Harry Gregg, the former Manchester United and Northern Ireland goalkeeper heralded as the hero of the Munich air disaster, has died at the age of 87.
Following the accident at Munich-Riem Airport on 6 February 1958, in which 23 people died, Gregg twice returned to the plane’s burning fuselage to drag teammates and fellow passengers to safety. He rescued United colleagues Bobby Charlton and Dennis Viollet from BEA Flight 609, as well as a 20-month old baby and her badly injured, pregnant mother, Vera Lukic. There were 20 survivors overall, including the club’s manager, Matt Busby, who Gregg attempted to revive at the scene of the crash.
“It is with great sorrow that we inform of the death of Manchester United and Northern Ireland legend Harry Gregg, OBE,” his charity foundation said in a statement released on Monday morning. “Harry passed away peacefully in hospital surrounded by his loving family. The Gregg family would like to thank the medical staff at Causeway Hospital for their wonderful dedication to Harry over his last few weeks.”
“It is with deepest sadness that we have learned of the passing of former player Harry Gregg OBE,” a United statement said. “The thoughts and prayers of everyone at the club go out to Harry’s family and friends.”
In all, Gregg played 247 times for the club, including a 3-0 win over Sheffield Wednesday just 13 days after the Munich tragedy alongside Bill Foulkes, the defender who was also a survivor of the crash in a scratch team put together by Jimmy Murphy, Busby’s assistant. Murphy had not travelled to Belgrade for the European Cup quarter-final with Red Star from which United had been travelling back to England. Munich was a refuelling stop for the BEA Elizabethan plane.
Charlton led the tributes to his former teammate “Harry was a fantastic goalkeeper, but more importantly he was an incredible human being. I was proud to call him a teammate.
“For all the matter of fact things Harry said about that night in Munich for me he will always be remembered as a heroic figure. It’s incredible to think that he went on to play in a match against Sheffield Wednesday just 13 days after that tragic night.
Sir Alex Ferguson, who took a United team to Belfast for a testimonial match for Gregg in 2012, said he was “deeply saddened” to hear of the news. “Harry was a man of great character and a true legend at our club,” the former United manager said. “I loved his company and the many pieces of advice he gave me.”
Gregg became the world’s most expensive keeper when Busby signed him from Doncaster Rovers in December 1957 for £23,000. He spent nine years with the Red Devils, althoughnever won a medal with the club, injuryruling him out of the 1963 FA Cup final and restricting his appearances in two title-winning campaigns.
He left Old Trafford in 1966 for a brief stopover at Stoke and his managerial career included spells in charge of Shrewsbury, Swansea, Crewe and Carlisle and three years spent as a goalkeeping coach back at United, until he again departed the club in 1981 after the sacking of manager Dave Sexton.
Gregg played 25 times for Northern Ireland, and was part of the team that reached the quarter-finals of the 1958 World Cup in Sweden. He was voted the best goalkeeper at that tournament.