A life less ordinary

September 28, 2005
By Steve Wilson
(Archive)

It is not often you will hear someone describe the day they broke their neck as being 'very lucky'. But that is exactly how Bert Trautmann, Manchester City's German goalkeeper of the 50s and 60s, remembers feeling on the day he wrote his name into English footballing folklore.

Around 70 minutes into the 1956 FA Cup final, with City 3-1 up, Trautmann came out to claim a cross at the feet of Birmingham City forward Peter Murphy. 'I flew forward,' he recalls, 'and he came into me; it was like a train crash. I got his thigh in my neck and in that moment I was gone.'

GettyImages / LutzBongartProudly collecting an OBE in November 2004.

Concussed, and groggy from the pain, Trautmann - though he didn't know it at the time - had broken a vertebrae in his neck. With no substitutes in those days, he carried on, making two vital saves to retain his side's advantage.

'The only treatment I got on the pitch was the 'magic sponge' and cold water,' he laughs. 'From then on I couldn't remember anything. All I saw was like a fog; a greyness. I saw things moving but didn't really recognise them as players, but instinctively I carried on. I can't explain it, nobody can.'

'When I saw it later on the TV I broke down a couple more times and made a couple of saves, but it was like watching a stranger. That was the luckiest time of my life: lucky that I got to play in an FA Cup final and lucky that I could carry on playing after the injury.'

The break was so serious, Trautmann, in staying on the pitch, had risked his life. It was not the first time.

Born in Bremen in 1923, Bernhard Carl Trautmann - he only became 'Bert' in England when the locals had problems pronouncing the abbreviated version of his name - showed an early aptitude for sport. But the political climate of the time soon channelled his athleticism into military endeavours and, as conflict swept the continent, he became a paratrooper in Hilter's war machine.

Despatched to the Russian front, he experienced, first hand, the true horrors of war - though, such was his talent, he was once called back from close to Moscow to represent his division in a game of handball in Smolensk, 400km away - and twice escaped after capture by first the Russians and later the French. He saw friends and comrades killed and himself was once trapped in the rubble of an empty school building for three days after an allied bombing raid, able only to move one arm.

Later transferred to the western front, attempting to take a group of injured men to a field hospital, Trautmann was taken prisoner for the last time, by British forces in Belgium. It is understandable, then, that when asked how he felt on his eventual capture, he replied 'relieved.'

Eventually moved to a prisoner of war camp in Ashton, near Manchester, sport, and particularly football was a release for the men there. Fate, and an injury, were to take a hand here also. Desperate to play in one of the games arranged between the camp and local amateur teams, but carrying a knock, Trautmann, a midfield player usually, asked if he could go in goal. He never came out again.

In 1947 he declined an opportunity to be repatriated and elected to remain in England for a year. Having impressed in games for Camp 50 he had secured a place in a local team, St. Helens.

His notoriety spread quickly - 'When I went they had an average gate of around 450 and when I left it was up to 6,000' - and league clubs came calling. However, when news leaked that City had signed a former member of the Luftwaffe, it provoked outrage on a mass scale.

Before he came we had chaos - not something you can call a football league. Trautmann can well be described as the father of modern football in Tanzania.
Atillion Tagalile
Season tickets were returned, vitriol-filled letters of condemnation published in the local press and more than 20,000 people took to the streets to protest.

'I was living outside Manchester at the time and my English wasn't very good,' recalls Trautmann, 'so I didn't see or read about it, but they told me people went to the streets and threatened a boycott. They had banners saying if you sign this German, this Nazi, we won't come to the ground.'

The rabbi of Manchester wrote an open letter to the local press urging people not to hold one man responsible for the war and to allow his sportsmanship to be revealed and not pre-judged.

'But they accepted me very quickly, this is the amazing thing. After only a month, two home games for the reserves, they accepted me.

As well as his nationality, Trautmann also faced the Herculean task of replacing the greatest goalkeeper in City's history up to that point, England international Frank Swift, who later died in the Munich air disaster, there as a journalist covering United's European matches.

'At the beginning there was some hostility from opposition terraces,' says Trautmann. 'When I played my first game at Bolton, Frank Swift came into the dressing room beforehand and said to me: 'Never mind those people out there, just concentrate on your game. Whatever they shout don't listen.' And this is what I did; I carried his advice with me. People mistook this for arrogance but it wasn't.'

Trautmann's athleticism and presence between the posts quickly won round even the most sceptical of football fans. Unlike most other keepers, a huge throw allowed him to launch attacks as well prevent goals and he became a central cog in what, to be fair, wasn't always the most successful of sides.

When he finally called time on a City career that spanned nearly 15 years and 545 games, over 60,000 people turned out for Trautmann's testimonial at Maine Road. One can only speculate how many of those present bore placards opposing his arrival a decade and a half earlier, but the thought there were some whose opinions were changed is an appealing one.

Empics / EmpicsTrautmann's performances for City won over a suspicious public at Maine Road.

He has been honoured in Manchester City's hall of fame and Sir Stanley Mathews, amongst other greats, hailed him as 'one of the world's great keepers'. Lev Yashin went further: 'There have only been two world-class goalkeepers,' said the legendary Russian custodian. 'One was Lev Yashin, the other was the German boy who played in Manchester - Trautmann.'

Yet his loyalty to City, despite interest from a number of clubs in his homeland as the Bundesliga slowly returned to something resembling normality in a country crippled by post-war reparations, denied him the chance to earn international honours.

German coach Joseph 'Sepp' Herberger had a policy of only selecting home based players so Trautmann never got to pull on his country's shirt.

'I'm not sorry,' he admits. 'I suppose it would have been nice, like the football league honour I received [he once captained the Football League against their Irish counterparts] but I have no regrets.'

He did, however, get to contribute to Germany's preparations for their ultimately unsuccessful World Cup campaign in England in 1966, using his local knowledge and new-found linguistic skills, acting as the team's guide in the early stages of the competition.

Trautmann, now 82 but with the physique and sharpness of a much younger man, lives in Spain, near Valencia, but is a regular visitor to the island he classes as his home as much, if not more than his native Germany.

'People ask me why I stayed at Manchester City for so long and it's down to the people of Manchester and all the other people when you played away from home,' he reminisces.

'There was a connection. You felt you had given them pleasure. Today when players earn £60,000 or £70,000 worth of weekly wages against our £10, £12, £14 and £17 -£30 was my highest in 1964 - it's not there anymore.

'Players today have got their contracts, their agents and there can't be that understanding, that feeling, that human element between people; electricity you might say between people. And yet these spectators today are absolutely crazy about this game of football, which I can't understand. But they haven't seen any different you see.'

After his playing career ended Trautmann had less than successful spells in charge of Stockport County and a couple of lower league German clubs.

Personal tragedy befell him when his young son was killed in a car accident and his first marriage broke down and, left with a bitter taste in his mouth after broken promises from City chairmen about a job for life, and frustrated that business seemed to hold the opinion that 'footballers keep their brains in their toes', he returned home and went back to study the game that had given him his post-war livelihood.

Empics / NealSimpsonTrautmann on one of his regular visits to Manchester where he is still revered.

With this qualification 'much harder than the English equivalent at Lilleshall at the time' - he then travelled to places as diverse as Burma, Pakistan, Liberia, Kenya, the Yemen and Tanzania on the back of the German government's third world aid programmes, organising coaches and teams.

Atillion Tagalile, a sports reporter from the East African state says: 'Before he came we had chaos - not something you can call a football league. Trautmann can well be described as the father of modern football in Tanzania'

In a life fuller and more eventful than most, even beyond his retirement in 1988, he continues to use football to try and engender good. He was awarded an OBE for his work fostering relations between Germany and the UK, in a presentation ceremony in Berlin attended by Queen Elizabeth II, last November.

Since then, the Trautmann Foundation has been created to help further exchanges, particularly between the young of the two countries, using football as a tool for friendship.

'There was a time when youth teams from Germany came to England all the time but that practise seems to have gone to sleep somewhere along the way. The two countries are very similar but similar poles repel each other. I don't know why, but we hope to change that.'

A completely updated version of the telling of a remarkable life, Trautmann - the biography by Alan Rowlands, is out now on Breedon Books.