Trautmann’s life story reads like that of Fighting Tom Cochrane, The Tough of the Track and Roy of the Rovers rolled into one. Born in Bremen in 1923, he joined the Hitler Youth at the age of fourteen, along with many German youngsters of his generation. A brief spell with the Luftwaffe followed before he became a paratrooper, spending three years on the Russian front in the Second World War. He was court-martialled for sabotage and was lucky to escape the firing squad.
Fortunately for English football’s sake, he only spent a short spell in prison before being sent to France. While on duty there, he escaped from the clutches of the French Resistance and underwent a mock execution at the hands of American soldiers. Finally, he ran into a British field-telephone unit which effectively put an end to his war. Although he’d been imprisoned for sabotage, he paradoxically won several awards for bravery including the Iron Cross.
Trautmann arrived in England as a prisoner of war – Category C, which meant he was classified as a Nazi – and was sent to a camp in Cheshire. In
June 1945, he was moved to Ashton-in-Makerfield, Lancashire, where he worked as a driver until his release in March 1948. Trautmann decided to stay on in the UK, working as a farmhand. His goalkeeping talents had been noted while playing for the camp team against local sides and he was invited to have a trial with St. Helens Town FC. It proved a success and he was signed by the Lancashire club. In early 1949, he moved to Merseyside to take up a position in a bomb disposal squad. Bigger clubs were hovering, with Liverpool and Everton among those keeping track of his progress.
However, it was Manchester City who made the move. Word quickly
spread in Manchester about the football Nazi in their midst. Indignant letters were published in the local press warning of fan boycotts if Trautmann was signed, but City went ahead with the controversial
Trautmann replaced Frank Swift, who was moving from football into journalism and would die in the Munich air disaster almost a decade later. "Heil Hitler" chants were audible in Boundary Park when the German made his debut at Bolton in 1949. But he didn’t let this get him down. He knew from his time at St Helens that he could win over the fans. As Osvaldo Ardiles would find out some thirty odd years later, they will get behind any player that plays well. City fans began to point to the fact that Trautmann had been defusing unexploded bombs in their country rather than goosestepping around like a member of the Third Reich. They began to warm to him as a human being instead of seeing him as one of the enemy. Of course, it greatly helped that he was a fantastic keeper with an amazing sixty percent success rate at saving penalties. As a former prisoner, Trautmann was only allowed to play football part-time and continued to work as a mechanic. In spite of these commitments, he played every game for City in the 1950-51 season, picking up five quid a week for his efforts. On a visit home to Germany a few years later, Trautmann received an attractive offer from Schalke 04 to return to his homeland. However, City asked for silly money, killing the deal.
Trautmann stayed and by 1956 he had played in two FA Cup finals for City, winning one. In the 1956 final against Birmingham, Manchester City were leading 3-1 when Trautmann was knocked out cold in a clash with Peter Murphy. As the magic sponge went to work, the German keeper heard the trainer say there were only fourteen minutes to go. So he soldiered on with what would later be diagnosed as a broken neck – the second vertebrae had cracked in two. While recovering – Trautmann was out for little over six months – he took up an offer to be a guest at a game in Berlin between
England and Germany. His son was killed in a road accident when he was away on that trip. A bittersweet year hardly covers 1956 for Bert Trautmann, who also picked up the Football Writers Player of the Year, becoming the first foreigner to do so. Twenty five years would pass before
another player born outwith the UK lifted the award.
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