Forgotten Legends of Football : Harry Gregg - The Hero of the Munich Disaster
“Well, for us, in history where goodness is a rare pearl, he who was good almost takes precedence over he who was great.”
If only the above quote materialized in this world, you would have known this man. It doesn’t matter how long you live, it only matters as to what you do as long as you live. And I would definitely say not all men would stand worthy in front of the above quote. But one man did. One man from the world of football did. That man was Harry Gregg. A world where passion meets performance, where belief meets betrayal and above all, I would daresay, where life meets death.
Death, a disease for few, a phenomenon for some and just another day for the rest. But for him, it was neither of the three, it was a situation from which he needed to escape for he knew his life was destined for more. And I do not say that without proof for what he did in the next few minutes defined his life and existence. Destiny often plays with man in such a cruel way that man wishes that he never existed to play this game.
That’s what it did to the millions of Manchester United fans around the world. When they had been celebrating the victory over Partizan Belgrade and looking forward to Feb. 6, 1958 as every other day, they didn’t know that they were mistaken. The flight which carried the best of the Busby babes left from Munich to arrive at Manchester.
But, the flight never left the airport. When it started after a second engine check, it went on straight to crash in the runway. For what happened inside in the next few minutes, no one knows to this day. But, when the plane came to a stop, he was regaining consciousness, thinking that he was dead. What seemed like mere oblivion turned into reality only when he saw light shining into his cabin from a hole above. That ray of light was all that made the difference.
He believed that he could escape and so he did. As he came out, he was devastated at the sight. For a man who was yet to see death until then, it must have brought his mind to a stop. But then, where many would have been on their knees for thanking God he was on his knees for another reason. To pull out others from this wreckage.
In what he saw a chair with two bodies, he pulled out and kept. Then he went inside to rescue a pregnant women with a baby. When he heroically brought them out and turned around, what should he see but the best ever could have seen. Dennis Viollet and Bobby Charlton were standing near the chair he had brought out. Surely, that was a defining moment in his life and an even greater one for Manchester United and England for this man had brought Bobby Charlton back to life after a close shave with death. Of course, as we all know Bobby Charlton went on to become one of the greatest footballers ever to have played the game.
But his endeavours didn’t end with the revival of Charlton but he went on to rescue Jackie Blanchflower and then the dynamic Matt Busby who was thought to be dead by the time. Busby was hospitalized for the next two months during which he was anointed twice but probably God thought, “This guy deserves more for saving Busby. Busby shouldn’t die.” And Busby recovered.
To this day, he never claims his act as heroic and simply fends away saying that he did what his friends would have done to him had they been in that situation. This shows that the man picked up courage to face death only from the love he had for his friends. An act of God for sure, the irreparable loss of the tragedy made it such that his name was not spoken of when those died were remembered.
While his achievements on that day far outweigh his footballing talents, they were no less either. I would say Manchester United have had a special bond with Northern Ireland people and he was the first of that list. He was destined to be at Manchester United for he was signed just three months before the tragedy. He was signed for a record £23,000 by Matt Busby. Due to the lack of first-hand record of those matches, his commanding personality and dominating physique was never spoken of about him as of was about Peter Schmeichel. You could do as well to say Peter Schemeichel took a leaf out of his book which was characterized by him winning the best goalkeeper award at the 1958 World Cup in the aftermath of the disaster.
What was impressive is that he beat Lev Yashin, considered the greatest goalkeeper of all time by a considerable margin of 356 votes to the award. While the boss was away nursing back his health, it was this man who was the architect in rebuilding the team alongside the legendary Jimmy Murphy. He would go on to groom one of his own countrymen, who was arguably the greatest footballer ever in a Manchester United shirt. George Best. And this is what George Best had to say about him. ““bravery is one thing but what Harry did was about more than bravery. It was about goodness.”