Harry Gregg: Hero of The Munich Air Disaster

by Willie Gannon

The Munich Air Disaster happened  53 years ago today. Harry Gregg is relatively unknown for the heroics that he performed on that dark winter night, a date that has become etched in the minds of football fans all over the world, no matter what club they support.

Over his 35 year career as a player and a manager, Harry Gregg achieved more than most. He was a part of the famous “Busby Babes” for almost 10 years, was voted the best ‘keeper in the world after his heroics for Northern Ireland in the World Cup in 1958, and for a time he was the most expensive goalkeeper in the world.

The date of February 6th 1958 was the night of “The Munich Air Disaster.” And on that night a F-609 crashed to claim the lives of 23 people, including eight members of Matt Busby’s Manchester United team.

But to tell the story of Gregg’s heroics on that night, I will start with his tale of how he ended up at Old Trafford under the maestro that was Matt Busby.

Harry Gregg made his breakthrough into football through Linfield Swifts in Belfast, Northern Ireland. And after three years with the Belfast giants’ reserves, he moved to rivals Coleraine where his exploits made clubs in England sit up and take notice.

The Co. Derry team paid Gregg £80 to make the move from Belfast, and such a payment wasn’t to be sniffed at. It was the equivalent of a year’s wages in 1951 and the money was important for Gregg’s family to whom the youngster gave most of the money to. After only 19 games with Coleraine, the legendary Peter Doherty signed Gregg for Doncaster Rovers. The ex-Manchester City star was also from Derry and despite having moved to England almost 20 years previous while pursuing a career as a professional footballer, he still had contacts back home.

Doherty was player/manager for Doncaster at the time and after identifying a goalkeeping problem that needed addressing, he moved swiftly for his fellow countryman.

Gregg was part of the the Irish League team that had been beaten 9-0 by an English League team, and with scouts at the game deciding that there wasn’t much to offer from the Irish League, he thought his best chance of moving to England had gone. So when Doherty and Doncaster came in for him, he signed without hesitation.

Unfortunately for Gregg, the euphoria of having signed professional terms for an English club did not last long. Within two weeks, he had established himself as first choice at Doncaster and went on to make his debut against Celtic in a match where he acquitted himself well. However, things were to take a nasty turn three days later against Blackpool.

Cruising and leading the game 2-0, Gregg dived to make an innocuous save at the start of the second half. Doherty realized that his new signing was in trouble and the game stopped as Harry received attention. He had broken his arm in two places and dislocated his elbow. The injuries Gregg sustained against Blackpool were the start of a long catalogue of injuries that would have a massive effect on his career.

These injuries kept Gregg out of the game for around 10 weeks, and he did not make it back into the team until the end of the season. With no reason to stay in England during the close season, Harry went back home.

But disaster was to strike again, as within days of going home Harry broke his ankle while having a kick-about with his friends. With only five weeks to go until pre-season training Gregg faced having his leg in a cast for six weeks. One week before training was to commence Gregg went to see his doctor to get his plaster off early.

But Professor Bailey hit him with the thunderbolt that his ankle had not set properly and that the cast would need to be kept on for another six weeks. Gregg’s answer was to go home and with the aid of a hammer, chisel, and pliers, he cut the cast off and started the long trek from Derry to Doncaster.

Doherty, who had been in constant touch with the Gregg family throughout the summer, was lying in wait for Harry to arrive. He wanted his goalkeeping prodigy to get another cast, but Harry was adamant that he did not need one, and after a long argument Gregg refused point blank to another cast. Having lost the battle, Doherty was determined not to lose his goalkeeper and he gave him four weeks on the sidelines before he slowly introduced him to the reserves.

Eight weeks later, Gregg was back in the first team.

Over the next four seasons Gregg established himself in the Doncaster team and clubs from the length and breath of Britain came to scout “The best ‘keeper in the country.” All of them were put off by Doncaster’s demands, not so Matt Busby.

Busby had been looking at Gregg for some time and even though United had England’s regular Ray Wood between the posts, he had seen something in the young man from Northern Ireland that convinced him that he was an essential piece in his jigsaw as he chased the league. United made an approach to Doncaster and after a half hearted attempt by Doherty to keep Gregg, he reluctantly accepted a world record bid of £23,750 for the keeper.

One thing to note about this ostentatious signing of Harry Gregg is that he was Matt Busby’s first signing in over four years as he has established an incredible production line of players who seamlessly fitted in to his philosophy and system.

Within minutes of meeting Matt Busby and Jimmy Murphy, Gregg accepted the move without having to think about it, the signing on fee of £30 was far less than the fee that Gregg had accepted from Colraine six years previous.

By 1957 “The Busby Babes” were the force in English football, Matt Busby had fostered a team that combined flair and hard work effortlessly. They had won the league in the previous year scoring 103 goals in the process of doing so. This fact is even more amazing when you consider that the team had a average age of only 22. But after a string of bad results that saw United’s title bid falter, Busby acted ruthlessly to fix things and Gregg was seen as the ideal signing after a recommendation by Jackie Blanchflower.

Harry Gregg made his debut on the 21st of December against Leicester City within days of making the move to Old Trafford, a resounding 4-0 victory following defeats to Spurs and Chelsea. His third game was away to city rivals Manchester City who had the Player of the Year playing between their posts, Bert Trautmann.

The giant German was one of the best goalkeepers ever to play in England and he was the one player who Harry really respected. Describing him as the best goalkeeper he ever saw, Trautmann provided Gregg with the greatest motivation he ever had especially when the two teams clashed because Gregg wanted the headlines to be that he was better than Bert.

The 2-2 draw that the two sides from Manchester provided was a classic end to end game and the headlines that were on the “Manchester Pink Pages” were about Gregg, but they came from an unexpected angle, “Have United bought a goalkeeper on an attacking centre half?”

This headline goes someway to explaining Gregg’s dislike for playing between the posts. He always hated keeping goals because as far as he was concerned everyone else was out there enjoying themselves while he was stuck in a cage.

On moving to United, Gregg found kindred spirits in Jackie Blanchflower, Ray Wood, Liam Whelan, and Johnny Berry, all enthusiastic poker players and a card school was set up.

Busby kept a close eye on the school and as long as the money lost did not get out of hand he allowed it to continue, as gambling was a better alternative to boozing and women. And the school with Busby’s keen watch fostered a great bond between the players.

United were on track to reclaim their title, but they also had the added distraction of the “European Cup.” Going against the league’s stance that United should not play in Europe because England did not need to be in such a tournament, Matt Busby was the first manager to lead an English side to foreign shores.

Their first opponents were Irish League Champions Shamrock Rovers.

A crowd of around 45,000 packed into Dalymount Park to see “The Babes” play and United ran out 6-0 winners in a devastating display. The return leg was a much closer affair with Rovers pushing the giants to a 3-2 win for United.

The Irish side was unlucky to come away without a result, which is a testament to them being one of the best Irish teams of all-time.

Liam Whelan who was only born a mile from the Phibsborough ground scored a brace on this special night for him and family. But the game taught Busby a valuable lesson, sides in Europe were not to be underestimated and unknown teams could provide even teams like United with a lesson in football.

United then overcame Dukla Prague to qualify for the quarterfinals against Red Star Belgrade. Manchester United were warned by the league that any failure to make league fixtures would be dealt with severely and that they would have to play in Europe around the games in the league and that no help would be awarded to them.

In the previous round against Dukla Prague heavy fog prevented them from flying into Manchester so United had to fly to Amsterdam and then get the ferry to Harwich before a long train journey home.

When United did eventually get home all of the players were shattered and they scraped a 1-1 draw with lowly Birmingham the following Saturday. So when United were drawn against Red Star they made arrangements to fly from Yugoslavia, refuel in Munich and then home.

Leading 2-1 from the first leg, thanks to Gregg who made many spectacular saves, United claimed a 3-3 draw in Yugoslavia, and thus began the doomed journey home.

The takeoff was delayed for over an hour as Johnny Berry had lost his passport and Yugoslavian officials refused to allow United to leave until Berry found his official papers. Captain Thain flew the plane to Munich for its scheduled stop for re-fueling.

But after two failed attempts to take off due to a poor mixture of fuel, the passengers of flight G-ALZU were all told to disembark. Heavy snow began to fall and most of the passengers resigned themselves to staying in Munich for the night.

Fifteen minutes later all of the passengers were recalled to the place after Thain had changed his mind. Many of the United players were poor flyers and had to be talked into boarding the plane, Liam Whelan and Johnny Berry in particular.

On take off Thain opted against having the Elizabethan’s wings brushed free of snow and the plane began it’s trek to the runway. Gregg began to get really scared when he noticed how quiet the plane had become. As he turned to talk to Roger Byrne, the fear in Byrne’s face made him think something was really wrong.

Liam Whelan then turned to Gregg to reassure him by saying “Well if it’s going to happen, I’m ready for it Harry” with a big smile on his face and then disaster struck.

I’ll let Harry tell this part of the story because his words say it best.

“We set off once again and I remember looking out of the window and seeing a tree and a house passing by; and suddenly everything went black all of a sudden and sparks began to fly. I was hit hard on the back of my head and I thought the top of my skull had been cut off.

“The plane went on it’s side, sort of upside down. There was no crying. There was just silence and blackness and then for a second daylight again. I thought I was dead so I sat there quietly and a strange idea passed through my mind. I remembered thinking that I had a great life and my wonderful family and that I couldn’t speak German!

“There was a great hissing noise all around me and I realized that I was still alive. I unfastened my seat belt and began to climb out. Captain Thain appeared with a fire extinguisher and told me to run for it.

“I got out of the plane and there’s five people running for it and Thain said “run you stupid bastard, the plane’s about to explode” and I was about to run when I heard a child crying.

“I called out to them “come back you bastards there’s a child alive” but they didn’t come back and I went back in and I was terrified what I’d find. I found the baby and started to carry it out. The radio operator took the child from me and I went back into the debris and I found her mother who was in a bad condition. I kicked a hole in the fuselage and I pushed her out.

“I found Albert Scanlon who was badly hurt and I tried to get him out too, but he was trapped by his feet and I couldn’t move him.

“Peter Howard, the Daily Mail photographer, was with Albert keeping him company. I ran round to the back of the plane and I found Bobby Charlton and Denis Viollet lying still. I thought they were dead and I dragged their bodies, like rag dolls, into the seats which had been thrown about twenty yards from the plane. I started calling out for Jackie.

“As I searched for him, I saw the tail end of the plane ablaze with flames. I found Matt Busby, who was conscious, but holding his chest in pain, crying out “my legs, my legs. I propped him up and found Blanchie crying, with Roger Byrne lying across him dead.

“Jackie’s arm was in a bad way and bleeding badly, so I tied a tourniquet on it with my tie. I pulled it so hard that my tie snapped in half but I managed to tie his arm with what was left.

“Suddenly a man in a long trench coat arrived carrying a syringe. I shouted at him to go and help the injured in the aircraft but suddenly there were some explosions from the burning half of the plane and the force through the doctor off his feet. He was a strange sight falling on his backside in the snow, with his legs in the air holding the syringe in his hand.

“I turned around and got the shock of my life for there was Denis and Bobby standing, just watching the fire. I was so relieved, I thought they were dead. Shortly after this, when it looked as though the rescuers had everything under control, I sank to my knees and wept, thanking God that some of us had been saved. I had never seen death before and I never wanted to see it again.”

The United team were shattered and after losing so many to the cras. The heart and soul of the club had been ripped asunder. United only won one league game after Munich and they ended the season in ninth, the did however reach the FA Cup Final, with thanks to players like Gregg, which is a huge testament to their courage and professionalism.

The FA Cup Final came as a massive anti-climax for the club, after getting to Wembley the team had to wait six long weeks to play. And in that time there was a lot of reflection.

The team who took to the pitch against Bolton were mentally drained before the game, and with many players voicing their unhappiness at being labelled “heroes” for playing football while their friends lay dead, the game became one where the players had no interest in playing. Bolton won 2-0.

In the aftermath of the FA Cup Final a newly formed UEFA even extended a special invitation to Manchester United to compete in the European Cup alongside champions Wolves, but the FA declined to accept the offer.

The next 10 years were tough ones for players at Manchester United, they wanted to win trophies, but they felt guilty about achieving this without their lost friends. Eventually time heals most wounds and as professionals United went on to win the league in ’64 and ’66 and the FA Cup in ’63.

Unfortunately for the best keeper in the world, he missed out on all the glory and medals as he was injured for much of the time United were challenging. Earlier injuries of his dislocated elbow and broken ankle coming back to haunt him.

In June 1958, the World Cup took place in Sweden and the reverberations of the Munich air disaster were still present; an England team who had lost three of its sons was knocked out in the group stages while Harry Gregg represented Northern Ireland.

To qualify for the World Cup, the Northern Irish had finished on top of a group that contained European heavyweights Italy and Portugal. Northern Ireland would also go to Sweden without one of their best as Jackie Blanchflower was forced to retire after Munich as he had lost arm.

In Sweden, Northern Ireland beat Czechoslovakia 2-1, drew with Germany 2-2, and fell to defeat against Argentina 3-1. This run of results saw them finish in the playoff positions and after drawing Czechoslovakia in the the draw they beat them 2-1 after extra time to become the smallest country ever to qualify for the Quarter Finals, where they were knocked out by France.

In the late ’50s Northern Ireland were blessed with some of the best players in Europe.

Danny Blanchflower (Jackie’s older brother), the legendary captain of the Spurs double winning side marshaled the midfield with an amazing eye for a pass. Derek Dougan (Portsmouth) and Peter McParland (Aston Villa) provided most of the fire power up front, McParland scoring an impressive five goals in five games in Sweden, and Harry Gregg who was regarded as the best keeper in Britain.

Gregg put in some very impressive performances in Sweden, and in his four games (he missed the playoff against Czechoslovakia) he did enough to convince FIFA and many of the journalists present to vote him the best goalkeeper in the tournament, and indeed the world.

As Matt Busby continued to rebuild his team in his conquest for European domination, Harry Gregg was sold to Stoke in the summer of 1967. His stay was a short one as he took over as manager of Shrewsbury Town after only two games for the Potters. His four years for the Shrews were largely nondescript and they maintained their place in Division Four throughout.

In November 1972, he became manager of Swansea City, before resigning in 1975 to join Crewe Alexandra where he remained until 1978. He then had a spell with his old team Manchester United at the invitation of Dave Sexton as goalkeeper coach, where he stayed until Sexton left.

His next club was Swindon Town as an assistant manager to Lou Macari, helping them win the Fourth Division title in 1986. During the 1986-’87 season he had an uneventful spell as manager of Carlisle United, failing to prevent them from suffering a second successive relegation that pushed them into the Fourth Division for the first time since the 1960s.

The job at Carlisle was his final foray into club management, and his 20 year career as a manager was mostly spent at the coalface fighting fires in smaller clubs who looked like extinction was only around the corner.

He may not have won trophies or achieved much with distinction as a manager, but Gregg is immensely proud of the players who passed by under his watch who went on to achieve greatness.

Goalkeepers John Phillips, Joe Corrigan, Jimmy Rimmer, Dai Davies, Gary Bailey, and Bruce Grobbelaar all benefited from Gregg’s advice and coaching to advance their careers at both club and international level.

In Grobbelaar’s case, Gregg trained him at Old Trafford and begged Dave Sexton to sign him but Sexton decided not to and a couple of months later he joined Liverpool. Grobbelaar sent Gregg a letter of thanks after the move to Anfield saying that he was on the verge of going home to Zimbabwe before he met Gregg and that his time and coaching had improved him immensely.

That gave Gregg more satisfaction than anything he achieved during his own career.

It wasn’t only goalkeepers who benefited; Jim Holton was a broken man after being released by West Brom. Harry took him to Shrewsbury and told him he could play for Scotland; one year later Holton was bought by Manchester United and played in the World Cup in 1974.

Working with kids who had been let go and helping turn their careers around gave Harry Gregg huge satisfaction, and most of his players came back to acknowledge the influence of one of the game’s good guys.

Dai Davies gave his first international jersey to Harry’s son, and Jimmy Rimmer gave him the jersey he wore when Aston Vila won the European Cup.

Perhaps Gregg’s mission to help young players make something of themselves can be traced back to his guilt over what happened on that fateful night in Munich. All of the players who died were young with the best years of their lives ahead of them.

And the deaths of all aboard flight G-ALZU effected him immensely, 23 of the 44 passengers perished. Suffering from survivors’ guilt Harry Gregg shunned the loved ones of those who had survived, but he was really shunning himself.

Close friends like Bobby Robson and Jackie Blanchflower pleaded with Harry to tell the story of what really happened that night, as some players and journalists who were there were making money through books and after dinner speeches by telling un-truths about the crash.

But Gregg refused, he did not see himself as a hero, he just did what had to be done on the night. Eventually in 1998 Gregg was absolved of his guilt and his story was told.

The death of Roger Byrne effected Harry Gregg profoundly, as roommates and friends Gregg felt a terrible guilt for not closing Roger’s eyes when he went to assist Jackie Blanchflower. Suffering from classic survivors guilt for over 40 years, Gregg refused to meet any of his perished friends’ families.

He couldn’t look them in the eye knowing that he had survived when their loved ones had perished. And it was not until a memorial night in 1998 that Joy Byrne walked up to Harry and asked him “Harry Gregg. Why have you been torturing yourself for 40 years?” With that simple statement years of guilt were washed away.

The word “hero” is used too often in sport, to describe someone who scores a goal, or who can run faster or jump higher than his competitor. Harry Gregg is a real hero and his story, deserves to be heard.

23 people lost their lives as a result of the Munich Air Disaster of 1958, and one of Harry Gregg’s. And indeed of the other survivors’ gripes is that only the players ever seem to be remembered. Here is a list of all those who died on the day that transformed football.

Fatalities from Flight G-ALZU

  • Captain Kenneth “Ken” Rayment
  • Tom Cable

Manchester United players

  • Duncan Edwards (died 15 days later)
  • Mark Jones
  • Liam Whelan
  • Tommy Taylor
  • David Pegg
  • Eddie Colman
  • Roger Byrne
  • Geoff Bent

Manchester United staff

  • Bert Whalley
  • Tom Curry
  • Walter Crickmer

Journalists

  • Alf Clarke
  • George Follows
  • Donny Davies
  • Tom Jackson
  • Archie Ledbrooke
  • Henry Rose
  • Eric Thompson
  • Frank Swift

Other Passengers

  • Bela Miklos
  • Willie Satinoff

20 Responses

  1. wildIrishGuy says:

    This is a well written piece about someone that really shows up the so called celebrities in football today. Is he telling his story now on the circuit or still letting others open the door to it?
    Hope is well and now happy in his retirement.
    http://www.iibn.com is where we gather always welcome. Damon Oldcorn

    1. Willie Gannon Will says:

      Cheers Damon, glad you liked the read.

  2. Ed says:

    Epic writing, well done.

    1. Willie Gannon Will says:

      I wouldn’t quite go that far Ed, but I appreciate it all the same.

  3. John Davis says:

    Like Ed said before me, epic. Great article and well done to all involved.

    1. Willie Gannon Will says:

      Cheers John.

  4. Patrick NEVIN says:

    from a lifelong red, excellent story about an excellent human being and yes a true hero

    1. Willie Gannon Willie Gannon says:

      A most excellent story Pat, glad you liked it. Will.

  5. I have just read your piece on the legendary but humble Harry Gregg and It moved me to tears literally. I had just purchased a signed photograph of the man. I feel honoured just to have it in my possession as well as an action picture taken in 1959 when Manchester United played Wolves. As this was the year of my birth I carefully and lovingly placed it into a large frame to enjoy in the near future.

    1. What a piece of nostalgia, the legendary Harry Gregg would be pleased with your careful appraisal.

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  8. John says:

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    Can we have permission to reproduce the following from your website?

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  9. ijah says:

    Wow, wonderful blog layout! How long have you been blogging for? you made blogging look easy. The overall look of your web site is wonderful, let alone the content!. Thanks For Your article about Harry Gregg: Hero of The Munich Air Disaster Back Page Football .

  10. Shane says:

    Brilliant piece, a story worth telling..

    From an Irish red, R.I.P.

  11. Anonymous says:

    My school secretary Jane is his daughter

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