Harry Gregg was more than used to saving his side on the field during his 9 year career between the sticks at Old Trafford, but what he did during the terrible aftermath of the team’s tragic plane crash on February 6, 1958 went above and beyond the call of duty and ensured he’d forever be remembered as a United great.
Gregg has always been the reluctant hero of that tragic day, wishing to be remembered as the best goalie in the world at the time rather than some kind of superhero; but that’s highly unlikely due to the fact that he is credited with saving the lives of many who would surely have perished on that runway along with 23 others.
Part of the famous "Busby Babes" before they were so cruelly cut down, Gregg was also named the best goalkeeper in the world after his heroics for Northern Ireland at the 1958 World Cup, and was even the most expensive ‘keeper in the world at one time following his move to Old Trafford from Doncaster. However, all of that pales into significance compared to what he did at Munich.
He began his career at Linfield Swifts in Belfast and after three years with the club moved to rivals Coleraine where his eye-catching performances soon caught the attention of clubs in England and after only 19 games with the club he signed for Doncaster Rovers.
Over the next four seasons, Gregg established himself as one of the best ‘keepers in the country with scouts from across Britain coming to assess his talents. Doncaster under former Manchester City star Peter Doherty did their best to resist their advances though there was one manager who simply wouldn’t take no for an answer – Manchester United’s Matt Busby.
He made Doncaster an offer they simply couldn’t refuse and after trying their best to keep their prize stopper they reluctantly accepted a world record bid of £23,750 with Greg making his United debut against Leicester on December 21 1957.
Winning the league in his first season with United Gregg became something of an icon at Old Trafford, a father figure to the young players who were gaining the plaudits of millions around the country due to their swashbuckling approach and cavalier style of playing the game.
His dulcet tones, gravel-like voice and no-nonsense demeanour kept the “Babes” in-check while also endearing him to the youngsters at the same time; but his relationship with those young players would take a different and tragic turn on that snowy afternoon in Munich when the plane bringing Matt Busby's team home from a European Cup tie in Belgrade, crashed after a refuelling stop in Germany.
After a third failed attempt to take off the BAE AS-57 Ambassador skidded off the runway before crashing through a fence and into an outlying building. Gregg was just one of nine United players who survived the crash and the subsequent aftermath; but rather than fleeing for his life Gregg’s thoughts turned to those still trapped in the wreckage
Finding that he was conscious then establishing his whereabouts he heard the cries of a baby still inside the aircraft and ran back into the smouldering wreckage to see who he could save, despite being told by the plane’s captain, James Thain: “Run, you stupid bastard, it's going to explode.”
“I got a baby out, and then a woman too,” Gregg later told The Guardian. The woman and child turned out to be Vera Lukic, the pregnant wife of a Yugoslav diplomat who was travelling with her daughter Vesna, a family that Gregg enjoyed a poignant reunion with after visiting Serbia as a guest of Red Star Belgrade in 2014.
He then turned his attention to his fellow players and manager Matt Busby. “I pulled Bobby Charlton and Dennis Viollet out of what was left of the aircraft and dragged them about 20 yards through the snow. Matt Busby was rubbing his chest and moaning, 'My legs, my legs.'
“Then I found Jackie Blanchflower and Roger Byrne the captain, who was dead. I stayed with Jackie, who was crying that his back was broken, he didn't realise Roger was lying across him. Roger didn't have a mark on him and his eyes were open,” Gregg recalled.
“I've always regretted that I didn't close his eyes and when I found Jackie Blanchflower, the lower part of his right arm had been almost completely severed. It was horrendous, a scene of utter devastation.”
The crash would ultimately claim the lives of eight United players after Duncan Edwards died of his injuries some 15 days later – in total 23 people were killed though it would surely have been more if not for the intervention of the United ‘keeper.
As for those who he helped to save; Bobby Charlton was seriously injured but ultimately made a full recovery and would go on to become a United and England legend, lifting the World Cup just eight years later and the European Cup ten years after the crash on an emotional night at Wembley.
Jackie Blanchflower was not so fortunate. Having suffered a fractured pelvis, crushed kidneys and a severed arm he was in hospital for two months but never made a full recovery and retired a year later. Dennis Viollet fared better and went on to score 32 goals in 36 games in the 1959/60 season, a club record.
As for Matt Busby, who was twice given the last rites, he also made a full recovery and went on to lead United to League and European Cup success in the years to come as the club rose once again from the ashes of the crash to become a mighty force in the game once more.
All these years on and Gregg remains uncomfortable about being labelled a hero and prefers to talk about his playing achievements. "Listen, I don't go in for all that John Wayne stuff", he once told the Manchester Evening News. "But one day you will have to stand or run. You don't know how you're going to react till it comes. I'm proud of my record as a goalkeeper. I want to be remembered for what I did on a football pitch, not for what happened in an accident.