Sir Alex Ferguson and Harry Gregg

Happy birthday, Harry Gregg!

We’d like to wish United legend Harry Gregg a very happy 87th birthday. Here, Carryduff MUSC branch secretary John White pays his own personal tribute to one of his Red heroes, and recalls the words of Sir Alex Ferguson when he brought United to Belfast to celebrate one of the best…

On 15 May 2012, Sir Alex Ferguson brought Manchester United to Belfast to play an Irish Premier League Select in a game celebrating Harry Gregg’s Testimonial. The game was organised by The George Best Carryduff Manchester United Supporters’ Club and was played at Windsor Park, Belfast before a sell-out crowd.

It was the first and only time a Manchester United Supporters' Club organised a match in which United played, and the boss had promised to bring his strongest squad to Belfast because it was what Harry deserved.

He was true to his word as United arrived with a matchday squad packed with first-team stars, including Rio Ferdinand, Patrice Evra, Antonio Valencia, Ji-sung Park, Nani, Ryan Giggs, Michael Owen, Wayne Rooney, Dimitar Berbatov, Paul Scholes, as well as local lad Jonny Evans. The Irish Premier League Select were managed by Martin O’Neill, Sunderland manager at the time, and Linfield manager David Jeffrey. 

United won the game 4-1, in what turned out to be Sir Alex’s last-ever visit to Ireland as United manager.

Harry Gregg meets Manchester United players before his testimonial in 2012.
Harry shakes the hand of Jonny Evans before his testimonial in Belfast in 2012.

I contacted the Boss to discuss what he wanted to say about Harry in the match programme and he paid the following heartfelt tribute:

Harry Gregg – My Hero

It was with the greatest pleasure that I immediately accepted an invitation to bring Manchester United to Belfast and play in a testimonial match for Harry Gregg. We received the request on 7 January 2012 from The George Best Carryduff Manchester United Supporters Club and 12 days later the Board met and unanimously gave their seal of approval.

All too often the word legend is used in football but more often than not the word is merely used to describe a player who left an indelible mark on the world of football. Harry Gregg’s exploits for Manchester United and Northern Ireland, voted the best goalkeeper in the world at the 1958 World Cup Finals in Sweden, are beyond legendary and his place in the illustrious history of Manchester United Football Club is enshrined.

And so I am absolutely delighted to bring my Manchester United side to Windsor Park, Belfast to honour Harry the footballer but much more importantly than that, to honour Harry the true gentleman and a true hero to many Manchester United fans in word and deed.

I was a 16-year old schoolboy playing for Drumchapel Amateurs, and training every Thursday night with Benburb Juniors, when news of the Munich Air Disaster became known. I made my way to training at Benburb and when I got there I saw the senior players crying. It was at that moment I realised the seriousness of the disaster.

When I got home my dad was staring into the fire, everyone was numb with the shock. My brother Martin and I went to our bedroom and it was quiet place in our house at the time. Over the course of the next two days the full extent of the tragedy unfolded, with the local paper listing the names of the people who lost their lives in the disaster including seven Busby Babes who died instantly: club captain Roger Byrne, Geoff Bent, Eddie Colman, Mark Jones, David Pegg, Tommy Taylor and Ireland’s own Liam Whelan. Duncan Edwards became the eighth Busby Babe to die when he lost his brave battle for life 15 days later.

Harry Gregg was on the flight and after regaining consciousness he felt the blood trickling down his face. Upon seeing a shaft of light he kicked a hole wide enough to crawl through and make his way on the snowy runway. Most mere mortals would have run for their lives but Harry Gregg does not fall into this category of man. Despite his own injuries, and warnings not to go anywhere near the burning fuselage, Harry made his way into the smouldering aircraft time and time again, looking for fellow survivors who were in need of help.

Harry’s unselfish bravery in putting his own life on the line to save others, including a pregnant Mrs Vera Lukic (the wife of a Yugoslavian diplomat) and her daughter, Vesna and his fellow Northern Ireland international and best friend, Jackie Blanchflower, rightfully earned him the title of ‘The Hero of Munich.’

I first met Harry when I was the manager of Aberdeen. It was near the end of the 1980/81 season and Harry was a coach at Manchester United under manager Dave Sexton. We had invited United to participate in a 1981/82 pre-season summer tournament at Pittodrie which also included Southampton and West Ham United.

Harry was asked by Martin Edwards, chairman of Manchester United at the time, to carry out a sort of reconnaissance trip ahead of the tournament. Harry was, and to this day, remains an absolute gentleman and the consummate professional. We had a long chat about numerous subjects with the exception of the Munich Air Disaster which I would have liked to have asked him about but dared not to given the level of respect I had for him.

Nowadays, Harry will jokingly tell you that he was sent to Aberdeen to suss me out as a replacement for Dave Sexton who regrettably was sacked at the end of the 1980/81 season. However, I still had so much more I wanted to achieve at Aberdeen and very much doubt if it would have been the right time to move south of the border had the opportunity presented itself.

Needless to say when Manchester United did approach me in November 1986, I had no hesitation in accepting the job as the manager of the greatest football club in the world.

Busby Babes line up before their final game in February 1958
Harry lines up as part of the Busby Babes before their final game, in Belgrade, in 1958.

Harry Gregg has always been a most reluctant hero and the description does not sit comfortably for him on his big broad Irish shoulders. I will forever remember what Harry said when he went back to Munich on the 50th anniversary of the disaster and met Zoran Lukic (the little boy who was in his Mum’s womb at the time of the plane crash).

Zoran looked at Harry and said: “I have always wanted this moment, to look into your face and say to you, 'thank you'.

”I was the third passenger you saved, but, at the time, you were not to know that.

Typically Harry replied: ”You've nothing to thank me for. I did what had to be done without thinking about it.

“I've lived with being called a hero but I'm not really a hero. Heroes are people who do brave things knowing the consequences of their actions. That day, I had no idea what I was doing.”

Harry once said that the Munich Air Disaster changed Manchester United from a football club into an institution. Few will disagree with Harry’s view and even fewer will disagree with the part a young man from Tobermore, Northern Ireland played in the aura and mystique which resulted in the worldwide following that Manchester United enjoys today.

Dave Bushell and Harry Gregg.
Harry with United Academy stalwart Dave Bushell earlier this year.

If I was asked to describe Harry I would call upon the words from a beautiful poem by Nicola Burkett:

A hero thinks of others before they think of themselves
A hero will die to protect
A hero can be of any age, any colour
A hero can be man, woman or child
A hero is courageous, loving and brave
A hero will never complain
A hero can be made in one act of compassion
Or years of tender loving care
Some heroes are remembered, whilst many are left forgotten
Heroes are angels in disguise, saving precious innocent lives

Harry, for this 16-year old boy from Govan you were and remain my hero. I wish you and your family a most enjoyable evening and on behalf of Manchester United Football Club, thank you for the part you personally played in making Manchester United the greatest football club in the world.

Sir Alex Ferguson CBE
Manager, Manchester United
15th May 2012