It’s the eyes. Always the eyes. You could see it in the haunted, grief-stricken expression etched on the face of Sir Bobby Charlton at goalkeeper Harry Gregg’s funeral in Coleraine, Northern Ireland, a few days ago. For Sir Bobby the death of his old teammate will have brought back deeply painful memories of the Munich Air Crash of 6 February 1958, which caused the death of 23 people including eight Manchester United players and three members of back-room staff.
Much has been written about Gregg’s extraordinary courage on that cold wintry day in Munich but his selflessness should never be forgotten. Prompted by the sound of a baby crying, he twice plunged back into the burning fuselage of the wrecked aircraft to rescue people. The plane had landed to refuel on the way home after a European Cup match against Red Star Belgrade and it failed to take off twice before the third, catastrophic attempt. The runway was covered with melting ice, snow and slush and the aircraft never took off, simply ploughing into buildings at the airfield perimeter, including a fuel dump.
With blood trickling down his face, Harry ignored the flames from burning aviation fuel and the air-captain’s shouted warning that it was about to explode, placing the lives of others as more important than his own. He saved the baby and a pregnant woman but was shocked at the sight of so many dead bodies, including some, like United skipper Roger Byrne, without a mark on them. He dragged the unconscious Bobby Charlton and striker Dennis Viollet by their belts to safety. Then he assisted the manager Matt Busby, who was lying on the tarmac in extreme pain, before searching for his childhood friend, the Northern Ireland centre half Jackie Blanchflower, who was bleeding profusely and so grievously wounded he never played again. The same was true of winger Johnny Berry – three times a league title winner – whose face was so badly smashed he was unrecognisable. Such horrific scenes will have remained with Harry for over sixty years.
Harry’s courage was there for all to see, but he hated being known as the hero of Munich, not least because he suffered from ‘survivor’s guilt’ for decades, if not the rest of his life.
As an eleven-year old at the time of the crash I was initially only dimly aware of the details of what had happened but I certainly knew it was truly terrible. Again, it was the eyes that somehow conveyed to me the momentousness of the disaster. I will never forget seeing cinema newsreel pictures and still photos of the night United played their first match 13 days after the crash Munich when Gregg and Bill Foulkes were the only players in the team who’d been at Munich. They played as if in a trance to defeat Sheffield Wednesday 3-0 in the FA Cup, an extraordinary result. But it was the haunted look in the eyes of newly appointed team captain Foulkes and Gregg that made the greatest impact on me. There was something intense and primal about their expressions, the like of which I’d never seen before, except perhaps in photographs of shell-shocked or wounded soldiers in the world wars. Over the years, whenever one saw interviews with any of the survivors such as Busby, Charlton or Gregg, even on topics other than Munich, there was always a melancholy and deeply embedded trace of the sadness in their eyes that never left them. As now the last living Munich survivor, Sir Bobby – who lost his closest friends, half-backs Eddie Colman and Duncan Edwards in the crash – will undoubtedly feel an increased burden of responsibility to keep alive the memory of those whose lives were lost at Munich.
In that spirit I’d now like to celebrate Harry’s life, following his death at the age of 87, not just as a genuine hero but as a great goalkeeper and authentic United ‘Legend’. He was one whose eyes took on an almost needle-like intensity when he spoke of Munich, but he would never want to be defined by that tragic event.
Along with Bobby Charlton’s ‘thunderboot’ goal scoring, and Foulkes’ dignified captaincy, it was Gregg’s goalkeeping heroics that drew me to become a United supporter, such that I cried – for the one and only time over football – when the Red Devils lost 2-0 to Bolton Wanderers in the FA Cup Final at Wembley a few months after Munich. In fact simply reaching the final was in itself an amazing feat with a patchwork team of reserves and juniors plus a couple of short-term signings. For years I fumed over Nat Lofthouse’s second goal, when he barged into Gregg’s back, knocking him out as he bundled the ball into the net. As a kid watching on my grandfather’s black and white television, it was a clear foul. Oh the injustice to my beloved Babes.
As Gregg was by now one of my greatest heroes, it was some consolation for defeat in the Cup Final that he was voted Best Goalkeeper in the 1958 World Cup, a few weeks later.
The first time I saw Harry in person was in March 1960, when United beat Fulham 5-0 at Craven Cottage. He had little to do but it was still a thrill to see him in his regular green sweater with the sleeves rolled up tightly a few inches up his forearms, a style I copied in daily life for years.
The next time I saw Harry, the following month, it was an occasion of high controversy. United beat Luton Town 3-2 at Kenilworth Road, pretty well consigning them to relegation, but Harry was sloppily at fault for the two Luton goals. He seemed irritable as Hatters fans goaded him behind his goal with cheerfully raucous renditions of Little Richard’s rock’n’roll hit, Baby Face (You’ve got the cutest little baby face). In response Harry bared his bottom towards the Luton fans, who were close enough to get a good eyeful. He was perhaps emboldened by Busby’s absence, the boss being away on family business. The same holds true for what happened next. At the end of the match a Luton supporter came onto the pitch towards him rather too aggressively, prompting Harry to punch him so hard he went down like the proverbial sack of potatoes. There was pandemonium as Harry was bundled off to the dressing room by police and teammates. The fan was quite badly bruised in the face and there was talk of a prosecution. In the end a quiet word in the ear of the police chief from Matt resolved the issue, unlike the aftermath of Eric Cantona’s kung-fu kick at Crystal Palace in 1995, which led to an eight month ban (By chance, I also attended that match and was a close eye-witness to that iconic moment).
I saw Harry many times in the next few years and he was undoubtedly one of the United greats as a goalkeeper. He was lithe and athletic, throwing himself at shots from all angles, hurtling into rucks of players, friend or foe alike to punch the ball prodigious distances out of danger. As you’d expect of the hero of Munich he was courageous, diving at oncoming forwards’ feet to the point of foolhardiness. Sometimes he came so far forward he was almost aligned with his centre half and was known to head the ball away as he came out of his area, often still wearing his flat-cap.
There was always an air of excitement with Harry, who believed in entertaining the fans, in ways Matt would have approved. He was very well balanced and sprightly on his toes, always looking to collect the ball and throw it with great accuracy to the wingers to set off an another attack. On one occasion typifying his showmanship he simultaneously caught the ball in one hand, while catching his falling cap with his other, keeping a stern, po-faced expression on his face while all around laughed. I loved it on another occasion when I saw Harry swinging on the crossbar like a monkey against West Ham at Upton Park in 1960, facing down his antagonists a few feet behind his goal.
It’s a sadness that Harry’s only silverware was his loser’s medal from the 1958 Cup Final. His career at United was blighted by injury, such as missing the 1963 final, United’s first trophy after Munich, when the Reds beat Leicester City 3-1, helped by one of Denis Law’s finest goals (How good it was to see that Denis attended Harry’s funeral).
Harry was particularly prone to shoulder injuries. The problem seemed to stem from a typically brave moment in a match in 1961 under floodlights at Old Trafford against Spurs, the eventual Double Winners. The match had been postponed at the weekend because of fog and I listened enthralled on the radio as United took on the best team in the land, a team led by Danny Blanchflower, Jackie’s brother. In the days before substitutes, when Gregg injured his shoulder he went off to be strapped up while the young Scottish centre forward Alex Dawson went into goal. When Harry came back on the pitch he played out wide as a winger and, much to his delight laid on the pass from which Nobby Stiles scored United’s second goal in a shock 2-0 victory. Delight on the night, bragging rights as an unusual outfielder, but long term problems with his shoulder, which never really recovered.
It was at Christmas that year that I got a copy of Harry’s first autobiography, Wild About Football. Harry was such a huge hero to me I wrote to him with a photo for him to sign, accompanied by a stamped-addressed envelope and a polite request for his autograph. Much to my disappointment nothing arrived for over a year, so I gave up hoping. Then suddenly there it was, my carefully addressed envelope containing the photo duly autographed by Harry, with a note of apology for taking so long. It was only many years later that I discovered that it was in that period that Harry had been nursing his beloved wife, Mavis, who was dying of cancer, leaving him to raise their two young daughters alone. A devastating loss, especially so soon after Munich. Knowing that increased the value of his autograph. He will always be a hero to me.
Beyond his selfless heroism at Munich, and even beyond his tremendous talent as a goalkeeper, Harry was important in the history of Manchester United in one other way. He was at the core of what I call the ‘nationalisation’ of the club in the months and years after Munich as support for the team spread far beyond Manchester to all corners of the land, inspired by the ‘United Will Never Die’ spirit that Harry embodied with such distinction.