Former Manchester United and Northern Ireland goalkeeper Harry Gregg died on February 16, 2020 at the age of 87.
A survivor of the Munich air disaster in 1958, killing 23 people, Gregg was praised for his role in rescuing other passengers from the plane’s wreck with Matt Busby’s United team home from Belgrade.
Gregg played 247 times for United and 25 times for Northern Ireland during a professional career that lasted 15 years.
Former Manchester United goalkeeper Harry Gregg died at the age of 87
Ian Ladyman from Sportsmail was the last newspaper journalist to interview Gregg in October 2017.
In it, Gregg opens about that fateful afternoon in Munich and the impact it had on his life, he returned to playing for United – with what turned out to be a broken skull – only 13 days later.
We will completely re-publish that interview below.
On a wall of the imposing house of Harry Gregg about an hour outside of Belfast is a photo of a Manchester United team. From left to right the names were: Edwards, Coleman, Jones, Morgans, Charlton, Viollet, Taylor, Foulkes, Gregg, Scanlon, Byrne.
Standing on the field in Belgrade in February 1958, it was the side of the United States that would be torn apart the next day on the snow-covered runways of Munich.
Elsewhere in the same room are photos of the crash and images of the day – 25 years later – when Gregg was reunited with the Yugoslav mother and daughter he pulled out of the wreck.
Former goalkeeper Harry Gregg poses for his old schoolboy shirts
Gregg has said in the past that Munich does not define his life, but when he is on his way to the 60th anniversary of the disaster, he will not run away from it either.
“It took time to make the daily images disappear from my mind,” Gregg said slowly this week. “There were times when I didn’t want to go to bed, you know. Because I knew that I would dream about it.
“But then there were times when I couldn’t stand to be awake. Listen, whatever happened on that day, I know all about it, but God forbids it if it happened again, I may be the first to run. You understand that? What I did was what I did, it wasn’t heroic. It could have been different. You have to believe me.’
The share of Gregg on that winter day in Bavaria does not have to be retold in detail. It is there in the archives and on the pages of his moving autobiography from 2002.
His memories remain sharp, for good and for bad. The great Northern Irishman – the keeper of United – remembers exactly where everyone was when flight BEA609 tried to take off for the third and last time.
He also remembers the names and faces of the crew and the journalists on the plane.
Gregg remembers the names and faces of those aboard the Munich air disaster in 1958
I couldn’t stand to be awake … I remember every bit of it
A total of 23 people died, but if Gregg had not refused to leave the crash site, it might have been more. Not only did he save Verena Lukic and her baby, Vesna, he also dragged clear teammates Bobby Charlton and Dennis Viollet.
Charlton turned 80 this week. Gregg is 85 later this month. The only survivors left, they are not close and have endured for a long time what can best be described as a complicated relationship.
Gregg’s relationship with Munich also has many layers. He has always felt that United did not treat the families of the dead as generously as they might have done, and rages against some who have written books about the tragedy and talked about it at diners.
“I know (long pause) what happened,” Gregg said, his eyes on the floor. “And I (long pause) saw people talking and talking as if they were there while they were not there.
‘I hear and read versions that I just don’t recognize. I can’t handle things like that. ”
Gregg (behind, fourth left) is with the Manchester United team during the FA Cup final of 1958
To this day, it is the basic, raw details that still block this lively, charismatic man.
In full swing, Gregg is still talking at the speed of machine gun fire. Watch out for the bullets. But memories of Munich immediately change everything about him.
“The last time I saw Duncan Edwards, I was with assistant manager Jimmy Murphy at the hospital,” Gregg said. “Duncan was propped up in bed and said,” What time is the kick-off? ” Jimmy said, “fifteen son” and he said, “Get stuck.”
“I thought he was confused but good.” But you know what, when I got home, I didn’t know why the newspapers disappeared into my house every day. They disappeared every day and then I discovered why. Duncan had died. That was the first time I cried. “
Thirteen days after Munich, Gregg returned to action against Sheffield on Wednesday. He had a headache that was so painful that he put a tie around his head at night trying to relieve the pressure. He was subsequently diagnosed with a broken skull.
Gregg points to a photo with his siblings during Sportsmail‘s visit to his house
“The authorities were not responsible for that,” he said. “I had seen so much in that German hospital that I had to leave.
“You know, football really saved me after the plane crash. To train again, sit in rows and kick apart.
“The training was then two laps, six sides, six sprints and then backed up and kicked the s *** apart.
‘I am serious! And that was the best team in the world. I didn’t know it then, but to be back and argue and kick people to pieces and tell people that they were c **** and have rows – in other words to be normal – actually saved my mind .
“It was what I needed, it was what I knew. It was soccer. “
Spending time with Harry Gregg is catching a glimpse, even now, of what he must have been to play with and against.
He describes himself as ‘not a nice man’, but that is to sell himself short of the length of a football field.
He only talks like he played. On the front foot and for fear of nobody.
“Brian Clough and I became good friends,” he remembered. “He was a genius, but even he always said,” When I scored against Gregg, the first thing I did was f *** in the opposite direction.
With a flat cap on, Gregg comes to pick up the ball for Ray Charnley from Blackpool
“And he was right. I once had it against the wall of the tunnel by his throat. “
Gregg is suspicious of those who come to find his story and for good reason. They have been doing it for half a century and the questions are not always about football.
His charming second wife Carolyn acts as a gatekeeper, but the truth is that Gregg is generous with his company and time. He is a source of invaluable anecdotes, humor and, whether he likes to admit it or not, great compassion.
Gregg has experienced great tragedies more than once. His first wife, Mavis, died at the age of 26, as did daughter Karen, 50 years old. He also lost a true friend 12 years ago – George Best.
“I was injured and played a game against some triallists,” Gregg smiled. “This boy stuck the ball through my legs. It was George. He did it twice more and I said, “Do it again, son, and I’ll break your neck.” He just laughed.
“I told Sir Matt Busby about him and he said,” Yes, it’s a shame he’s so small. ” It didn’t matter that long. “
Gregg counted the late George Best (photo in the middle) among his best friends in football
I had Brian Clough against a wall by his throat
Gregg has a collection of old football shirts and one was worn by the Benfica keeper twice defeated by Best, as United won 5-1 in 1966 in Lisbon. Only 19, Best got out of the homecoming plane with a giant sombrero.
“That was the night he became El Beatle,” Gregg grinned, “but I said to him on the plane:” Take that off your head. You don’t need that. “
“I believe in George. He had no nerves on the field. He would sit down and make crossword puzzles. The rest of the players would act like idiots – many soccer players were fat.
“It wasn’t George. He was smart. But I believe he turned to drink to live with the image.
“He had no confidence and drank to find the personality. He would have been happier with his crossword puzzles – and I wish he had stayed with it. “
While Best’s career was unraveled in the mid-1970s, Gregg was a manager at Swansea and agreed to give United on loan. Best never answered his calls. “He abandoned me,” Gregg admitted.
Former Northern Irish keeper Gregg is standing in front of his house near Castlerock
Six years later, Gregg received a phone call asking him to go to Brentford, where Best played in a friendly American earthquake in San Jose.
“Their coach said he needed me to come,” he said.
“This thing entered the field with a beard and a bathtub, and I could have cried. He was a great shame. Angie, his wife, got up and said, “Harry, it’s not his fault.”
“I just said,” That’s not George Best. Tell him I was here. ” I went home halfway.
“But George and I were good friends. I last spoke to him on the phone when he was in the hospital. He cried and said, “Greggy, call me tomorrow”.
“I did, but the crazy bastard had checked out. The next memory is when Denis Law and I carried his coffin. “
In the preface he wrote 15 years ago for Gregg’s book, Best described his old teammate in two words: “My hero.”
In 2005, Gregg carried George Best’s coffin in Belfast while half a million people were present
Gregg grew 150 meters from his first club, Coleraine, and never forgot. Nowadays he lives in the neighborhood and the Harry Gregg Foundation offers more than 5,000 children in Northern Ireland the opportunity to play football every Saturday.
Signed by United of Doncaster in 1957, the fee was £ 23,500. It was a world record for a keeper and Gregg’s share of it was £ 33.
“I took the Doncaster train and was at the Stretford End,” he said. “When I signed, I thought they were movie stars.”
In Northern Ireland, he is cherished for his part in their 1958 World Cup final. The team of Peter Doherty reached the final eight and Gregg was named in the team of the tournament for the Soviet Union legend Lev Yashin.
He was recently in Windsor Park to view the current Michael O’Neill team. Gregg advised 18-year-old O’Neill on his transfer from Coleraine to Newcastle 30 years ago and is close to his No. 2 Jimmy Nicholl, whom he coached while Dave Sexton’s assistant manager at United in the early 1980s.
Proudly hangs the shirt of Negg Stiles from the 1966 World Cup Final
George loved crosswords. He drank to live with the image
“I am very happy that things are going well for them and for the people watching,” he said, “but I’ll be honest. I was lucky enough to play in a team of players born and raised in Ireland. That is very important to me.
“I don’t want to hurt people, but the team I played in was Irish. Good luck to those in the team now. They have my support. “
Gregg’s own management career brought him to Shrewsbury, Swansea, Crewe and Carlisle. He was removed by Ron Atkinson in 1981 from the role of his assistant at Old Trafford.
On his coffee table are books about Mourinho, Cruyff and Busby. From his seat by his lounge window, he watches the Premier League on TV and sees some familiar faces.
“I remember Mark Hughes,” he smiled. “A great guy, no corners for him. But walk carefully, built like a stone house. A coach from United said: “If he is 17, he will be so fat that he cannot walk”.
“He was on trial and had no boots, and they asked to borrow mine. He scored three goals and came to me on Monday, so quiet. A nice Welshness for him.
Mark Hughes was a “great guy,” according to Gregg, who saw him coming through at United
“He just said thank you and I said,” Son, power clearly wipes off. You can keep the boots. “
Gregg likes to talk about other big players of his time.
“Billy Wright – the most beautiful man who has ever walked on two feet”.
“Nat Lofthouse – my dear English b ****** friend.”
“John Charles – the man was a genius. We were so close that it was not true. “
“Denis Law – that pretty little b ****** with the big nose.”
But his relationships with everyone at United were not that simple. I ask why he and Charlton have never been around and there is clearly much unspoken.
Gregg said: ‘You say we are not close (long break). Why is that? (pause). Bobby was – and I am not avoiding the issue – not in the vicinity of anyone other than his own clique. It was: Viollet, Wilf McGuinness, Maurice Setters, Charlton, Shay Brennan and Mark Pearson.
According to Gregg, Bobby Charlton’s wife Norma was “the best thing that happened to him”
“I feel that I am avoiding your question. I don’t want to …
“What I will say is that Bob’s wife is the best thing that has happened to him. Lady Norma. Norma Ball from Middleton, Manchester.
“But Bobby and I are no more enemies than friends. He was not seriously injured in the accident, so good luck for him. “
Gregg can’t remember the last time he went to Old Trafford.
“I’m not invited, but I really don’t expect it,” he said. “Those days are over, no problem.”
But as we approach another painful anniversary, it seems appropriate to ask whether his outrage over United’s response to Munich – and the way in which part of the story has often been told – has declined over the years.
Former teammates Gregg and Charlton are not close by, but Gregg says they are ‘not enemies’
“Of course,” he said. “I don’t have an ax to sharpen the club. That would be wrong. It was 60 years ago. See, it’s easy to be smart now. Even after all this time I know what happened.
“I know who was scared and who wasn’t. I know what I felt – that I would no longer see my wife and little girl.
“But Manchester United is my club. I’m just a guy who was lucky enough to play for them and had good and bad days.
‘At home here, when United has a new manager or player, I just look at it like any other fan. My simple little head wonders: “Is he a good player or a pill?”.
“Everyone portrays me as:” Harry doesn’t like this and doesn’t like it, “but that’s nonsense.
“The only thing I really regret is that when I played well, I went home and when I played poorly, I went home.
Sitting in his home in Northern Ireland, Gregg wonders why he didn’t let himself be a star
“I look now and think,” Why didn’t I let myself become a big TV star like that player? ” or “Why didn’t I keep talking about myself like that?”
‘You understand? It was not in my nature, but I tell myself that it makes no sense to call someone a big head now. I should have done that too. I mean that deadly.
“I never considered myself John Wayne or a hero or anything. I just did things that came naturally.
“I’m just a supporter who regrets not becoming a movie star. You can regret it, right? That’s OK, isn’t it? “
For more information about the Harry Gregg Foundation, visit: www.harrygregg.com