He was a former German army paratrooper and POW whose signing for Manchester City saw 20,000 take to the streets in protest. But after playing the latter stages of the 1956 FA Cup final with a broken neck, his status as club legend was sealed forever.
Trautmann’s star was already shining brightly when Manchester City took on Birmingham City in the FA Cup final at Wembley on May 5th 1956. The 32-year-old had just been voted the Football Writers’ Footballer of the Year, the first goalkeeper to win that honour.
City had finished fourth in the league, two places above Birmingham, and were in the final for the second year in succession after losing to Newcastle 12 months earlier. The German had been playing at the highest level of English football for seven years and was rated as one of the best goalkeepers in the country.
Although Birmingham had finished below City in the league, they were favourites for the cup after enjoying a trouble-free journey to the final despite being drawn away from home in every round. City, by contrast, had struggled in the competition, winning their games by the odd goal and requiring a replay to see off Liverpool in the fifth round. They were also beset by injuries and were forced to recall veteran playmaker Don Revie, a future England manager, from the reserves.
But the game didn’t go to form as, after the first half ended 1-1, two quick goals after the break saw City establish a 3-1 lead. Birmingham pressed hard for a way back and Trautmann was forced to pull off a series of acrobatic saves to maintain their advantage.
The critical moment came 17 minutes from time when a long ball over the top allowed Birmingham striker Peter Murphy to bear down on goal. Trautmann came running off his line and bravely dived at the striker’s feet. He managed to collect the ball but not before Murphy’s knee made contact with the side of his neck. He was knocked unconscious and had to receive lengthy medical treatment before he could continue. The crowd sang ‘For He’s A Jolly Good Fellow’ as he rose to his feet. These were the days before substitutes were allowed and long before any proper understanding of the dangers of concussion. One thing is certain, subs or no subs, he would not have been allowed to continue today.
Trautmann later recalled that he played the rest of the game “in a fog”. Despite dizziness and severe neck pain, he was able to make several more critical stops as Birmingham continued to press, but City held on to win the cup for the third time in their history.
He climbed the famous Wembley steps to receive his winner’s medal where Prince Phillip commented to him that his neck looked swollen and crooked. However, he was convinced it was nothing serious and that he would feel better after a good night’s rest. He even attended the celebratory banquet that evening after parading the cup at Manchester Town Hall where the crowd had chanted ‘We Want Bert, We Want Bert’ in appreciation of his exploits.
When the pain failed to subside the next day, he attended a doctor who told him it “was nothing to worry about”. But three days passed and the pain continued to get worse. He decided to seek a second opinion where he learned that he had dislocated five vertebrae, one of which was cracked in two. Fortunately, it had wedged against another vertebra and was unable to move further, thereby preventing any additional damage. Trautmann was astonished to learn that any further movement of this vertebra, either later in the match itself or over the ensuing days, would almost certainly have killed him. He was extremely fortunate to be alive!
That would have been enough drama for most people, but not Trautmann. In fact, it wasn’t even the most dangerous thing that had happened to him up to that point as he had already led a life filled to the brim with adventure.
He was born in Bremen, Germany in October 1923. The son of a docker, his childhood years were mostly spent in poverty. It was a time of hyper-inflation and political unrest as the whole of Europe reeled in the aftermath of the Great War. He joined the Hitler Youth movement as a teenager like many of his peers, later reflecting that it was “just like joining the boy scouts” as it was “sport, sport and more sport”. He didn’t realise that he was slowly being indoctrinated into the Nazi philosophy. “Although you didn’t know it, your mind was influenced by the Nazi propaganda,” he said later.
“You listened to the political speeches. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t impressed. People have an affinity towards their own and the Nazis were telling us that German people were suffering apparent atrocities in Poland or wherever. We didn’t realise the power of propaganda. Hitler seized his chance in a country in turmoil. He said: ‘If you vote for me I’ll get you this and I’ll do that’. People had no idea that he was preparing himself for war and to occupy Europe. They just wanted food and prospects for their families.”
When war broke out he volunteered to join the German army, as did most of his friends. After a spell as a radio operator, he joined the paratroopers and was barely a month out of training when he was transferred to the Eastern Front in June 1941 following the German invasion of Russia.
The experience proved a rude awakening for the 18-year-old. After being sent out with a colleague to investigate gunshots in a nearby wooded area, the pair stumbled upon a group of SS soldiers in the process of executing local villagers. They had ordered the villagers to dig a trench and then lie down in it. The SS men stood over them firing until everyone was dead. They then called up the next group and repeated what they had done to the first. Trautmann and his colleague were horrified. They crept away without a sound, afraid that they too would be shot if they were discovered.
Trautmann spent three years on the Eastern Front where he won five medals, including an Iron Cross. At one point he was captured by Russian soldiers before making his escape. When he was eventually transferred to the Western Front following the D-Day landings, he was one of just 100 of his regiment still alive out of 6,000. He attempted to desert, but was captured by British soldiers and sent to a POW camp in Cheshire.
It was here, he said later, that his proper education began and he started to feel like a real person for the first time. When he was released in 1948 he refused to be repatriated, instead opting to stay on in England. He had spent a lot of his time playing football in the camp and joined local amateur side St Helens Town upon his release. He soon came to the attention of Manchester City who signed him to a professional contract in October 1949.
But the notion of having a highly decorated German soldier playing for their beloved team didn’t go down well with the City faithful. Memories of the war were still very fresh in people’s minds and emotions ran high. More than 20,000 protested outside Maine Road, with many threatening to tear up their season tickets if the deal was completed. It took a letter to the Manchester Evening Chronicle from the city’s Communal Rabbi, Dr Alexander Altman, arguing against such blanket hatred for their former enemies to calm the situation.
Trautmann proved an exceptional goalkeeper and quickly won over the home fans. He was subjected to some boos and jeers initially at away games, but his obvious talent soon silenced the dissenters. His first trip to a still bomb-ravaged London in January 1950 proved a major turning point. Facing Fulham at Craven Cottage, the home crowd were hostile from the start and Trautmann was subjected to a barrage of abuse. But he produced several outstanding saves during the match which earned him a standing ovation at the final whistle as he was applauded off the pitch by both sets of players. It was the beginning of a golden period for the docker’s son who was finally being judged for his sporting talents rather than the country of his birth.
Following his near-death experience in the FA Cup final, Trautmann spent five months encased from head to hip in plaster. His misery was compounded by the death of his six-year-old son in a car accident at this time, an event that precipitated the break-up of his marriage. But he eventually returned to full fitness and managed to win his place back in the City team. He enjoyed several more seasons at the top before eventually retiring in 1964 after 545 appearances for his club.
The great names in football at the time, including Bobby Charlton, Dennis Law, Stanley Matthews and Tom Finney, all turned out for his testimonial in front of 47,000 cheering fans. Afterwards, he received a letter from the Inland Revenue reminding him to pay tax on his windfall. He wrote one back telling them to ‘get lost’. The matter was subsequently dropped.
He briefly managed Stockport County and took on a series of minor international coaching jobs in places as far afield as Burma, Pakistan and Tanzania before eventually retiring from the game altogether. He was awarded an honorary OBE by the Queen in 2004 for services to football and for promoting post-war Anglo-German understanding. "Ah, Herr Trautmann. I remember you," she said when they met. "Have you still got that pain in your neck?”
He died in Valencia, Spain in July 2013 at the age of 89.
By Kieran O’Daly
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