Manchester United great Harry Gregg wanted to be remembered as a footballer, not the hero of the Munich air crash, mourners at his funeral have heard.
Sir Bobby Charlton, one of the players Gregg pulled from the wreckage of the burning plane, was among those who gathered to say farewell to a goalkeeper whose courage in the aftermath of the 1958 disaster is part of club folklore.
Fellow United stars Sir Alex Ferguson and Denis Law also attended the service in Gregg’s hometown of Coleraine in Northern Ireland.
The former Northern Ireland international, who was named the best goalkeeper of the 1958 World Cup, died earlier this week aged 87.
He will be forever associated with the tragedy in Munich on February 6, 1958, when a plane transporting Matt Busby’s young Manchester United side back from a European game in the former Yugoslavia crashed on a snowy runway after a refuelling stop.
Gregg survived the crash that claimed 23 lives and twice returned to the burning fuselage to drag United team-mates and strangers to safety.
He rescued United players Charlton and Dennis Viollet from the BEA Flight 609, as well as a 20-month-old baby and her badly injured pregnant mother.
His funeral coincidentally was held on the anniversary of Duncan Edwards’ death.
The 21-year-old United and England star was the final victim of the disaster, dying in a Munich hospital two weeks after the tragedy.
Members of the Edwards family attended Gregg’s funeral in St Patrick’s Parish Church in Coleraine, Co Londonderry.
The town centre church was packed to capacity, with a large crowd listening outside in the rain.
BBC Northern Ireland sports presenter Stephen Watson, who accompanied Gregg back to the crash site for a 2008 documentary to mark the 50th anniversary, delivered a eulogy as his widow Carolyn and other family members watched on.
He said the disaster left a scar on the rest of his life as he dealt with the twin torments of guilt and grief.
“Harry Gregg’s notoriety because of the Munich air crash came at a price – it cast a shadow over his life that he found difficult to dispel, but he always carried it with grace,” he said.
“Harry was determined that even though Munich shaped his destiny, it would not shape his life.
“Harry’s actions, though, on the runway that fateful day meant he transcended sporting greatness.
“He was called the hero of Munich, but he always wanted to be remembered simply as a footballer and a coach of some repute.
“In his own words, ‘I’m Harry Gregg from 34 Windsor Avenue in Coleraine who played football – I was useful on some days and rubbish on others. That’s how I want to be remembered. Not for something that happened on a spur of a moment’.
“Harry Gregg. What an incredible man, and what a remarkable life. We will never forget you. We celebrate your life today.”
In nine years at United, Gregg played 247 times, including in a 3-0 win over Sheffield Wednesday just 13 days after the Munich tragedy.
Gregg became the world’s most expensive goalkeeper when Sir Matt Busby’s United paid Doncaster £23,000 in 1957.
He won just 25 caps for his country during an international career that was hampered by injury.
Gregg’s son John-Henry paid tribute to his father on behalf of the family. He joked that his arrival in heaven may disturb the tranquillity.
“I believe my dad’s life is something – even though we are hurting – that should be celebrated because, as they say, he certainly was a one off,” he said.
John-Henry Gregg also mentioned the Edwards family.
“On behalf of my family, and my dad would definitely have wanted me to say this, this is also the day that Duncan Edwards lost his fight in a hospital in Munich and we think his family should be mentioned,” he said. “Some of his family are here today, so like every Manchester United supporter it’s important.”
A statement from the Gregg family released to the PA news agency read: “The Gregg family would like to express our appreciation and amazement at the level of support we have received and viewed since the passing of Harry, husband to Carolyn and father of Linda, Karen, Julie, Jane, Suzanne and John-Henry.
“The family have been overwhelmed by the coverage both locally and worldwide. The sheer volume of private messages which have been received and those posted via social media has been incredible. Reading them has given us all such a huge lift and comfort at this otherwise sad time.
“Although his background was firmly rooted in football, we have been amazed by the outpouring of admiration being bestowed on him from the entire sporting community and indeed from all walks of life.
“In his own words, being transferred to Manchester United was like a dream coming true, but if truth be told he would have paid to have played for them, if he had been a rich man.
He was also incredibly proud of his connection to Coleraine and even more so that of Northern Ireland.
“Although hurting deeply as a family it is our hope that this time and the funeral itself can be used as an opportunity for supporters everywhere to celebrate his great life, achievements and associations.
“In closing we would like to express our particular gratitude to all the support being received from local authorities, businesses and those assisting with the logistics of the funeral arrangements”.
Gregg is also survived by his sons-in-law David and Keith, daughter-in-law Tina, and sister Elizabeth. He was predeceased by his first wife Mavis and daughter Karen.