Fifty years ago this week, some two years after the Munich Air Disaster, Harry Gregg, hero of the crash and Manchester United goalkeeper, knocked out a spectator who had rushed onto the pitch at the end of a match against Luton Town. The man suffered severe facial bruising and had to go to hospital for treatment.
I have already written at length for RoM about this jaw-dropping eruption of violence five decades ago at Kenilworth Road, so there’s no need to repeat it all here. Nevertheless, as we reach the 50th anniversary it is worth having another look at the events of that day which reveal how attitudes towards United were even then going through a seismic transformation. Additionally, if further excuse is needed, I have now heard from two new eyewitnesses.
When I wrote Hitting the fan with United (Part One): Homage to Harry Gregg last year I appealed to anyone else who might have seen that Luton match in April 1960. The odds were naturally stacked heavily against finding anyone, because it was all so long ago, the crowd attendance was only around 20,000 and there was, of course no TV coverage. So it was no surprise when there was silence. No takers.
Then a few weeks ago a chance conversation with an old school-friend revealed that he had not only been there he’d had a close-up view, standing on the terraces four or five rows from the front directly behind Gregg’s goal. Luckily he was still in contact with the friend who was standing next to him on that day. What gives their recollections added value is the fact that they were, and still are, Luton fans.
They provide some entertaining new details which I had forgotten, but no startling revelations, no disagreements about what actually happened, no lingering anger directed at Gregg, in contrast to,say, the attitude of Crystal Palace fans to Eric Cantona even now,15 years after his legendary kung-fu kick, which by chance I also witnessed.
But looking back, what struck my old friend most forcibly was that in five decades of going to Luton matches he had never again heard such levels of abuse and hostility directed at opponents as happened that day, when Manchester United came to Town.
Luton Town 2 Man United 3, 9 April 1960
The match itself was of more lasting significance to Luton than United . The Hatters were in the terminal stages of a gruelling and ultimately unsuccessful battle against relegation, less than a year after their greatest achievement, reaching the 1959 FA Cup Final , which as a neutral watching on black & white television I had desperately wanted Luton to win.( Nottingham Forest beat them 2-1). United were eddying about in mid-table, capable of turning on brilliant high-scoring performances like the 5-0 at Fulham I’d witnessed a couple of weeks earlier, but equally likely to fall apart to unlikely defeats .
With Bobby Charlton away on international duty against Scotland and several key players missing through injury it was a much changed side that manager Matt Busby was able to field against Luton. Nevertheless United won with what should have been relaxed ease, with goals from the diminuitive smiley-faced England winger Warren Bradley and ‘The Black Prince’ centre forward Alex Dawson, who got two real belters. But in the great United tradition of ‘doing things the hard way’, two desperately poor goals were gifted to Luton, by none-other than Harry Gregg. Those mistakes were not enough to change the outcome, but must have been deeply embarrassing for the proud Northern Ireland goalkeeper, especially in front of his international team-mate, Luton’s hard-running winger, Billy Bingham, an old friend with whom he’d been playing three days before in a midweek friendly.
Harry’s ‘street-fighter’ moment
Throughout the match the Luton fans had been volatile and increasingly belligerent, unsurprisingly given their team’s rapidly worsening plight. There was incessant barracking of Gregg from right behind him, in the small, compact, noisy stadium, which maybe rattled him, perhaps contributing to his errors. At the end of the match I was on the point of leaving when I happened to turn round for one last look at my heroes . I noticed a man making a bee-line for Harry, long one of my favourite players, and, to my amazement the big Irish goalie, having failed to take evasive action, suddenly felled his potential assailant with a show-stopping right hander. The man went down as if taken out by the proverbial sniper. Those spectators who hadn’t already rushed disconsolately for the exits after Luton’s defeat were in uproar. Gregg was instantly bundled off the pitch by the police and ushered away by his skipper Maurice Setters. In a flash all the players were gone, leaving astonished supporters to make what they could of what they had seen.
In contrast to the world-wide media fire-storm that greeted Eric Cantona’s martial arts moment 35 years later, the considerable newpaper interest in the Gregg punch was neither disproportionate nor especially slanted against him or United. There were no editors supporting rival teams taking the opportunity to demand life-long bans . The reports were reasonably balanced and fair, and no-one could deny that the media interest was legitimate, given the explosive nature of the incident and the ‘national hero’ status of the assailant. Although the poleaxed victim had been badly bruised, Gregg could plead provocation and self-defence, justifying his pre-emptive punch by stressing that he feared he was about to be attacked.
We now know that there were police moves to prosecute Gregg for assault, but when Busby stood by him, albeit with the biggest telling-off of his career, the authorities backed off and no charges were pressed, again unlike the Cantona affair. It was generally accepted that the man had approached in a threatening manner, obstructing Harry as he repeatedly tried to side-step him in order to shake hands with his friend Billy Bingham. The clincher was probably when it was forcefully pointed out that the police had signally failed to protect Harry from an aggressive intruder who had no right to be on the pitch in the first place.
So to my enormous relief Harry got away with it and I was able to see him in action again a mere six days later in a Good Friday match at West Ham, when he looked his normal larger-than-life self, with no hint of stress – apart from losing 2-1 that is.
I was astonished when I discovered that my old Berkhamsted schoolfriend John Glasser had been at Luton that day. Neither of us has any recollection of talking about it at the time, possibly because the Easter holidays intervened, and the controversy had so swiftly died away. Also, John had originally been more of an Aston Villa supporter, partly because he’d won a ‘five-bob’ bet that they would beat United in the 1957 FA Cup Final. What we both recall is arguing endlessly about whether Peter McParland should have been sent off for the reckless charge which broke United keeper Ray Wood’s cheek-bone prior to scoring the two goals that gave VIlla their 2-1 victory.
John also has powerful recollections of the impact Munich made at school, with teachers talking in hushed tones in class about the death-toll. He was well aware of how I was affected and that I was identifying more and more with United.
John only gradually began supporting Luton which was much closer to his home in Tring, Herts, (now Graham Poll territory for what it’s worth). The first time John went to Kenilworth Road was on Boxing Day 1959, when he went with Tony Cox, the second eyewitness to the Gregg incident. That first match was against Arsenal and the attendance was over 30,000, the second largest ever. ‘You can imagine how squashed it was,’ says John. ‘We stood at the Oak Road End, now for visiting fans only, just behind Ron Baynham’s goal. I don’t remember anything of the game except that I enjoyed it and Luton lost 1-0. Tony and I went to a number of games at Kenilworth Road after that, including the match with the infamous incident on 9th April 1960.’
John and Tony both enjoyed my RoM account, which brought back many memories. Tony said , ‘It was a good read and it really took me back to that day in April all those years ago. Although I remember the incident with Harry Gregg quite clearly, I had long forgotten the names of most of the players from that day. I was continually saying, “ah yes, I remember that” to myself as I read the article.’
John adds, ‘As usual Tony and I stood behind the goal at the Oak Road end. My recollection of the incident was that Harry Gregg received an excessive amount of abuse and barracking from the Luton supporters. In fact I have not heard worse since. It was really OTT and I believe Harry Gregg let it get to him, so much so that I remember him baring his backside to the Luton supporters. I also recall seeing the violent incident, that is someone running up to Harry Gregg and then being knocked to the ground’.
It’s remarkable to see how selective memory can be. I had completely forgotten Harry baring his arse to the crowd, perhaps because it’s something I have suppressed as unworthy of my shining hero. Tony confirms that part of the story, with a further nice little detail, the song with which the Luton fans kept baiting Harry. It just so happened to a big, big favourite of mine at the time. Still is, come to that.
‘I do remember the incident with Harry Gregg punching a supporter at Luton very well, ‘Tony says. ‘ I seem to remember he also dropped his shorts in response to the crowd’s constant chanting of “Baby Face”!’
Harry’s ‘cutest little baby face’…
So what were the lyrics directed at our Harry by those cheeky Luton fans?
‘Baby face, you got the cutest little baby face,
There’s not another who can take your place, baby face,
My poor heart is jumping, you sure have started something, baby face,
I’m up in heaven when I’m near your firm embrace,
Mmm, I didn’t need a shove, because I fell in love,
With your pretty baby face…’
For those of you who don’t know ‘Baby Face’, it was the black American rock’n’roll star Little Richard’s biggest UK hit, peaking at No.2 in 1959 and staying in the charts for nearly four months. He had soared through the firmanent in the mid-fifties with stellar hits such as ‘Good Golly Miss Molly’, ‘Tutti Frutti’ and ‘Long Tall Sally’, when his shiny silver lame suits, outrageous ‘pompadour’ hairstyle and frantic stand-up boogie piano and hollerin’ style of singing somehow conveyed the sensation of being free at last.Some likened the feeling to getting out of jail.
For those who like obscure facts, ‘Baby Face’ was actually a million-selling sheet music hit in the Twenties in the USA , composed by Harry Axt and Benny Davis. It was first a million selling hit record in 1948 for Art Mooney, but he did it straight as a smoochy ballad, unlike Richard’s bouncy rocker which was more brimfull of earthy sexual urgency than romantic longings. Perhaps that’s what offended Harry.
It might be thought that all this stuff about music is pretty far removed from football, yet it was precisely around this time that the two worlds were coming closer together. When I wasn’t listening to ‘The Goon Show’ or ‘Sports Report’ on the BBC, I’d tune into Jimmy Savile’s ‘Teen & Twenty Disc Club’ on Radio Luxemburg, for years the best place to hear the likes of Little Richard, and almost certainly where ‘Baby Face’ got its first airing this side of the Atlantic. At the same time Jimmy was the DJ at the Plaza ballroom on Oxford Street in Manchester and he had been a good friend of several of the Busby Babes. On the night of Munich he was due to host the annual press ball at the Plaza but he simply cancelled the event as soon as he heard the shattering news. By the end of the ’50s more footballers were mixing in entertainment circles, such as the England captain, Billy Wright of Wolves, who married one of the Beverley Sisters, a highly popular if somewhat bland threesome singing group who were regularly on TV. You could regard the couple as the ‘Posh ‘n’ Becks’ of the day. Although it would be another four or five years before we’d hear talk of George Best as ‘the fifth Beatle’, there was already an increasing trend towards football taking on the glamour of showbiz, ultimately bringing us to today’s often sleazy obsession with football celebs.
The luck of Harry Gregg
At one level there was only pride at stake for United against lowly Luton, but that’s to underestimate the relentless pressure on the players in that period to demonstrate that the club really was on track to recover from the grievous loss of life at Munich. By this time the romantic national sympathy enveloping United in the early months after the Crash had all but evaporated, as resentment began to seep in among rival fans, as may have been the case at Kenilworth Road. Some people perhaps became jealous of the prestige and prominence of United as a ‘glamour club’, even when not in contention for trophies. Individual players who’d survived Munich were no longer guaranteed sympathy and respect, even genuine heroes like Gregg, who had after all fearlessly gone back into the burning wreckage at Munich to save lives. It seemed to me from around this time that rival supporters not only wanted to see United beaten they wanted them ‘taken down a peg or two’.
Harry Gregg was lucky he played in more innocent times when there were far fewer and slower media outlets. It’s quite a coincidence that I was also a close eye-witness to the second major assault by a United player on a spectator, that flying kick by Eric Cantona at Palace in ’95. Both events were similar but had vastly different outcomes.In each case a spectator rushed at the player and then ended up on the deck with fist or stud impressions on face or chest, while a top player was hustled off the pitch to general outrage. Both occurrences turned the spotlight on genuine household names, larger-then-life, take-no-shit individuals who had long endeared themselves to United supporters, which only increased the bitter dislike they faced from fans who wanted them knocked off their perch.
It’s instructive to think of how things might have turned out if a United player did today exactly the same as Harry Gregg did fifty years ago. We all know from what happened to King Eric how the hounds of hell would be instantly swirling round such a player, with countless replays from every angle in Hi-def and 3-D dwelling on the flying blood and snot. There would be thunderous editorials demanding the player be banned for life, it would be claimed that such an act of violence was ‘unprecedented’, and football in general would be called upon to clean up its act. In 1960 none of that happened, yet we can still detect the beginnings of the hatred towards the club that has created that well-known phenomenon, the ‘ABU’, the person who is so desperate to see United lose they’ll support ‘Anyone But United’.
Written by Giles Oakley
With thanks to John Glasser and Tony Cox.