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Dublin: 8 °C Friday 3 April, 2020

Former Man Utd goalkeeper and hero of Munich air disaster Harry Gregg dies aged 87

Gregg pulled several people from the wreckage of the plane on the Munich runway on 6 February 1958.

Image: PA Images

FORMER MANCHESTER UNITED and Northern Ireland goalkeeper Harry Gregg has died at the age of 87.

His death was announced by the Harry Gregg Foundation this morning.

“It is with great sorrow that we inform of the death of Manchester United and Northern Ireland legend Harry Gregg, OBE,” it said in a statement posted on Facebook.

“Harry passed away peacefully in hospital surrounded by his loving family.”

His actions during the Munich air disaster, twice returning to the burning fuselage to drag team-mates and strangers to safety, were the epitome of bravery and selflessness.

Had a 25-year-old Gregg not been on the BEA Flight 609 on 6 February 1958, or not survived the ill-fated take-off, the death toll of 23 would have been higher still.

soccer-50th-anniversary-of-the-munich-air-disaster Source: Paul Faith/PA Images

It was Gregg who sought out and delivered to safety a 20-month old baby, Gregg who returned for her badly injured, pregnant mother and Gregg who dragged Bobby Charlton and Dennis Viollet from the wreckage by their waistbands, not knowing if they were dead or alive.

The courage of Gregg has been formally hailed in Germany and in Serbia – home to the rescued Lukic family – not to mention at Old Trafford, back home in Ulster and in countless thousands of conversations with the man himself.

It has been recreated in film and retold via documentary, passed down through generations in the telling of one of football’s darkest days.

But he never embraced or amplified his own valour, and wrote 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.”

60th-anniversary-of-the-munich-air-disaster-european-cup-quarter-final-second-leg-red-star-belgrade-v-manchester-united The Utd team that had played against Red Star Belgrade prior to the Munich Air Disaster. Source: S&G/EMPICS Sport/PA

Tragedy revisited three years later when his first wife Mavis died of cancer, and once more when daughter Karen was claimed by the disease in 2009.

Gregg had once been a devout Protestant, visiting churches on Sundays wherever football took him, including Catholic services if that was all he could find, and even consulted a minister when the question of representing Northern Ireland arose.

His faith eventually buckled, but he bore the burdens of his life stoically, and even though a stroke in 2013 ended his favourite beach-front jogs, he remained active in the community through his eponymous charitable foundation.

Early life

Gregg was born in Tobermore, South Derry, on 25 October 1932, the eldest of six children.

As a teenager he combined a carpentry apprenticeship with stints at Linfield’s reserve team and Coleraine, a club so local he lived within a decent goal-kick of the Showgrounds stadium.

Football beat woodcraft with ease and by 18 he had been snapped up by Doncaster, where he enjoyed five good years before becoming the world’s most expensive keeper when United, and Matt Busby, shelled out £23,000.

He spent nine years with the Red Devils and, although he never won a medal with the club, injury having ruled him out of the 1963 FA Cup final and restricted his appearances in two title-winning campaigns, an unforgettable career was forged. Not many people can say they had their boots cleaned by a young George Best.

1958-fifa-world-cup-northern-ireland-national-football-team Gregg with the Northern Ireland team at the 1958 World Cup Source: DPA/PA Images

Gregg remains a touchstone for United goalkeepers, a dominant leader between the posts and a revered shot stopper. In all he played 247 times for United, including, incredibly, a 3-0 win over Sheffield Wednesday just 13 days after the Munich tragedy.

Of those who had been on duty in Belgrade before the fatal crash, only Gregg and Bill Foulkes wore the jersey in that emotional fixture less than two weeks later.

He eventually left Old Trafford for the briefest of stopovers at Stoke and an underwhelming managerial career followed, with spells in charge of Shrewsbury, Swansea, Crewe and Carlisle.

He was also left in no doubt about how revered his name remained during his latter years, a fact that left him unashamedly proud.

When Northern Ireland’s Windsor Park was officially reopened following development in 2016, he was afforded a warm on-pitch ovation by the fans as well as meeting boxing champion Carl Frampton and golfer Rory McIlroy, both of whom treated him as the true star in the room.

Gregg, who was awarded an OBE in the 2019 New Year Honours, leaves behind five children, including four with second wife Carolyn, and an unimpeachable legacy.

That his United career ended without a testimonial was an anomaly of circumstance, finally righted in 2012 when Sir Alex Ferguson proudly brought a full-strength squad to Windsor Park to face an Irish League XI.

In his programme notes the Scot labelled Gregg “beyond legendary” and “a most reluctant hero”.

He may have bridled at the terminology, but he earned it on a footballing level too, never more so than to Northern Irish football fans at the 1958 World Cup.

In other eras, Gregg might have been expected to take the summer for reflection and recuperation after the trauma of the previous months. Instead he lined up in his country’s first ever World Cup and was later named the best keeper in the competition.

His stellar performance against West Germany, in particular, was a remarkable showing that left opposition striker Uwe Seeler likening Gregg to a “springing panther”.

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