KEIR RADNEDGE COMMENTARY —- If ever a man deserved a football stadium statue – for courage and humanity far beyond any mere matter of kicking a ball around – then it was Harry Gregg, who has died at 87.
Gregg was the Busby Babe who, on tumbling out of the smouldering wreckage on a Munich runway to be told: “Run, run!” responded: “No, there are people still in there.” And went back to attend to the surviving and the dying.
The Ulsterman died yesterday, 10 days after the 62nd anniversary of the disaster in which 23 people, including eight Manchester United team-mates, died after a refuelling stop on their way home from a European Cup quarter-final against Red Star in Belgrade.
Twice the chartered British European Airways Elizabethan tried to take off in the snowy, icy conditions at Riem. It was on the third attempt that slush on the runway prevented lift-off and the plane ploughed through a perimeter fence and into a small building.
Gregg, briefly unconscious after the impact, and photographer Peter Howard were among the shocked survivors who went back to help. Gregg returned twice, rescuing the travel agent’s wife and her baby daughter as well as team-mates Bobby Charlton and Denis Viollet.
Remarkably, less than two weeks later, he played for United in their first match after the crash, an emotional and remarkable 3-0 win over Sheffield Wednesday in the FA Cup.
United manager Sir Matt Busby Gregg had made Gregg the world’s most expensive keeper by paying Doncaster Rovers £23,000 in the autumn of 1957. He played 247 times in nine years at Old Trafford and was a member of the squad who won the league title in 1965 and 1967.
Subsequently Gregg played briefly for Stoke and had managerial spells at Shrewsbury, Swansea, Crewe and Carlisle.
Gregg played 25 times for Northern Ireland and was one of the stars of the team who, only four months after Munich, reached the quarter-finals of the World Cup in Sweden.
His death was announced by the Harry Gregg Foundation in a Monday morning statement saying: “It is with great sorrow that we inform of the death of Manchester United and Northern Ireland legend Harry Gregg, OBE. Harry passed away peacefully in hospital surrounded by his loving family.
“The Gregg family would like to thank the medical staff at Causeway Hospital for their wonderful dedication to Harry over his last few weeks. To everyone who has called, visited or sent well wishes we thank you for the love and respect shown to Harry and the family.”
A club statement said: “It is with deepest sadness that we have learned of the passing of former player Harry Gregg OBE. The thoughts and prayers of everyone at the club go out to Harry’s family and friends.”
Sir Bobby Charlton, 82, is now the last remaining Munich survivor.
He said: “I was proud to call him a team-mate. For all the matter of fact things Harry said about that night in Munich for me he will always be remembered as a heroic figure, a shining light both on and off the pitch.
“For so many reasons, he deserves to be remembered as one of the greatest names in Manchester United’s history. Harry will be deeply missed and our thoughts are with [his wife] Carolyn and his family at this very sad time.”
Gregg remained reluctant to talk about his memories of Munich or his own heroics, once saying: “For many years I really did struggle even to face the families of some of my team-mates who died. Why them? Why not me? I did what I did that day out of instinct and many others would have done the same if they could.”
Henry ‘Harry’ Gregg: born October 27, 1932; died February 16, 2020.