Bert Trautmann RIP

We are planning a series of articles for this season’s issues on some of the remarkable characters who have kept goal for Celtic over the years. As we all know, ‘keepers really are a breed apart, and so it was sad to read of the passing of Manchester City legend Bert Trautmann, a man who had a story that was even more extraordinary than most of his fellow custodians.

Nick Hazlewood recounts Trautmann’s most famous exploit in his book, “In The Way”. Think about Vitor Baia’s antics in Seville as you read how Bert played nearly 20 minutes of an FA Cup final with a broken neck!

Goalkeepers can be protected, and are protected, from the deliberate foul, the misplaced barge, the kick, the dig in the ribs and the late hack, but so much of the goalkeeper’s vulnerability is to the unpremeditated. The goalkeeper is an accident waiting to happen and it may as well be written into his contract when he decides to sign up as a professional.

There were too many deaths in Europe and Japan in the 1940s to worry about a few dead keepers, but the war years were important in the development of another major goalkeeping injury.

In the 1956 FA Cup final against Birmingham City, Bert Trautmann, keeper for Manchester City, did a ‘John Thomson’. With 17 minutes of the game left and his team 3-1 up, Trautmann sped out to deprive Murphy of a certain goal. As he dived at the striker’s feet his head crashed into his opponent’s knee. He lay unconscious on the pitch, ball in hands, the goal protected and a broken neck for ffis efforts.

He didn’t die – in fact he finished the game, having to make several more saves in the process. But then what was a broken neck to a man like Trautmann? Here was a man who had joined the Luftwaffe’s parachute regiment and been one of only 90 (from an original 1,000) to survive the war, a man court-martialled and imprisoned for a casual and trivial act of sabotage, a German who was captured by the Russians, but who escaped, and was later captured by the French Resistance but escaped. A man who was one of only a handful of survivors of an allied bombing mission on the town of Kleve, who just days later had had a hand-grenade blow up in his face, giving him superficial scratches, but terribly wounding a friend. Here was a man who, according to Alan Rowlands’ Trautmann: The Biography, had escaped from the Americans when two GIs pretended to execute him and who, in jumping a fence to escape them, had landed at the feet of a British soldier whose first words were ‘Hello Fritz, fancy a cup of tea?’

Imprisoned as a PoW in Britain, Trautmann joined his camp’s football team as a centre-half, but following an injury retired to the nets. It was a position he excelled in and made his own, putting down much of his ability to the training he had received as a parachutist. In 1949 he signed for Manchester City in the face of a threatened boycott of the club by Jewish and ex-servicemen supporters. ‘When I think of the millions of Jews who were tortured and murdered I can only marvel at Manchester City’s stupidity,’ said one begrudging but typical letter to the press.

Racism was to be a continuing burden for Trautmann in the coming years. As late as 1956 the Manchester Evening News led on its front page, under the headline ‘POISON PEN LETTERS TO TRAUTMANN’, with a story that irate Spurs fans, claiming that the German had fouled one of their forwards in the dying moments of the FA Cup semi-final, had been sending him vile letters telling him to go back to his own country. Trautmann is reported as saying, ‘They are very upsetting, but I am trying my best to forget all about them.’

By this time, though, Trautmann had done more than enough win over the great majority of supporters and letters flooded into the Evening News. The Globetrotters from Ardwick summed up the ill feeling: ‘It was a darn bad show and left a nasty taste in the mouth. Both Manchester City and Manchester United fans are proud of Bert’s record, both on and off the field. And if ever he walks into our pub – or any other pub for that matter – he
would find that all the lads are with him and think a lot of him.’

When Trautmann broke his neck it was seen by his supporters as the ultimate sacrifice. In 1961 they showed their appreciation by turning out for his testimonial in huge numbers, almost 50,000 of them.

His survival had been touch and go, but by the time he knew just how bad it was, he was in safe hands. As his team-mates celebrated their victory throughout the night, Trautmann, believing that he had a muscle strain, took an aspirin and sat watching the festivities in grim agony. Almost the worst of it had been on the final whistle when team-mate Bill Leivers supported him as he climbed the stairs to get his winner’s medal, thousands of joyous fans slapping him on the back as he ascended.

Next day an x-ray revealed no damage and a few days later an osteopath, diagnosing five misplaced vertebrae, slammed Trautmann’s head back and forth. Only when the pain became too much did the German go into Manchester Royal Infirnary for another x~ray – this time it showed that a cracked second vertebrae had split in two. Trautmann was only alive because the third vertebrae had been slammed against it and was wedging it into position.

And here’s where the stupidity of the goalkeeper becomes sublime. There’s an old John Wayne movie where the great man breaks his neck and spends the next few months repeating, ‘I’m goin’ ta move that toe’. Exhausted at the banality of his mantra, the paralysis breaks and the toe wiggles. Trautmann must have, gone through a similar process. Despite having his skull drilled to provide bolt holes for a calliper, preventing the movement of his head, and despite having his back mummified in plaster and metal, Trautmann forced the pace. By November, just six months after his accident, he was training again. On 1 December he played for Manchester City Reserves and two weeks later he was back in the first team.

RIP Bert Trautmann.

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