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Munich legend Harry a true hero, not just of sport, but of life

Munich legend Harry a true hero not just of sport but of life
Former Manchester United. Photo by Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile

By PJ Cunningham

In sport, we lionise the great performers and like to describe their exploits as heroic or villainous, depending on the outcome of a particular contest.

The great Liverpool manager, Bill Shankly told us that football wasn’t merely “a case of life or death – it was much more important than that”.

In the toyshop where the sport is housed, such exaggeration is part of the hyberbole which keeps us all passionate about the kicking of a ball as a representation of who we are and where we belong.

But it should never be confused with real life as we saw in Hysel in 1985, Hillsborough in 1989 and probably most innocently of all – Munich in 1958.


Indeed if we are to stick the label ‘hero’ on any footballer, the former Manchester United goalkeeper Harry Gregg was indeed that – and much more.

The Northern Irishman – who passed away at the age of 87 – was among the United party when the plane crashed taking off in foul weather conditions at Munich in early February 61 years ago.

As the aircraft hit the ground in the slush-covered Munich-Riem Airport, bodies were thrown from the fuselage while others were piled on top of one other.

Players including the legendary Duncan Edwards and Irish star Liam Whelan, officials and journalists were among the 23 dead in the air tragedy.


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The final number would have been much more but for the heroic work done by Harry in pulling injured to safety and ensuring the maximum amount (21) survived the terrible ordeal.

His courage on the night saw him return on two occasion to the burning plane to drag his colleagues and strangers to safety.

What a hero. What a great human being to put his own life in danger.

Thanks to his bravery, a future World Cup and European Cup winner Bobby Charlton was saved as was Dennis Viollet from the BEA Flight 609.


What is often forgotten is that Harry also saved a seriously injured pregnant mum on the plane as well as her 20-month old baby.

He had joined United the previous year when Matt Busy paid a then hefty £23,000 for his services.

Later in ’58 he played for Northern Ireland in the World Cup in Sweden where he was voted the best ‘keeper in the tournament.

Harry was one of those great people who Rudyard Kipling would have had in mind when he talked about meeting triumph and tragedy and treating “those two imposters just the same”.


A mere 13 days after surviving and helping to rescue people in Germany, he played between the sticks as United beat Sheffield Wednesday 3-0 in the FA Cup.

Given his age profile, only the oldest in our society will remember either the 25 times capped international playing or his herculean efforts on a night of football tragedy.

His death reminds us that the human spirit which he displayed on that cold evening is at its best when it is selfless, when it is about looking after the needs of others, even if it is at risk to our own safety.

Rest in peace, Harry – a real life hero whose life was about putting others first. Ar Dheis De Go Raibh A Anam.

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