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Harry Gregg: I had lost my faith, but not my values

Why NI legend Harry changed his mind about Sunday football

By Jim Gracey

There is nothing new under the sun in the controversy surrounding the staging of Northern Ireland's Euro 2016 qualifier against Finland on a Sunday.

Tomorrow will be the first Sunday in the 135 year history of the Irish Football Association that they will play host to an international game on home soil. For most of that time, playing football on a Sunday was simply not permitted under IFA rules.

The national team has, of course, played abroad on the Sabbath, most notably their 1982 World Cup exit to France when Glentoran winger Johnny Jameson famously elected to forgo the chance of selection as a named sub so as not to compromise his Christian beliefs were he called upon to play.

Northern Ireland and Manchester United goalkeeping legend Harry Gregg can go back even further to the first test of the Never On A Sunday stance ahead of the 1958 World Cup finals in Sweden when Northern Ireland qualified for the first time and shocked IFA chiefs learned the team might have to play on a Sunday.

In the event, it never actually happened, but, as Gregg recalled, the very possibility led to fierce debate, both publicly among the fans and within the churches and IFA, who while stopping short of relaxing the ban, as they later did in 1982, set off for Sweden hoping for the best and leaving the decision to individual consciences if the 'worst' were to happen.

That caused personal dilemmas within the camp for officials and players, Gregg included.

The legend of Harry Gregg is well documented; how his name will forever be to the forefront of the most tragic chapter in Manchester United's history as the hero of the February 1958 Munich air disaster, as the team's plane crashed on take-off in the snow following a stopover on their way back from a European Cup tie in Belgrade.

Harry demonstrated the most selfless and incredible bravery to twice plunge into the burning wreckage to rescue stricken team-mates and fellow passengers. But for his actions, the death toll would have been higher than the 23 from the 44 on board who perished, including eight of his closest pals, the greatest players of their generation.

This remarkable man went on from that traumatic, life-changing event to play in United's next game, become the top goalkeeper of the 1958 World Cup tournament, a stalwart of club and country and the admiration in which he continues to be held saw the Harry Gregg Foundation recently instituted to aid the development of young players, the football cause closest to his heart.

What is less well known is that, even prior to the crash, Harry, now 82 and quietly residing at Articlave, outside his native Coleraine, had left there a Bible believing young man and several years in top class professional football had not changed him.

So it came to pass that Harry was already wrestling with the apprehension he felt at flying to Sweden only four months after the crash when another quandary presented a test of his faith.

His religious beliefs intact after the experience of Munich, Harry recalls: "I was on a weekend away at a hotel with the Manchester United team when the news came through that Northern Ireland might have to play on a Sunday in Sweden.

"This had never happened before and was a bigger issue then than it is now, so it came as a great shock to me and created a moral predicament to me as a committed churchgoer at the time. I attended church on a Sunday everywhere I travelled with United and Northern Ireland. If I couldn't find one of my own Protestant faith, I attended a Catholic service because to me a church is a church.

"I decided to seek spiritual advice and went immediately to see a Church of England minister. I asked what I should do in the event of being asked to play on a Sunday and have never forgotten his reply. He asked if a member of my family were to fall ill on a Sunday, should the surgeon not operate?"

Harry made up his mind to travel - by train and ferry, not by plane - and the IFA sent an official to accompany him. It was an uneventful journey as Harry kept his cap pulled down to avoid recognition, having been splashed across the front pages a short time earlier and as averse to attention then as he is now.

But the moment they docked in Sweden, Harry found himself unexpectedly alone.

He explained: "The committee man turned around and caught the first plane home because he was uncomfortable with the business of us having to play on a Sunday, even though it was by no means certain. It was a widespread feeling at the time.

"Other officials didn't travel at all but as we gained momentum, beating Czechoslovakia twice and drawing with Germany, by the time we came to the last match, the quarter-final against France, Joe Public was solidly behind us and every single IFA suit turned up along with the Lord Mayor of Belfast!"

Some might think divine forces were at work as Harry girded himself to take his first post-Munich flight home from Sweden.

Typically, he'd told manager Peter Doherty he didn't wish to return to London with the main party, preferring an earlier flight to avoid any media hassle.

It was a fortuitous decision as the plane carrying the Northern Ireland team was forced to circle above Stockholm and make an emergency landing after its undercarriage would not retract after take-off.

Harry lost his religious faith three years after Munich when his first wife Mavis died of cancer. The illness also took a daughter, Karen, in 2009.

"Things that happened in my life contributed to me losing my faith and I'd prefer not to go into the detail but the basic values I took to England as a young man remain," he told me.

So where does Harry stand in the debate over tomorrow's ground-breaking game, as the final frontier in Northern Ireland sport's Never On A Sunday stance is breached?

"I'd say to people what that minister said to me all those years ago and then leave it to their individual consciences. But I don't believe it is wrong that the game is taking place."

How Harry would love to see the present day side of Michael O'Neill mirror the feat of that first World Cup qualification by reaching our first Euro finals.

Then, as now, we had only a small pool of players to choose from, and depleted by the loss of Harry's United team-mate Jackie Blanchflower whose career ended with his injuries on the Munich runway. England, who lost three United players, did not even qualify.

The achievements of the 58 side are all the more remarkable as Harry points out Northern Ireland took only 17 players to Sweden.

A squad of 22 was permitted but 10 years earlier Fifa had restricted the IFA to selecting players from the six counties after the football split that saw the formation of the FAI in Dublin and the emergence of the Republic as a football nation in 1949.

Consequently, only 17 were deemed worthy of selection and some of those were carrying injuries from the season just ended. To make matters worse, first choice striker Billy Simpson of Rangers pulled a muscle in training and was ruled out of the tournament.

The side were drawn in a group of death with West Germany, Czechoslovakia and Argentina, coming up against a highly fancied Czech side in their opening match at Halmstad.

A tactical masterclass from Doherty, aided and abetted by the heroics of Gregg and a young Derek Dougan in for Simpson up front, engineered an unlikely 1-0 victory, the goal scored by tenacious little Lurgan man Wilbur Cush, the Roy Keane of his day in playing style.

Next up, Argentina, rated the toughest, yet most skilful of opponents by Gregg, and a 3-1 defeat saw that win over the Czechs dismissed by press critics as a flash in the pan.

They went into their next game totally written off against West Germany, the reigning World champions and still with the bulk of the 54 winning side on board.

But this was the game in which Peter 'The Great' McParland from Newry came into his own.

The Germans simply could not contain an inspired McParland ,who scored twice in a 2-2 draw that sent the side into a play-off with the Czechs to determine which of them would progress from the group.

With the Czechs fired up for revenge and Gregg ruled out by injury, the fates conspired to make matters worse for Northern Ireland when replacement keeper Norman Uprichard twisted his ankle and later smashed his hand against the post.

With no third keeper, he was forced to continue as McParland cancelled out an earlier Czech strike to take the game into extra time at 1-1. From somewhere, fresh reserves of energy were dredged and as Doherty's side seized control, McParland's fifth goal of the tournament ensured victory for his country and legend status for the Aston Villa forward.

Just Fontaine's France lay in wait in the quarter-finals. This was the tournament in which Fontaine stamped his name with 13 goals, which is still a World Cup record, and although by this time the critics were begrudgingly acknowledging Northern Ireland as a formidable side, French class prevailed over tired Irish legs in a 4-0 win.

It is a story that loses nothing in the retelling and generations who know it only from the spoken and written word can see it for themselves with the release of a new documentary, Spirit of 58, as part of the Queen's Film Festival in the Movie House, Dublin Road, Belfast on Wednesday, April 22 at 7.00pm, admission £6.

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