So here we are a year since the passing of the great Harry Gregg. I have to confess I’m feeling quite nervous and apprehensive about writing this article. Harry was a massive hero of mine not just in a football sense and I really want to do him justice with this article. I met the man once very briefly and I was in total awe of him which isn’t really in my nature.
First of all, I’m pretty sure researching and following Harry’s life post-United that he really wouldn’t approve of the title of this article. Harry was the most humble, unassuming, brilliant human being, hero and legend. This is not how Harry viewed himself post-Munich and never liked the ‘hero’ tag. However, to many of us, he is exactly that.
Where do we start with Harry Gregg that hasn’t already been written about him over the years. I’ll will try and recap his life which given the greatness of the man is no small task. Let’s go back to the beginning.
Early Life & Playing Career
Harry Gregg was born on October 25, 1932 in Tobermore, County Derry, Northern Ireland as Henry Gregg. He was married to Carolyn Maunders and Mavis Markham.
While working as an apprentice joiner (if you look at Harry’s passport photographs recently released by his family. He actually states joiner has his occupation while travelling with United). He started his football career with Windsor Park Swifts, the reserve team of Linfield, before signing for his local club, Coleraine. Harry never walked past the Showground where Coleraine, his home team played without thinking of the day he broke into football… literally. He thought he was going to end up in jail.
Of course, Harry had played football at school. In fact one of his schoolboy international team-mates was Jackie Blanchflower, but Harry took his first real plunge into the atmosphere of professional football the day he tried to sneak into the Showground without paying. He was 14 and without a penny to his name.
Coleraine reserves were playing Linfield reserves (the Swifts as they were known) and he climbed over the tin wall into the ground. No sooner had he landed than he was caught in the act. Harry had visions of being hauled off to jail but he got the surprise of his life. He was told that Coleraine were a man short and he was asked if he would keep goal that afternoon so off he ran home for his boots as if life itself were at stake.
They lost 4-1 that day. The Linfield centre forward took two penalties during the game and scored from one. Harry was always certain he missed one of them on purpose. So began Harrys life in football and many of us believe in fate. How things could have been so different if Harry didn’t try and jib in the day. Harry earned £11-per-week as a part timer with Coleraine. He was an amateur with them and the cash he earned came from his outside as a joiner. He then went onto sign for Doncaster for £7-per-week, confident in his own ability that he would make it.
At the age of 18, he earned a move across the Irish Sea to Doncaster Rovers. So, Harry was a wanted man and the price on his head was £23,000. In December 1957, he transferred to Manchester United for £23,500, at the time a world-record fee for a goalkeeper.
Since that day in December 1957 Harry knew that many, many people said that Doncaster were the winners in the deal which took him to Old Trafford. A lot of people, including some in Manchester at the time have also said that the price on Harrys head indeed went to his head and he knew the signing came with expectations (no different to big money signings these days).
They say you have to be daft to be a goalkeeper and Harry was very much aware of this. Harry was praised and insulted, cheered and jeered. There were grounds were he was not welcome and grounds were he loved to play. He was hailed as a hero, sneered as a villain, written off as a goalkeeper who could be brilliant one moment and shocking the next.
However, despite the triumphs and tragedies, the bouquets and missiles thrown at him Harry loved football and said if he had his time over again the only thing he would want to do is play football.
Harry must seem too many people to be a man of contradictions. Harry could only ever put forward one explanation for this, the fact he was Irish. His hair wasn’t red but it wouldn’t take an awful lot of dye to change that; and he was afflicted with a true Irish temperament (or temper).
Irishmen are noted for their love of a good fight, especially if they got the chance of joining in and there were people who thought Harry went looking for trouble. He had been knifed during a football game he had been jeered at for laying an England international out cold; Harry had been the subject of discussion about a possible prosecution after a fan received a shiner. At the time there were even people in Manchester believing that Harry indulged in excess drinking and went around spoiling for a fight.
So what is the truth about Harry Gregg? It’s a mixture, of course. With his Irish blood he was impulsive on and off he pitch and easily roused to anger but quick to cool down. But mostly Harry was a fierce and dedicated family man who just wanted to do a honest hard days work. He would leave in his car to go to the ground for training and he got to Old Trafford he would work as hard and conscientiously as possible. He wasn’t a shirker in the slightest and took pride in a honest, hard days graft.
When training was over he would return home for lunch if the players were not lunching together and would get back to his family as quickly as possible. Having arrived home he would stay there. He would never go out to the pub for a drink. With Harry’s second trade as a joiner he would sometimes work in the garage on something for the home. On Sunday evenings, he would go out to church. Harry was very proud of the simple life he led, a far cry from the man on the pitch people saw from the terraces, family life was the be all and end all for him.
On the football field Harry was fiercely competitive and played to win at any cost. He made no excuses for this. Like any goalkeeper he often made great saves and sometimes let in “soft” ones. He admitted he had been concerned in more than one controversial incident which had hit the newspaper headlines but he didn’t seek any publicity (good or bad). Harry was a very private person but so many actions on the field can lead to an exaggerated reputation.
Harry’s nature was always to act first and think afterwards (which may go someway to explaining his actions during that fateful day in Munich, more on this later). This was always the case with Harry and nobody can change their temperament, especially in the moment of action, whether it be on the battlefield or on the football pitch.
Harry Gregg’s story is truly an amazing one and one of which his family I’m sure are very proud. Harry had been involved in some hotly disputed incidents, some amusing ones and one tragic incident which will never be forgotten, the Munich air disaster.
Inevitably part of Harry’s life will be linked with Munich. Since Munich, Harry never wanted to discuss events of that day certainly not publicly and I suspect this very much spanned into his private life. He was always reluctant to write about that terrible day and also the days that immediately followed because so many people were intimately involved and he really didn’t want to cause any additional grief by recalling painful memories.
When Harry thought about Munich he considered himself to be very lucky. He was spared to continue his career which he so obviously loved. Since that day, Harry always acknowledged without any sentiment or shame that his life was guided by two main aims; to lead a happy family life and to give satisfaction to ‘the boss’, Matt Busby.
Harry recalls some memories from take off that day. For some reason he never really understood he loosened his tie and the top button of his shirt and braced himself in his seat during the fateful last take off attempt. Who knows, maybe this act saved Harry from the same terrible end as those other lads we lost that day. Harry also recalls someone laughing (in an uneasy kind of way). Then John Berry saying: “It’s no laugh, we’re all going to be killed.” Harry always had the impression that the brakes were being applied as the plane began to slide. He felt something hit his head after a crashing sound and we are all too familiar with the tragic event from here.
When the plane stopped to a standstill and Harry came around he realised the safety belt just wasn’t there anymore. Harry believed he was the only one alive in all this carnage. Eventually he managed to reach the ground outside the aircraft missing a shoe to a sight of parts of the plane strewn as far as the eye could see and small fires starting up around him with the captain James Thain doing his best with a small fire extinguisher. The captain yelled to Harry to “get the hell out of here”.
What Harry did here was an astonishingly brave act (although he fervently denied anybody would have done the same in his own words). This just shows the mark of the man and he will forever be a hero of mine and I will always be in awe of him.
The child’s name was Vesna Lukic (22-months-old at the time) and her mother Vera the wife of a Yugoslavian diplomat. I watched a documentary a few years ago where Harry met them both again for the first time. It was a very emotional watch and you could see the humility and humbleness of Harry. A truly amazing human being. In fact, he also visited the site of the crash for the first time since that day during the same documentary. I recommend any of you to watch this if you haven’t already done so.
Harry made visits to the hospital where Bobby Charlton, Matt Busby and Duncan Edwards were taken along with Jimmy Murphy who travelled out and they stayed in the same hotel. Harry and Jimmy’s last words with Duncan with him asking “what time is kick off on Saturday?” with them both replying telepathically at the same time: “usual time, three o’clock”. Sleepily Duncan murmured ‘get stuck in’ before calling for a nurse. Harry never dreaming this would be the last time he would see him alive.
Eventually Jimmy Murphy, Bill Foulkes and Harry returned by train back home. It was a harrowing trip for Harry whenever the brakes screeched as they headed to the Hook of Holland.
The picture above is the start of a long way home from Munich. With Harry Gregg and Bill Foulkes with assistant manager Jimmy Murphy (read my previous article: Where is the modern day Jimmy Murphy). Harry said that “every time the train rocked, he was terrified”.
During the journey Jimmy did his best to try and keep spirits up. Eventually they reached Dover and boarded another train to London. From here they both met up with their wives and travelled back to Manchester.
Just as remarkably both Harry and Bill were in a makeshift team to play Sheffield Wednesday in the FA Cup immediately after Munich. This just staggers belief how they both managed to do this. This picture of Harry in the changing rooms with the 1000 yard stare probably says a lot more than any number of words can. It’s a picture that has always both amazed me and made me equally sad in equal measure. What must Harry and Bill have been thinking about their team mates lost whilst showing the ultimate professionalism.
Throughout the rest of his playing career Harry was known to be big, bold and famously forthright. Sometimes arguably too courageous for his own good, perhaps even verging on the reckless at times. Harry suffered horribly from injures throughout his career and often wasn’t fully fit when he did play. Harry spent nearly a decade playing for United before joining Stoke in 1966 without collecting a single club honour which in itself is a travesty. He did get some recognition, however, when he was voted the best goalkeeper at the 1958 World Cup finals in Sweden when Northern Ireland reached the quarter finals.
Life after Football
In 1995, Harry was honoured with an MBE and also an OBE in 2019 for services to football. In 2015 Harry Gregg was honoured through the launch of a foundation in his name. Leading local figures from sport and politics attended the event at Ulster University in his former home town, Coleraine. Harry Gregg was the guest of honour. Coleraine FC Academy’s community charity will now be renamed the Harry Gregg Foundation. It currently facilitates weekly programmes for more than 4000 people of all ages, backgrounds and ability. The aim of the foundation is to encourage young people’s participation in football and other health, lifestyle, educational, heritage and social inclusion activities.
Harry’s daughter Linda said the people of Coleraine had been keen to mark the achievements of her father with a statue, but he had wanted to facilitate a project that would benefit the whole community.
Tragedy was to follow Harry in later life also with the passing of his first wife Mavis from cancer in 1961 also his daughter (who also made an appearance in the documentary I mentioned) from the same illness in 2009.
Harry passed away on February 16th 2020 at the age of 87. An absolute legend of a man both on and off the pitch. To me he will always be my hero and not just in the footballing sense. It was his humbleness, his humility, his honesty and dedication to his work and family. This is my most prized possession (picture below) a signed copy of his first book along with a signed Manchester Evening News from 1958 outside Old Trafford during the 2018 Munich memorial.
His family must be incredibly proud of him as every United fan should be for him being part of our great club.
Rest in peace Harry Gregg OBE we will always remember you.