Bravery and goodness: Harry Gregg, the reluctant hero of Munich
United goalkeeper has never wanted to be defined by the lives he saved in February ’58
Harry Gregg makes a save for Manchester United in August 1958. Photograph: Getty
Up there on the northern tip of the island, the hero sits. He looks through a window of the new house they found up an unmarked track off a winding road miles out of town well away from everyone. The hero fidgets, smokes, jokes, mocks your knowledge, challenges questions, questions perceptions, gets cantankerous, agrees, laughs, talks on. Harry Gregg is all Irishmen; Harry Gregg is a singular Irishman. Harry Gregg is the hero.
Not that he wants to be, not that he ever wanted to be. But hero he is, even as he dismisses the term up there near Castlerock on the Derry coast.
They moved house recently, Carolyn and Harry, further from the crowd. Yet as each year turns and February looms, the calls come again. Harry is asked once more to revisit the grim runway at Munich-Riem airport on February 6th 1958.
He was 25 then, 85 now. His life was in front of him: he had just been transferred from Doncaster Rovers for £23,500 - a world record fee for a goalkeeper - and was bubbling with enthusiasm. He was no longer the anxious boy let go by Linfield.
Doherty was the charismatic genius player from Magherafelt who became the charismatic genius manager of Northern Ireland. He managed Doncaster, too.
“I’d to go to Peter Doherty’s house,” Gregg said to me on a visit a couple of years ago. “There was a knock at the door - and who walked in? Matt and Jimmy Murphy. Peter’s exact words were: ‘Right, Matt, the boy’s ready to sign!’
“It was a world record. Matt said: ‘Hold on, I want to talk to the boy.’ He said to me: ‘Son, we don’t pay any money [signing-on fee], do you still want to join Manchester United?’ I said: ‘Yes, I do.’
“If I’d been born a rich man, I’d have paid to join Manchester United. ”
Gregg was joining the champions of England, a club seeking a third consecutive league title, a squad destined for Belgrade in the European Cup quarter-finals. This was the team to be in and he was strengthening it. He was a player, all right, and sometimes players like reminders of their talent, not the other stuff. Harry kept a clean sheet on his United debut four days before Christmas 1957. It matters to him and it mattered to Busby. A serious manager requires a serious goalkeeper.
Details like these are obscured when there is so much angst. But talk to Harry Gregg and he takes you back to other parts of his life, to Doncaster, to Coleraine. He is more than one day.
He was 20 when he left the Irish League, a religious young man with a Catholic mother, Isobel, and a “very, very Protestant” father, William, a job in carpentry and an eye on England. Harry was Church of Ireland, a regular, a man of faith. He lived with his mother, his father left.
“Then I was told Peter Doherty was coming to my house,” he recalled. “I went home and put on my Sunday suit. I’d already said to my mother it might be the last chance I get.
“I was transferred to the great Peter Doherty. I was 20 and thought I’d grown up. I was in digs with a lady called Mrs. Rhodes on Fairfax Road. I was with a big lad from Dundalk called Paddy Gavin. He was older than me. I was quiet and shy - until someone pushed me.
“Paddy had served his time as a joiner as well. He told me that if you could speak Gaelic you got £750 towards building a house. So ‘Henry’ Gregg - me - from Coleraine Model went to the library and got a book. I taught myself to speak Irish, well some Irish. I learned a fair bit with Paddy Gavin.”
The conversation zigzagged. “Matt,” Gregg said of Busby, “was a very, very bad speaker, not confident. Two fingers on the treatment table in the middle in the dressing room: ‘If you weren’t good enough, you wouldn’t be here. Up together, back together, God bless.’ And off he went to get a big whiskey.
“Eventually Matt became a better speaker.”
Pointing to a line-up, Harry said: “See that man there? Johnny Carey. The most beautiful human being. Of all time.
“What did he do? He joined the British Army and had the whole of his country against him. I loved Johnny Carey. The last time I saw him, he was reading meters around Sale. The great Johnny Carey, reading meters.”
Gregg switched from the brilliance of Gerd Muller to the joy of Charlie Tully to the importance of Willy Meisl’s book ‘Soccer Revolution’; from the influence of the Masonic Lodge in northern England to being nutmegged by “a child called George Best”. And on to how a Servite priest sang ‘Liverpool Lou’ to Gregg’s two daughters following the death of Harry’s first wife, Mavis.
It is another piece of the man. Mavis was diagnosed with cancer in 1961 and died in January 1962, less than four years after Munich.
At the same time a bad shoulder injury was threatening Gregg’s career. In his 2002 autobiography, Harry’s Game, he said he was on a “downward spiral”, “walking the streets in a daze.” He lost his religion then. He was angry, volatile.
He can be, still.
In the basement of the previous house were Harry’s diaries. He became manager of Shrewsbury in 1968, then Swansea four years later. He pulled out a diary at random - the entry from the day he rang Busby from Swansea to try to sign Best. It didn’t happen.
The names, the dates, the events, they make a meeting with Harry Gregg a profound experience. You are in the company of history.
What he did not wish to dwell on is February 6th 1958. He knows what occurred and has been infuriated over the years by the mythology around Munich. He was made resentful by the ‘official’ United response.
Gregg knows the facts. He was there. What we know is that in the midst of the disaster he went back into the wreckage of the plane and rescued four people - Verena Lukic and her baby Vesna, and teammates Bobby Charlton and Dennis Viollet.
That’s why he is the hero even if he doesn’t want to be. That’s why George Best wrote in the foreword to Harry’s Game: “Harry, you’re my hero - and I mean that.”
And that’s why it is significant that Harry will be in Manchester on Tuesday for the 60th anniversary memorial.
It will be troubling, emotional. He and Charlton are the two remaining survivors and a distance grew between them across the decades. It has closed a little recently, two former teammates concerned about the health of another, Nobby Stiles.
So for an afternoon, Harry will be back at Old Trafford, back in 1958.
It is hard to get away from that year. Gregg has never wanted to be defined by ‘58 but it was the year his name was imprinted upon a national, and international, consciousness. Of Munich, Best said: “What Harry did that night was about more than just bravery. It was about goodness.”
This is our shared view. Harry plays it down and says sometimes he is not an easy man. That’s immaterial. What he did at Munich was not.
February 6th 1958 was 46 days after his United debut. Four months later the most expensive goalkeeper in the world confirmed that status in Sweden with Northern Ireland at the World Cup. The 17 Irishmen, including two injured, excelled. Gregg was named in the team of the tournament. He was alongside Pele, Garrincha, Raymond Kopa. The best in the world.
Danny Blanchflower made that world XI too. Gregg told a story from the tournament involving Blanchflower.
“Danny held my hand. I’m sitting at the World Cup in Sweden with this intellectual and all of a sudden he reaches across the white plastic table and took my hand.
“Now I’m from Coleraine, he’s a big-head from Belfast. Danny says to me: ‘You don’t have to fight people any more.’
“In my head I thought he was taking the piss. ‘What are you talking about?’ I said.
“’You have a crown on your head,’ he said, ‘you are the best, you don’t have to fight.’
“That man read me like a book. Most of my life had been spent fighting. He saw it.”