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Jim Gracey:Sunday Life Sports Editor

Passionate, entertaining, meticulous... with Harry Gregg there were no grey areas

Jim Gracey


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Harry Gregg

Harry Gregg

PA

Harry Gregg

It was a sight guaranteed to strike fear into the heart of a young reporter... returning to the office to find a yellow post-it note stuck to your keyboard and bearing a two word summons - 'Fone Harry'.

You never needed to ask 'Harry who?'

Only three contacts out of the 739 on my phone are listed under their first names and there will only ever be one Harry Gregg.

The immediate thought as, in trepidation, you dialled his home at Articlave, near Castlerock, (Harry didn't do mobile phones) was: 'What have I done now?'

In truth, as I came to realise through time, it was an honour when Harry called to critique or dispute something you had written.

He did not suffer gladly the fools, sycophants, self promoters or the self important who populate the game of football which he loved.

But, for reasons best known to himself, he took the time to show an interest in this (then) young journalist's career, forever helpful and available. His was a font of knowledge to which I returned many times over my 40 years on this newspaper during which he eventually became a valued friend and confidante.

On this particular occasion, he left me speechless for all the right reasons.

I had been to the launch of his must-read autobiography and written up a review.

"Young Gracey," as he always called me ­- and there are few left to address me as such - "I just want to thank you for the write up on my book."

Harry Gregg, the legend of Manchester United and Northern Ireland and hero of the 1958 Munich air disaster, thanking me?

I was both overwhelmed and humbled. But that was Harry. Famously intolerant of that with which he disagreed or disapproved but always generous with his credit when he thought it was due.

The legend of Harry Gregg, his Manchester United and Northern Ireland career, and, of course, Munich, have been well documented in the multitude of tributes following his passing early on Monday, after a period of illness, aged 87.

This is about Harry, the man. Quite simply, he was the bravest and most principled I have ever met. He never considered himself to be the former but clung rigidly to the latter.

We were introduced by the late journalistic great, Alex Toner, of the Daily Mirror, at a Football Writers' awards dinner many moons ago.

I'd never seen Harry play but had grown up reading and hearing of his exploits on the field and at Munich. I was in awe but Harry had the happy knack of putting the young, impressionable and respectful at ease.

It was only later, when I got to know him and his unique, sometimes combative, personality better, that I realised how fortunate I was.

Harry may have been associated with the red of Manchester United and the green of his beloved Northern Ireland. But he lived his long and incredible life in black and white. With Harry, there were no grey areas.

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In action for Northern Ireland

In action for Northern Ireland

In action for Northern Ireland

You were in or out with Harry and out was a cold place to be. He had a fearsome reputation but to make it under the guarded, protective radar (Harry prided himself as great judge of character) was a wonderfully rewarding experience.

He was interesting, entertaining, a meticulous note taker which meant he was seldom, if ever, wrong footed. And he kept others on their toes.

Very often, Harry would call and ambush you by immediately asking your thoughts on 'so and so or such and such' and you'd find yourself thinking on your feet: 'What's the right answer here?'.

There was no need because Harry always provided it in a well thought out, structured way. I learned a lot from him about football, journalism and life.

To be in with Harry meant being blessed with reminiscences of bygone days.

I loved his story of how he won over a hostile crowd at Everton's Goodison Park. As marbles and coins rained down on his goalmouth, someone chucked a lit cigarette which Harry picked up, took a drag and threw back into the crowd who exploded in laughter.

Harry never made a fortune from football. He worked on as a jobbing coach around the world when his playing days ended, just putting away enough to start his Windsor Hotel business in Portstewart on his return to his native north coast (born in Tobermore, he was raised, as he would proudly relate, at Windsor Avenue, Coleraine).

The now closed hotel was a summertime magnet for football lovers, especially during Milk Cup week, with its walls adorned by Man United and Northern Ireland memorabilia.

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 Harry Gregg in Portrush

Harry Gregg in Portrush

Harry Gregg in Portrush

Unusually, and rarely, it was also a temperance hotel, reflecting the strongly held beliefs he took to England as he embarked on his career as a young man.

When the once thorny subject of Northern Ireland playing games on a Sunday resurfaced a few years ago, Harry looked back to a similar dilemma he faced at the World Cup in Sweden in 1958.

Revealing and typically pragmatic, he told me: "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 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. He is survived at home by second wife Carolyn and son John, a former Irish League player and manager, and in England by daughters Linda, Julie, Suzanne and Jane.

"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 explained.

A man of modest means, Harry never begrudged today's multi-millionaire players, bar those of little talent and overblown egos, their massive pay packets and lucrative endorsement deals.

He would talk about personalities, past and present... some he admired, others he was scathing of; he had trenchant opinions on how the game should be played, more Pep Guardiola than Jose Mourinho, and he was fiercely passionate about the fluctuating fortunes down the years of Man United and Northern Ireland, who should be in charge and what should be done.

He had the ear of the biggest names in football and many sought his advice in return. Yet he never lost his common touch or forgot his Coleraine roots, always willing to lend his name to a worthy local cause, eventually leading to the establishment of the charitable Harry Gregg Foundation.

On occasions, you would be on the phone to Harry and hear his doorbell ring. He'd excuse himself and return to inform you it had been an autograph hunter and if people still remembered him and took the time to seek him out, he was delighted to oblige.

He was instrumental in growing the hugely successful Milk Cup youth tournament, now the SuperCupNI. In a groundbreaking move at a time when cross channel clubs were shunning his troubled province, Harry, who was working at Crewe Alexandra, brought over a team, paving the way for the bigger names, including the Man United of Beckham, Scholes and the Nevilles, to follow suit.

Sadly, he later fell out with the organisers after an utterly avoidable slight when a jobsworth gateman refused him admission to finals night at Coleraine Showgrounds as he didn't have his ticket. Harry's face was his ticket, for heaven's sake. That was the end of Harry as an official guest at the Milk Cup, despite numerous entreaties and olive branches. Black, white, in, out.. no middle ground.

He really ought to have managed his country as a coach ahead of his time with his belief in a passing game and players given free rein to express themselves. He abhorred the style of coaching in the schools at the time with sports masters tutoring players on ball skills one-on-one with 21 players watching, arms folded on the sidelines.

Like Brian Clough and England, the Irish FA suits of the time were terrified of free thinkers and mavericks so the job eluded him.

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The Munich air disaster

The Munich air disaster

The Munich air disaster

What he rarely talked about was Munich.

Out of courtesy and respect, I never asked until he began to open up, around the time he published his autobiography and then, on the 50th anniversary, when, having avoided flying in the years after the disaster (he travelled by boat and train to the World Cup in Sweden in the summer of 58) BBC NI's Stephen Watson and Gary McCutcheon took him back to Munich for a touching and emotional documentary that deserves to be re-run.

Astonishingly, when we finally talked about that fateful afternoon on a snow covered German runway, Harry insisted he did not count himself brave nor a hero.

Instead, he considered himself a darn fool, except he didn't used the word darn.

He insisted had he been in his right mind, he would never have gone back, not once, but twice to rescue his stricken team-mates from the burning plane.

In that respect, it was the only time I begged to differ with Harry.

A man who acts on impulse, guided by some force beyond our comprehension, to save life with no regard for his own, deserves all the admiration he tried to shun for the rest of his days.

Now, all sorts of counselling and support would be available to him. Then, as he matter of factly told me, he spent the night alone in a Munich hotel room in the wet clothes he was wearing when he leapt onto the runway following the impact with a farm building and fuel dump.

When his luggage was finally returned to him, it arrived with a bill from the airline.

Equally unthinkable, he was playing again for United 13 days later.

They don't make them like Harry Gregg any more.

Former Irish FA President Raymond Kennedy, who visited Harry regularly from neighbouring Limavady, summed him up perfectly yesterday when he said: "He never liked being in the limelight. He helped many people and causes around here but always quietly and without publicity.

"He was also very much his own man. When he had something to say, he said it, regardless of how it was received. But he had a way of relating to people he took to and was able to bring them with him. Those people were fiercely loyal to him and he to them."

He may have come across as contrary at times but it was hard to dispute his logic or reasoning.

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Harry shares a joke with Rory McIlroy ahead of a Northern Ireland match

Harry shares a joke with Rory McIlroy ahead of a Northern Ireland match

Harry shares a joke with Rory McIlroy ahead of a Northern Ireland match

On one of many occasions, he rang up with a column idea. It was to defend Rory McIlroy from criticism he was taking over his decision to move permanently from Northern Ireland to Florida to escape what he saw as well meaning but suffocating public and media attention.

"Rory is just right," declared Harry. "At first when you become well known, people can't get enough of you, they ask to do this and that, invite you here and there; then they get used to you and finally they get tired of you."

Sorry, Harry, but we never tired of such a tireless man. And now he is at peace, God rest him.

Belfast Telegraph