The FA Cup Final of 1958 will be remembered as the most poignant ever played in the history of the competition.
It was the year that Manchester United, devastated by the Munich air disaster 86 days earlier, defied all the odds to face Bolton Wanderers at Wembley.
That they did so was down to their indomitable spirit.
And no-one epitomised it more than their goalkeeper Harry Gregg.
The Northern Ireland international was dubbed ‘the Hero of Munich’ – and for good reason.
Eight players died as a result of that terrible accident on the afternoon of February 6th, including Tommy Taylor, Roger Byrne and the prodigiously talented Duncan Edwards.
But the death toll would have been more but for Gregg’s selfless bravery.
In the imediate aftermath of the air disaster, he pulled team-mates Dennis Viollet, Bobby Charlton and Jackie Blanchflower from the wreckage of the plane.
Not only hat, he also helped his badly injured manager Matt Busby and Vera Lukic, the pregnant wife of a Yugoslav diplomat, and her two-year-old daughter Vesna.
Gregg’s heroism was remembered by George Best, who used to clean the goalie’s boots. He said: ‘Bravery is one thing, but what Harry did was about more than bravery. It was about goodness.’
Against such a background, it was hardly surprising that emotions were running near the surface among the Wembley Cup Final crowd of 99,756.
Some of the Bolton team were in tears on the short coach trip from their base at Hendon Hall to the stadium as they remembered their lost comrades.
And both spontaneous cheers thundered round Wembley when Matt Busby, still walking with a stick, took his seat. The great man, and his fallen Busby Babes, had captured the heart of the nation.
As for the match, Bolton won a disjointed final 2-0 with centre forward Nat Lofthouse bundling Gregg into the net, along with the ball, for his second goal in the 55th minute.
After the most testing of seasons, the Red Devils had simply run out of steam.
United may have lost, but they returned home to a heroes’ reception. Thousands lined the streets to pay tribute to their team’s outstanding courage and endurance.
It was a moving moment in a memorable career for the goalkeeper born in Magherafelt, County Londonderry, on October 27th 1932.
Gregg worked as an apprentice joiner and played football for Windsor Park Swifts and Coleraine before signing for Doncaster Rovers at the age of 18.
His ability between the sticks soon caught the attention of Manchester United scouts and he transferred to the Red Devils for £23,500 in December 1957. It was a world record fee for a goalkeeper.
Gregg ad barely made his way into the first team when the Munich tragedy struck the club. United were returning from playing Red Star Belgrade in Yugoslavia and landed in Munich to refuel.
After two attempts to take off on a slush-covered runway, the British European Airways’ Airspeed Ambassador carrying the team ploughed through a fence and collided with a house on the airport perimeter.
There were 44 players, club staff, journalists and supporters on the plane. Twenty perished at the scene, while three more died later as a result of their injuries.
At the time of the crash, the Busby Babes were aiming to become the third English club to win three successive league titles. They were six points behind leaders Wolverhampton Wanderers with 14 games to go.
United had just progressed to the semi-finals of the European Cub after knocking out Belgrade, and were still in the FA Cup.
The first match after Munich was the Fifth Round FA Cup tie against Sheffield Wednesday at Old Trafford. United won 3-0, then beat West Bromwich Albion and Fulham to reach the final at Wembley. Both matches went to replays.
Jimmy Murphy managed the team while Matt Busby recovered, steering the rebuilt Red Devils to eighth place in the league – a remarkable achievement.
United lost their European Cup semi-final 5-2 on aggregate to AC Milan.
Greg played 247 matches for the Red Devils from 1957 to 1966, keeping 48 clean sheets in the process. But injury meant he missed out on any medals.
In 1963, he was sidelined for the 3-1 FA Cup final win over Leicester City due to a shoulder injury and failed to play enough games to earn a medal in United’s 1964-5 title-wining season.
Gregg played two matches for Stoke City in 1967 and turned to management a year later, taking the reins at Shrewsbury Town.
He also managed Swansea City and Crewe Alexandra, before returning to United as goalkeeping coach under Dave Sexton in the late 1970s.
After a spell as Lou Macari’s assistant manager at Swindon Town, Gregg became manager of Carlisle United in 1986. But he couldn’t prevent the team’s relegation to the Fourth Division and left a year later.
Gregg made 25 senior appearances for Northern Ireland, including the famous 3-2 victory over England at Wembley in November 1957.
He was voted the goalkeeper of the tournament when Northern Ireland reached the quarter-finals of the 1958 FIFA World Cup in Sweden.
Late in his life, Gregg enjoyed a reunion with Vera Lukic and her daughter Vesna, the women he saved from the Munich air crash. It was part of a TV progamme made for the National Geographic Channel.
Also present was Vera’s unborn child Zoran, whose life was also saved by Gregg that day.
Gregg aced tragedy n his personal life too when his first wife Mavis died of cancer in 1961, four years after the couple were married. They had two daughters, Linda and Karen. In 2009, Karen died of cancer at the age of 50.
Gregg married Carolyn Maunders in 1965 and the couple had four children – Julie, Jane, Suzanne and John-Henry.
He was awarded the MBE in 1995 and received the OBE for services to football in the 2019 New Year Honours list.
Ever modest, Gregg was adamant that he should not be remembered as ‘the hero of Munich’. He preferred to describe his life far more simply.
‘I’m Henry Gregg, who played football, who was useful at it on good days and rubbish at it on bad days,’ he said.
Harry Gregg died on Sunday February 16th at the Causeway Hospital, Coleraine, after weeks of illness.
Thousands will mourn his passing.
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