A Newry and Armagh MLA has paid tribute to a “sporting icon” as the Northern Ireland Assembly took leave to remember Harry Gregg MBE, who died on Sunday.
The former Northern Ireland international and Manchester United goalkeeper had survived the 1958 Munich Air Disaster.
Less than two months after he made his first appearance at Old Trafford, he was on the ill-fated flight which claimed 23 lives.
But he went back to the burning wreckage on three occasions to save the lives of others.
It was his actions which led to him being remembered as the ‘Hero of Munich’.
And it was in the Assembly on Monday that SDLP MLA Justin McNulty described Mr Gregg – who had been born in Tobermore, raised in Coleraine and latterly ran a hotel in Portstewart – as a “reluctant hero”.
The Newry and Armagh MLA – who helped County Armagh win its first and only All-Ireland title to date back in 2002 – told the House: “He was so much more than a sporting icon or a sporting man; he was a man of great dignity, humility and strength.
“He was a family man, touched by personal tragedy as well, with the loss of his first wife and his daughter through cancer.
“Harry was a ‘Busby Babe’. I am a GAA man, but, in my formative years, I was also a Man U fan. I grew up admiring such players as Sammy McIlroy, Mal Donaghy others and their exploits with the Northern Ireland team in Mexico ’86.
“Sammy McIIroy said today that Harry was a man with the bravery of a lion, on and off the pitch.
“He was a man who, in 1958, climbed back into a burning aircraft in an effort to save his teammates’ lives.
“Although Harry was a reluctant hero, what he did that night in Munich says everything you need to know about the man. Rest in peace, Harry. Condolences to his family, friends and fans.”
It was East Londonderry MLA Claire Sugden, who had led the House in remembering Mr Gregg and expressed condolences to his wife, Carolyn, his family, friends and fans across the world.
She said: “Leading tributes today, Sir Alex Ferguson described him as ‘a man of great character and a true legend’.
“Harry was our hero in so many ways. He was a hero on the football pitch — unrivalled. When he had the ball, it was safe in his hands, much to the dismay of the opposing side.
“In 1957, he was the world’s most expensive goalkeeper; a year later, he was voted the best. He made 25 appearances for Northern Ireland. He dominated the nets both in stature and talent. He was a reluctant hero. Following the 1958 Munich air disaster — over 60 years ago — he bravely rescued teammates and passengers, including a young baby.
“He put aside concern for his own life to save others. People live today because of Harry Gregg.
“He did not want to talk too often about the tragedy, but it was clear that he carried the trauma for all of his days. He was the “hero of Munich”, but that name gave him no comfort. He is an inspirational hero.
“Harry’s legend is without doubt, and, long before he passed, when others sought to immortalise him in a sculpture, he spoke with unfiltered honesty against the idea; rather, he advocated for a foundation that aimed to inspire young people so that they might follow their dreams, as Harry was able to follow his.
“The Harry Gregg Foundation, which to this day attracts hundreds of children and young people each week, is his legacy.
“Harry was full of character. His height and lean, straight frame and, usually, hat gave him such presence. I met him on a number of occasions. His candid conversations, sharp wit and incredible stories made him the best company. He talked about football and his family.
“He dearly loved his family, and I know that they will sorely feel his loss today and in the days ahead. Although incredibly humble, he was quietly proud of all his achievements. I know that some here have visited his home outside Castlerock. It is a sight to behold: a private collection of global football history.
“Harry was a Coleraine man. Being born in Tobermore and raised on the Bann side gave him his most distinctive and formidable quality. Despite his success, fame and famous friends, he was one of us.
“To us, Harry Gregg OBE is a legend in every sense of the word, but, to him, he was Harry Gregg of 34 Windsor Avenue, Coleraine: a husband, father and grandfather, and now a ‘Red Devil’ in heaven.
“Rest easy, Harry, and God bless.”