One of our Greats is Gone…

Harry Gregg is dead. Gregg was the best Manchester United player ever. He was the best, not because of his considerable playing skills, but because he was the hero of the Munich Air Crash. He ran back to the burning plane and pulled out the wounded before a massive explosion blew it up. He was a comrade, who corresponded with me for years. He was an inspiration for sheer courage and his indomitable moral compass. Below is the Chapter of The Fix – written with his help. I put it below for Harry Gregg and all the players of his era…

There were millions of people who would pay millions of pounds to do what these guys were being paid to do. There were peoples with injuries. There were invalids. There were disabled people, people who would have given everything they had to go on a pitch and do everything these guys were doing and getting paid for it. To me, they were lowlifes who were selling the club, the supporters, and themselves for a shilling. I can’t accept that.

There was blood in his mouth. His head hurt. All around him was dark- ness and silence. He lay on his side amidst the tangled metal, still strapped to his seat. He unfastened himself, started to crawl free of the wreckage, and then saw the first dead body.
It was one of the most significant moments in British sport since the Second World War, and it happened at a German airport. Munich, February 6, 1958. The plane carrying the Manchester United team had crashed on take-off. This was no ordinary team: this was the Red Devils, the Busby Babes, the champions of England, carefully selected and crafted by their manager, Matt Busby. They were on the way back to England after a European Cup match against Red Star Belgrade. They had drawn the difficult game 3-3 in an intimidating stadium before a tough team. There is a photo of them taken before the match. They stare out at the camera. Beautiful young men in their athletic prime: muscular with the cockiness of youth, invulnerable, immortal. Now many lay in the wreck of their crashed airplane. Eight of them were dead or dying. Two others would never play the game again. But one of them became a hero that night: Harry Gregg, their tall, forceful goalkeeper from Northern Ireland.
After he got free, he staggered down the plane. The pilot appeared, a tiny fire extinguisher in one hand: “Run, you stupid bastard, it is going to explode!” Gregg could see five people scrambling away. But he turned and crawled back inside the wreckage.
It was dark. He could hear a baby crying. Frantically, he pushed and pulled at the debris until he found the infant. He checked there was nothing wrong. Then he carried the baby out and handed her to another survivor. He went back inside the plane. The fire continued to burn.
He found the mother of the baby trapped underneath the wreckage. She was unconscious. Gregg could not lift her, so pushed her out of the plane with his legs.
He still could not understand what had happened. It was too surreal, there was too much devastation: whole sections of the airplane had dis- appeared; the ruins of half a house tottered near the fuselage; and as the fuel caught fire, there were constant explosions.
Again, Gregg went back toward the burning plane. He found two of his teammates lying there. They were too injured to move. But Gregg managed to get hold of two others – Bobby Charlton and Dennis Viollet – and drag them by the waistbands of their trousers away from the plane.
The explosions threw flames high in the air. Finally, there was one massive blast that knocked a doctor who was tending the injured off his feet, and ended any hope of saving anyone else. Gregg was loaded into a truck and driven to the hospital.
In all, the Munich air crash killed twenty-three people. It devastated the team and its impact was felt across England.
For Manchester United, this was the very bottom for the club. Before the game, they had been in third place in the league. Now they scrambled to get enough players just to fill the team. Players were drafted in from not just the reserves, but their youth team as well. They were asked to fill in for the best players in England, the players who had died in the flames and wreckage of the Munich air crash. The roster of the players who were killed is extraordinary, including five internationals: Roger Byrne, David Pegg, Tommy Taylor, Liam Whelan, and Duncan Edwards, the man who had it all: skill, athleticism, modesty, decency, hard work, and the good looks of a movie star. The survivors who could never play again included Jackie Blanchflower, who as a player on the Northern Ireland national team had helped get them to the 1958 World Cup.
The next game at Old Trafford, Manchester United’s home ground, was a sell-out crowd. Thousands more were outside the stadium, and knowing they could not enter, they stood in silence, some with tears streaming down their faces, desperately urging their team on to victory. Bill Foulkes, one of the few men to walk out of the plane, captained the team that day. Years later he wrote: “It is strange that up to the moment of the game I had been thinking so much about the boys and missing them, but when the game started all I could think about was that we simply had to win.”
The shattered remnants of the team won that day. Then they won again and again and again. In the spring of 1958, against all odds, they reached the final of the FA Cup, the highest knockout competition in England. The team’s emblem on their shirt was a small phoenix: from out of the ashes, they would rise again. The final was against another northern team, Bolton, and almost the whole country cheered United on as they ended up heartbreakingly losing 2-0. It was the beginning of a love affair that has continued in England and then around the world since then: through eleven league championships, nine FA Cups, and three European titles, through the rise and fall of the gifted George Best, the mercurial Eric Cantona, and the never-tiring Bryan Robson.
But it is the teams that arose in the years after the Munich air crash that most speak to the hearts of the English. They were England’s sweethearts. They were champions. And a few of them were cheats.
That final verdict is given by the one man whose courage exemplified the Busby Babes, the heroic Harry Gregg. The same man who risked his life to save his friends and strangers from a fiery crash now claims in his autobiography, Harry’s Game, and in an interview with me that on the team a few years after the crash was a small group of players that were selling matches to gamblers. Gregg claims that he was approached to fix matches by a couple of “low-life” Manchester United players, neither of whom had been in the crash. They were out to make money off illegal gambling. He went to the manager, Matt Busby, who, Gregg claims, swore, slammed the desk, and shouted, “I bloody knew.”
The Manchester United team was not untypical. This is what astonished me as I read the files. This generation of soccer players were my father’s heroes. In my mind, they were cloaked in a glorious light. I don’t think I am alone. Ask modern English football fans about that era and many will wax nostalgic. The National Football Museum in Preston refers to this time as the Golden Age. The war was over. The world was at peace. The men wore baggy shorts, their hair swept back. The list of players is a roll-call of British soccer immortality: Denis Compton, Tommy Finney, the young Bobby Charlton, Stan Mortensen, and the greatest of them all – Stanley Matthews. They were lions. They brought light to the dark age of post-war England. And many of the players of the time, although not the ones listed, fixed games.
James Bartholomew, the English journalist and author, writes of what a wonderful place Britain was before the establishment of universal education, pensions, and medical care. How he can miss the widespread child labour, poverty, and slums that our great-grandparents had to endure is beyond comprehension. But in his book, The Welfare State We’re In, he begins with a chapter entitled “From Stanley Matthews to Vinnie Jones.” Bartholomew writes that English soccer is in a state of decline, from the halcyon sport played in the 1950s by gentlemen like Stanley Matthews, who enjoyed a nice, clean game, to the game now played by low-bred thugs.

I asked Harry Gregg about this view. He replied, “I don’t know what sport he [Bartholomew] is talking about, but it certainly wasn’t the one that I played.”
Gregg is an intelligent, insightful, and deeply honourable man. He was also one of the best athletes of his generation. And his description of the toughness of soccer in the 1950s would curl your hair. For example, in the 1958 FA Cup Final when some of the Munich survivors of Manchester United played against Bolton, Nat Lofthouse, the powerful Bolton forward, fouled Gregg in an incident that became infamous. Gregg had the ball in his hands and Lofthouse bundled him over the goal line scoring the goal that won the game for Bolton and destroyed the dream of a nation. However, two things did not happen: one, Lofthouse was not sent off – charging the goalkeeper was simply part of the man’s game that was soccer of the time – and two, the injured Harry Gregg did not leave the pitch – he played on.

The archival materials show clearly and consistently that some of the greatest players of the era were saying that British soccer in the 1950s and 1960s was, at times, deeply corrupt. A few examples include Brian Clough, Trevor Ford, Ken Chisholm, and Harry Gregg. Ford, Clough, and Gregg each represented one of the Home Nations: Wales, England, and Northern Ireland. Each of them played in the English first and second divisions, and each would write of the match-fixing that had occurred in that era.

Trevor Ford was a fascinating, exhilarating man. An international striker for Wales and an early campaigner for a more aggressive players’ union, he was a fighter in every aspect of his life. Ford was also honest to a fault. In 1957, he wrote his autobiography, I Lead the Attack, based on his professional career. The first chapter, “Under the Counter,” caused a sensation.
Since I first set my sights on Soccer as a career I have met almost every known type of football fiddle. I have been involved in quite a few myself and I am not ashamed. I, like hundreds of others, have been driven to it by the miserly attitude of the authorities in their assessment of fair payment for services rendered.
Ford went on to claim that the “viper of bribery” was common among professional teams. Ford was, in all senses, an exceptional man. After the publication of the book, he was banned from the league, so he played in Holland. He was so successful there that he was able to petition the English League to overturn his ban. Ford returned to the English League and played until his retirement. He never retracted a single word of his autobiography.
It might be easy to discount Trevor Ford as an exception to a culture of fair play, except that there are many other former players who tell the truth about the state of the British game at that time. Brian Clough – then an England international, and a man who would go on to be one of the game’s most successful managers – talked openly about the defenders on his team fixing games. When he publicly raised the issue of his teammates fixing, his team sold him. Years later in an interview, he was again perfectly honest about the conditions on his teams
For five seasons in a row I scored forty goals and more, yet we never finished in the top four of our division. That’s because we had a few crooks in our side that used to sell matches . . .
It was not the last time he would speak out against match-fixing. As a manager in 1973, when his team Derby County played Italian giants Juventus in a European Cup semi-final, he stood outside his dressing room and said clearly and directly to the Italian press, “I won’t talk to any cheating bastards. . . .” His assistant was so angry that he had to be dragged back from hitting the Italian coach. They were furious because they thought that Juventus had paid off the referee. The incident started the great match-fixing investigation of British journalist Brian Glanville, which exposed a network of corruption among Italian fixers and European referees.

Scottish forward Ken Chisholm was also a maverick. A former fighter pilot in the Second World War, he had little time for the niceties of the soccer world. He played for a range of clubs in both Scotland and England during the late 1940s and 1950s. Years later, Chisholm’s writing about the “arrangements” between teams would be included in Simon Inglis’s excel- lent book Soccer in the Dock. Chisholm wrote about how he had taken part in a fixed game between Cardiff City and his own team, Leicester City. The fix had all kinds of problems, he wrote, because one of his teammates had accidentally scored a goal. The rest of the match was “a farce as both sets of players tried frantically to score in our goal.” However, he defended himself by saying, like Trevor Ford, that fixes were nothing new:
Before people get hot under the collar, this kind of “arrangement” was commonplace towards the end of every season in those days, and I know of many similar cases where points were given away to save clubs who commanded good support from being relegated, and also to get promotion.
The list of players who are now willing to speak the truth goes on. For example, Ernie Hunt, who was one of the sporting artists of the late 1960s (his “donkey kick” goal was shown for years on the English television program Match of the Day) wrote of fixing games for his team, Coventry City. But the final and most convincing primary source is Alan Hardaker. Hardaker was the secretary of the English League, one of the highest-ranking soccer executives in the country. Publicly, during his tenure he had denied the existence of any kind of problem. However, thirteen years later in his memoirs, he was to admit that corruption was rife in the league and that:
There are many men in football today, among them respected and celebrated managers, who have good reason to remember the great bribery scandals of the early 1960s. They were deeply involved in the mess but escaped because the Law and the League could not get the evidence to nail them . . . football was ripe for corruption.
However, at the time, Ford and Clough were exceptions to a sometime culture of dishonesty covered up by a conspiracy of silence. It took an eccentric but pioneering young journalist, Michael Gabbert, to publicly uncover some of the truth about the soccer world.
Gabbert was a one-off in a profession renowned for oddballs. He became the founding editor of the Sunday Sport, a newspaper that featured few journalists but lots of pictures of women’s breasts. Gabbert’s career took off when, working for the tabloid The People, he along with sports reporter Peter Campling uncovered widespread match-fixing in the English league. They did it by using then-innovative techniques of investigative journalism, like secretly taping the players’ and fixers’ conversations. The eventual result was a series of articles published over two years, 1963 and 1964, which exposed a network of soccer players who were linked to gamblers fixing games. The middlemen were a number of former players who gave the orders for which games would be fixed. Ten players were eventually convicted, and four of them actually served jail time. One of the bookies was so upset that he committed suicide rather than give evidence.
Many English people still remember the story of the most prominent Sheffield Wednesday players – David Layne, Peter Swan, and Tony Kay – caught by Gabbert and Campling. Swan and Kay also played for the English national team. In December 1962, the three of them fixed a game against lowly Ipswich Town for £200. Gabbert and Campling caught them on tape talking about it. In his autobiography, Setting the Record Straight, Swan writes of how even years later, Brian Clough, still upright, still principled, still determined to fight against match-fixing, turned his back on Swan and refused to acknowledge his presence.
However, what most people do not recognize is how widespread the match-fixing was in the league in those days. Neither Michael Gabbert nor any of the law enforcement officials thought they had even come close to tackling the real scope of the problem among the players. Roy Mason, an MP, declared in the House of Commons that “only a third of this iceberg has reared its head.” Simon Inglis, who wrote of these events, claims that there was another match-fixing syndicate among Southern clubs, with a hundred players co-operating in the fixes.
For all his work and ingenuity, neither Gabbert nor his newspaper The People were thanked by the soccer industry for exposing the fixing. Rather, they were treated as if they had organized the fixing, not exposed some of it. Alan Hardaker, the secretary of the soccer league, attempted to ban The People’s journalists from all soccer stadiums following their stories: a difficult punishment for any newspaper, but a draconian one for a tabloid whose readers crave sports stories.
The reason why a lot of the British players of the 1950s were willing to fix a game is very simple: they were, for the most part, players from poor backgrounds who were ruthlessly exploited by their clubs. The list of what the clubs could do to them would make a modern union member blanche with horror. The clubs controlled whether they played or did not play; if a player left, the club still controlled whether he could play for another team. When and if a team paid its players, they paid a maximum salary that meant that a star player was paid the same rates as a much less valuable player, and in the off-season, they either did not pay them or paid them less. The clubs even controlled how the players dressed, drank, and ate.
In 1955, Jimmy Guthrie, the head of the powerless players’ union, addressed the entire British Trade Union Congress. His description led to lots of applause but little real action:
Mr. Chairman and delegates, I stand here as a representative of the last bonded men in Britain – the professional footballers. We seek your help to smash a system under which now, in this year of 1955, human beings are bought and sold like cattle. A system which, as in feudal times, binds a man to one master or, if he rebels, stops him getting another job. The conditions of the professional footballer’s employment are akin to slavery.
The soccer books about this era are filled with more, much more, about how the players were treated. It is an intellectual antidote to the right-wing crap, like James Bartholomew’s book, about the past being a kinder, gentler age. One shocking theme for a modern reader is the treatment of injured players. There was simply no widespread proper medical care of the players. If it were a less serious injury, often the players were dosed up with powerful painkillers which allowed them to keep playing, but exacerbated the injury.
In his autobiography, Ian St. John, the Scottish international player turned TV personality, who also attempted to fix a game during that era, wrote, “If I could stand the pain of it I would write another kind of football book . . . about how the game treated some of its greatest performers. It would be a story filled with regret and sadness.” He describes his former teammate Andy Weir as “a brilliant little winger,” but Weir was injured in a match against Third Lanark, received utterly inadequate rehabilitation, then was pensioned off with a handshake and couple of pounds. He ended up in a wheelchair and died soon afterwards.
Harry Gregg spoke of the attitude to injured players in the Manchester United squad of the time. “When you got injured at Old Trafford [Manchester United], nobody would talk to you . . . you shouldn’t get injured. That was just the unspoken thing. It was as if you had done something wrong.” It sounds like a Monty Python sketch, but Gregg actually practised for six weeks with a broken leg bone, before the training staff would accept that he had an injury.
I spoke to the great Sir Tom Finney, who, like Gregg, never fixed a match in his life. He played for the no-hoper team Preston North End. He was a superb forward, who also played for England, and could have played for Palermo, the Italian team. In 1952, they offered him £10,000 just to sign for them, plus a weekly salary ten times higher than his English wages. The Italians were offering to pay him, in just one fee, what it would have taken him decades to earn with Preston North End. Some believers in the Golden Age claim that Finney stayed in England out of loyalty. I asked him why he stayed, he replied, “Well, the club just said no and that was it. . . You were treated really as . . . it is very bad to say what you were treated like. I mean, I was always treated quite well at Preston, but the chairman said to me when that offer came in from Palermo, ‘If tha doesn’t play for us, tha doesn’t play for anybody.’”
To combat against this system that gave them so few rights, some of the players did anything they could to get money. Trevor Ford wrote in his book of the prohibited practice of players selling FA Cup Final tickets to ticket touts. According to Gregg, even an icon like Sir Bobby Charlton, still rightly known around the world for his gentlemanly behaviour and decency, sold his Cup Final tickets to “heavy characters” to earn extra money.
But of more importance to fixing is the widespread presence of illegal gambling networks. In the days before gambling was legalized, the big English companies like Ladbrookes and William Hill who were offering the relatively benign “pools system” had to print their coupons in Holland or Belgium to get around English laws. Betting in person in a shop, which is now utterly normal in the U.K., was completely outlawed until 1961. One football coach remembers his childhood:
I remember in England in the 1950s there were illegal bookies on every street. The only way you could make a bet legally, if you lived in Birmingham, was to go to the Doncaster Races. So every street had their own gambling ring.
The mental arithmetic is simple. If gambling is illegal, then the people organizing it will be criminals. In this environment moral, honest, non- fixing bookmakers (whom the law still calls criminal) are at a competitive disadvantage against the really dishonest bookmakers. There is no one to police the industry and the immoral bookmakers will survive and thrive. One of the ways that the truly immoral gamblers can thrive is by fixing lots of games, and if the players are relatively badly paid, the bookies can do a lot of fixing.
It did not help that many of the team officials of that time were also corrupt. Some of them were kind-heartedly corrupt. They organized under-the-table payments, free housing, and illegal gifts to help their badly paid players. They also organized their own fixes if their teams were in danger of being relegated, dipping into their own pockets to help their team by buying off the opposition. But many of the officials were simply venally exploitative men who were out to squeeze as much money out of their players as possible.
In 1961, the players had enough of their poor treatment at the hands of the owners. They began to talk about a strike. A meeting was called at White City, in west London. It was a historic occasion. The organizing committee was on the stage, in front of them was a room crammed with many of the league’s players, from the great Stanley Matthews to the journeymen players of the lower divisions. At the beginning of the meeting, there was a general discussion about the merits of a strike, with the leaders on stage urging for a strike. Harry Gregg remembered what happened:
One young man stood up and said, “I do not agree with you; my father works down the pit and he only gets eight or ten pounds a week and I think that my father does a better job and we should be happy with what we get.” The young fella killed the room completely. It went dead. Tommy Banks, the Bolton left back, a really broad Lancashire man, said, “Mr. Chairman, can I answer that man? Lad, tell thy dad that I’ll do his fucking shift down the pit between three o’clock and twenty to five on a Saturday afternoon, if he can mark brother Matthews here.”
The players decided to vote for a strike.
The year 1961 signalled the beginning of the long and complex socio-economic battle for British soccer players that lasted from the strike vote right up to the Bosman case in the 1990s, where all players in the European Union were granted the right to play for any club. But the fixing, to a much lesser degree, went on into the 1970s. Why? Because some of the fixing players, usually the leaders or project managers, were scumbags who would have fixed games no matter what they were paid. There are always business executives on Wall Street who are paid $10 million a year and will still cheat to get another million. Or American football stars, such as Michael Vick, who will make $100 million and still design ways of torturing dogs for fun and profit. There will always be players who would sell a game no matter what their salary. Harry Gregg is absolutely sure of this. He claims that exploitation and low salary had nothing to do with the fixers who betrayed the memory of the Munich air crash in those Manchester United teams. To him, they were:
people I wouldn’t want my choice to be my company in life. It was the lowest of the low. It was to betray your fellow players. It was nothing to do with suffering or the shortage of money. I cannot excuse it. There is no excuse morally or otherwise for what those players did. Maybe I would have to be fair to say, maybe a couple of them that I knew about were decent blokes who were dragged into it and regretted it for the rest of their lives. But the other bastards did it and regretted nothing. I would swear, what we were earning had nothing to do with it.
The bribery and match-fixing in English football in the 1950s and 1960s is an intriguing story, but why is it relevant in a book about contemporary sport? We need to know the reasons for match-fixing in British football because they are repeated constantly throughout the sporting world today. Understand what was going on in that golden age and you can understand why similar things happen today in similar circumstances, even if they occur in the greatest football matches in the world. Some of the conditions necessary for match-fixing to flourish include:
• There will be widespread fixing if players are exploited.
• There will be fixing if the players perceive their administrators and officials are making money off the players’ labour.
• There will always be a few lowest-of-the-low players who, regardless of salary or status, will fix.
• Those players will be aided if there are illegal gambling syndicates around the sport. And now, with the Internet, illegal gambling syndicates are, through the computer, in everyone’s home.

We have seen why players fixed matches in one of the best leagues in the world at one of its most glorious times. Let us examine the decision of one of today’s managers to fix games in one of the worst European leagues in one of its worst times.

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Comments (2)

  • Roger Clark Reply

    Thank you so much, Declan, for this beautiful & moving tribute to Harry Gregg. A true hero & an inspiration in every way. Roger C.

    February 17, 2020 at 1:29 pm
  • Deirdre Bradley Reply

    Excellent article Declan and I am not a sports person!

    February 19, 2020 at 11:11 am

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