Great Britain

Hero of Munich Harry Gregg deserves to be remembered as a shining light — on and off the pitch

“RUN, you stupid bastard, run. The plane’s about to explode.”

These were the words shouted at footballer Harry Gregg as he came to surrounded by flames following the crash of the Busby Babes’ plane on a snow-covered runway in Munich in 1958.

But he didn’t run. The 25-year-old Manchester United keeper could hear the wails of a crying baby and fought his way back into the tangled fuselage to rescue the child — before returning to pull her badly maimed pregnant mother free, too.

He then dragged out team-mates Bobby Charlton and Dennis Viollet and helped to keep manager Matt Busby and fellow Northern Ireland international Jackie Blanchflower alive.

They were actions that saw Harry, who died peacefully at hospital on Sunday at the age of 87, dubbed the “hero of Munich”.

Sir Bobby, 82, is now the only surviving player from the plane crash that claimed the lives of 23 of the 44 people on board.

Every person on that plane knew we were going to crash ...I certainly did

He said: “Harry will be deeply missed. I was proud to call him a team-mate.

“A shining light both on and off the pitch. For so many reasons, he deserves to be remembered as one of the greatest names in Manchester United’s history.”

Harry suffered a fractured skull in the crash as the United team returned via Munich from their European Cup quarter-final second leg match with Red Star Belgrade.

Just 13 days later, he was back in action as United — fielding mostly reserve players — beat Sheffield Wednesday 3-0 in the FA Cup.

The club made it all the way to the final that season, losing 2-0 to Bolton Wanderers at Wembley.

Harry played the entirety of that match too — despite being knocked out cold in a brutal challenge by Bolton striker Nat Lofthouse during the second goal.

Born in Londonderry, Harry worked as an apprentice carpenter while playing part-time for Linfield’s reserve side in Belfast.

At 18 he was snapped up by Doncaster Rovers. And in December 1957 he was signed by Manchester United for £23,500, a world record fee for a keeper.

I sank to my knees and wept, thanking God that some of us had been saved

He joined in time to play in the home leg of the European Cup quarter-final, a 2-1 victory over Red Star Belgrade, in January 1958.

Then, on February 6, 1958, he and the rest of the United squad headed to Belgrade, Serbia (then Yugoslavia), for the second leg. A 3-3 draw saw them progress to the semi-final, with many pundits tipping them to go all the way.

After the game they went straight to the airport for the flight home, which included a scheduled stop in Munich, Germany, to refuel.

The weather was treacherous and players could see the runway was covered in slush. They were worried.

Harry later recalled: “I think every person on that plane knew we were going to crash. I certainly did.”

The third attempt to get airbourn resulted in the plane breaking in two. Everything went black, everything went quiet.

At first Harry thought he was dead, then the pain at the back of his skull was so intense he believed the top of his head had been sliced off.

Spotting a chink of light, he kicked open the fuselage and made his way out. But rather than running for his life, he returned to save those six lives.

The first was crying infant Vesna Lukic. The second was her mum Verena, the wife of a Yugoslav diplomat, who was carrying her unborn son Zoran.

At the back of the stricken aircraft he then discovered United midfielder Charlton and forward Dennis Viollet, who he thought were dead. Harry said: “I dragged their bodies, like rag dolls, into the seats, which had been thrown about 20 yards from the plane.”

Next he came across Busby crying out, “My legs, my legs”, but soon realised his good pal Danny Blanchflower was in even more urgent need. His arm was hanging off and bleeding heavily, so Harry used his tie to stem the flow.

‘ANGER, GUILT, HORROR’

Shortly afterwards the airport rescue team arrived.

Harry said: “I sank to my knees and wept, thanking God that some of us had been saved.”

After several days in intensive care Busby pulled through, returning to management to see United become the first English side to win the European Cup in 1968. Charlton went on to help England win the 1966 World Cup and Viollet scored a record 32 goals in 36 games for United in the 1959–60 season.

But Blanchflower’s injuries, which included a fractured pelvis and crushed kidneys, were so severe he never played again.

Eight players, including star forward Duncan Edwards, lost their lives as a result of the crash.

It was these victims, the ones he could not help, that kept Harry awake at night.

He later said: “I still have a range of lingering emotions about it. Grief obviously, but anger, guilt, horror, frustration and discomfort at being known as ‘the Hero of Munich’.

Later that same year, Harry was in action for Northern Ireland at the World Cup in Sweden. He made save after amazing save in a 2-2 draw with West Germany, while carrying an ankle injury, and was later named best goalkeeper in the tournament. When a young George Best joined United, he cleaned Harry’s boots, saying it was “an honour”.

More tragedy struck in 1961 when Harry’s wife Mavis, mum to his daughters Linda and Karen, died from breast cancer.

He said: “Munich was not the worst moment in my life, that was losing my first wife, Mavis.”

In 1965 Harry married Carolyn Maunders and they had four children, Julie, Jane, Suzanne and John-Henry.

By this time injuries were hampering his career, so much so that he did not play enough matches in United’s league-winning season that year to pick up a medal. And after 210 appearances for the club, he was sold to Stoke City in 1966, but only managed two games. His replacement at United, Alex Stepney, told The Sun on Monday night: “He will always be immortal for what he did.

“I knew Harry. On the field, what a man, and off the field what a man. What he did out in Munich in 1958 is absolutely incredible. It summed him up as a person.”

Harry, who went on to manage Shrewsbury Town, Swansea City and Crewe Alexander, was awarded the MBE in 1995 and in later years ran a hotel in Portstewart, Londonderry.

One of the men who most admired Harry was United’s most successful manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, who made sure he received a testimonial and would never be forgotten at Old Trafford.

He said: “Harry was a man of great character and a true legend at our club.”

Former Manchester United goalkeeper Harry Gregg talks about the Munich air crash