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.
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.
Gregg was part of 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.
The Injury Which Changed his life
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.
When the reds came calling
Sir Matt 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 halfhearted 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 an 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.
“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. 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?”
We all know what happened at Munich and the terrible disaster. The United team were shattered and after losing so many to the crash. 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.
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.