The hidden legacy of Munich: tensions between Bill and Harry Gregg

One of the pleasures of seeing the ‘Class of ‘92’ in action is the palpable sense, even after all these years, that the likes of Giggs, Scholes, Beckham, Butt and the Neville brothers are still terrific friends. There are bonds that will bind them together for the rest of their lives, and they will be ‘United’ in every sense until they die. It’s easy to retain happy delusions that team mates are always just like that, mates. Of course in reality it’s all too often not like that, but when you discover that people you have revered from afar for decades simply cannot get on together it’s very sad to say the least.

I was very shocked when I first found out in 1991 that Bill and Harry Gregg didn’t get along when reading A Strange Kind of Glory: Sir Matt Busby & Manchester United by the the Irish journalist and former footballer, Eamon Dunphy. It’s a brilliant, often unsettling book, some of which draws on Dunphy’s own insider experiences as a junior at Old Trafford, where he arrived as a kid in 1960. It’s a warts ‘n’ all study of Busby, who doesn’t always come out of it well, somewhat to my dismay as a Busby-worshipper. Same with Bill , whom Dunphy describes as ‘just a bully’ who ‘seemed to enjoy knocking kids down’ in the ferocious five-a-side practice matches ‘round the back’ behind the stand at Old Trafford.

Some of the hostility between Gregg and Foulkes evidently stems from Munich, where Harry was unquestionably courageous, going back into the burning aircraft to rescue a baby and then fearlessly returning to extricate the child’s mother who was badly injured. Meanwhile Bill was getting frantic warnings to run from the wrecked fuselage by the pilot Captain Thain, who was trying to put fires out with a small extinguisher. He shouted at Bill as he recovered his senses after the plane had crashed on take-off: ‘What the hell are you doing in there? Get out, man, get out!’ .There were fires which posed enormous risks of explosions as fuel spilled out and it’s not surprising that Bill ran to get away from the burning wreckage. He hurtled across the snow and slush in his stockinged feet before stopping to look back at the apocalyptic scene. It was this episode that Gregg was later nastily disparaging about in private , saying ‘you should have seen that big fucker run’.

Some years later in 2002 Gregg brought out his (second) autobiography, Harry’s Game in which he refers to a Munich reunion in 1997 when he publicly accused Bill of ‘living a lie’ over Munich on other points where their accounts differed, including what sort of vehicle took Matt to hospital. Bill maintained a dignified silence. Harry has regularly challenged other versions of events that tragic day, as if he’s somehow the keeper of the flame or arbiter of the truth about Munich. So, if it’s any consolation it’s not just Bill who’s been in Harry’s sights. It all seems so ill-judged and demeaning, made more so by the lack of corroboration of Harry’s digs at Bill from other survivors such as Sir Bobby and Sir Matt, or others including the late Albert Scanlon who said how close he felt to Bill. To add to the complexity of these issues, Harry himself has admitted that it was a regrettable failing on his own part that it was forty years before he could bring himself to speak to Roger Byrne’s wife and other crash victim relatives, in an acute case of ‘survivor guilt’.

Back at the crash scene, Bill had in fact gone back almost immediately to help the injured, many of whom were scattered on the ground in various states of consciousness, some, like Bobby still strapped into their seats. Bill was distressed to see the dead Roger Byrne, who looked untouched, but he could hardly take in the enormity of what had happened. He turned to Matt who was groaning in agony and did what he could to comfort him, putting a coat under him to protect him from the ice and slush. Harry was helping his childhood pal Jackie Blanchflower and Bill joined them to assist as the goalkeeper Harry frantically tried to use his tie as a tourniquet to stem the flow of blood, snapping it in the process. As if to confirm just how dangerous it all was, they saw a German medic with a syringe lifted up bodily by an explosion, just as he was about to give an injection to one of the casualties..

Bill and Harry helped get Matt into a makeshift ambulance, and then they were all taken away from the appalling crash scene . As they raced through the wintry streets Bill was terrified by every bump, hitting the driver round the head to get him to slow down. Over the course of the next couple of days, in the hospital and in their hotel the two traumatised footballers were inseparable, even going to the toilet together, symbolic of a shared vulnerability that must have been difficult and strange for such tough characters to take. Perhaps this was less of an issue for Bill with his miner’s grounding in the mutual reliance of the pit.

Eventually Jimmy Murphy travelled back to the UK with the two men, going by rail, road and ferry, already thinking of how the hell he was going to put out a team with so many dead and injured. It was at that point that both survivors showed enormous courage of a different kind when they played in that first match after the crash a mere 13 days afterwards. To me, both men were heroes then, and they still are.

‘The factory floor of football’: Was Bill a bully?

The Dunphy accusation that ‘Foulkesy ‘ was a bully is interesting in a different way. Here we have quite a few witnesses to how Bill conducted himself in training at the Cliff and Old Trafford, some saying with an almost aghast admiration just how frightening he could be. His reputation endured such that Sir Alex Ferguson was in awe of the stories about him. There’s no doubt at all Bill was a very hard man, tough and uncompromising in the tackle whether in a match or in training, in precisely the way he’d learned at the feet of the hard man’s hard man, Allenby Chilton. It’s perhaps no surprise that not everyone liked it. Wilf Tranter, a young centre half who appeared once in the first team in 1964 said, ‘The player we detested was Bill Foulkes. He was really old school, hard with everybody. In a five-a-side he’d whack you. He didn’t give a shit.’ (Jack & Bobby, by Leo McKinstry, 2002)

Things could get extremely competitive, there’s no doubt about that. Alex Dawson, a great header of the ball as a teenager himself remembers heading exercises under Bert Whalley before Munich: ‘We had a few players who were decent in the air, none better than the big defender , Bill Foulkes. He never lost a head-tennis match; if it was necessary he’d come through net and all to win a header, which used to rile us no end.’

This was no place for softies, even after after Munich, as Alex remembers from another incident from what he calls the ‘factory floor of football’, this time involving Jimmy Murphy and another teenager: ‘I recall in one training game Mark (‘Pancho’ Pearson) hit Jimmy with a crunching tackle and put him in the cinders beside the pitch. Mark was apologising straight away, but Jimmy replied: “Don’t you bloody say sorry to me, you bugger. That’s the bloody way to do it! But don’t you worry, I’ll get you back!” And he did. He was a marvellous fellow.’ (Match of My Life, 2007)

Of course testimony like that should be set against what the highly critical Noel Cantwell said about the lamentable state of coaching when he arrived from the more intellectual environment at West Ham in 1960: ‘Nobody, but nobody at Old Trafford knew anything about coaching. Training was so boring it would drive you mad. We would just have a few laps, a five-a-side, and sometimes a game at the back of the stands, where people kicked fuck out of each other. With people like Bill Foulkes and Harry Gregg around anything could happen. I remember Harry once bit Shay Brennan, sank his teeth right into him because Shay wouldn’t pass the ball to him’. (Jack & Bobby)

Gregg is perhaps describing the same incident when he mentions in his own book how the normally mild-mannered Shay got into a dispute with him over whether the ball had crossed the line and suddenly Shay ‘landed one’ on Harry, before running off, with the infuriated Harry in hot pursuit (shades of Reg Allen chasing Bill, all those years before): ‘By the time I’d caught up with Shay, 20 players had caught up with me. I fell to the ground under their weight, with Shay landing on top of me. Jack Crompton forced his elbow across my throat, but I bit a hole right through Shay’s tracksuit’. Afterwards Gregg sat alone in the communal bath on one side while all the others sat with Shay on the other. Matt called the two of them in the next day and reminded them both about the ‘family spirit at the club’.

It’s clear from all this that there were plenty of players who could dish it out, not only the bigger, more senior players such as Bill. For example, Harry Gregg once saw the chunky little Irish forward Johnny Giles hit Foulkes: ‘Bill, who was twice his size, warned Gilesy he’d hit back if he ever did it again. So what did Johnny do? He smacked Bill again. Bill repeated his threat…and John repeated his punishment. Matt Busby just stood there watching, his mouth wide open in amazement.’ (Harry’s Game)

None of this will be a surprise to anyone who’s ever played Sunday football, although it can seem pretty grievous among professionals preparing for the next big match. Here it’s worth listening to George Best, who, when not catering simply for those fans wanting more booze ‘n’ sex scandals, wrote about football with real relish: ‘Every team had a hard man in the side – we had some characters at Manchester, and some really hard men like Billy Foulkes and Nobby Stiles – but hard tackles were a common everyday occurrence on the training pitch, let alone in games. At Manchester we’d sometimes train beside the rail track, in a small area covered with debris ranging from broken glass to bricks and stones, and yet we wouldn’t hold back – we were kicking shit out of each other. Players would often finish the training session with a bloody nose. In fact if you didn’t hand out the stick you were liable to be in trouble with the boss, Matt Busby. It was tough sport; there was real physical contact and you had to get used to it in training to put up with it on the pitch because you could expect to be kicked, and often, during a game.’(Hard Tackles and Dirty Baths: The Inside Story of Football’s Golden Era, by George Best, 2005)

Thank You, Foulkesy

I saw Billy Foulkes play many times for United, both as a right back in the early days, and then as a centre half, and I always loved watching him. I’ve used this word ‘hard’ about him, as so many of his contemporaries did, and it’s worth spelling out exactly what that meant. It certainly didn’t mean he was dirty, however tough he was in the tackle, as you’d expect from an ex-miner who some said could have been a human pit prop. His team mates may have quivered in their boots on the training ground, but in matches while Bill was certainly a battler it was always in an honest manner, no quarter asked, none given. You never heard complaints from rivals, just grim admiration. George Best got it right when he said, ‘When you talk of hard men you think of players like Nobby Stiles but Foulkes was hard in the sense that he just got on with it, injured, in pain, no matter what’.

As a full-back Bill was perhaps a little slow on the turn when dealing with speedy wingers, or when the ball was angled in behind him, but he nevertheless gave Matt very good service in that position, as shown by his pre-Munich medals. But it was undoubtedly as a centre half that that he came into his own, forming such a brilliant partnership with Nobby Stiles. He used to climb up the backs of opponents’ calves to get leverage when competing for headers, something at which he excelled, clearing his area as powerfully with his head and neck as some players managed with their boots. His timing was perfect as he leapt, and he was seldom out-jumped, even by aggressive centre forwards in the mould of Bolton’s Nat Lofthouse or Benfica’s Torres.

For all Bill’s ruthless reputation and his unflinching tackling , he was only booked once in his career, when he lost his temper after being baited by an opponent in 1954. He dumped the offender into the crowd with a thundering tackle and got a ticking off for his pains from the Boss . He was also only sent off once, in a reserve team match at Chesterfield in 1959 , a decision that was easily overturned when player’s union rep Jimmy Hill was able to prove conclusively that the referee had some deep bias against United, having sent off no less than seven Reds in junior competitions. The ref was suspended sine die.

Bill was a firm favourite of mine for all these reasons and because it was such a compelling spectacle to see Bill battle it out with opponents, with clashes that saw sparks fly. I recently did a ‘Loyal Through & Through’ Q&A with the United fanzine Red News , and I included Bill in my ‘Best Ever United Eleven’ as a centre half, which shows how much I thought of him, given how many quality centre backs have donned the red shirt over the last six decades. I loved his fearless aerial confrontations as corner kicks came swinging in and I revered him for his fighting, never-say-die approach when under siege on those old-fashioned , heavy mud pitches. His was leadership-by-example, showing deep commitment to Manchester United, year in, year out, battling on in the knowledge that his exertions as a defender helped provide a superb platform for the great attackers in the team such as Best, Law and Charlton.

We should never forget what Bill Foulkes did in his own quiet way immediately after the Munich Disaster or when he carried on uncomplainingly through the bad, despairing years when it often felt as though the Red Devils would never truly recover. He made an enormous contribution to the creation of what became the club’s unique worldwide celebrity in modern times, given a huge boost when United finally reached ‘the end of the rainbow’ in winning the European Cup, thus honouring the memory of the Babes who had been lost. As Matt Busby said on that momentous occasion, ‘This is the greatest night of my life, the fulfilment of my dearest wish to become the first English side to win the European Cup. I’m proud of the team, proud for Bobby Charlton and Billy Foulkes who have travelled the long road with me the last eleven years’.

For more first hand historical accounts of Manchester United, buy Giles’ e-book ‘Red Matters – 50 Years of Supporting Manchester United‘.