Harry Gregg pulls off a stunning save.

"Harry Gregg is a very big figure in United's history"

Monday 17 February 2020 15:30

Alex Stepney, Denis Irwin and Bryan Robson have paid tribute to the legacy Harry Gregg leaves behind, following the sad news that the former Manchester United goalkeeper has passed away.

Gregg was the club's first choice between the posts after arriving from Doncaster Rovers in late 1957 for a world-record fee of £23,000. Although he will always be remembered for his heroic role in the Munich Air Disaster, helping to save passengers trapped in the plane, there was far more to admire in the man, a genuine football man who was passionate about the game until the end.

Stepney succeeded Gregg as United goalkeeper in 1966, with the Northern Irishman moving to Stoke City. Interestingly, when Gregg returned to Old Trafford as goalkeeping coach, he helped train Gary Bailey - effectively Stepney's replacement as the Reds' no.1.

Alex Stepney recalls keepers trained with outfield players in the days before specialist coaches.

“He was a great man," Stepney told us. "We’re going back 60 years now to a time when, as goalkeepers, there was no health and safety. You had to look after yourself. I can tell you that Harry certainly could do that! He took so many knocks in his career and injuries did affect him to a certain extent, but so did some of the centre-forwards he came up against! You had to look after yourself and Harry was the best at doing that. You know exactly what sort of character he was on and off the field because of what he did when, sadly, that plane crashed at Munich in 1958.

“He never did like talking about it or see himself as a hero. That, for me, is the Irish in him – if I can say that! It’s the way he was. He respected everything about the game and life. But he never spoke about it. When I went there, in 1966, obviously Harry was coming to the end of his career in a way, and had to move on to Stoke. He was a guy that had an unpredictable career. He was the best goalkeeper at a World Cup as well. That’s an unbelievable honour, when you think it about today, and, like I said, there was no health and safety back then.

"The fact was we didn’t have goalkeeper coaches back then. Every keeper in those days, just did it to the best of our own ability. When I joined United, there was Pat Dunne, David Gaskell and Harry. Like anything else, at any team, goalkeeper-wise, there was a goalkeepers’ union in training to help each other out. That’s what Harry did. When I think about Harry, when I was coming to the end of my career at Old Trafford, Dave Sexton was the manager and Harry came back and started his career as a goalkeeping coach. He actually took on Gary Bailey, who took over from me basically. He had a wonderful life in football, being a goalkeeper. 

Alex Stepney was proud to follow Harry Gregg in wearing the United goalkeeper's shirt.

“There was only a two or three-month crossover but I was able to see the character he was. We had a goalkeepers’ union who all helped each other. There was no other way as the managers, in those days, didn’t say: ‘Right, you go over there and train’. You just trained with everyone else. That’s how it was. We were more talking about who we were coming up against and how to protect ourselves and how we would also let them know we were there. Like I’ve said, Harry put the fear of everything into the centre-forwards. I can tell you that! It had to be that way, if you didn’t, you would get knocked all over the place.

“It was a dream come true for me to come to Manchester United, but to think that I followed Harry who played for 10 or 11 years, something like that, and for me to carry it on and do 12 years was a fantastic honour for me. As part of Manchester United, following on from the Busby Babes with Harry and Bobby, Bill Foulkes and Matt Busby, of course.

“Harry was just dynamic and didn’t care what he said. He would say it how it was. It’s how he lived his life.

“He has had more publicity over what happened on 6 February, every year, but he had a fantastic career. I wish I could have been the best goalkeeper at a World Cup! What an honour that is.

“Harry was an absolute ambassador on and off the field, as far as I am concerned, with the way we had to run our careers. May he rest in peace.”

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Legendary full-back Irwin feels Gregg is one of the reasons why United have such a strong following in Ireland and believes he is an important name in the entire history of the club.

“I had the pleasure of meeting him a couple of times and he was a man, from what I hear, who was fantastic and very brave – on and off the field,” said Denis.

“Obviously, he was very brave in what he did in Munich, very unselfish in going into the burning plane and what he did in saving lives probably tells you what a man is all about. When I met him, he was very honest and very much a man who loved his football. It’s a very sad loss. He was a very big figure in Manchester United’s history.

“He was always one who didn’t want to attract too much attention after Munich. He was a football fan and he would always sway the conversation back towards football. Sammy McIlroy knows him better than I do and says how honest a man he was and what a fantastic goalkeeper he was back in the day. You had to be extra brave then because there was a lot more physical contact – the balls were heavier and the boots were virtually steel toe-capped at one point. He got voted the best goalkeeper at the World Cup in 1958 in Sweden, where he played for Northern Ireland in their best-ever showing. So he was a great goalkeeper, with his longevity at United as well. Whenever I met him, he was an honest man and a great football fan.

“They were different times and, no doubt, you had to be brave back then, particularly as a goalkeeper. When you see what he came across in his football career, you can see how brave he was – playing 13 days after the tragedy just shows how strong a character he was. He’s a huge figure in United’s history and what he did in 1958 is certainly a testament to the make-up of his character.

Harry Gregg showed bravery on and off the field.

“He wouldn’t want to just be remembered for Munich, but we’re talking about an act of bravery and selflessness, going back in and saving lives and not thinking about himself," added Irwin. "That comes across in his personality anyhow, and how brave he was. We’ll also remember his footballing achievements as well, though, and his career with United and Northern Ireland.

“I met him two or three times when he came across and United played in a testimonial for him some years back [in 2012]. Sir Alex sent across a very strong squad. When you talked about football with him, it was always great to be in his company.

“Everyone in Ireland remembers the tragedy but there have always been Irish players at Manchester United. He is one of the reasons why there is such a huge following across the Irish Sea, because of Harry Gregg in the 1950s and 1960s. He left a huge trail of legacy. That, plus the fact George Best was from Northern Ireland as well, means there is this great tradition of Irish footballers playing for United.”

Former Reds skipper Robson met Harry on a number of occasions and says his passion for the game always shone through.

“He was a great servant for United and the stories you hear are amazing about what he did around the Munich Air Disaster," he told us. “The way he went back into the plane to pull some of his friends out, that just tells you what the guy was like.

“He didn’t like talking about it. Whenever I met Harry over the years, I didn’t find out what I’ve just said there from him. It was always from what other people said about him. When you’ve been in a disaster like that, you’re quite fortunate to survive so I don’t think anyone ever really wants to talk about it.

Bryan Robson and Denis Irwin have warm memories of meeting Harry Gregg.

“Harry was like a lot of those players who were so successful around that era. They just loved talking about football because they loved the game that much. So they would always rather be talking about matches than anything else. He was always coming across to Old Trafford, even though he loved living in Ireland. I always saw him a lot, over the years, at Old Trafford.

“I know he was a terrific goalkeeper – so strong minded as a player. He was hard as nails too, that’s how Paddy [Crerand] always described him. So, if Paddy says he’s hard as nails, for me, he was definitely as hard as nails! You had to be because of the challenges that came your way. It was a bit different to today’s game.

“He’ll always be remembered because of everything he did in his career and what he did on the plane when the disaster happened.”