Former Manchester United goalkeeper and survivor of the Munich air disaster Harry Gregg dies at the age of 87
Harry Gregg was happy that so many things were remembered – soccer player, goalkeeper, player Manchester United, Northern Ireland international and grassroots champion among them – but always felt at ease with the title ‘hero’.
That he deserved the description makes no argument, regardless of the definition of the word. His actions during the Munich air disaster, returning twice to the burning trunk to drag teammates and strangers to safety, were the embodiment of courage and selflessness.
If a 25-year-old Gregg had not been on BEA flight 609 on February 6, 1958, or had not survived the fateful start, the shocking death toll of 23 would have been even higher.
It was Gregg who visited a 20-month-old baby and brought her to safety, Gregg who came back for her badly-injured, pregnant mother, and Gregg who dragged Bobby Charlton and Dennis Viollet out of the wreck with their waistband, not knowing if they were dead or alive.
Gregg’s courage, who died at the age of 87, has been formally praised in Germany and in Serbia – home of the rescued Lukic family – not to mention Old Trafford, back home in Ulster and in countless thousands of conversations with the man himself.
It has been recreated in film and told again through documentary, passed on generations in telling one of the darkest days of football.
But he never embraced or strengthened his own courage and wrote in his autobiography Harry’s Game: “Munich has established my identity, there is no doubt about it. (But) fame has cost a price, because Munich has a shadow over my life that I found hard to dispel. “
Tragedy came back three years later when his first wife Mavis died of cancer, and again when daughter Karen was claimed by the disease in 2009.
Gregg had once been a devout Protestant and on Sundays visited churches where football brought him, including Catholic services if that was all he could find, and even consulted a minister when the issue of representing Northern Ireland arose.
His faith eventually collapsed, but he carried the burdens of his life stoically, and although a stroke ended his favorite beach jogging in 2013, he remained active in the community through his charity of the same name.
He also left no doubt about how honored his name remained during his last years, a fact that left him unashamedly proud. When Windsor Park in Northern Ireland was officially reopened after development in 2016, he received a warm ovation on the fans’ field and he met boxing champion Carl Frampton and golfer Rory McIlroy, who both treated him like the real star in the room.
Gregg, who received an OBE in the 2019 New Year Honors, leaves behind five children, including four with second wife Carolyn, and an unassailable heritage.
Gregg was born in Tobermore, South Derry, on October 25, 1932, the eldest of six children.
As a teenager, he combined carpentry training with stints with Linfield’s reserve team and Coleraine, a club that was so local that he lived in a decent goal kick from the Showgrounds stadium.
Football beat woodworking with ease and by 18 he was picked up by Doncaster, where he had enjoyed five good years before becoming the world’s most expensive goalkeeper when United and Matt Busby earned £ 23,000.
He spent nine years with the Red Devils and, although he never won a medal with the club because injury had ruled him out of the 1963 FA Cup final and limited his appearance in two title winning campaigns, an unforgettable career was forged. Not many people can say that they have cleaned their boots by a young George Best.
Gregg remains a touchstone for United goalkeepers, a dominant leader among the posts and a respected shot-stopper. In total, he played 247 times for United, including, unbelievably, a 3-0 win on Sheffield Wednesday just 13 days after the tragedy in Munich.
Of those who had served before the fatal crash in Belgrade, only Gregg and Bill Foulkes wore the jersey less than two weeks later in that emotional competition.
He eventually left Old Trafford for the shortest stop at Stoke and an underwhelming management career followed, with spells charged with Shrewsbury, Swansea, Crewe and Carlisle.
That his United career ended without a testimony was an anomaly of the circumstance, which was finally rectified in 2012 when Sir Alex Ferguson proudly brought a full team to Windsor Park to face an Irish League XI.
In his program notes, the Scot called Gregg “beyond legendary” and “a very reserved hero”. That word again.
He may have blocked the terminology, but he also earned it at football level, never more than to Northern Irish football fans at the 1958 World Cup.
In other eras, Gregg was expected to take the summer for reflection and recovery after the traumas of the previous months. Instead, he was in the first world cup of his country and was later named the best goalkeeper in the league.
In particular, his great performance against West Germany was remarkable evidence that the left-wing opponent saw Uwe Seeler Gregg as a “jumping panther”.
It is the description of Seeler that Gregg would have recognized the fastest: athlete, participant, opponent. To the rest of the world he was, but more than anything else, an incredible embodiment of human spirit in adversity. A hero.