Harry Gregg was an extraordinary man. The former Manchester United goalkeeper, who died on Sunday at the age of 87, will forever be remembered for his incredible display of bravery on the day of the Munich air disaster in 1958 which claimed the lives of 23 people, including eight of his United teammates.
Having suffered injuries himself and with his face covered in blood, Gregg rescued multiple people from the burning plane after it had crash-landed on a snowy runway. It followed difficulties taking off after a refuelling stop on the way back from a European Cup fixture in Belgrade. Teammates Dennis Viollet, Jackie Blanchflower and Bobby Charlton were all pulled from the wreckage by Gregg, as were pregnant passenger Vera Lukic and her infant daughter Vesna.
He was a hero, but he was a reluctant hero. Gregg never liked to linger on his actions of that day, always playing it down, insisting that he just did “what any other man would have done”. But others would never forget his actions, and the late, great George Best, who later played for United, said of Gregg: “What Harry did that night was about more than just bravery. It was about goodness.”
Recounting that day to BBC Northern Ireland in 2018, Gregg said: “I know what I did, I know who I saw. I remember the baby. I know what happened, I know when I found the rest of them. God forbid, if it ever happened again I might be the first one to bloody run away.”
His ability between the sticks would ensure that he wasn’t defined solely by his staggering feat of humanity that day. Gregg had made his United debut only six weeks before the crash following his 1957 transfer from Doncaster Rovers but he would go on to represent United 247 times over a nine-year spell. He even managed to overcome the mental and physical impact of the air crash to play in the club’s next game, keeping a clean sheet in a 3-0 FA Cup win over Sheffield Wednesday just 13 days later.
Gregg became a World Cup hero for Northern Ireland just four months on from his experiences at Munich. So good were his performances as his nation reached the 1958 quarter-finals in Sweden that he was named the best goalkeeper at the event, taking his place in the Team of the Tournament alongside the likes of Pele, Garrincha and 13-goal French striker Just Fontaine.
In his later years he set up the Harry Gregg Foundation, aimed at encouraging youngsters to follow the great man’s path into football. Liam Beckett, the foundation’s patron, told BBC Radio 5 live on Monday, “Despite all the adulation that was showered upon Harry, he was very much a private man, a humble man, an honest man, a man of integrity, a man of principle.
“When Harry set the foundation up five years ago and asked me to be his patron, I only too gladly agreed because I enjoy the same principles as he did: that the game is there to be enjoyed. Let them go out, let them express themselves whatever level they achieve.”
He added: “In terms of Harry Gregg, the word ‘legend’ doesn’t even come close and our wee country of Northern Ireland has lost not only a proper legend in my eyes but a national treasure if the truth be told.”
It is fitting that Gregg’s final visit to Old Trafford came on 6 February 2018, exactly 60 years on from the Munich disaster. Having earlier been at United’s Carrington training ground to meet modern-day players and staff, Gregg, along with Sir Bobby Charlton - now the last living survivor, attended the Theatre of Dreams as the club paid tribute to those who died in a special memorial service.
Gregg told the BBC ahead of that visit: “I’m just very glad that Henry Gregg, of 34 Windsor Avenue, was considered good enough to play for what I consider to be one of the greatest clubs in the world, not only because of an accident.”