2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™

14 June - 15 July

2018 FIFA World Cup™ 

When the holders faced heroic Harry

© Getty Images
  • ​Harry Gregg was voted goalkeeper of the tournament at 1958 World Cup
  • Remembered as the hero of the Munich Air Disaster
  • Helped Northern Ireland to the knockout stages of Sweden 1958

Sir Alex Ferguson described his exploits as "beyond legendary". Yet, Harry Gregg, the goalkeeper captured in this image, is not a name that most younger fans will immediately recognise.

Older supporters may remember that, when this photograph was taken in 1958, he was the most expensive No1 in the world, and that he justified that status in Northern Ireland's FIFA World Cup™ debut. Gregg's performances had been instrumental in taking the team to Sweden at the expense of Italy and Portugal, and his efforts in helping the team reach the quarter-finals saw him voted the tournament's top goalkeeper.

The former Manchester United star tends to be better remembered, though, as the hero of the Munich Air Disaster, when he saved the lives of several friends and fellow passengers by pulling them from the burning wreckage. While he remained reluctant to discuss his role in preventing further fatalities in an accident that left 23 dead, others were not so reticent, with George Best among many to pay tribute. "Bravery is one thing," said Gregg's fellow countryman, who would go on to clean the keeper's boots at Old Trafford. "But what Harry did was about more than bravery. It was about goodness."

Those tragic and traumatic events in Munich took place just four months before the World Cup. Beyond resulting in the deaths of eight of Gregg's team-mates, the disaster left another, Jackie Blanchflower, so badly injured that he was forced to retire at just 24 - denying Northern Ireland one of their star men.

Gregg himself had been struggling for fitness in the build-up to the tournament, but marked his and his team's debut by keeping a clean sheet in a 1-0 win over Czechoslovakia. He saved his brilliant best, though, for a decisive group match against holders West Germany, performing heroics in a 2-2 draw that kept Northern Ireland in the tournament.

The image here is from that very match and captures one German shot that did make it past him. Uwe Seeler was the scorer, and yet his abiding memory of the match was of the underdogs' remarkable keeper "springing like a panther" and "stopping everything".

Such Herculean efforts came at a cost, as Gregg sustained an injury that kept him out of a play-off against the Czechs, in which his understudy Norman Uprichard, excelled. Northern Ireland's back-up keeper sustained even worse damage, though, limping from the field at full time, having broken a hand and torn ligaments in both his knee and ankle.

That meant Gregg, who had been walking with the aid of a stick, returning to the side to face France in the quarter-finals. It would be there in Norrkoping, against a Bleus side inspired by the record-breaking Just Fontaine, that the debutants' World Cup adventure would come to an end. It was, though, with heads high and reputations greatly enhanced that Northern Ireland and their star keeper headed for home.

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