Harry Gregg RIP

I think it is hard for young people to understand life before the Internet. Hard for middle-aged people to understand life before colour TV.

But for old people like myself there was actually life before television. We did not get ours until September 1959.

Uncle Jackie and Auntie Mary had  a TV in  their terraced house. My daddy and I watched the 1956 (Manchester City v West Brom) nd 1957 (Aston Villa v Manchester United) FA Cup Finals there. Actually I was too young to “watch” but I recall how Uncle Jackie called Auntie Mary (who was in a local choral society) out of the kitchen to sing “Abide With Me” and “Keep Right On To The End of the Road”.

Later my granny and granda got a TV and it seemed my daddy brought me there every night to watch Charlie Drake and Tony Hancock and of course the News. One night he suddenly said “oh my God”.

A plane had crashed. Manchester United players. And I (still not 6 years old) asked what colours do they play in. And when he said “red”, I said “oh that’s my team”.

Over sixty years later, it seems a strange thing to say. Daddy was already probably reading me reports from the Sunday Express. But the thing is that United wore white in the 1957 Cup Final so how did I know it was the “red team”. Daddy was a supporter. He liked Matt Busby, Jimmy Murphy, Liam Whelan, Joe Armstrong. United players (later Shay Brennan, Pat Crerand, Nobby Stiles, Tony Dunne) were as likely to be mentioned in The Universe, the weekly Catholic newspaper as the Sunday Express. And so a love affair with a football team was born. My cousin was a  priest in the Salford Diocese in the early 1960s

In a sense I owe it to my daddy, Uncle Jackie, Auntie Sheila who celebrated with me when “we” won and teased me when “I” lost.

Harry Gregg was the goalkeeper. The injury-prone hero of the Munich Air Crash. He went back into the burning wreckage to take Busby, Bobby Charlton, Jackie Blanchflower and a Yugoslav woman and her baby out.

The team that SHOULD have won the FA Cup in 1957 when Ray Wood (the keeper) was injured fought their way to the FA Cup Final and lost to Bolton. Harry Gregg was barged into the net by Nat Lofthouse. But actually that was a shadow team that included three Munich survivors. I watched that in my grandparents house.

Indeed when United went into training for the first post-Munich match, they only had fourteen professional players.

The years after Munich were not good years. Those of us who cheered on the Reds were not glory hunters. Rather we were romantics. It is ironic as the team was rebuilt, Gregg was often the hero. And yet largely thru injury he missed out.

For the first honour after Munich, the 1963 Cup Final, David Gaskell was in goals. In 1965, the first League title, it was Pat Dunne. In 1967, it was Alex Stepney. And Gregg had left for Stoke City when United won the 1968 European Cup.

Yet Harry Gregg personifies those years of re-building. A no-nonsense goalkeeper, he spoke his mind in the dressing room, sorted out the bullies on the field and in the United dressing room and slapped the kids round the head when they got uppity. The kids included sons of directors.

And re-reading his autobiography “Harrys Game”, just last week  I am reminded that like all goalkeepers, he thought he would have been an excellent outfield player. All great goalkeepers need to be crazy. All great goalkeepers need to be brave.

Harry Gregg was a great goalkeeper.

His legacy? Well to some, it will be a Manchester United goalkeeper who evokes names like Bobby Charlton, Duncan Edwards, Liam Whelan and later George Best, Dennis Law and David Herd.

For others it will be as a Norn Iron goalkeeper, the best keeper in the 1958 World Cup. Names like Billy Bingham, Bertie Peacock and Danny Blanchflower will be evoked.

Strange thing from September 1958 to May 1970, Manchester United used only 72 players in the first team. I can name all of them, even if I dont remember the night they played their one match. But those were my schoolboy years. Primary school to Grammar School (ok ok I started school in 1957 but you take my point). But names ….Stepney, Brennan, Dunne, Crerand, Foulkes……they mean something.

It was a Golden Age. Cos those years from 6 to 18 should be “golden”. I neither know or care which millionaires signed for Manchester United in the January Transfer Window. My sons had their “Golden Age” of Ronaldo, Schmeichel, Scholes, Giggs, Irwin…..and my grandsons have their “Golden Age” of de Gea and….er about 25 others.

Still I am more vexed than I thought I would be. Bobby Charlton is the last survivor from Munich. But I am grieving not so much for Harry Gregg as for Football as I knew it. And for Daddy, Mammy, Auntie Sheila, Uncle Jackie and the others.

Harry Gregg Rest in Peace.




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