For one Munich survivor, Chapecoense crash brings back painful memories

Former Manchester United goalkeeper Harry Gregg survived the 1958 air disaster that killed eight of his teammates. He says only getting back to training stopped him from going mad

A survivor of the 1958 Munich air disaster that killed 23 people, including eight Manchester United football players, has spoken about how he had to ask his family to leave him alone to watch the details of this week’s Chapecoense team plane crash as it unfolded.

Former United goalkeeper Harry Gregg said that watching the news of the crash in which 71 people including players, staff, journalists and crew died inevitably brought back memories of Munich.

“When the story broke I asked my wife if I could sit alone in the television room as I did not want anyone with me. I wanted to watch it but with no family in the same room with me, because I didn’t know what way to react. It’s very, very difficult to describe, I cannot describe the sensation of watching it.”

He also talked about how he coped with the aftermath of Munich and the advice he would give to survivors from Chapecoense. The Brazilian football team had chartered the plane to take them to the Colombian city of Medellin, where they were due to play in the final of the Copa Sudamericana. Seventy-one people including players, staff, journalists and crew died in the crash earlier this week. Six people, including three of the players, survived.

Gregg said that after climbing out of the Munich plane wreckage and surviving the crash that killed so many of the Busby Babes, he devised a psychological survival strategy to cope with the horrors he had witnessed.

Harry Gregg playing for Manchester United against Tottenham in 1958.
Harry Gregg playing for Manchester United against Tottenham in 1958. Photograph: PA Archive

Recalling the days, weeks and months after 6 February 1958, Gregg told the Guardian he came though only because he got back on to the training field as soon as possible.

“If I had to sit in my home I would have gone mad. Sitting there with the thoughts of all that had happened, all those terrible things I had seen, I just knew that I had to get out. Because the press were swirling around us, with the world’s media camped out at Old Trafford, we trained instead at the old White City stadium in Manchester where no one was allowed in.

“That was the best thing that happened to me and I think the other survivors; to get down to White City and kick the living shit out of each other on the training field once more,” he said.

Gregg added: “To get into the White City actually saved me. To argue, to fight, to train on the pitch and to be involved once more in training. It stopped me from going insane over what had happened to us all out there on the Munich runway.”

Speaking from his home in Portstewart on Northern Ireland’s county Derry coastline, the former Northern Ireland goalkeeper who was a few months after Munich awarded the accolade of ”best goalie in the world” for his exploits in the 1958 World Cup, had words of comfort for one Brazilian man he spoke to this week.

“A Brazilian journalist rang me shortly after the crash in Colombia to get my reaction to this disaster as a survivor of Munich. I told him what I always tell people when they ask me about Munich. I said to him that I feel for everyone on board the aircraft that crashed in Colombia.

“Just as in Munich the focal point is on the players but what about the others who died alongside them? At Munich, I lost my friends and fellow players but there were others on board including one of the country’s greatest journalists at the time.

“When I told this Brazilian man this he said to me, ‘Harry Gregg, I am so glad that you remembered everyone who died on the plane because I lost three friends on that aircraft who were sports journalists.’ As with Munich the focus might be on the lost players but I told him we should never forget the others who died. I hope that gave this Brazilian journalist some comfort, as he was grieving too.”

Gregg, who was at one time the most expensive goalkeeper in the world, is now, alongside Bobby Charlton, one of the last two living survivors of the Munich crash.

After watching alone the reports from Colombia and Brazil, the 84-year-old said he was drawn back to that freezing winter’s day 58 years ago. “I can still remember the pilot Capt James Thain, a hero of the second world war, shouting at me as I regained consciousness and trying to kick a hole through the fuselage, to get away from the aircraft. I can still hear him crying, ‘Run, you stupid bastard, it’s going to explode.’

“I can still see Matt Busby lying outside the aircraft ... a tiny cut just behind his ear and him rubbing his chest complaining that he could not feel his legs. I can recall trying to find my school friend, Jackie Blanchflower from Northern Ireland, in the plane and hearing him crying out. All those memories came flooding back this week when I watched what had happened to the plane from Brazil to Colombia.

“And all I can keep saying to the survivors, to the club, to their loved ones is that I only kept going by getting back on to the training field even while Matt Busby was still in hospital. By putting us behind closed doors in the White City, United saved me from going insane.”

Who are Chapecoense, the football team involved in the Colombia plane crash?


Henry McDonald

The GuardianTramp

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