Football: Munich air crash hero and goalkeeping great Harry Gregg dies

Harry Gregg was capped 25 times by Northern Ireland and played 247 times for Manchester United from 1957-66. PHOTO: REUTERS

LONDON (AFP) - Harry Gregg, hailed as a hero for saving lives in the air crash which killed eight of Manchester United's "Busby Babes" in Munich, has died at the age of 87.

Gregg, who was United's goalkeeper, rescued a mother and her baby daughter, team-mates Bobby Charlton and Jackie Blanchflower and manager Matt Busby from the wreckage of the plane on February 6, 1958.

He was back playing for Manchester United just 13 days later against Sheffield Wednesday.

Gregg became the world's most expensive goalkeeper when he joined United in December 1957 for £23,500 (S$42,480) and went on to be voted the best at the following year's World Cup in Sweden.

He was capped 25 times by Northern Ireland and played 247 times for United from 1957-66.

"It is with great sorrow that we inform of the death of Manchester United and Northern Ireland legend Harry Gregg, OBE," the Harry Gregg Foundation announced on its Facebook page Monday.

"Harry passed away peacefully in hospital surrounded by his loving family. The Gregg family would like to thank the medical staff at Causeway Hospital for their wonderful dedication to Harry over his last few weeks.

"To everyone who has called, visited or sent well wishes we thank you for the love and respect shown to Harry and the family."

Charlton, who is the last survivor from the United group, paid a handsome tribute.

"He will always be remembered as a heroic figure," said Charlton. "A shining light both on and off the pitch."

United posted a tribute on their website. "It is with deepest sadness that we have learned of the passing of former player Harry Gregg OBE," said the club.

Legendary United manager Alex Ferguson, who remarked in the past Gregg was his hero, said he was deeply saddened.

"Harry was a man of great character and a true legend at our club," said Ferguson.

"I loved his company and the many pieces of advice he gave me."

Gregg was humble about his bravery in Munich.

"I would be telling lies if I said that I thought about it all the time. In fact I would go insane," he said in 2018 before a service marking 60 years since the disaster.

"I know the media would like to talk about what happened on a runway. I don't blame people for that, but if all I was ever part of, or all I ever achieved was to do with what happened in Germany, in Munich, if that was what my life was all about, it didn't come to very much."

It was left to others such as fellow Northern Ireland great George Best - who cleaned Gregg's boots - to sum up his courage.

"Bravery is one thing but what Harry did was about more than bravery," Best wrote in the foreword to Gregg's autobiography in 2002. "It was about goodness."

Carlisle, one of four clubs he managed after he hung up his boots in 1967, also tweeted a tribute. "He was the Hero of Munich - returning to the plane repeatedly to help others in what he described as a 'spur of the moment' action," the fourth-tier club tweeted.

"Thoughts with the family and friends of former manager Harry Gregg this morning." The disaster, after a refuelling stop, killed eight of the young side dubbed "the Busby Babes" who had won successive league titles. The crash left Busby fighting for his life.

The ill-fated aircraft was bringing the team back via Munich from Belgrade after they had reached the European Cup semi-finals.

The plane crashed on its third take-off attempt in terrible weather conditions killing 23 people, including three of the club's backroom staff, two crew, eight journalists and two others.

The club recovered to become the first English team to lift the European Cup 10 years later on a deeply emotional night at Wembley.

With Gregg's passing, Charlton is the only member of the United group who were on the plane who is still alive.

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