Carlisle United Football Club were deeply saddened to learn of the passing of former manager Harry Gregg in an announcement from the Harry Gregg Foundation on Monday morning.
Truly a larger than life character, Gregg, who was 87 when he passed away, took the helm at Brunton Park between October 1986 and November 1987 as the team struggled to find its feet in Division Three, having suffered relegation under Bob Stokoe the previous season.
A tough taskmaster his team always showed commitment and heart, even when results were hard to come by.
Chairman Andrew Jenkins said: “Harry was a good man, a great man, and those who knew him often wondered why he didn’t get a Knighthood for what he did at Munich.
“I was delighted to see him get his MBE and OBE later in life, but he was a true hero in every sense of the word on that day. It’s not something he talked about too much, but I think everybody knew the importance of what he’d done in the immediate aftermath of the crash.
“Things didn’t quite work out for him as manager here, but he was such a hard worker and fiercely loyal. He’d coached with us under Bob [Stokoe], and his playing and coaching experiences spoke for themselves, and I remember Bob telling me that he would be a good appointment as manager because he was a strong and very focussed character.
“He wanted to take the team back to where he felt it should be, but it was a tough season, with games lost that we probably should have won. Whenever he spoke about the team he always commented that we were just two or three players away from being a very exciting side, and he had a clear idea of the direction he wanted us to go in.
“As ever with football the pressure is on if you aren’t picking up results. I recall we had a spell through the Christmas period whilst he was in charge where we lost game after game. We all found that to be very difficult, because it saw us slide down the table.
“That run of poor results continued and it was hard for us all to suffer another relegation, but his determination to put that right was there for all to see. The work ethic from him was fantastic, and we kept in touch after he left the club. He truly was a great man.”
Community Sports Trust manager John Halpin, who played under Gregg, said: “Harry was such a strong character, but that made him a very good manager to work for.
“He’d played and worked at the highest levels with the best players and coaches in the world, and that meant he had a very defined set of ideas, thoughts and views, and he stuck to them faithfully.
“It was certainly different, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing. For example, when he came out to the training pitch he wanted us to be ready to go. There was no warm up, or anything like that, you just knew you had to be ready to start with whatever it was he wanted you to do.
“And for the keepers, he wouldn’t allow gloves at all. They had to take them off for training, whatever the weather, because he believed that would improve their handling and feel for the ball.
“Overall it was a completely different approach to everything, and what we would call the ‘natural way’ of doing things was completely out of the window.”
“He ruled with a rod of iron,” he continued. “There were no grey areas, it was how he wanted things and that was it. Having said that, you always knew that you could debate or disagree with him. He would say his piece and you would say yours, and he would make his decision from that.
“In my view that made him an excellent man manager. The other thing we all knew was that if we had a problem in our personal lives he was there for us. He would listen and help in whatever way he could. That earned him a huge amount of respect right through the squad.
“I know after he left the club that he often spoke about the fact that he felt all he needed was a bit more time. When I think back, he was such a progressive thinker. He believed in finding and developing youth and it was him who brought the whole Centre of Excellence concept to the club.
“The real difficulty he had was that the group of players he inherited possibly weren’t at the standard he was used to working with. Perhaps some of the ideas were beyond what we were capable of at that time, but that doesn’t necessarily mean his approach was wrong.
“He was a good man and it’s sad to hear of this news today.”
Gregg often spoke of his discomfort at being called the ‘Hero of Munich’ for his actions on 6 February 1958, when a plane carrying the Manchester United team and staff, along with support staff and journalists, crashed on the runway at Munich-Riem airport during a refuelling stop on a return journey from a European Cup second leg fixture with Red Star Belgrade in Serbia [a game, incidentally, which they won 5-4 on aggregate despite what was a nip and tuck away tie in Belgrade].
Helping the wounded and dazed, he saved the lives of an injured mother and her baby who had been trapped inside the plane before looking to help team mates who had been recovered from the wreckage.
Born in Coleraine, in Northern Ireland, the former amateur international with his native country moved to Doncaster as a 20-year-old, where his playing career kicked off.
The highest fee ever paid for a goalkeeper changed hands in November 1957 when Matt Busby added Gregg to the ranks of the Busby Babes for the princely sum of £23,500.
He made 247 appearances for the Manchester giants before moving on to play for Stoke. He then tried his hand at coaching and management with Shrewsbury, Swansea, Crewe and, of course, Carlisle United.
Speaking on his return to Brunton Park as a guest of the chairman a number of years ago, he said: “So much has been said about Munich that is wrong, and I understand why people want to ask me about it, but what they’re being told has to be right.”
With that in mind he had written ‘Harry’s Game’, a very enjoyable and forthright autobiography which puts to rest some of the myths surrounding that fateful day.
“I enjoyed my time at Carlisle,” he said. “I felt we were going to be able to do something here, and I told Andrew [Jenkins] that, and that’s why it was so frustrating that we didn’t get the results we needed.
“We had good players and I always felt we could play at the higher levels. I wish it had gone differently but there were no regrets. Football is a wonderful game but it can also be cruel, and you just have to take what it throws your way.”
We will be holding a minute of silence ahead of this weekend’s home game against Morecambe in memory of the Hero of Munich.