were truly heroic and eventually after forty years or more he would tell his version of events. Just before the crash he recalled “Looking across diagonally, I could see from Roger Byrne’s[i]
face that he was very, very worried. I became a little stronger because I thought he’s more worried than I am. As we started to really go, somebody laughed like a nervous laugh. Little Digger Berry[ii]
shouted out: ‘I dunno what you’re laughing at, were all going to get ******* killed’. Liam Whelan[iii]
, as God is my judge said: ‘Well if it happens, I’m ready to go’.
“I remember looking out of the window and seeing a tree and a house passing by. Everything went black all of a sudden and sparks began to fly. I was hit hard on the back of the head, and I thought the top of my skull had been cut off. There was just silence and blackness, and then for a second daylight again. I thought I was dead. “
Realising that he was still alive, and with blood pouring from his face, Gregg unfastened his seat belt and climbed out. The captain appeared with a fire extinguisher and said ‘Run you stupid bastard, the plane’s about to explode.’ “All these people were still going, shouting ‘run, run, run’. I remember getting a little bit annoyed. “Gregg recalled “I was about to run when I heard a child crying. I called out to the others who had started to run ‘Come back, you bastards, there’s a child alive.’ But they didn’t, and I went back in and I was terrified what I’d find. I found the baby and started to carry it out. The radio operator took the child (called Vesna) from me, and I went back into the debris and I found her mother (Vera Lukic, the pregnant wife of a Yugoslav diplomat), who was in a bad condition[iv]
. I kicked a hole in the fuselage and pushed her out.”
At the rear of the aircraft Gregg found his team-mates Bobby Charlton[v]
and Dennis Viollet[vi]
lying still on the ground. He pulled them by their waist bands clear of the plane and propped them into seats which had been thrown about 20 yards from the plane. “I started calling out for Jackie Blanchflower[vii]
”, a friend from schooldays in Northern Ireland. “As I searched for him I saw the tail end of the plane ablaze with flames. I found Matt Busby, who was conscious, but holding his chest in pain, crying out. ‘My legs, my legs.’ I propped him up and found Blanchie crying, with Roger Byrne lying across him dead. Jackie’s arm was in a bad way, and bleeding badly, so I tied a tourniquet on it with my tie. I pulled it so hard that my tie snapped in half, but I managed to tie his arm with what was left.
“Suddenly a man in a long trench coat arrived carrying a syringe. I shouted at him to go and help the injured in the aircraft but suddenly there were some explosions from the burning half of the plane and the force threw the doctor off his feet.
“Shortly after, when it looked as though the rescuers had everything under control, I sank to my knees and wept, thanking God that some of us had been saved. I had never seen death before and never wanted to see it again.”
Harry continued to show his strength of character as he identified bodies and comforted survivors. When loved ones arrived from Manchester he and Bill Foulkes[viii]
comforted and consoled them.
Harry understandably declined an offer from BEA to fly back to Manchester and three days later he and team-mate Bill Foulkes together with Assistant Manager Jimmy Murphy travelled back overland and by boat. 13 days after the crash Gregg ran out in front of a packed Old Trafford to play in goal against Sheffield Wednesday in the fifth round of the FA Cup. In the programme there were no names on the United team sheet. But the chairman Harold Hardman wrote that “Manchester United will rise again.” Matt Busby was still fighting for his life in a Munich hospital so Murphy picked a scratch team of a couple of survivors, some promoted reserves and a few veterans he’d managed to sign in the transfer market. Almost unbelievably they won 3-0.
I have the programme for the next round when they beat West Bromwich Albion in a 6th
round replay at Old Trafford. This programme carried the sad news that Duncan Edwards[ix]
, a young player who it had been predicted would be England’s captain for a decade such was his star quality, had lost his battle for life after fifteen days.
United managed against all the odds with their makeshift team to get to the Final when the whole country except for the people of Bolton were rooting for them. But they lost 2-0 to the Wanderers despite the scorer of the second goal Nat Lofthouse admitting that it should have been disallowed as he charged Gregg who was holding the ball and bundled him into the net.
But in that terrible season Gregg still came out on top. He was part of the Northern Ireland team that amazingly got to the Quarter-Final of the World Cup that summer in Sweden. He was voted the best goalkeeper in the tournament ahead of the great Lev Yashin of the Soviet Union.
I first started watching United in 1961 when Busby was still rebuilding his team. Gregg had lost his place to a young local lad called David Gaskell. Gregg's first wife Mavis had died of breast cancer earlier that year and perhaps that had something to do with it. But when he regained his place the following season I was there to see him and I can say he is one of the finest goalkeepers I have ever seen. He was courageous often diving for the ball at the feet of inrushing forwards. He was inventive, being one of the first to take up position outside his penalty area as several leading keepers do today.
He represented Manchester United with distinction on 247 occasions and played 25 times for his country. He later spent two years at Stoke City and then went into management covering 572 games with various lower division clubs.
The Munich Air Disaster is a huge part of Manchester United’s history. Even today’s players, none of whom were alive at the time, all know the story and its importance. They all know that just ten years later, with two survivors of the Crash Bill Foulkes and Bobby Charlton who was saved by Harry Gregg in the team they beat Benfica 4-1at Wembley to win the European Cup. One of the stars that night, George Best[x]
, was also from Northern Ireland and used to clean Harry Gregg’s boots for him when George was an apprentice.
A few footballers, players and managers have been knighted for their sporting achievements. Perhaps Harry Gregg’s sporting achievements were not quite in that class. But his achievements as a man certainly were. He only received an MBE in 1995 and then very belatedly an OBE last year. As Henry Winter argued in The Times,
they should put up a statue to him.