Harry Gregg has always been a reluctant hero.
He always insists he would like to be remembered as the man who was once
described as the best goal keeper in the world and not as some sort of 'John
Wayne'. After I watched the BBC Documnetary "One Life: Harry Gregg Returns
To Munich" - these wishes are likely to remain unfulfilled.
This was, without doubt, a portrait of a hero. To be honest John Wayne doesn't
come into it, he merely acted the part in mythical fantasies on film.
In this TV program we had Harry Gregg - the cast-iron, copper bottomed,
unimpeachable, straight-down-the-line genuine article who did it in real life -
HARRY GREGG, HERO !
There was lots written this week about Munich - and rightly so. I watched the
brilliant Nation On Film program featuring Sir Bobby watching for the first time
rare footage of the Babes in colour. But none of these things matched Harry's
program for raw, emotional power. Harry, who is still a big man, was followed by
the camera as he returned to places associated with the crash. It began with him
walking down the run way that, submerged with slush, had been the last thing
many of his friends had seen on 6th February 1958.
Just watching him on the tarmac, head bowed, dabbing his face with a
handkerchief, had the tears flowing down my face ... and they didn't stop for the
next 40 minutes.
What was so good about the programme was that stuff we have heard a
thousand times sounded so fresh, so moving, so immediate coming from Gregg's
testimony. Liam Whelan's last words "if this is death, I'm ready"; Duncan
Edwards asking from his hospital bed what time kick off was on Saturday; Gregg
himself refusing to run from the scene as instructed by a member of the flight
crew and instead heading back into the wreckage, yelling "there's people alive in
here": with a master story-teller's timing, he gave it all an immediacy that was
He had - as he admitted - told the story many times to those anxious to write his
part in history. So, for him, the journey was not so much about laying ghosts as
ensuring the memories he had imparted were correct. There has been so much
hysteria and so much romance written about the crash said Harry - he just
wanted to know he was right in his version of things.
The camera did not shirk from presenting him with the consequences of such
memory. It took him everywhere, from the Belgrade pitch where the Babes' last
game was played ("wouldn't it be great to be able to run out there once more?"
he said, surveying the pitch) to the Munich airport terminal where the plane
stopped to refuel, now abandoned and empty ("because of what happened
when we left this building, Manchester United changed from a football club into
an institution," he said, as acute a summary of the part the accident's
mythology has played in United history as you will ever hear).
He went from the crash site, to the hospital, to the hotel where he and Bill
Foulkes stayed that night ("oh yes, this is the place all right, I remember that
lift"). At times, it was too much for him, and he had to ask for a spot of privacy to
compose himself away from the lens' unstinting gaze. "Do me a favour," he said,
as he entered the terminal building. "Forget the camera for a moment or two,
just let me walk for a bit." Tough it may have been, but you sensed he was glad
to return, to meet people who had actually been there that night, the rescuers,
the doctors, the farmer who came running over his field to help. There can't be
many of them left.
The most striking part of the film, though, was saved until the end. In Belgrade,
Gregg went to the home of the Lukic family. Vera Lukic, the wife of the Yugoslav
attachÃ© in London, he had met before. He had not realised until much later that
she was pregnant when he had dragged her and her baby from the shattered
fuselage. With the camera in attendance, he was introduced for the first time to
her son, Zoran, the unborn third member of the Lukic family whose life he had
saved, now a 50-year-old man.
Gregg just sat on the family sofa, lost in thought, trying to get his head round the
idea that a split-second decision not to run but to go back into the plane had
been responsible for giving this man 50 years of life. "I don't know what to say,"
He didn't need to. Harry Gregg long ago proved that
actions speak louder than words.