The Lost but Not Forgotten Legend of Harry Gregg
Most all Manchester United fans will give you their list of personal Manchester United heroes. I hear a lot of names like Cristiano Ronaldo, pretty much any player from the class of 92’, Wayne Rooney, Roy Keane or Eric Cantona. My personal favorite is Harry Gregg. That might be more a reflection of my age more than anything.
My point is, the greatness of these modern United legends was built on the shoulders of people who get forgotten in the annals of Manchester United history. Former legends like Sir Bobby Charlton regularly pop up in conversation.
Sir Bobby deserves all the accolades and legendary status he has earned. However, what of the rest of the players, coaches, owners, backroom staff, and executives that not only built this club but provided the foundation for future generations to succeed so vehemently?
In light of my profound respect for history, I’d like to welcome you to the first of many ‘Manchester United Legends and Heroes’ articles. Here we will focus on the names that aren’t on the lips of most United fans, though they should be.
The Munich Air Disaster
The first United hero we should recognize is Harry Gregg. Few Manchester United fans won’t be familiar with the Munich air disaster. For those who are not here is a quick synopsis.
On February 6, 1958, the Manchester United first team along with its coaching staff, journalists and a group of diehard supporters were returning home from a European Cup match in Belgrade where they defeated Red Star Belgrade to progress to the semifinal.
In total there were forty-four souls on the flight home to Manchester. After a cold and snowy refueling in Munich the plane attempted to take off three times, unsuccessfully because of the icy runway.
Manchester United were on a heavy schedule at the time. In order to make up for lost time the captain and staff decided to continue to attempt to take off. By the third and fatal attempt, the snow was falling heavily and had created such a thick layer of slush on the runway that the plane could not get enough speed to take off. Eventually the plane hit a berm of slush and snow veering off the runway into a house.
Tragedy Strikes, Heroes Arise
The plane broke apart after the initial impact and caught fire after striking the house. The co-captain, a hero in his own right, James Thain began an immediate evacuation of the plane. In spite of his best efforts 23 of the 44 passengers perished.
On that day eight players from the famous Busby Babes didn’t make it (Geoff Bent, Roger Byrne, Eddie Coleman, Mark Jones, David Pegg, Tommy Taylor, Billy Whelan and the great Duncan Edwards). Three United staff members (Walter Crickmer, Tom Curry and Bert Whalley) also lost their lives.
Ever immortalized with those players and staff were eight journalists (Alf Clarke, Donny Davies, George Follows, Henry Rose, Tom Jackson, Archie Ledbrooke, Eric Thompson and Frank Swift), Manchester United’s travel agent (Bela Miklos), a devout fan (Willie Satinoff), as well as the plane’s captain and a crew member (Ken Rayment and Tom Cable).
A Legend is Born
Where, might you ask, does Harry Gregg fit into this sad story? But first a little bit about the legend himself.
Born in Tobermore, Northern Ireland on October 25, 1932, Gregg originally trained as a carpenter’s apprentice in his teenage years. His early years of football included playing with his local club, Coleraine as well as with the Linfield reserve team. Even as a teenager he was considered a great young goalkeeping prospect. He was signed by Doncaster at 18 and played with them for four years before becoming the worlds most expensive goalkeeper in 1957.
Manchester United Legend, World Cup Hero
Manchester United bought him for the hefty sum of $25,000. In nine years at Old Trafford, Gregg played 247 times. Sadly, he missed out on two league trophies and the 1963 FA Cup due to injury. However, his quiet leadership and abilities in goal almost certainly helped to lead United to these trophies.
Moreover, he led his Northern Ireland team to their first world cup in 1958. There, he was awarded the title of FIFA World Cup Best Goalkeeper and the FIFA World Cup Allstar Team Goalkeeper. He led Northern Ireland to the quarterfinal of the competition. And even greater feat, this team represented the smallest nation ever to qualify for the world cup and the smallest nation to make it to the finals of major football tournament.
This record stood until 2006, when Trinidad and Tobago qualified for the World Cup.
Harry Gregg will always serve as the gold standard of goalkeepers at United. His heroics in goal are legendary at Old Trafford. By the time of the Munich disaster, Gregg had already been established as United’s No.1.
Harry Gregg – The Hero of Munich
His promotion from United legend to legend and hero came on that fateful snowy day on BEA Flight 609 at Munich-Riem Airport in 1958.
It is his heroics at the Munich crash that perhaps overshadows his illustrious playing career. Following the crash and the plane catching fire, Gregg returned to the burning wreckage several times to drag his fellow teammates, unconscious, from the crash including Dennis Viollet, Jackie Blanchflower and Bobby Charlton. He also was the first person to attempt to revive Matt Busby before he was taken to hospital. All four men survived thanks to him.
As if this was not heroic enough, Gregg returned again to the crash to seek out a 20-month-old baby he knew to be on board. After rescuing the baby, Gregg returned to the flaming rubble to look for the baby’s pregnant mother, Vera Lukic, the wife of a Yugoslavian diplomat. After finding the mother badly injured, he dragged her from the crash as well. Both survived thanks to him.
The Epitome of Character
Less then two weeks following the crash United played against Sheffield Wednesday in the FA cup. Gregg and Bill Foulkes were the only two involved in the crash to feature in that game. They won 3-0. Both players felt it necessary to honor the fallen by representing the club they held in their hearts.
Gregg was always the reluctant hero, a mentality that resonated in the generations to follow at Old Trafford, including in Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s team today. At his eventual testimonial in 2012 Sir Alex Ferguson referred to him as “beyond legendary” and “a most reluctant hero.”
Life Wasn’t Done With Harry Gregg
He eventually retired as a player in 1968. Gregg then went on to be a goalkeeping coach for United. Following this brief spell, he moved on to coach Shrewsbury Town (1968-1972), Swansea City (1972-1975), Crewe Alexandria (1975-1978) and Carlisle United (1986-1987).
After never amassing a win percentage above 33% Gregg couldn’t replicate his playing success as a coach. He eventually retired from coaching in 1987 and became an ambassador for United as well as a shining example for all men.
Gregg’s life was not devoid of tragedy after the Munich disaster though. He lost the love of his life, Mavis Markham only three years after the crash to cancer. He also lost his second daughter, Karen to cancer in 2009.
It Should be Sir Harry Gregg
In fitting with his national status, he was awarded an MBE in 1995 and an OBE in 2019. Despite his heroics and resulting fame, he only ever wanted to be remembered for his exploits as a footballer. In his own words “That’s (football) what I want to be remembered for – not something that happened in the spur of the moment.” His legacy will always be that of the “Hero of Munich,” but to United fans he shall always live on as a leader of men and a genuinely amazing human being.
Ever the humble footballer, Harry Gregg sadly passed away in February 2020. He is survived by his second wife, Carolyn Maunders, his five surviving children: Linda, Julie, Jane, Suzanne and John-Henry and all Manchester United fans.
“…there’s heroes and there’s legends. Heroes get remembered, but legends never die. Follow your heart and you’ll never go wrong.” Granted this quote is from the movie The Sandlot, but I don’t think a more appropriate quote exists to represent Gregg.
Harry Gregg will always be remembered as both. A hero and a legend. He followed his heart and did what was right. His contribution to Manchester United’s story and history can never be understated. He was a singular character, unmatched in his humility and contribution to sport and society. That will always be his legacy.
Glory, Glory Man United.