Published: Happy Days Issue 7 and Ufouria Student Magazine, interview conducted November 2006
As I pull up to Harry Gregg’s house, outside the small village of Articlave near Coleraine, I’m struck with a sense of awe. Not at the house or the spectacular scenic surroundings which would ordinarily send me to be at one with nature, but at the prospect of meeting a true Irish legend.
Born in Magherafelt in 1932 and reared in Coleraine, he signed for Linfield Swifts as a 15 year old before returning to his hometown club. In 1952 former Irish international Peter Doherty signed him for Doncaster Rovers where he forged a name for himself. Matt Busby was convinced by Gregg’s talent, and in 1957 paid £23,500 for him, then a world record fee for a goalkeeper. Gregg excelled at Manchester United but his tenure there coincided with a lean spell for the Old Trafford outfit as Busby tried to rebuild a team after the Munich Air Disaster of February 1958 where Gregg’s actions on the runway earned him the respect of the mourning fans. On the international front Gregg boasts Schoolboy, Amateur and 25 Full International caps. He emerged from Northern Ireland’s triumphant World Cup in Sweden with the ‘Best Goalkeeper Award’.
As I walk up to the house I hear the sound of ‘Danny Boy’ being played on a piano. Surprisingly, the maestro is Gregg, a towering six foot figure who welcomes me in and kindly offers to show me his vast array of photos and memorabilia. It feels more like an enchanted museum tour than an interview, with the guide proving to be knowledgeable and intelligent far past the footballer stereotype. He shows me the scrapbooks he has been working on (“Red for United, Green for Northern Ireland”) as he talks eagerly about his past team-mates, be they a “brilliant player”, a “gentleman” or an “arsehole”. Surrounded by photos of great players, I feel out of place in the sitting room, but Harry’s relaxing manner is contagious as we begin the interview.
HD: Did you follow Irish League football as a youngster?
HG: When I was a schoolboy international, I got the chance to train with the late, great Belfast Celtic, and the manager was Elisha Scott. Here was a former goalkeeper with a wonderful record and a wonderful career for Ireland, and I’m very proud he said a short time later, that young Gregg was the only man who would ever pass him. It was the other side of the world for me, training at Celtic Park. Jackie Blanchflower who was training with us, took me to Grosvenor Park. It was the first time I had ever seen an Irish League game. Now for me, this was a big thing for a wee kid from the sticks who had thrown up on the train on the way down as a bag of nerves.
HD: How does Irish League football compare in your era to present day?
HG: When Belfast Celtic disbanded, look at where the players went. The goalkeeper Hughie Kelly went to the English League, Bonner went to Celtic, Jackie Vernon went to West Brom, Eddie McMorran went to Doncaster Rovers and Manchester City, Charlie Tully as well – How good was the Irish League then compared to now?
HD: At what levels did you represent Northern Ireland?
HG: I was very proud to represent my country at Schoolboy level. It was very difficult for a boy from a country town to get picked. David McClelland and myself were picked, which was a big thing in those days, and I got to go to Luxembourg and Monaco in the European Youth Championships. Then I got something which can’t be got nowadays, and that’s an amateur cap. I also played in an inter-league game against England where we got stuffed 9-0 against the likes of Tom Finney and Nat Lofthouse. It meant I had the complete set of caps the way it worked out right through to senior level.
HD: What do you remember about your first cap?
HG: Ireland broke the mould that day – They brought in five new youngsters. They dropped Norman (Uprichard) and brought in me, they brought in Jackie Blanchflower, Billy McAdams, Peter McParland and Billy Bingham. In those days you didn’t do that. There were still selectors, but I think they were advised by Peter (Doherty), as that was starting to creep in. We played against the great John Charles that day, now there was a player! First time I seen John Charles play was at Rotherham; I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.
HD: Which cap meant the most?
HG: (Pauses) Two of them. The first and the last, because you have the beginning and then the sad part is the end. Pat Jennings took over from me in goal. People talk about the number of caps I’ve got, but I had domestic issues which I couldn’t talk about. I got hurt on one occasion, when I withdrew when we were due to play against Spain, and there was a suggestion that I was afraid of flying. I couldn’t come forward and say what was happening, but what hurt me was that people thought I was making excuses
HD: Who was the best player you ever played with?
HG: Peter Doherty was the greatest player I have been on the pitch with, and he was forty. He was worshipped by the Mercers, the Shanklys, his colleagues of all nationalities talked about Peter the Great. Bill Shankly used to call him the ginger tom, because you he’d pop up with a pass here and there and then a goal from nothing. He could do things at forty many top players now couldn’t. And he was a great manager. He took Ireland for the first time ever into the World Cup – we were a laughing stock going into it! I’ve heard it said, and I agree, that if Peter Doherty registered as a player for the World Cup – and remember we only took 17 out of a possible 22 players – then Northern Ireland would have went even further. That’s how brilliant he was.
HD: Was there good camaraderie amongst the Irish squad of your time?
HG: I remember walking around Wembley for the first time, the night before a game against England (1957). Gerry Morgan was the trainer. Now no one could describe that man. He had incredible wit. He was a huge big man with a bald head, huge teeth and he carried a toothbrush and comb in his top pocket. Here we were, walking around Wembley, 22 selectors and 11 players. One of the selectors was saying how great it was for wee Northern Ireland to be playing at Wembley, and Gerry piped up and said “Great my arse, the dogs have been running here for a hundred years!” He was some character. All these sports psychologists and science now – Gerry Morgan kept us all going. I roomed with him in Sweden, and if I wasn’t mad before I went, I certainly was when I came home!
HD: Was it difficult to qualify for the 1958 World Cup?
HG: We went to Rome, I loved that, to the Olympic Stadium and I had one of those days where nothing could go wrong. They beat us 1-0 with a free kick from the captain Curbato. What they did, was when the referee turned around they moved the ball. After that game, I was told I was going to be playing for Napoli but it never worked out. Then we beat Portugal at home, in front of a big crowd. And can I say something, and this is very important to me. Religion was never an issue. The manager was a Catholic, Peter McParland was a Catholic, Bertie Peacock played for Celtic, and it never came into it, not even among Joe Public. They were great crowds back then – We had 62,000 for the game against Italy where they had two players sent off.
HD: How did the Irish team play in Sweden?
HG: If you get a chance to look at a video of that World Cup, you look and see that if we ever won the centre, every ball was played into the corner or their box for (Billy) Bingham or McParland – no ball was ever played back. That team always started by attacking. They hunted everything, and every player in that team worked but they worked attacking wise. I hate this jargon today where it’s said about ‘keeping it tight at the back’. Doherty and Blanchflower never allowed us to keep it tight – We made sure we caused them problems!
HD: There are plenty of Danny Blanchflower quotes and stories
HG: I remember we played a match at Hampden Park, and it was ankle deep in mud as we were out on the pitch checking our studs. Well, we came back into the dressing room and Danny being Danny the superhero, had a bag of boots. So we were sitting there tightening our studs and Danny puts a pair of rubbers on him. Rubbers! This is unbelievable. He said to me, “Son, I can play in boots, play badly and feel uncomfortable. Or I can play in rubbers, play badly, but at least I’ll be comfortable.” He was an incredible being! When we beat England at Wembley in 1957, Walter Winterbottom said Ireland were lucky on the day. Danny said “Yes, rather be captain of a lucky team than a good team.” Danny’s influence on the pitch was huge. He maybe wasn’t the greatest player, but he was supremely confident. It was very sad at the end for him.
HD: Do you think Munich has overshadowed your footballing ability?
HG: Well, every time your name crops up, it’s Harry Gregg from the Munich Air Disaster. When I did the book, ‘Harry’s Game’, I did that because I wanted to be remembered for what I achieved as a young footballer from Windsor Avenue, Coleraine. Everyone talked about Harry Gregg, the Hero of Munich. I did not want to be associated with that, hence why I did the book because I wanted to be remembered for my football.
HD: You played a big role in bringing English clubs back to Northern Ireland during the Troubles
HG: In 1978, I got a phone call from some directors at Ballymena and Coleraine; I was manager of Crewe at the time. They were looking me to bring the team over for a pre season tour; an English club hadn’t been over for about eight years. Now Crewe couldn’t afford to go on tour to Liverpool, but it was agreed that they would foot the bill. Now my problem was telling the parents and wives, never mind the players, that we were going on tour to Northern Ireland. We played Ballymena, Coleraine, Linfield and Ards. That paved the way for other clubs to follow suit, and for the formation of the Milk Cup. I am very very proud that I was able to help break the ice.
HD: You returned to Manchester United as a coach
HG: I was invited back 17 years after I had left. When I returned to Old Trafford I could not believe it – I was fitter, than some of the top players. Do you know what time they reported for training? Half past ten. Do you know what time they left, bathed and showered? Twelve o’clock. I couldn’t believe it. Gary Bailie (United goalkeeper) and I would sit on a Monday afternoon with a video, because Manchester United had cameras all round Old Trafford, and tell him where he went wrong. I was doing that twenty, thirty years ago before all this technology took off.
HD: When you look back on your career what gives you the most pride?
HG: Forget I ever played this game. I’m more proud of producing players from the lower ranks. I’ve helped the careers of about 17 internationals. I’m more proud of that and of all I did for them when they were down, to talk to a lad and tell them ‘Go on son’. I was just multiplying what had been said to me from my coaches, Busby and Doherty. I always made sure we would never bore the players, the way sometimes I had been bored, I wanted to be taught, I wanted to be helped and I wanted to help other people.
HD: Are you jealous of footballers’ wages now?
HG: I don’t envy the money. The only thing I envy is that I’m too old to play it. To go to England and make it as a player, I took a drop in wages of £3, which was a lot of money in my day. I would have played football for nothing. It takes money to run the game, but it’s about the players on the pitch, and the supporters in the stand.
HD: What do you think of the current NI team?
HG: Sanchez has brought a bit of life to the team, and it’s great for the country. He’s had a bit of fortune because the wheel turns and we have a bit of talent coming through. I love to see these kids coming through, boys like the Davis, who is an exceptional player. He’s not having a great season but that happens to young players – including me – where you have a great run of form at the start and then a levelling out period. And he has one or two others, the boy from United, Jonny Evans who had a great game against the Spanish and the wee fella in the middle of the park, with the shaved head. (HD: Clingan?) Yes, I like him and I like the Birmingham player Johnson too – He can play. There will always be a little jewel to come through. The Davis’s of this world – That’s because the wheel has turned, don’t let anyone tell you it’s because of the coaching in Northern Ireland.
HD: What do think of the current proposals for a new stadium at the Maze/Long Kesh?
HG: I don’t think its right. Geographically it’s wrong, historically it’s wrong. Windsor Park was good enough for years but it has gone now because of capacity. The IFA want it (the Maze) because they get a few bucks out of it and don’t have to spend any money on it themselves. It is wrong that it is being used as a bargaining chip, and if the people of this country allow the British government to say if you don’t get the Maze, you’re getting nothing, then you deserve what you get.
It’s got to be in a city. All of the great stadiums I have played in have usually been in the big city of the respective country. However, I’m very very wary of these people who want to make a stadium in Belfast (The Durnien Proposal).
HD: How is it to play in a stadium with a running/greyhound track round it?
HG: Like Chelsea of old. It was a great stadium, but a terrible stadium to play at because there was no atmosphere. In my playing days the great stadiums to play at were West Ham, Highbury and White Hart Lane – You were close to the public. You’ve got to have atmosphere. There’s nothing worse than playing in a stadium with no atmosphere.
HD: Harry, It’s been a real pleasure and thanks for your hospitality.
As I leave Harry to get his tea (I only heard his stomach rumble once during our four hour chat) I find myself humming ‘Danny Boy’ as I drive off before my Billy Joel cassette takes over. It is memories like this that I will treasure, and I like to think that someday, this will take pride or place in a scrapbook of my own