Harry Gregg’s favorite chair was a large armchair by the window in front of his house on the hill in Castlerock, an hour outside of Belfast.
His football books, mostly autobiographies and his newspaper, lay on his coffee table. His cigarettes were close by.
Towards the end of his life Gregg was watching television on football. Manchester United was still his team.
Former Manchester United goalkeeper Harry Gregg (left) next to Sir Bobby Charlton
Gregg, who performed for Manchester United more than 200 times, died at the age of 87
Gregg greets the players of Manchester United during his testimony at Windsor Park in 2012
Gregg (circled) stands next to his teammates before taking on Partizan Belgrade in 1958
The time spent with Gregg, who won 25 caps for Northern Ireland, was never wasted
“At home here, when United has a new manager or player, I just look at it like any other fan,” he told me.
“My simple little head wonders:” Is he a good player or is he a pill? “.”
Time spent with Harry Gregg was never wasted. It would listen a lot and sometimes bring a little patience. But he, from everyone who was there that terrible day in Bavaria, had a lot to say.
Gregg never escaped the shadow of Munich. He wanted it, but he couldn’t. As he was inclined to say: “I know what happened. I know what I saw. I was there.’ For years – too many years – those details seeped into his dreams.
As a goalkeeper, he was impressive and charismatic. In his case, sport reflected life. Even in his later days he stood tall. Conversations took place at his pace and followed his way. Often confrontation was central and it wasn’t always a joke.
I was lucky to know him towards the end. An afternoon spent in his house for an interview in the fall of 2017 was perhaps the most cherished of a 20-year career with this newspaper. Much of that time was spent persuading him to let me turn on my tape recorder. Another piece was devoted to eating his wife Carolyn’s sandwiches.
Carolyn – gracious, charming Carolyn – was the gatekeeper in Castlerock. No one has reached Harry without saying it. Understandably, she was always suspicious about people’s motives.
The players and officials of Manchester United who survived Munich pose in March 1958
Gregg’s life was accompanied by great tragedies. He lost his first wife and his daughter to cancer. Without Carolyn he asked me out loud, he may never have recovered.
It is true that Gregg’s relationship with United over the years has not been easy. Unlike some of the team from 1958, he didn’t get the chance to square the circle when the European Cup was finally won 10 years later in Wembley. He was sold to Stoke City in 1966 and never won a medal. This might bother him more than he would ever admit.
He found that some of his old teammates were too quick to tell their stories about Munich, including others who were not there. As for Sir Bobby Charlton, the two men were not close. Given what had happened between them on the runway, it was a remote place that was not easy with Gregg during his retirement years.
But then Harry Gregg didn’t want to be everyone’s cup of tea, nor did he want to be. He gladly said of himself: “I am not a nice man.” This was not true, but it was his own way of recognizing the sharp edges that could cut when needed.
As a goalkeeper, Gregg was impressive and charismatic. In his case, sport reflected life
The truth is that his place in the middle of one of the most tragic stories of football was a place he never wanted. He bore it with grace and appropriate responsibility, but he also suffered with it.
“I never wanted to be John Wayne,” he told me.
Our relationship sometimes consisted of a telephone relationship. If he had something he wanted to say, mostly about Manchester United, Carolyn would call. Then he asked me questions about football that he knew I couldn’t answer.
“I think I’ll tell your editor about this,” he would grate.
The last day I saw him, I saw him slowly walk to his seat in Old Trafford for the 60th anniversary of the disaster two February ago. He wasn’t sure he wanted to come. He almost canceled. He had not been back for years and was honestly a little afraid of what he would feel.
On the day the organization failed him a bit. He was almost the last man to appear and was left to walk to his chair alone and confidently. It was snowing and he looked hollow and vulnerable.
A few hours later he asked me to meet him at the hotel bar across the road from the stadium. When I arrived there, the fire had returned in his eyes.
Gregg was one of the survivors of the Munich air disaster in 1958, who claimed 23 lives
‘Where have you been?’ he burst.
“Did you have anything better to do?”
He was happy that the day was almost over, happy that he had come. He was now among his people, his family, and his friends, and a weight had been lifted. The day before, on the training field at United, his grandson had met Zlatan Ibrahimovic and he had a word with manager Jose Mourinho.
“Do you think he knew who I was?” he asked. It wasn’t a joke.
But most importantly, Gregg and Charlton had been together after the ceremony. Charlton’s opening sentence had disarmed him a bit.
“Hello big man,” he said simply. ‘Everything good?’
For Harry Gregg, that simple exchange – a moment of courtesy between the two remaining survivors of that terrible winter scene – closed a chapter of his life. It drew a line under something that had bothered him for far too long.
“Yes, I’m glad I came,” he told me under the top of his baseball cap.
“I think I should come here. Just one last time.’
The truth is that his place in the middle of one of the tragic stories of football was one he never wanted