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Thursday, October 09, 2008

Tom Clare on Harry Gregg

Great Players & Games of My Time
Manchester United 2 Tottenham Hotspur 0 - 14th January 1961
Honoured at Last – Harry Gregg – The Man of Courage

On October 1st, the recipients of the Pride of Britain awards received their awards at a glittering ceremony at a top hotel in Central London. One of the categories of award was that of Special Recognition. One of the recipients was a 76 years old Northern Irishman and he was being recognised for his courage in a disaster that happened on an airfield in a foreign country over 50 years ago. That man was Harry Gregg former Manchester United and Northern Ireland goalkeeper.

Harry Gregg - where do I start with one of the greatest goalkeepers who ever pulled on that green jersey, be it for Doncaster Rovers, Manchester United, his 2 games for Stoke City, or his beloved Northern Ireland? Harry first came to my notice in late 1957 when he played for Northern Ireland against England in a Home International match at Wembley when England was beaten by 3-2. The single most reason that England suffered defeat that day was because of Harry Gregg’s superlative performance. It was one of the finest goalkeeping displays that you could ever wish to see and I just wish that there was still footage of that game around for people to see it. One save that I will always remember is a 25 yard blockbuster from Duncan Edwards that looked destined for the top corner of the net until there was a blur of movement and flying through the air like a swallow to his right, Harry punched the ball away. The 'Big Fella’ stood there hands on hips looking at Harry in admiration. When the final whistle went and victory had been achieved, the Irish fans clambered over the Wembley walls surrounding the pitch, raced onto the field, and Harry was hoisted high and chaired all the way back to that famous old tunnel. It's my opinion that it was his performance in this game that persuaded Sir Matt Busby to sign Harry and pay a record fee for a goalkeeper at that time.

He was signed on the 18th December 1957 and what a great early Christmas present that must have been for him. He joined a dear old friend of his at Old Trafford, Jackie Blanchflower, whom he had known since schoolboy days when they had both played in the same Northern Ireland schoolboys international team. Harry was coming out of Third Division football with Doncaster Rovers at that time. Amongst his team mates at “Donny” in those days was a certain centre half by the name of Charlie Williams who was later to find fame on the famous “Comedians” television show. For the big affable Ulsterman, his move to United to join the now famous ‘Busby Babes’ was a dream come true.

Harry made his debut for United just a few days later against Leicester City, on Saturday, December 21st, 1957. I attended that game and stood behind the goal at the Scoreboard End. That was the end that the "Babes" always came out to when they emerged from the old player's tunnel. I just wanted to see our new goalkeeper. At that time I was a budding goalkeeper myself and my idol (after Edwards of course!) was Bert Trautmann who played for Manchester City. On the day of the game against Leicester, the teams came out and this big twine toed fellow started his jog towards the Scoreboard End goal. I was mesmerised just watching him! He had such presence. He took his place in the goal as the forwards started firing balls at him. At that time, United had a young mascot who could have been no more than 6/7 years old (I always wonder what ever happened to that kid?) and he would go around the players during their 5 minute warm up and hand them a stick of chewing gum. As he approached Harry, he stopped dead, as though frightened, and on seeing this, Roger Byrne, United's captain, took the boy by the hand, and took him on to Harry who took the stick of gum, knelt in front of the youngster, said a few words, and then ruffled his hair. It's just a little thing that sticks in my memory. The game began and very early on a high cross was floated into the area and underneath it was Edwards and Byrne, but out off his line came Greggy, soaring into the air, knocking both Edwards and Byrne out of the way as he did it. He caught the ball cleanly and quickly bowled the ball out to Eddie Colman, setting United on the attack. The look on both Edwards and Byrne's faces was as if to say; "He'll do for me!" United won comfortably that day by 4-0.

Harry's first game also caused a little bit of wide eyed astonishment with the fans. When play was at the other end of the field, he would wander outside of his area and could be found mid way between the edge of the 18 yard line and the half way line. Back in those days, goalkeepers just did not do that, and it caused a lot of comment. The next game was against Luton Town at Old Trafford on Christmas Day 1957 and again I was there behind that Scoreboard End goal, and again, he didn't concede as United ran out easy winners by 3-0. The following day, Boxing Day was the return fixture at Kennilworth Road and he conceded his first goals as the game was a tight fought 2-2 draw. Kennilworth Road was a ground that he would come to remember in later years for an entirely different reason!

Just two days later, on December 28th he faced his first "derby" game against Manchester City at Maine Road. City were also going well that season and once more, it was a game that I attended. Over 70,000 packed into the ground that day and I was stood on what came to be known as the "Kippax" in later years. Back then it was a large arcing, open Spion Kop of a terrace. The game was a ding-dong affair and no quarter was asked or given and it ended all-square at 2-2. It was this game that the sports writers of the time took Harry to task for his habit of wandering outside of his area when play was at the other end, and he got a fair bit of criticism for it. In my eyes it was unwarranted and I suppose that Sir Matt felt the same way as he never chose to discourage him.

I saw his first ever European game against Red Star Belgrade at Old Trafford on January 14th 1958. I say that I saw it - but not too much of it! Today I doubt if that game would ever have been started. It was thick with fog that night, and for most of the game, you couldn't see across the far side of the pitch! United won 2-1 but I have to be honest, I could not see either of the goals that Bobby Charlton and Eddie Colman scored as United won 2-1.

The following Saturday they destroyed a team that used to be their Nemisis - Bolton Wanderers, and by an astonishing scoreline of 7-2! Bolton was always a big bogey team to United, but that day, they were just steamrollered. The last time that I saw Harry play with the "Babes" was in their last home game, a 4th Round F.A. Cup tie against Ipswich Town which was won at a stroll by 2-0 and Harry had little to do. The week after he took part in that famous last game on home soil, the 5-4 win at Highbury, and then it was on to Belgrade.

He performed heroically in the 3-3 draw against Red Star, particularly in that second half when Red Star threw the kitchen sink at United. His performance that afternoon often gets overlooked, but he produced some vital saves that were critical to United getting the 3-3 draw.

The following day we all know what happened and the part that Harry Gregg played that day can never ever be allowed to be forgotten. What that man did was above and beyond the call of what any man could, or should have done. That he saved lives is beyond dispute. Cometh the hour, cometh the man, and that man was Harry Gregg. He doesn't like being called a hero, but that undoubtedly is what he is. The courage he showed that day was phenomenal to say the least. That it has taken so long for this wonderful man to be recognised is a travesty.

I recall some of his performances after the tragedy and particularly one at Preston's Deepdale in a 0-0 draw. Again, his performance was incredible, and for a big man, his agility had to be seen to be believed. Two saves in particular I remember that afternoon were to shots that he really had no right to get near to, but he flew through the air and beat them away with his fists. It's something that I wish modern day goalkeeper's would take note of - technique - today they just seem to allow the ball to hit them - Harry beat the ball away and it would more often than not, fly away out of danger. It was also at Deepdale that afternoon that I first heard him get involved with somebody in the crowd at the back of the goal. Somebody was giving him stick, and Harry left the guy in no uncertain terms what he would do to him if he got his hands on him! It became a recurring thing with him - particularly at away grounds!

He played such a huge part in the rebuilding of Manchester United and that part should also never be forgotten. Sadly, injuries took their toll on him and it's my opinion that the first shoulder injury which started it, and if my memory serves me right happened against Tottenham Hotspur at Old Trafford on Wednesday, 14th January 1961. 'Spurs were all conquering at that time and were on a roll. This was the season in which they became the first winners of the famous “Double” in the 20th Century. They had trounced United in the previous 3 league encounters between them and ‘Spurs were expected to walk over a United side that was still trying to rebuild after the disaster. ‘Spurs had a star studded line up which was brim full of international players – Brown, Mackay and White from Scotland, Blanchflower from Northern Ireland, Medwin and Jones from Wales, Baker, Norman and Smith from England. They were an exceptional team.

It was a typical bitterly cold January evening and Old Trafford was packed with over 65,000 fans. The pitch had a cover of sand upon it and the surface underneath was rock hard. United took to the field with the following line up; Gregg; Brennan, Cantwell; Setters, Foulkes, Nicholson; Quixall, Stiles, Dawson, Pearson and Charlton. From the off, United were in a determined mood and started to harry, and hustle ‘Spurs out of their rhythm and stride. One thing that I will always recall from that match was a young Nobby Stiles playing at inside right, getting in his first tackle on the elegant Danny Blanchflower very early in the game. I can still see it now - the ball was there to be won - the wizened elegant international player on one side, and the young upstart of a sprog on the other. Nobby's fierce determination and will-to-win was there for all to see as he took about 10 yards of turf, the ball, and Danny Blanchflower, all in one flowing sweeping movement. Danny shot up in the air like a coconut being tossed at a fairground, and he hit the ground like a falling sack of coal. He was never the same again throughout the rest of the match and obviously, he had one eye on Nobby and tried to avoid him whenever he could!

The game was competitive and ‘Spurs elegant style was ruffled. So much so, that United took the lead with a goal scored by none other than that little inside forward, so dangerous from two yards, Nobby Stiles. Midway through the first half Harry Gregg dislocated his shoulder diving into a ruck of players as they scrambled for the ball just on his six yards line.. Alex Dawson took over in goal and Harry, believe it or not, went to centre forward - his shoulder and arm strapped up in a sling! United were able to hold on to their lead until the interval, and as the players left the field, the concensus of opinion from the fans was that Gregg would not return for the second half. We should have known better!

Harry made a continued nuisance of himself as he dashed about harassing the ‘ Spurs defenders. However, as the game wore on, 'Spurs were getting the upper hand. With about 10 minutes left United managed an attack going towards the Scoreboard End. Harry made a diagonal run from right to left towards the goal at the Scoreboard End. His run took 'Spurs' towering centre half, Maurice Norman, with him. It created a couple of yards of space into which ghosted young Mark Pearson coming from left to right, and behind Norman. The ball came through at pace to Harry from I think it was Bobby Charlton, and with the deftest of back heels, Harry played young Pearson in, and he smashed the ball past Bill Brown the 'Spurs goalkeeper and into the net. 2-0 and the 65,000 fans inside Old Trafford erupted. Harry was engulfed by his team mates, and he had to fight them off for fear that his shoulder would take another battering. Sadly, that shoulder injury was to plague him for the rest of his career. That goal knocked the stuffing out of the ‘Spurs team and United were good value for their 2-0 win when the final whistle blew. It was a game that I will always remember because although the club were still rebuilding, that indomitable fighting spirit was there for all to see.

In 1963 Harry Gregg played in every round of the F.A. Cup up to the semi-final. Sadly, a run of mediocre results leading up to that semi - final resulted in Harry losing his place. Nobby Stiles also missed out on a place in the Final as well. It was sad really, because if ever there was a man who deserved some silverware in his career at United, it was Harry Gregg.

The next few years he was in and out of the team and he vied with Gaskell and Pat Dunne for the number 1 'keeper's spot. His real swan song at Old Trafford was during the 1965/66 season when he was the number one choice for the majority of that season's games. There were some really memorable games in that season and It may surprise a few people when I mention them. United drew Benfica in the Quarter Final of the European Cup that season. The first tie was at home and was so closely fought with Bill Foulkes scoring what turned out to be the winning goal in a 3-2 victory. The away tie in Benfica's Stadium of Light is well known to United's supporters as this was the night that a young George Best ran amok and United won 5-1, catapulting the young Irishman into super star status. But in both those games, Harry Gregg was the goalkeeper! He also played in both semi-final legs against Partizan Belgrade. That United should have gone on to the European Cup Final that year is beyond doubt, but a combination of injuries, and missed chances saw them lose 2-0 in Belgrade, and win 1-0 at Old Trafford. Such a major disappointment for players and fans alike - so near, yet so far. United also reached the semi-final of the F.A. Cup that season, but lost to Everton by 1-0 - again so near yet oh! so far.

Harry played his last game for United on September 7th 1966 in a 3-0 defeat at the City ground in Stoke. His contribution to Manchester United can never be underestimated. What he did can never be looked at in terms of medals won. That he doesn't have a cabinet full of them is a travesty in my eyes. However what he does have is so many, many, wonderful memories especially of those 11 games in which he played with probably, and I make no bones about saying this, the finest young team that Manchester United has ever produced. You can't get much better than that.

Just a few years before Jackie Blanchflower passed away I had the honour of sitting with him at a former player's re-union dinner. He spoke so wonderfully well of his great mate, team mate, and comrade. He told me a story about Harry when he was staying with the Blanchflowers just after he had signed for United. Apparently Jean and Jackie had been out one night, and when they came home, they could hear somebody mooching about at the back of the house. Jackie thought that they had burglars and so picked up a stone from the garden. He tiptoed around the back of the house ready to pounce on the would be burglar only to find Harry sat there shivering - he'd lost the key which they had given to him! He also told me about Harry's first day at Old Trafford when the lads wanted him to play snooker and he was very reticent. Eventually he relented and they couldn't understand some of the shots that he was trying to play. All came to light later as he told Jackie that he had a hole in the sole of his shoe and didn't want the lads to think that the world's costliest goalkeeper could not afford a decent pair of shoes!

He was a volatile character and never suffered fools. He had a love-hate relationship with little Johnny Giles and erupted one time when the team were away on tour, chasing the little Dubliner all around the hotel, before Giles finally barricaded himself in a room. At Luton Town’s Kennilworth Road ground, a guy ran onto the field at the end of a match and made a bee line for Harry, but the sweetest of right hooks saw the guy ending up flat on his back in the mud. Nobody ever took liberties with Harry Gregg, and there was a lot of barnstorming, hard centre forwards around back in those days who would intimidate goalkeeper's whenever they could. It never worked with Harry, and on a number of occasions, especially in goal mouth melees, some of them would be suddenly found face down in the mud almost comatose - and nobody ever saw a thing!

His life has suffered a lot more than its share of tragedy and he's always had mountains to climb throughout it. It says so much for the man that he has faced life's challenges head on - just as he faced those fearless centre forwards of his day. He never ever shirked those challenges and he always rose above them. It says so much for the courage, determination, tenacity, but also the great modesty, and the great love of his family that he has.

With Harry, what you see is what you get, and that's the way he is. The word legend is banded about today all too frequently and bestowed upon people who in my honest opinion are not fit to wipe Harry's boots. He didn't win much in the way of medals during his time at Manchester United, but what he did do was to win his place in the love and affection of all of us who were so privileged to see him in his prime. A legend? There is never any doubt about that - but a legend in the truest sense of the word.

Live long and happy Harry and thanks for all the memories.