Nowadays, the word “legend” gets thrown around a lot, but former Manchester United goalkeeper Harry Gregg, who passed away yesterday at the age of 87, was just that — an absolute legend.
Gregg was one of the survivors of the Munich air disaster in 1958 which claimed the lives of 23 people. Gregg earned the nickname of “hero of Munich” for his role in rescuing other passengers that day, including teammates Sir Bobby Charlton, Dennis Viollet and Jackie Blanchflower.
He also helped Vera Lukic, the wife of a Yugoslavian diplomat who was pregnant at the time, and her two-year-old daughter.
Gregg started his career at Windsor Park Swifts, also playing for his local club Coleraine before moving to England at the age of 18 to join Doncaster Rovers. He moved to United five years later.
Unfortunately, his career at United could be described as “almost” because of never receiving a winners medal while spending nine years at United.
He played in the 1958 FA Cup final defeat by Bolton Wanderers and was forced to sit out of the 1963 triumph with a shoulder injury.
United also won the league during his time there, but he did not play enough matches during the 1964-65 First Division campaign to earn a winners medal. He was then sold during the 1966-67 season when the Red Devils once again went on to win the title.
Gregg, capped 25 times, was named the best goalkeeper at the 1958 World Cup when he helped Northern Ireland earn a spot in the quarter-finals.
Undoubtedly, Harry Gregg’s legend wasn’t due to his heroics on the football field, but rather his heroics on a field just outside of the Munich airport that fateful night, Feb 6th, 1958, when he ran into the burning wreckage of the crashed Manchester United team plane — on two separate occasions — to drag out teammates and strangers and pull them to safety.
Being called a hero was something that Gregg never accepted, writing in his autobiography Harry’s Game: “Munich established my identity, of that there is no doubt. (But) the notoriety has come at a price, for Munich has cast a shadow over my life which I found difficult to dispel.”
Gregg never escaped the shadow of Munich. He wanted to, but he couldn’t. As he was prone to say: “I know what happened. I know what I saw. I was there.” For many years – too many years – those details seeped into his dreams.
During the 60th anniversary of the Munich tragedy, Gregg gave an interview to Sportsmail speaking about the guilt he faced every day:
“If I close my eyes, I can still recall every detail of what happened that day in Germany. My God, I wish I couldn’t. But I remember where everybody was sitting and what many of the boys said before we tried to take off in the snow for the third time.
“Over the years, I have had some troubles dealing with it. Survivor’s guilt is what they call it, I believe. For many years I really did struggle even to face the families of some of my teammates who died.
“Why them? Why not me?”
Gregg was awarded an OBE in the 2019 New Year Honors, and leaves behind five children, including four with second wife Carolyn. His death means that Sir Bobby Charlton is the only player still alive who survived the crash.
As a tribute to Gregg, his beloved Manchester United wore black armbands during last night’s 2-0 win against Chelsea.
Rest in peace, Legend Harry Gregg.