When the clock struck 15:03 on the 6 February 2020, the 62nd anniversary of the 1958 Munich Air Disaster, Manchester United and the footballing world remembered the lives of the 23 people who sadly never returned back home.
Without the courageous actions of one man, it is probable they would have been remembering more lost ones as Harry Gregg risked his own life to save those of others on that tragic day. Many may be unaware of Gregg’s heroics because he himself in the past hasn’t regularly recollected the events, neither does he enjoy receiving praise for his bravery.
The Northern Irishman signed from Doncaster Rovers in December of 1957 for a world record fee at the time for a goalkeeper of £23,000, showing the faith United had in him. Gregg made his love for the club known before he had even played a match when Sir Matt Busby and Jimmy Murphy turned up to negotiate a deal, stating to them ‘if I’d been born a rich man, I’d have paid to play for Manchester United.’
“It was a great time to be alive. Here I was, Harry Gregg from Windsor Avenue, a professional footballer with Manchester United. To me it was the Hollywood of football I had joined.”
At 25 years old, Gregg was one of the more experienced players in Busby’s young team. However, it’s stated that Gregg actually disliked played in goal as he was ‘stuck in a cage’ while everyone else was on the pitch enjoying themselves. In the middle of January, the Busby Babes continued their run in the European Cup with the first leg of a Quarter-Final tie against Yugoslavian side Red Star Belgrade. Gregg played his first match in European competition for United as they gained a 2-1 first leg advantage.
In the return leg on the 5 February, the Babes played out a 3-3 draw to secure a Semi-Final spot for the second season running. Gregg and the team stayed the night in a Belgrade hotel before setting off to fly as normal back to Manchester the next morning. Gregg was known to be a poker player and was part of a card school at the club. The documentary United, released in 2011, depicted Gregg playing cards with the team on the flight back and it was clear that he had already become a popular figure in his short first few months at the club.
The team stopped off in snowy Munich to refuel but the plane aborted take-off shortly after as the pilot could not get enough power from the engines. When the plane attempted to take off for the second time without success, the players again went back inside the airport, as they did on arrival, none the wiser about the situation. Back on the plane and on the third attempted take off, many began to panic, and after stunned silence, disaster struck. The plane skidded on the ice before crashing into a fence and subsequently into a nearby house.
Gregg commented in an interview that when he regained consciousness, he incredibly crawled his way through the debris and out a hole in the side of the plane. After hearing the escaping pilot telling him to run as the plane was going to blow, he decided to go against this advice and to go back to save others. Gregg found Sir Bobby Charlton and Dennis Viollet, as well as his manager Sir Matt Busby who was lying in pain.
“I thought Dennis and Bobby were dead. Even so, I grabbed them by the waistbands of their trousers and trailed them through the snow for about 20 yards, away from the smouldering front of the plane.”
– Gregg commenting on how he saved Charlton and Viollet’s lives in Munich.
Gregg also rescued his long-time friend Jackie Blanchflower, who was lying below the lifeless Roger Byrne, one of the many he unfortunately could not save. One of the most amazing aspects of Gregg’s bravery in Munich is that he didn’t just stop when he helped those connected to the club, he even went in to save the life of a pregnant Yugoslavian woman, Vera Lukic.
Nearly two weeks after the crash, Gregg played in goal in an FA Cup tie against Sheffield Wednesday at a packed Old Trafford, which United won 3-0. However, the rest of the team was mostly made up of debutants, fringe players and players given to United from other clubs. For Gregg to not only play weeks after seeing his friends and team-mates tragically pass in Munich, but to lead such a team to victory in such an emotional match, is a testament to the character of the man and his will to honour the Busby Babes.
Gregg played in the FA Cup final defeat to Bolton Wanderers at the end of the season along with Charlton and Violett but unfortunately missed out in the successful cup winning year of 1963. Gregg left United in 1966, two years before United won the European Cup at Wembley, with Busby in charge and Charlton captaining the team. Gregg never won a trophy at the club, but without his heroics in Munich in 1958, Busby and Charlton may not have even been alive to triumph a decade later.
In the 2019 New Year’s honours list Gregg was awarded an OBE for services to football after a campaign was set up for him to be honoured the year before. Harry Gregg was not only a brave goalkeeper, he was a brave man, and the hero of Munich should never be forgotten as one of the most important individuals in the club’s history.
Written by Alex Metcalfe