Few men in the history of Manchester United football club have played such an important role as that played by Harry Gregg. In a celebrated history that has seen many wonderful goalkeepers, Gregg was arguably the first one chronologically that gets included in the “best ever” debates. A cruel run of luck meant that though Gregg played in Sir Matt Busby’s “Babes” team, injury prevented him from picking up any winners medals for the club.
Harry’s contribution extends far beyond the pitch; an impressive clean sheet record ratio spoke for itself about his ability as a goalkeeper (48 in 247 games in an era that saw little protection for the keeper), and his reputation for being a hard man gave him a real character, an identity that saw him stand alone. But it was on 6th February 1958, and the tragedy of Munich, where Harry’s actions cemented him forever in the story of the clubs’ history.
It is improbable that anyone reading this is unaware of what Harry did on that day; but for those still unfamiliar with the extent of the story… After the plane had crashed, Harry risked his own life to go back into the wreckage, and pulled some of the bodies from the wreckage including Bobby Charlton, Matt Busby, Dennis Viollet and Jackie Blanchflower. He also helped a lady named Vera Lukic (who at the time was pregnant) and her young daughter. To read and hear about his bravery is humbling – below is Harry’s account of the tragedy.
We set off once again and I remember looking out of the window and seeing a tree and a house passing by; and suddenly everything went black all of a sudden and sparks began to fly. I was hit hard on the back of my head and I thought the top of my skull had been cut off.
The plane went on it’s side, sort of upside down. There was no crying. There was just silence and blackness and then for a second daylight again. I thought I was dead so I sat there quietly and a strange idea passed through my mind. I remembered thinking that I had a great life and my wonderful family and that I couldn’t speak German!
There was a great hissing noise all around me and I realized that I was still alive. I unfastened my seat belt and began to climb out. Captain Thain appeared with a fire extinguisher and told me to run for it.
I got out of the plane and there’s five people running for it and Thain said “run you stupid bastard, the plane’s about to explode” and I was about to run when I heard a child crying.
I called out to them “come back you bastards, there’s a child alive” but they didn’t come back and I went back in and I was terrified what I’d find. I found the baby and started to carry it out. The radio operator took the child from me and I went back into the debris and I found her mother who was in a bad condition. I kicked a hole in the fuselage and I pushed her out.
I found Albert Scanlon who was badly hurt and I tried to get him out too, but he was trapped by his feet and I couldn’t move him.
Peter Howard, the Daily Mail photographer, was with Albert keeping him company. I ran round to the back of the plane and I found Bobby Charlton and Denis Viollet lying still. I thought they were dead and I dragged their bodies, like rag dolls, into the seats which had been thrown about twenty yards from the plane. I started calling out for Jackie.
As I searched for him, I saw the tail end of the plane ablaze with flames. I found Matt Busby, who was conscious, but holding his chest in pain, crying out “my legs, my legs. I propped him up and found Blanchie crying, with Roger Byrne lying across him dead.
Jackie’s arm was in a bad way and bleeding badly, so I tied a tourniquet on it with my tie. I pulled it so hard that my tie snapped in half but I managed to tie his arm with what was left.
Suddenly a man in a long trench coat arrived carrying a syringe. I shouted at him to go and help the injured in the aircraft but suddenly there were some explosions from the burning half of the plane and the force through the doctor off his feet. He was a strange sight falling on his backside in the snow, with his legs in the air holding the syringe in his hand.
I turned around and got the shock of my life for there was Denis and Bobby standing, just watching the fire. I was so relieved, I thought they were dead. Shortly after this, when it looked as though the rescuers had everything under control, I sank to my knees and wept, thanking God that some of us had been saved. I had never seen death before and I never wanted to see it again.
An excellent piece on Harry’s career was posted last year on BackPage Football; and recently, I had the opportunity to chat to Harry’s grandson, Danny, who understandably is very emotional and proud when it comes to talking about his grandfather. One of the first things I wanted to ask was one of the hardest things to word; we are all proud of our grandfathers. In many cases, a boys relationship with his grandfather is more special than that with his father. So just how was it for Danny? He recalls that the moment he found out Harry once played for United, that they were his football team from that moment on. “I became aware of him playing for United around 1993… I remember the moment I found out, I automatically wanted to watch them play. I remember watching Manchester United play Sheffield Wednesday on the TV, taking notes with my sister of all the players names, such as Giggs, Kanchelskis, Irwin, Robson, Hughes, Pallister, McClair, Ince, Schmeichel, Cantona… the final score was a five-nil whitewash to United at Old Trafford. I frantically wrote down every single name ensuring that i did not miss any players out. After this I was still wet behind the ears when it came to football, I was young and did not fully understand it. My Grandad was still my Grandad, I just did not realise the enormity of what he had done, the bravery he had shown, just that he played for this football team that appeared on the telly.”
I point out Harry is widely recognised as the first “great” United goalkeeper; so, even without Munich, I wonder just how proud Danny is to have that association. “I am very proud.. I doubt my words could do justice to how proud I actually am! Not only is he one of the greatest grandfathers in the world, but also he was one of the greatest goalkeepers the world had seen. You only have to look at footage from the 1958 World Cup for you to see how good he was. He was known as a fierce shot stopper who had no fear. He played the game his way, adding his own personal touch to it and it worked. I remember reading an article which went on to say it was more his own team that feared him in the penalty box than that of the opposition. One piece of memorabilia my grandfather has is a programme which consists of about eight former players’ opinions on who they would have as their greatest United XI and 6 of them chose Harry. My grandfather will always be known for his heroism at Munich, which I am in awe of. On top of that he was a great goalkeeper a dedicated family man and is a true inspiration to me. I am very proud to be his grandson. For as long as I live the memories and the appreciation, I have for my granddad will always be with me and will be passed on to my own children who will hopefully appreciate how inspirational his bravery was as much as I do.”
So how did Danny find out about what happened in Munich? “Munich came to light about a year after I initially found out about him playing for United… I remember the documentary very well, it was a Munich documentary which featured on ITV roughly around 1994. This was the first time I learnt about Munich. The way in which my granddad portrayed Munich enlightened me to the events of that day as though I was there reliving it beside him. The documentary was very moving with a collation of archive footage put together. The emotion in my grandfather’s voice truly moved me in ways which I will never forget.”
Somewhat understandably; after watching that documentary and discovering the events for himself, out of respect, Danny doesn’t feel comfortable discussing it with Harry himself. “In truth no (I haven’t spoken to him at length about Munich), I respect my granddad to a degree which I would feel insensitive to touch upon a subject the wounds of which are still very close to the surface. I was very young when he first spoke of it on national TV, he spoke about it and I listened. I have no intention of asking him to relive those memories for my personal needs. He tells the world straight about the ins and outs and speaks in truth of the disaster during interviews. You only have to look into his eyes to see how much emotion he feels attached to that day. When speaking to my granddad I touch upon the players and people that were involved and their strengths. He talks about them all with great affection. He can still relay to you every game they played in together, move by move tackle by tackle as though it was only yesterday. They are never far from his thoughts.”
Danny has accompanied Harry and been the guest for various events remembering Munich; the former Manchester United Players’ Association organised for Harry was just one such event. “My grandfather was oblivious to the fact that it was in his honour. I was the guest he asked to take along and felt very honoured that he asked me to attend the dinner with him. We pulled up to Old Trafford and parked in the staff car park in front of the East Stand. I walked with him around the ground to the Museum entrance. There were numerous fans waiting outside Old Trafford for the former players to arrive. Before I knew it we were surrounded by a crowd of fans shouting my granddads name, I stood behind him to ensure there was no physical contact, which luckily there wasn’t… having said that, even at 77, I doubt many would get past him! Anyway, away we headed into Old Trafford, walked into a bar and immediately went over to Kenny Morgans to socialise. Whilst we were in the bar a number of players from the past and present came to greet Harry. I felt so honoured to be in my grandfathers presence on that day, to see what an impact he had had on others. After 20 minutes of meeting and greeting Wilf McGuiness came through the door to ask if he could spend some time with Harry. I was on my own for five minutes whilst everyone was interacting, I felt out of place amongst the former players in that room as I had no stories to tell, the only thing for me to do was listen. Then Wilf McGuiness came back in, and I heard ‘Harry Gregg’s grandson? Is Harry Gregg’s grandson here?’… He said ‘Right, we need to sort you out with a seat’ He took me through some double doors into the function room. As soon as I entered the room, my breath was taken away, I saw “Gregg 1” on the back of the menus (as if it were a shirt) across the dozens of tables that were there. Wilf took me to the head table where my grandfather was sitting, he was sat next to the great Bert Trautmaan. Bert was the VIP guest and a man who Harry believed was the greatest goalkeeper he had seen. He asked me if I was alright, Wilf then pointed me in the direction of the table I would be sitting at. I sat down and looked at the name cards next to me, from left to right, Bobby Charlton, Alex Stepney, Billy Foulkes, Billy’s son, Freddie Goodwin’s son, Freddie Goodwin, Kenny Morgans and then myself. With a massive lump in my throat I waited for them to be seated. After everyone had been seated Bobby Charlton asked me a few questions about myself which put me at ease, I felt more comforted. Gordon Banks was guest speaker at the head table, Bobby Charlton turned around to me and said, ‘You see those goalkeepers up there… they are the best goalkeepers to have graced the game, including your granddad’ .That gave me a feeling I could not explain, I had one of the biggest smiles on my face! Harry was presented with a terrific photo of him shaking hands with the Duke of Edinburgh, and the back of the photograph was signed by players of the past and present. It was an amazing night to have been involved in the United community… in my lifetime I will never forget it. What topped it off is the previous players coming up to Harry and saying that they wouldn’t have come if he hadn’t have shown up. At the end of the night they advised it was their best attendance to date.”
It was recently announced that United will play in Belfast in a testimonial game for Harry; an event that is richly deserved. Though Danny had seen his grandfather honoured by the club with a special day dedicated to him, he was also honoured to attend the memorable 50th anniversary commemorative event in 2008 and can remember that just as vividly. “I have never experienced anything like it. As a family we arrived at Old Trafford in chauffeured cars with blacked out windows. As we drove through crowds of people into the North Stand they were all chanting my grandfather’s name. It was incredible. My grandfather had gone on ahead in a car before us, but as we got out of the car the press flashbulbs were blinding! It was quite an experience. We went into a reception area where guests, Sir Alex and current and past players were and we all got the chance to mix. Sir Alex came over to chat and was, as always, complimentary about my grandfather. Once in the room for the service, you could have cut the emotion in the air with a knife. I have never felt anything like it. Everyone was moved by the whole service. The lighting of the candles was particularly poignant which you can see in the faces of granddad and the others that lit the candles. As always, Eamonn Holmes was passionate and eloquent in his part of the service. After the emotions of the service we then went for the meal and everything was relaxed and families mixed with families that hadn’t seen each other for years. It was (almost) like any other “do”, it was easy to forget that some of the most revered names in football past and present had come there to remember a part of the great Manchester United’s history.
The BBC released “Munich”, a 90 minute drama that showed the events of the tragedy. Harry’s thoughts about the drama’s inaccuracies mirror those of Sir Matt Busby’s son, Sandy – as Danny explains. “I totally agree with the opinion Harry has on the programmes related to Munich. They contact Harry every time they are planning on producing such a drama. Harry says, “If you’re going to do something like this, do it right. Not for me but for the families involved” .The film ignores the deaths of a senior member of the United management team, Walter Crickmer, Tom Curry, and eight journalists. It also overlooks the dedication of the pilot Captain James Thain, who helped pull survivors from the wreckage.
I find that really insulting to their families. There wasn’t just a football team on that plane, there were other people who had families, lives and yet TV producers seem to cast them aside these names just to make a buck or two. I don’t blame the audience for liking the drama because as a drama itself is very moving, but it’s based very loosely on the events surrounding Munich. I find it a shame that I have to scrutinise every documentary on Munich, but that will always be my way with me having such strong feelings on it.”
Such feelings are understandable when linked to such an emotional subject that provokes grief and memories of it; I can remember sharing similar concerns when I first saw the programme. Though effective in conveying emotion, and providing a strong educational message for those who didn’t live during the time of the disaster, the inaccuracies in the programme were always going to cause offence for some connected to the disaster.
These days, Harry resides in Northern Ireland. In his 80th year, it is nice to hear that he is doing well. “He is absolutely great,” says Danny. “I speak to him on the phone as often as I can… the majority of the time talk turns to football but its usually me who’s the instigator! He still lives in Northern Ireland in a small village near Bushmills. He regularly goes to the beach in the morning and tries to attend local football matches at Coleraine as often as he can.”
There’s no other way to close this piece than with a poem written by Harry himself which Danny kindly allowed me to share with our readers. Thanks to Danny for sharing; and for spending his time sharing his stories for 7Cantonas.
The Phoenix – By Harry Gregg
How they laughed, and loved, and played the game together
Played the game and gave it every ounce of life
And the crowds they thronged to see such free spirits
But, good god, there wasn’t many coming home
The dice were cast, for some the last, the final challenge
On a snow bound ground in far off Serbia
The tie was won, the songs were sung, we sang together
But, good god, there won’t be many coming home
Roger Byrne, Mark Jones, and Salford’s Eddie Coleman
Tommy Taylor, Jeffrey Bent, and David Pegg
Duncan Edwards, and Dublin’s own boy Liam Whelan
My good god, there wasn’t any who came home
Then Murphy picked the standard up
When all looks lost he made the cut
The fresh young flowers he’d fondly nourished
On a Munich runway had sadly perished
With aching heart he beat the gong
And told the world the babes lived on
Then best he came, he eased the pain
With Charlton, Law, and Crerand
The years between were cold and mean
They never had that feeling
Pretenders came and left again
There wasn’t any healing
Then Fergie came and fanned the flames
With Eric’s gallic passion
He gave us Giggs, he gave us Scholes,
He gave us Butt and Beckham
He bought in Keane to lead the team
To even greater glory
My nightmares gone, my dream moves on
Again I see the phoenix
There are those gone down that long, long road before us
Yet each morn we try and keep them in our sight
In memories eye, the busby babes are all immortal
The red devils spirit lives, it never died