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Birthday boy Harry Gregg: It's so touching that people still remember me

By Steven Beacom

Published 27/10/2016

Many happy returns: Harry Gregg with a Man United card to celebrate his 84th birthday
Many happy returns: Harry Gregg with a Man United card to celebrate his 84th birthday
Harry Gregg meets World champion boxer Carl Frampton at the opening of Windsor Park
Harry Gregg with multiple Major winner Rory McIlroy
Harry with his son John

Harry Gregg has just taken his daily constitutional. Three years on from a stroke, he's slower than he would like and needs a stick to help him get around, but nothing will stop him going for a 30-minute walk every day.

Advancing in years he may be but Gregg remains a force of nature. Get him talking about football and he's like a hurricane blowing away everything in his path.

Uncompromising in his views, and more often than not proved right, Gregg is one tough cookie and doesn't mind people knowing it. Scratch beneath the surface, though, and you will find he also has a softer side. Just don't tell him I said so.

I've enjoyed numerous interviews with the Manchester United and Northern Ireland goalkeeping legend. Endured a few too when he has been giving me an earful about my views on the game or pieces that I've written for this newspaper.

Enjoy or endure, the one constant throughout all the conversations over 20 years, and they tend to go on for hours, has been feeling educated in some shape or form about the sport.

The reason we're talking this time is because today is Harry's 84th birthday and I wanted to mark the occasion.

When the subject crops up he's in mischievous mood.

"Yes, I'm 74," he says with a chuckle, before his wife Carolyn tells him he's 10 years older.

I ask him about his health.

There's a pause, before he replies in earnest tone.

"Since I had the stroke I've been on this walking stick but there you are, I'm still hanging around," he says inside his home on the outskirts of Castlerock.

"I still go out walking. I try to do at least half an hour every day. Maybe twice if I can manage it.

"I force myself to get out every day. It makes me feel good in my own head since I had the stroke. It's important for me to get out.

"Before I had the stroke three years ago I was running the beach. I was as fit as anything.

"Compared to the fella I was, the stroke had a right wallop at me, but I'm not complaining. I got over it and here we are."

Gregg is one of this country's most respected heroes.

On the pitch he was a colossus. United fans of a certain vintage will tell you the Ulsterman was the greatest No.1 the club has ever had.

At international level he was outstanding too. In the summer of 1958 he was voted the best in his position at the World Cup finals. Earlier that year in February, just three months after the Red Devils bought him from Doncaster for a then world record goalkeeping fee of £23,000, he was lauded all over the globe for his bravery following the Munich air crash which resulted in 23 fatalities, including United players and staff, crew members and journalists.

The number of dead would have been higher had Harry, then 25, not selflessly pulled team-mates, a pregnant woman and a 20-month-old child out of the wreckage.

It's a dark night which will forever cloud his mind but he prefers to recall the ability of that 'Busby Babes' side from the late '50s rather than recount his heroic deeds which saved lives.

Bold and brash he most certainly is, but there is a reluctant hero about the 84-year-old.

Earlier this month he was at Windsor Park for the official opening of the stadium when Northern Ireland defeated San Marino 4-0. He admits he was genuinely touched by the ovation he received from the crowd.

He said: "It was great. The reception was very touching. I don't need all that but I have to tell you it meant a lot to me. It is beautiful to know that after all these years people still have affection for me."

That evening Gregg met two of Northern Ireland's current superstars, World champion boxer Carl Frampton and multiple Major golf winner Rory McIlroy.

Beaming with pride, Gregg said: "Rory McIlroy's a lovely kid and the boxer Carl Frampton was the same. At the time I was thinking has someone told these guys to go and speak to that old man. They were really nice lads.

"I don't know anything about modern technology but when a family member showed me a lovely message that Frampton had put on his phone, I was nearly in tears looking at it.

"I believe our sporting heroes are one of the great things this country has and we should cherish people like young McIlroy, the boxer Frampton, our rugby stars and of course our footballers. It's hugely important that people like that carry Northern Ireland with them all over the world. It does great things for the country and gives great pride to the people of the country."

Warming to that theme, Gregg added: "The Northern Ireland football team did exceptionally well reaching the Euro 2016 finals.

"Michael O'Neill, the manager, has done a fantastic job. He has made the best of what he has and told them to do what they are good at and forget the things they can't do. That applied to the Irish team I played with. Our team was good but we also played to our strengths.

"I think all the players in today's team have delivered but two in particular impress me.

"The captain Steven Davis is a better player than even I gave him credit for a few years ago. I thought he was a decent player, but I know now he is far better than that.

"And then there's Gareth McAuley. I knew him when he was playing for Coleraine and all these years on he is still playing in the English Premier League.

"At Coleraine I used to say to him 'son play your best because your next game might be your last'. I didn't say that because I thought his next game might be his last, it was because I wanted him to enjoy every match like it was his last.

"He is a great lad and has proved himself to be a fantastic player in England.

"I can see him carrying on for a few years yet because he is no quicker or no slower than he was. The most important thing with players is not speed in the feet but speed in the top four inches and I think Gareth has that.

"The guy is a credit not only to himself and his family, but to kids here in Northern Ireland showing them that they can make it at the top level."

Gregg still has much love for Manchester United even if he can't abide some aspects of modern day football, in particular fuming at the lack of tackling and his belief that some players don't care for the shirt or fans they are turning out for.

He retains a staggering memory of his playing days and training sessions, recollecting in fine detail majestic moments from the late George Best and Dennis Viollet, both of whom he describes as amongst the true greats.

Seconds later he voices his concerns over the health of another United legend and his old room-mate Denis Law.

Speaking before last night's victory for United over Manchester City in the League Cup easing growing pressure on boss Jose Mourinho, Gregg said of the 'Special One': "I honestly thought he was the right man for the job and my view is to give him a break and let him carry on."

Harry, given his age, doubts that he will make a trip to Old Trafford to see Mourinho's men this season or in the future.

He fully intends to be in Coleraine on November 26, however, when the Harry Gregg Foundation hosts a camp for thousands of young footballers.

This unique character will be surrounded by his family, who love him dearly.

He is a man who knows tragedy, losing his first wife Mavis and daughter Karen to cancer, yet alongside Carolyn, his children including son John, who was a footballer himself and his grandchildren, Harry Gregg still stands tall 84 years young.

"When you have been down the road I've been down I'm just happy to still be here," he says.

Happy birthday Harry...here's to many more.

Belfast Telegraph

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