Harry Gregg & What Heroism Looks Like

by | Feb 17, 2020

Football certainly loves its superlatives. They’re thrown around with abandon, and it can feel at times that the rush to do so can even devalue the words themselves. Consider, for example, heroism. Each and every weekend, somebody or other will be described in such terms, merely for doing their job somewhere around the fullest of their ability. But what does heroism look like? Well, we all received a stark reminder of it this morning, with the passing of the former Manchester United goalkeeper Harry Gregg, at the age of 87.

Gregg himself was always resistant to being described in such glowing terms, and a quick glance at his career record shows a career without medals. This, however, was an accident of timing. At the time that The Busby Babes were winning the two successive league titles that provided the platform upon which their legend was built, Gregg was still keeping goal in the Second Division for Doncaster Rovers. His acquisition by Matt Busby in the summer of 1957 for £23,000, then a world record transfer fee for a goalkeeper, should have put him in line for a career lined with silverware.

Fate, however, very much got in the way of this, and heroism isn’t a trait that can always be measured in medals anyway. On the 6th of February 1958, on an airport runway at Munich-Riem Airport, he proved this beyond any reasonable doubt. When the Elizabethan-class Airspeed Ambassador failed to take off, its wheels slowed beyond a safe take-off speed by slush, it ploughed through a fence beyond the end of the runway and had its left wing torn off after hitting a house. Gregg later recalled regaining consciousness in complete darkness and finding his way outside of the remains of the aircraft to an unimaginable scene.

He either didn’t hear or ignored shouted warnings not to re-enter the aircraft, issued for the (very real) fear that leaking jet fuel might cause it to explode. The first people that he recovered were Vera Lukić, the pregnant wife of a Yugoslav diplomat, and her daughter, Vesna, who was just twenty months old at the time. He then returned to pull clear his fellow Manchester United players Albert Scanlon, Ray Wood, Jackie Blanchflower, Bobby Charlton and Dennis Viollet, the last two of whom he had to drag away, unconscious, by their trousers. All survived, as did the club’s manager Matt Busby, who was on the runway and in shock when Gregg attended to him.

Twenty-two people died at Munich-Riem Airport on that freezing cold afternoon, a number which included seven of his team-mates. As if to prolong the agony, Duncan Edwards joined them two errks later. Yet less than two weeks after the accident, Gregg was back in the Manchester United goal for an FA Cup Fifth Round match against Sheffield Wednesday, a match for which the uncertainty surrounding what team they would even be able to field was such that the match programme featured eleven blank spaces where the names of the team would otherwise be. They won that game by three goals to nil and made the FA Cup Final, but were beaten there by Bolton Wanderers.

The following month, he played in the World Cup finals for Northern Ireland, where his team held the holders West Germany to a draw and beat the team who would be the beaten finalists four years later, Czechoslovakia, before getting beaten by France in the quarter-finals. For his trouble, Gregg won a place in FIFA’s team of the tournament and the award for goalkeeper of the tournament. He’d been carried from the pitch on the shoulders of his team-mates at the end of the West Germany match.

Harry Gregg stayed with Manchester United for a further nine years. Bad luck, however, continued to follow him. In 1961, his wife Mavis died from cancer. Two years later, at the end of a season when Manchester United had only avoided relegation to the the Second Division by three points, Gregg should have been in goal for their FA Cup final against Leicester City, only for his recovery from a shoulder injury to not have come soon enough to be selected to play. Busby had to go with back-up David Gaskell instead, and Manchester United won the Cup for the first time in fifteen years.

When Busby’s refreshed United won the league title in 1965, Gregg was injured and unable to play. Two years later, in December 1966, he was sold to Stoke City. Manchester United won the league again that season. His playing career ended after just two games for Stoke, and he retired the end of the season with the club having signed the England goalkeeper Gordon Banks towards its end. Managerial spells followed with Shrewsbury Town, Swansea City, Crewe Alexandra and Carlisle United, as well as a time as Manchester United’s goalkeeping coach. When United sacked Ron Atkinson in November 1986, Gregg was Matt Busby’s pick to replace him, but the club went with Alex Ferguson instead.

Heroism, of course, isn’t an arms race. People are free to find it wherever they wish, and there is nothing wrong with considering the abilities of professional footballers through this particular lens when their actions give you considerable happiness. Harry Gregg, however, went one step further. His actions on that terrible day in Munich came from somewhere very deep inside him, and from the fulsome tributes that he has received today it is clear that we still recognise this bravery as having a worth that transcends anything that could be achieved by a player throughout the course of a normal playing career. Harry Gregg will never be forgotten at Old Trafford, and his legacy is a thoroughly well-deserved reflection upon the bravery that he displayed on a day that might have shattered any of us.