Thursday 19 July 2018

Haunting guilt of reluctant hero - Read powerful interview with Munich air disaster survivor Harry Gregg from 2003

Tommy Conlon sat down with Munich air disaster survivor Harry Gregg on the eve of the 45th anniversary of the tragedy in 2003. Read the piece in full below

Harry Gregg
Harry Gregg

Tommy Conlon

THERE is no escaping Munich, and he knows it.

But one thing Harry Gregg wants to make clear is that he had a life before it and a life after. He does not want to be defined, or remembered, by the terrible events of that night: worse things happened to him later on, and better things too.

But there is no escaping it.On February 6, 1958 a plane carrying the Manchester United football team, staff and other travellers crashed on the runway as it tried to take off from Munich airport. Twenty three people died: eight players, eight journalists, passengers and crew members.

For 40 years he kept his silence on the tragedy that darkened his life and helped create the legend of Manchester United Football Club.

Five years ago, on the 40th anniversary, the dam broke. He spoke publicly for the first time about what he saw, and what he did, that night. He met the widows and families of his fallen team mates. Late last year he published his autobiography.

Next Thursday is the 45th anniversary. Every year around this time, the phone starts ringing.

Manchester United's European Cup winners were historically great. Getty
Manchester United's European Cup winners were historically great. Getty

Harry Gregg is 70 now and living in retirement close to his native Coleraine. His house overlooks the last stretch of the river Bann before it flows into the ocean. Beyond the sand dunes you can see the Atlantic. Last Tuesday a storm was blowing. He stood at the front window and watched as the big breakers came crashing into shore. He'd been down to the beach for his usual two-mile run early that morning.

In his athletic prime he stood at 6-2 and weighed 13-10. He still looks impressively fit and strong. His robust physique is matched by a fire inside that has only diminished slightly with age. In his book (Harry's Game) he says he hasn't mellowed at all. In conversation he admits that maybe he has - but just a little. And he's not joking.

A read of the book, and four hours spent in his company, suggests he was and is a complex man: intense, sensitive, strong-willed, opinionated, principled, uncompromising. All that and maybe a lot more.

When he speaks of Munich he unfolds the events of that night in a riveting narrative, the details seared into his memory and recounted in a hushed, respectful tone.

When he is angered by something, or giving his opinion, he delivers it in a great booming Ulster accent. Formidably certain on these occasions, it isn't hard to recognise the force of will that made him such a fierce competitor during his football life. He is now, as he was then.

And just to prove it: last July, at the age of 69, he went down to pre-season training with Irish league side Coleraine. He stood behind the goals kicking back footballs during a practice match. He recalls it now, sitting in the front room of his home and smoking a Bensons.

"All of a sudden I thought to myself, `I'm not a fuckin' ballboy!' And truly, I got onto the pitch with the idea of just saying a few things: watch your back, come around here; positional stuff, nothing heavy. The next thing I know I've started playing. And two or three minutes later I tried to tackle a kid and I slipped on me arse he was that quick. And I'm thinking to myself, get up you ould fool, and I'm screaming and shouting, no different to what I was - only physically.

"Eventually this kid come through with the ball, a little well-built bugger, and I went to put my foot in to tackle him and he went through me like a dose of salts and I thought, he wouldn't have done that 30 years ago. But I got up and . . . " at this point the volume shoots up a few decibels . . . "AND I WAS SO ANGRY WITH MYSELF I WENT IN AND SAT DOWN AND HAD A SMOKE. And a few minutes later the young player (Jody Tolan) came in and said `Are you alright?' And I said `What the fuck do you mean, am I alright? TELL THEM BASTARDS IN THERE NOT TO TAKE A COLLECTION UP YET TO BURY ME.' He said `They told me I'd hurt you.' I said `PISS OFF JODY!'"

And Jody duly did. It's a funny story but Harry isn't trying to be funny. He's trying to explain: "I can't change," he pleads, shaking his head, "I am as nature made me."

The product of a strict Protestant upbringing, he didn't learn to swear like that in Coleraine. It was in the merciless dressing rooms of post-war England where he learned it, among professional football's rogues and blades, all of them fighting for survival in a hard game and an impoverished society.

HARRY Gregg entered this world in 1952, a joiner by trade, a former schoolboys and amateur international with Northern Ireland. Doncaster Rovers paid Coleraine FC #1,700 - they paid Gregg #6 in summer and #7 in winter. He was 20. Doncaster's manager was Peter Doherty, a native of Coleraine and in his day a phenomenal footballer.

"Peter the Great. The greatest all-round player I have ever seen. And he was the greatest natural coach I have ever met - a teacher, I'd prefer to use the word teacher."

Also at Doncaster was "a little Dubliner called Kit Lawlor. And I'll tell you, he was five foot nothing and he was one of the greatest and most intelligent players I have ever seen in my life. Those people had a great influence on my life. They were the tradesmen that I served my time with. Then Busby and Murphy."

Matt Busby and Jimmy Murphy. The patriarch and his sergeant. Busby was appointed manager of Manchester United in 1945. He and Murphy steered the club to three league titles in 1952, '56 and '57. In November '57 they signed Gregg for #23,500, making him the most expensive goalkeeper in the world. With the team on a losing streak Busby dropped five players who had been pivotal in their two-in-a-row side: Ray Wood, Jackie Blanchflower, Johnny Berry, David Pegg and Liam Whelan. In came Gregg for his debut along with Mark Jones, Kenny Morgans, Albert Scanlon and a young fair-haired boy called Bobby Charlton.

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Liam Whelan

"It was a great time to be alive. Here I was, Harry Gregg from Windsor Avenue, a professional footballer with Manchester United. To me it was the Hollywood of football I had joined."

In the European Cup they had beaten Red Star Belgrade 2-1 in the first leg at Old Trafford. Having beaten Arsenal 5-4 on Saturday, February 1 at Highbury they flew to Belgrade for the second leg. They survived a chaotic second half to win 5-4 on aggregate.

On Thursday, February 6 they left Belgrade with a fuel stop scheduled in Munich. After refuelling the plane taxied down the runway then skidded and lurched to a halt. It skidded again on the second attempt. Everyone disembarked. Eventually they boarded again and the pilot made his third attempt. Gregg remembers the catastrophic noise as the plane crashed and broke apart. Then the stunned silence.

"I reached down to unfasten my seat belt," he writes in his book. "I hadn't even realised I was lying on my side. I started to crawl toward the light. I stuck my head through the hole and momentarily froze. Lying below me on the ground was youth team coach Bert Whalley. He was wearing an air force-blue suit and a blue cardigan. It was Bert who had nurtured so many of the young players. He was motionless, his eyes were open and there wasn't a mark on him. Somehow, I still knew he was dead. I turned around and kicked the hole bigger. I noticed I had only one shoe, then dropped down."

In the distance he could see people running away across the tarmac's blanket of snow. He thought he was on his own. For what felt like a long time he was on his own. Then the captain, Jim Thain, appeared from around the cockpit. He was carrying a tiny fire extinguisher.

"When he saw me, he shouted: `Run, you stupid bastard, it's going to explode!' Just then, I heard a cry. I recalled a baby in the seat just across and behind from me and I began shouting at the people running away to come back. I was angry and roared: `Come back, you bastards, there are people alive in there.' They kept going."

Clambering back into the wreckage he heard another cry and found the baby under a pile of debris. He crawled out and handed it to another passenger who turned and ran with the baby in his arms. Gregg went back inside. He found a woman, the mother of the baby, badly injured. "Lying on my backside behind her, I forced the woman along with my legs."

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The wreckage of the British European Airways plane which crashed in Munich in February 1958

Having got her out he went back. This time he found Ray Wood and Albert Scanlon, both trapped and unconscious. He couldn't move them and left, presuming they were dead. He began searching for his lifelong friend, Jackie Blanchflower. He stumbled across Bobby Charlton and Dennis Viollet, "hanging half in, half out of what was left of the body of the plane. Again, I thought Dennis and Bobby were dead. Even so, I grabbed them by the waistbands of their trousers and trailed them through the snow for about 20 yards, away from the smouldering front of the plane."

Outside the scene of devastation staggered him. There was a house 50 or 60 yards away with half the roof torn off. The plane had slid off the runway, collided with the house and cartwheeled into a compound housing large drums of fuel. "There were explosions everywhere, sending huge plumes of flame into the sky. It was horrifying."

He found Matt Busby lying in a field and moaning in pain. He tried to comfort his manager, propping him up with some debris. Thirty yards further on he found Blanchflower. The fires had melted the snow, Blanchflower was lying in a pool of water. Roger Byrne was draped across him.

"Roger was dead. There wasn't a blemish and his eyes were open. I have always regretted that I didn't close his eyes. Blanchy was still moaning. The lower part of Jackie's right arm had been almost completely severed. I took my tie off to make a tourniquet. I pulled too tight and the tie snapped. I started to frantically search for something else, scrabbling through the mud and the slush. I looked up and there was a girl looking down on me. It was one of the air hostesses and I said `For Christ's sake get me something to tie his arm.' And she just stared at me. The poor girl was gone."

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Devastation: Harry Gregg (left) and Bill Foulkes (right) survey the wreckage of the Munich air disaster in 1958

Eventually other people started to arrive. One local turned up in a Volkswagen coal lorry.

"They put Jackie and Matt in the back, then another body, whom I only recognised from his United blazer. It was little Johnny Berry. Then I was shocked to see Dennis Viollet and Bobby Charlton, standing staring at the fire. I couldn't believe they were alive. All of us, plus Bill Foulkes (the United centre half), were helped onto the truck before heading to the Rechts der Isar Hospital."

The United dead were Geoff Bent, Roger Byrne, Eddie Colman, Duncan Edwards, Mark Jones, David Pegg, Tommy Taylor and Liam Whelan from Dublin.

Thirteen days after the crash United played a Cup game against Sheffield Wednesday at Old Trafford in front of 59,848 people. Thousands more were locked outside.

"Of the Busby Babes who beat Red Star Belgrade, only two, Bill Foulkes and myself, walked down the tunnel."

Carried along on a tidal wave of emotion they beat Wednesday. Gregg has the programme from that game framed on a wall at home. The Wednesday team is named. The United team is blank. Two days later the England international Duncan Edwards, 21 and a legend in the making, died from his injuries. He had briefly come round at the hospital - Gregg never doubted he would make it. The news left him devastated.

"I cried for the first time since the crash. It would be many years later before I would break down again about Munich."

In the meantime he would break down about something that affected him even deeper. In January 1962 his wife Mavis died of cancer. They had two young daughters. Bereft, and out of football with a shoulder injury that threatened to end his career, Gregg unravelled.

"I was begging for help," he recalled last week. "When I was the top at my job in the world there was times I was screaming out for help but couldn't ask for it. Screaming out. They think you're a superstar, not only in football, in life, (and) your brain's going mad and you're begging for somebody to say something nice to you and you're begging to ask but you're too feckin' proud."

An operation later in '62 mended his shoulder and saved his career. He was subsequently involved in a car crash that left him with a broken leg, a fractured cheekbone and a damaged knee. "In the name of God," declared Busby when he visited his goalkeeper in hospital, "how many lives do you think you have?"

In 1967 he left Manchester United and after a brief spell at Stoke City went into football management with Shrewsbury Town. His assistant was the Derry man Jim McLaughlin who would go on to work with him at Swansea and who would become the most successful League of Ireland manager of all time. From Swansea Gregg moved on to Crewe Alexandra and in 1978 he was invited back to United to work as a coach under the then manager Dave Sexton.

HE spent three more years at Old Trafford but it was a changed world. Busby had moved upstairs, the managers had come and gone, the glory days were over.

"I saw it when I went back, I saw the bitterness."

At its core, as Gregg sees it, was Busby's difficult relationships: with the Edwards family who owned the club, and with the managers who came after him. He had also fallen out with his great ally Jimmy Murphy. And he was blamed for not doing more to help the families of the victims at Munich.

"Matt was blamed for everything. He has been judged, and badly judged, by people over the years, that this man in the background was knifing every manager that came after him -- SOMETHING THAT I WILL NOT HAVE UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES. TO BE BLAMED FOR KNIFING EVERY MANAGER AND BEING JEALOUS WAS THE BIGGEST LOAD OF CRAP BECAUSE THE PEOPLE THAT CAME AFTER MATT WEREN'T FIT TO LACE HIS BOOTS. That has been used as an excuse by people who fell by the wayside. It's the biggest load of garbage of all time."

Busby was made a director of the club after he stepped down as manager in 1969. Murphy became increasingly marginalised under the new regimes and his family felt they had been let down.

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TRIBUTE: The Matt Busby statue and banner outside Old Trafford in memory of the Munich air disaster

"It was sad. I'm not just talking about individuals, I'm talking about families. The Edwards family and the Busby family and the Murphys all went to the same chapel. But, I believe that because of his background, coming from a working class mining community, Matt Busby was always subservient to Manchester United. Although in the eyes of the public and the players he was a great manager, I believe he was still an employee in his own head. There will be many who say quite openly that he could've done more (to help) but to me he always saw himself as an employee."

While Murphy, a fiery little Welshman, was the talker in the dressing room, Busby by and large kept his words to a minimum.

"Matt would be so gracious and quiet and calm. He was quiet prior to a game and he was the same after, win lose or draw. Never would he let you raise your voice after a game and God forbid anybody that did. He always smoked Rothmans and he'd go round the room (afterwards) and give the smokers a Rothmans."

He could be likened, he adds, to the headmaster, the police superintendent, the priest or the minister. But he was not a distant man.

"He definitely was not a distant man. Matt Busby I found was at his best -- I mean this in the nicest possible way -- when he was half-pissed, for want of a better expression. When he was relaxed -- because he did like a drink. And I had my fallings out with him. He did not speak to me for a period of time and that hurt me terribly because he had signed me and made me part of greatness by signing me. I had seen him in all his glory, I had seen him at death's door, I had seen him in greatness and sadness and sorrow and I never saw his face change once.

"And you can talk about great people: you're not great unless you can carry the mantle of greatness. There are people who've been gifted, and excuses made for them when they threw it away: they are not great people. There are people who have seen him closer than me but, in my lifetime, I saw him in all those moments, I saw him when he won the European Cup, and his expression never changed. That to me is carrying the mantle of greatness."

Gregg was in Wembley that fabled night in 1968 when Busby's team, with only Foulkes and Charlton left from Munich, won the European Cup.

"I was there as a guest of the club and I roomed with Johnny Berry, one of the other survivors. He was the little man who would have fought King Kong. So courageous it was untrue. But Johnny had been so badly injured. He couldn't figure out why Tommy Taylor never came to see him (in hospital), he didn't know Tommy was dead." Eventually Gregg was asked to break the news.

"We talked and I said `John, do you know what happened?'"

"No." "John, they're all dead."

Many years later Gregg was re-united with the Yugoslav mother and daughter he had pulled from the wreckage. Verena Lukic told him he had saved not two lives but three: she was seven months pregnant at the time and subsequently gave birth to a boy.

Roger Byrne's wife didn't know she was pregnant when he died -- she too had a son, Roger.

In 1998 Harry Gregg finally faced his past. It began at the 40th anniversary Munich Memorial service at Manchester Cathedral. As he sat in the pew a man turned to him and asked if he could shake his hand. "I didn't know who he was. He said `I'm Roger Byrne'. I could've broke down, I could've run out of the Cathedral."

At a function attended by friends and families the next night his daughter Jane persuaded him to meet Joy Byrne, Roger's widow.

"Joy looked at me and said: `Harry Gregg, why have you been torturing yourself for 40 years?' That night washed away years of guilt."

It was the guilt of a survivor and it had haunted him for 40 years. Most of that guilt is gone now.

What has not diminished is his discomfort with the `Hero of Munich' label.

"I do not want to be the fellow who was a smartarse on an airfield. I never wanted, or I would have talked about it." Smartarse? It is an utterly inappropriate word but it is indicative of his embarrassment. Maybe, you suggest, he should just accept what he did and embrace it.

"But you know something," he replies, "and I mean this from the bottom of my heart. I never stopped since to think what I did. I know what I did in my heart of hearts but I never stopped to think -- I can describe it but I have never stopped myself and consciously thought, `Hi boy, you did this and you did that'. I swear on my life I never stopped and thought that in my life unless I was asked about it."

Has he ever stopped to think why others didn't do likewise?

"No because, were it to happen again, I might be the first one to run. You never know from day to day."

Perhaps the saddest part is that, having opened up after 40 years, he found that talking didn't really help.

"No it hasn't, because it is almost the reverse of what everybody else is saying. I don't want to talk about it. I do not want to discuss what happened at Munich until I hear a version from someone that wasn't there. Or hear a version from someone that was on the periphery but was not there. I kept it to myself for 40 years but it doesn't help at all. In fact it makes it harder for me because all I appear to be doing is contradicting what other people have said. So it's better to say flipping nothing."

Frank Taylor, a journalist who survived the crash, wrote a book in which he claimed that the German authorities had a fleet of ambulances and fire crews following the plane down the runway as it took off for the third time. "If that's the case, I said to Frank, `Would you tell me how the hell I went to hospital in the back of a coal lorry?'"

Another book by another reporter was "a load of fiction." Bill Foulkes, he claims, also dressed up his own role in the disaster, saying he saw Harry Gregg with a baby in his arms. "The truth is he'd been heading in the other direction." All along there have been distortions, half-truths, exaggerations and lies.

"It is vital that the truth doesn't become buried," he writes, "we owe it to the memory of those left behind on the runway to tell it like it was."

What has not diminished is his discomfort with the `Hero of Munich' label. `I do not want to be the fellow who was a smartarse on an airfield. I never wanted, or I would have talked about it'

Manchester United has handled it badly over the years too, he says, sometimes turning it into a PR exercise. Every time the club decides to have an anniversary, various people jump on the bandwagon.

"It's been that way since the time. There's so many people have this, unbelievable, wanting to be part of Munich. Well I'll tell you what, if they want it they can have my share of it, it's as easy as that, they can have my share of what goes with it."

He doesn't live with it every day, he tries not to. Besides, people forget there was a time when he was one of the best goalkeepers in the world. Famous for dominating his box, he was agile, decisive and ferociously brave. Dogged by horrendous injuries throughout his career, he played for Northern Ireland 25 times. At the 1958 World Cup they "broke the sound barrier" for all Irish teams that came after. They reached the quarter-finals and Gregg was nominated the tournament's best 'keeper, ahead of the great Russian Lev Yashin.

In 1965 he re-married -- he and Carolyn had four children. After a nomadic career he packed in the game and they bought a hotel in Portstewart. He has had a full life, in family and in football.

But old habits die hard and every morning he gets up at seven, pulls on an old tracksuit and goes running on Portstewart Strand. He'd just come back from a run last July when he heard that another comrade, Ray Wood, had died.

"The death of a survivor inevitably leads to reminiscence," he writes. "But the melancholy is usually short-lived. I mourn their passing, yes, but more than that I celebrate the life they led. On the beach, in the still hours before the world awakes, I often see their faces. They are all young men. We all are."

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