Harry Gregg’s death has let me feeling quite sad as he was a man who was always happy to be contacted for comment when I was writing an article about events to which he was connected. I was also delighted to meet him on 6 September 2018 when he made the long trip by car from Northern Ireland to Blackpool to unveil the Professional Footballers Association (PFA) plaque to goalkeeping great Frank Swift, who was tragically killed on 6 February 1958 in the Munich tragedy at which Harry was a hero who went back into the burning plane to rescue a number of passengers.
I had asked Harry to do the unveiling as when I wrote a biography of Frank Swift he had been happy to be interviewed over the phone. By the time of his death, Frank was a journalist with the News of the World. He had criticised Harry, just recently arrived at Old Trafford for a world record fee of £23,500 from Doncaster Rovers, for spending too much time on his goalline. Frank had also criticised Harry’s failure to save the final goal in the Manchester United match against Red Star Belgrade that ended 3-3 on the day before Munich.
None of which mattered when Big Frank, possibly England’s greatest ever keeper, a giant of a man both on and off the field, was later laid to rest. Harry was there and he told me “when I say Frank was a wonderful character it is not because he always wrote nice things about me. It is easy to be a character and not have the ability, but Big Swiftie had ability and character. Put these two things together, what more could you want.” Harry could, of course, easily have been describing himself!
After the funeral, Harry later made a trip out of respect to Frank to purchase a pair of goalkeeping gloves that the former Manchester City keeper had recommended. Sixty years later he made the trip to Blackpool to further honour Frank by unveiling a plaque on Revoe library that is close to where Frank Swift was born. Harry spoke with great passion with his strong accent often causing some confusion amongst the watching audience amongst which were a group of half a dozen Leeds fans.
Prior to the ceremony at the library there had been a series of mural unveilings to Frank Swift and Jimmy Armfield at the Revoe Primary School they both attended at one time. The Armfield family unveiled a plaque to Jimmy.
Before this part of the day started I was slightly thrown when one of the Leeds fans said who his group supported. Generally there is not a lot of love lost between Manchester and Leeds United. On enquiring why they were there I was told a few of them had met Harry on holiday a while back and he had totally enthralled them. They were big fans of Harry. The PFA had published some beautiful posters for the events in Blackpool on 6 September and these lads, and other fans, quickly took one or two to get them autographed. Frank was interviewed by Simon Mullock of the Sunday Mirror and the pair got on very well.
I had many years previously benefitted from Harry’s willingness to talk about his United appearances against Liverpool for a book I co-wrote on the history of matches between these two great Lancashire rivals. One game stood out; Manchester United 0 Liverpool 1 in November 1963. Harry had had his collar bone broken and in an era when there were no substitutes he pulled on a top and went back out to play centre forward. “I later got the biggest rollicking of my career.” He had defied the pleading of the orthopaedic surgeon Mr Glass and was afterwards told his collar bone could have pierced his neck or lung. He described how the on-field animosities in these games counted for nothing off it. He also described to me how goalkeeping was different in his days with much fewer punches and a general willingness to dive at the attacking forwards’ feet in an attempt to gather the ball. Today ‘keepers try to spread themselves in a star shape.
Harry also told me about his own battles to have his autobiography published and he, naturally, recommended I bought it. It was sound advice as for years I have told football fans that Harry’s Game: an autobiography is one of the best football books you’ll ever read. RIP Harry Gregg.