Former Manchester United goalkeeper Harry Gregg has passed away aged 87. He signed for United two months before the Munich Air Disaster from Doncaster Rovers for a world record fee for a goalkeeper of £23,500. Sir Matt Busby met with Gregg and told him the club didn’t pay signing on fees, which wasn’t an issue for the 25-year-old. “If I’d been born a rich man, I’d have paid to join Manchester United,” Gregg later reflected.
He made his debut on December 21st 1957 and United beat Leicester 4-0, with Gregg proudly claiming a clean sheet. Gregg went on to play over 200 games for United, but with not even a dozen appearances to his name and United unbeaten since his arrival, he was in Belgrade as his new team chased the glory of becoming the first English team to win the European Cup.
As the plane returned home, stopping in Munich to refuel, the players were nervous after the failed take offs and some even joked that they were about to die. Gregg was reading a book that he thought was a bit risqué so, as a devout Protestant then, he put it away for fear he would go straight to hell if the plane went down.
Tragically, the plane did crash and after escaping from the burning wreckage, Gregg returned three times to help out his teammates and other passengers. Bobby Charlton, Jackie Blanchflower, Dennis Viollet and Busby were among those he rescued from the plane.
Gregg’s first memory was believing that he was dead. Blood then trickled down his face, giving him the realisation that he was alive, but he was too scared to touch his head as he thought the top of it had been taken off.
In an interview with The Times, Gregg reflected on what those initial moments after the crash were like.
I realised I wasn’t dead, and reached down to undo my safety belt, but it was not there. I looked out of the hole and there, lying below me, was the first dead person I saw, not a mark on him. It was Bert Whalley, the chief coach, who’d been taken with us as a bonus for developing all those great young players.
I managed to turn myself around to kick the hole bigger to get out and it was then I noticed I was missing a shoe. I dropped down to the ground and just stood. At first I thought I was the only one left alive. In the distance I noticed five people running away, they shouted at me to run. At that moment, the aircraft captain came around from what had been the nose of the aircraft carrying a little fire extinguisher. When he saw me he shouted in his best pucker English accent: ‘Run, you stupid bastard, it’s going to explode.’
I could hear the child crying and felt angry they were running away, so I shouted again, ‘Come back, you bastards, there’s people alive in here.’ For me to shout that was difficult because, at that time, I was a God-fearing man and wouldn’t normally have cursed. But the people just kept running.
Gregg went back on to the plane and was confronted with the horror of his dead teammates and those he thought were dead, including Charlton and Viollet who were hanging out of the plane. Gregg grabbed them by their waistbands and dragged them away from the wreckage, with them still strapped in to their seats.
He also helped Vera Lukić, the pregnant wife of a Yugoslav diplomat and her two-year-old daughter, Vesna, who had been sitting on her mother’s knee.
“I went further in the wreckage and found the baby beneath a pile of debris and, remarkably, she only had a cut over her eye. I scrabbled back to the hole with her and got her out,” he said. He then found the mother of the baby, who had a serious head injury. “I was on my backside and was behind the woman, so I used my legs to push her along towards the hole. I couldn’t carry her or lift her so I got my feet in the middle of her back and literally kicked her through the hole.”
On the 25th anniversary of Munich, Gregg was reunited with Vera and Vesna.
50 years after the crash, Gregg was reunited with Zoran, the unborn baby at the time of the crash. “I have always wanted this moment, to look into your face and say ‘thank you’,” Zoran said. “I was the third passenger you saved but you were not to know that.”
Gregg was always a reluctant hero though, even turning down the invitation of a ceremony from the Yugoslav embassy, and told Zoran he had nothing to thank him for. He claimed true heroes do brave things knowing the consequences of their actions, while he had no idea what he was doing that day.
“My life was about football, and if someone says I was the best goalkeeper in the world and represented my country at every level, I’ll stand up and be proud of that,” he said. “But to describe me for doing something at the scene of an accident, it’s not something I want to shout about.”
Remarkably, Gregg played in United’s first game after Munich, less than a fortnight after the crash, and claimed a clean sheet in a 3-0 win. Jimmy Murphy was tasked with picking the team and preparing for the game, with Busby close to death in Munich, and Gregg told the Welshman that he wanted to play.
That summer he helped Northern Ireland reach the World Cup quarter-finals and was named goalkeeper of the tournament.
When reflecting on more light-hearted memories of Gregg, Giles Oakley recalled a moment of the goalkeeper’s career that didn’t court the attention it might have done. When playing away against Luton in April 1960, Gregg was on the receiving end of lots of stick from the home crowd. In response, he mooned the fans, which only riled them up further.
United went on to win 3-2 and at the final whistle fans ran on to the pitch. Gregg later recalled that he was trying to shake hands with his friend Billy Bingham but one supporter got in the way. The fan later claimed he was a Red and just wanted to congratulate the goalkeeper on his performance, although Gregg didn’t see it that way, particularly after the hostilities he had endured from the crowd. He swung for the fan, knocking him out and leaving him badly bruised. The police became involved but the club supported Gregg. The fact a pitch invader had got so close to him in the first place meant he had a defence. The goalkeeper later said he received the telling off of his life from Sir Matt Busby afterwards though!
He spent nine years at United, although never won a medal after injury ruled him out of the 1963 FA Cup final when we beat Leicester 3-1. Gregg left for Stoke in the 1966-67 campaign, when United went on to be crowned champions of England and the following season won the European Cup.
Gregg suffered from survivor’s guilt for much of the rest of his life though, unable to comprehend why his friends had died but he had escaped with his life. It wasn’t until 40 years after the crash that he was able to speak to captain Roger Byrne’s wife, Joy, who comforted him and helped wash away the guilt he had been feeling.
Charlton, who likely owes his life to Gregg, has lead with the tributes to our former goalkeeper today.
“I was proud to call him a team-mate,” he told the official site. “For all the matter of fact things Harry said about that night in Munich, for me, he will always be remembered as a heroic figure. It’s incredible to think that he went on to play in a match against Sheffield Wednesday just 13 days after that tragic night. A shining light both on and off the pitch. For so many reasons, he deserves to be remembered as one of the greatest names in Manchester United’s history. Harry will be deeply missed and our thoughts are with Carolyn and his family at this very sad time.”
Sir Alex Ferguson, who named Gregg as one of his heroes as a teenager, has also paid his respects to the club legend.
“Harry was a man of great character and a true legend at our club,” he said. “I remember that he was always very excited and proud to host our youth team at his boarding house for the Milk Cup every summer, so he could recount the tales of his playing days. I loved his company and the many pieces of advice he gave me. My thoughts and prayers are with Carolyn and his family at this very sad time. God bless Harry.”
Gregg was given a testimonial by United in 2012, with United beating an Irish League Select side 4-1, and Ferguson wrote a moving tribute to the goalkeeper.
He ended it with this poem from Nicola Burkett:
A hero thinks of others before they think of themselves
A hero will die to protect
A hero can be of any age, any colour
A hero can be man, woman or child
A hero is courageous, loving and brave
A hero will never complain
A hero can be made in one act of compassion
Or years of tender loving care
Some heroes are remembered, whilst many are left forgotten
Heroes are angels in disguise, saving precious innocent lives
Rest in peace.