“Munich shaped my destiny, of that there is no doubt. But Munich is not my life.”
To share the football field with George Best was an honour for so many.
To clean Harry Gregg’s boots every morning was an honour for George Best.
When a home-loving 15-year-old arrived in Manchester from Belfast in 1961, Gregg took Best under his wing.
That is why Best liked to talk about Gregg’s ‘goodness’. “Bravery is one thing, but what Harry did was about more than bravery,” Best said later. “It was about goodness.”
Best was referring, of course, to the heroism amidst the tragedy of Munich where the United keeper escaped the plane wreckage only to go back in to pull out team-mates Bobby Charlton and Dennis Viollet as well as the pregnant wife of a Yugoslav diplomat and her two-year-old daughter.
The Ulster man, however, was also a treasured team-mate for other reasons.
Running parallel with the ‘goodness’ was a great goalkeeper, one of the finest in Manchester United’s history. A career devoid of medals, blighted by injury, totalling 348 club appearances and 25 international caps does not tell the full tale.
When he moved from Doncaster Rovers to Old Trafford in December, 1957, it was for the largest fee ever paid for a goalkeeper and Gregg got a £30 signing-on bonus. The fee was £23,750, a mere £70,976,250 less than what Chelsea paid for Kepa Arrizabalaga to set the current record mark.
You doubt Gregg would have ever refused to come off had his manager tried to substitute him.
Gregg started his career at Linfield Swifts before moving to Coleraine and, after only 19 games there, he was signed by Peter Doherty for Doncaster Rovers.
A broken arm, dislocated elbow then a broken ankle hampered his progress, but in five years at Doncaster, he became touted as the best keeper in Britain.
Matt Busby thought so. He loved his style.
We like to think Premier League footballers have brought new dimensions to the game, but they have not.
After joining United, his third game was a Manchester derby at Maine Road in front of 70,000 people and at the other end of the pitch for a 2-2 draw was Bert Trautmann The next day’s headlines were all about Gregg.
“Have United bought a goalkeeper or an attacking centre-half?” one asked.
Playing out from the back is not a 21st-century phenomenon.
Injuries were cruel to Gregg, robbing him of a place in the 1963 FA Cup-winning team and costing him too many absences to qualify for a medal at the end of United’s league-winning 1964-65 season. But he was honoured at the 1958 World Cup in Sweden, voted the tournament’s best goalkeeper ahead of Russia’s Lev Yashin.
And speak to anyone who watched him ply his trade and they will tell you he deserves a place in the pantheon of United greats.
Munich shaped his destiny, but was not his life.