Around the 50th anniversary of the Munich air crash Neil this month talks about former Blues manager Harry Gregg

UNSUNG HERO

A couple of things prompted this column, firstly reading Paul Harrison's excellent Cult Heroes of Carlisle United, a book that makes it obvious that those we admire achieve their status in a variety of ways. As Paul Harrison points out some of Carlisle's greatest heroes - like Stan Bowles - put in consistent good performances, Jimmy Glass seized a moment and Bob Stokoe showed a doggedness in the dugout that led us to admire a character who tried against overwhelming odds. Another thing that prompted this column was the coverage of the 50th anniversary of the Munich air crash.

I'm taking nothing away from the people Paul Harrison rightly praises or the legends who died in Munich when I suggest that one man who never gets his true dues as a hero is Harry Gregg. One of the most moving things I've ever heard on radio was Gregg's vivid and emotional account of pulling the injured out of the crashed and smouldering aircraft, it was a story all the more moving because he described them in detail and was honest about how much he felt for them seeing the injured in that state. Harry Gregg risked his life going into a plane that could easily have exploded, when he talks about the disaster he usually overlooks that point.

History records that he was there, but tends to talk about the legends who perished, or those, like Bobby Charlton, who went on to win medals. As Northern Ireland's goalkeeper Gregg was never likely to win international honours. His track record in football is impressive but unlucky. He was in his prime at Munich, it is not stretching the truth to suggest he could have won a European Cup winners medal in 1958. He missed out again and again. Some of the injuries that dogged his career could be traced back to the plane crash.

He missed the 1963 cup win through injury and missed so many games as Manchester United headed for championships in 1965 and 1967 that he was denied championship medals. By the time United won the championship in 1967 Gregg was a Stoke City player, a move that denied him ten years service at Old Trafford and - therefore - spared them staging a testimonial game for a man who had - in all probability - contributed to saving Matt Busby's life.

His one real success in management saw him assist Lou Macari in taking Swindon Town to the Fourth Division title in 1986, again, someone else took most of the credit. His spell at Carlisle that followed saw us sink to the division from which he'd just helped Swindon to escape. We were sinking when Harry arrived and his departure didn't stop the rot, the only thing that saved us from league expulsion after he departed was a shambles at Newport County so serious that the one slot in the drop zone had their name on for the whole season 87-88.

It's ironic that Harry Gregg's ability to talk about the Munich disaster has done him another disservice. Because he tends to appear as a commentator and a witness who speaks movingly of his dead team-mates Gregg's own abilities get overlooked. He is rated by the handful old enough to know as one of United's best ever keepers. Remember also that his injury blighted career means he should have achieved more. Note as well that Gregg kept almost fifty clean sheets at the highest level in an era when shoulder-charging goalkeepers was legal.

Finally, remember that Gregg's heroics in Munich weren't confined to his team mates, he went back into the plane to help - amongst others - young Vesna Lukic; the daughter of a diplomat and someone he'd never seen before she boarded that aircraft. If consistent good performances, seizing a moment and showing character against overwhelming odds are good enough to create Cult Heroes of Carlisle United the same qualities combined in Harry Gregg make him an outright hero.

And finally

Thanks to those of you trickling in e-mails to my site asking about 'Workington Dynamo.' In answer to the tons - okay six - of enquiries the new novel should be in the shops around February 22nd, the same time as I'll be giving it the usual blather in the local media. It's already available online here:

http://www.lulu.com/content/1149143


Neil's site : www.neilnixon.com