In some ways it’s a shame that Bert Trautmann’s legacy mostly surrounds the game in which he played through a broken neck to help Manchester City on their way to a 1956 FA Cup victory, adding to the not-always-helpful hard man legacy that still lingers in the sport.
Because there is another, far more compelling thread in this career: how a former Luftwaffe radioman and paratrooper was signed by Manchester City not four years after the end of the Second World War. Trautmann was captured by British soldiers shortly after the invasion of Normandy and was eventually transported to a POW camp in Cheshire, and later in Lancashire. After his release in 1948, he declined an offer to repatriate and stayed in England. Meanwhile word spread of his abilities in goal for Liverpool County Combination club. And so, in 1949, he signed for Manchester City.
Trautmann, who died today at the age of 89, was the subject of threatened boycotts from City fans when he first arrived.
“I was accepted by the City players from my first day at the club and though there were some concerns and protests initially when the story broke that I was about to sign, I shall never forget the Manchester Rabbi quietening down the crowds and urging them to give me a chance.
The real challenge came though when City traveled to London to play Fulham at Craven Cottage. London had been heavily bombed by the Luftwaffe, and Trautmann and the club expected the worst from angry supporters. Instead, he performed incredible feats and was applauded off the pitch. “I suppose that played a big part in me being accepted as a player in England and the papers the following day sang my praises, saying it could have been eight or nine instead of the 1-0 it actually was,” explained Trautmann.
From there he became the first German to play in an FA Cup final, including of course the infamous 1956 final against Birmingham City in which he played incredibly with a broken neck.
One can of course look on this cynically, pointing to City’s decision to disregard recent wartime enemies for the sake of getting a good goalie on the cheap. But Trautmann, in some small way, was part of a longer, more difficult peace between Britain and Germany. Trautmann spoke to that too:
“I shall always be grateful for my time in England and my days with City. I was awarded the OBE not so long ago and I was the first ambassador between England and Germany after the War. I’ve been lucky enough to play in front of the most magnificent fans in the world and I’m still flabbergasted at the reception I receive each time and I still think, even today, that I have been a very lucky man.”
Sport is sport: it doesn’t heal the world or any such Blatterian nonsense. But football is often the signature game of domestic normalcy, and Trautmann should not only be remembered as football’s quintessential hard man, but one of its peacemakers, too.