How did it feel to be Bert Trautmann?
While “The Red Devils” locked horns with “The Eagles” in the 135th FA Cup, Subhajit Sengupta spun the clock back to take through one such FA Cup final encounter at Wembley when Cù Sìth came to Birmingham’s rescue but was kept at bay by the “The Citizens” custodian, Bert Trautmann.
“Some people believe football is a matter of life and death, I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.”
– Bill Shankly must have had a face-off with Bert Trautmann right before he said that. However, his story is not all football centric in nature.Although English clubs had seldom proved to be a fecund land for Germans, Bert Trautmann remains a name written in golden words in the English FA history. Despite his world class goalkeeping ability, he had to endure a series of agonising controversies from the English fans due to his censured past but Trautmann, by then an altered and far more matured personality, won their hearts and became one of their own. When he took the field on 5th May, 1956, a packed Wembley leaped to its feet in support of their foreign star as “The Citizens” from Manchester were lining up for their second consecutive FA Cup final.
Bernhard Carl “Bert” Trautmann was born on 22 October 1923 to a lower middle class family in Bremen. His father used to work in a fertiliser factory by the docks of Walle in west Bremen. The desolate financial struggle in the early 1930s left his father with no choice but to sell their place and moved to the working class area of Gröpelingen. The young Trautmann had a keen interest in outdoor sports especially in football, handball and völkerball (another form of dodgeball). To fulfil his appetite for playing in the green field, he joined the YMCA and football club Blau und Weiss. At a time when the Hitler youth movement was gaining widespread momentum, caught relentlessly by the spirit of the nation, the self-confident, lively but short tempered boy joined the Jungvolk, a precursor to the Hitler Youth. However, the radical political propaganda never interested him as most of his energy was spent in a wide range of sports. He was awarded a certificate for athletic excellence in 1934 signed by Paul von Hindenburg, the President of Germany. But these certificates didn’t earn daily meals for his family. So, at the onset of the Second World War, Trautmann, as the elder son of the family, took the job of an apprentice motor mechanic. Soon after the war broke out, he joined the Luftwaffe as a radio operator in 1941. During his training, he showed little aptitude for the job which resulted in a transfer to Spandau to become a Fallschirmjäger (paratrooper).
Known for his unorthodox sense of humour, Trautmann had paid the price several times. The worst of it came when he was stationed in occupied Poland. One of his practical jokes involving a car backfired on him which resulted in a sergeant burning his arms. As a result, he was court-martialled and received a three-month imprisonment. However, this dark sense of humour helped him in the later course of life to survive the outrage of fans and become an entertainer in the Manchester City dressing room. In October 1941, he re-joined the 35th Infantry Division at Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine. Despite his unit being hit hard by the Soviet counter-offensive force which forced the Germans to withdraw their troop, Unteroffizier (corporal) Trautmann won five medals for his bravery on the Eastern Front, including an Iron Cross First Class and was later promoted to Feldwebel (sergeant) rank. During his time in the German army, he was caught thrice by the Russians, the French and the British soldiers. Though he managed to escape from captivity twice, he did not attempt a third escape from the British army as the war was drawing to a close. During his captivity under the British soldiers, he was imprisoned with other Nazi prisoners and transferred to several Prisoner of War (PoW) camps on different occasions until his final destination at PoW Camp 50 in Ashton-in-Makerfield in Lancashire.
Football was an immensely popular game amongst the prisoners of war and almost instantly Trautmann found his lost love back. He became a regular outfield player for the camp team and widely popular by the name “Bert”, as the English had trouble pronouncing “Bernd”. However, while playing against amateur team Haydock Park, he suffered an injury that forced him to switch his centre-half position with goalkeeper Gunther Luhr. Since then he made 553 senior appearances for three different clubs.
After the closure of the PoW camp, Trautmann declined an offer of repatriation and stayed in England. He took a job in a bomb disposal unit in Huyton but his love for the game started to write a different future of fame for him. The first of which came his way in August of 1948 when he signed for the non-league Liverpool County Combination club in St Helens Town. Over the season the big German’s reputation grew steadily and, almost inevitably, he became the centre of everyone’s attraction. He pulled up a record number of crowd to witness his acrobatic display between the posts regularly contributing to the club’s revenue. With his success, St Helens Town got promoted to second division of the Lancashire Combination League in 1949–50 season and Trautmann caught the eyes of the leading first division clubs. Burnley initially became favourites and landed him at Turf Moor; but in November 1949 Manchester City acquired his signature, and within a few weeks, Trautmann found himself in first division action. Moreover, his friendship with Adolf Dassler, founder of the German sportswear company Adidas, helped him to become the first sportsman in Britain to sport Adidas.
As the news of the big German’s signing spread across the media, all of England including the home fans reacted furiously. Season ticket holders threatened to boycott, and various groups in Manchester and around the country flooded the club with protest letters. Adding to the difficulties, Trautmann replaced Frank Swift, one of the greatest keepers in the club’s history and that turned out to be something unacceptable to the fans. The club captain Eric Westwood tried to minimize the hatred amongst the home crowd by announcing “There’s no war in this dressing room”. Dr Altmann, the communal rabbi of Manchester wrote an open letter stating “Despite the terrible cruelties we suffered at the hands of the Germans, we would not try to punish an individual German, who is unconnected with these crimes, out of hatred. If this footballer is a decent fellow, I would say there is no harm in it. Each case must be judged on its own merits”. Yet the situation continued to worsen in the away matches. This reached its peak in January 1950, when City travelled to Craven Cottage, which was also Trautmann’s first visit to London. The match became the centre of widespread media attention as most of the leading British press were London-based. Amongst the crowd, several leading sports writers came to watch the German in action for the first time. During the 90 minutes of action, the crowds yelled “Kraut”, “Nazi” and “Heil Hitler” chants as Fulham managed a narrow 1-0 victory in the end. After the final whistle a different chant surrounded Craven Cottage. Trautmann’s magnificent display resulted in the majority of the crowd giving him a standing ovation and the Fulham players formed a spontaneous guard of honour as he left the pitch.
In spite of this wide spread hatred and his cult image, he remained calm. His dignified reaction spoke volumes for his strength of character. Only few would have known how much the war had changed him. The deaths and bloodshed that he faced tore him inside out. Talking about the true horrors of war, Trautmann recalled the memory of one dark cold night in Russia in October, 1941 when he and his fellow paratrooper Peter Kularz went out to investigate the sounds of shooting and they saw an area in the forest lit up with floodlights. “It was hard to take in. There were trenches dug in the ground about three metres deep and fifty metres long, and people were being herded into them and ordered to lie face down, men, women and children. Einsatzgruppen officers stood above, legs astride, shouting; a firing squad was lined up at the edge of the trenches, shooting into them. For a while everything went quiet, then another group was ordered forward and the firing squad shot another salvo into the trench”. Both of them crawled away from the place and ran for their lives as there could not be any witnesses. But these scenes made a deep impact on his later life and views. “Of course it touched me seeing this. If I’d been a bit older I’d probably have committed suicide.” But luckily he lived and became one of the most-loved and widely respected artists of the beautiful game.
The opening season at the Maine Road went dreadfully for Trautmann as City were relegated to the second division but Trautmann and company bounced back immediately. They were promoted to the first division again in the next season. By then the German had caught the eye of the country and even further. Trautmann was heavily influenced by the Hungarian goalkeeper Gyula Grosics who used to create attack by throwing the ball to a wing-half. Trautmann’s huge commanding figure combined with agility and sharp reflexes along with his fearless attitude made him a showman. His astonishing ability to grab powerful shots calmly into his enormous arms and the precision with which he stopped spot kicks made him a worthy successor of Frank Swift. Over the course of his career he stopped 60% of the spot kicks he faced. Manchester United manager Matt Busby once mentioned during his pre-match team talks: “Don’t stop to think where you’re going to hit it with Trautmann. Hit it first and think afterwards. If you look up and work it out he will read your thoughts and stop it.” Almost a similar statement was recorded from his fellow club mate Neil Young: “the only way to beat him with a shot in training was to mis-hit it”. All these testimonials only enriched his career but he was still yet to enter the football folklore.
Manchester United manager Matt Busby once mentioned during his pre-match team talks: “Don't stop to think where you're going to hit it with Trautmann. Hit it first and think afterwards. If you look up and work it out he will read your thoughts and stop it.”
In 1955, City went on to the FA Cup final for the fifth time, having won only twice in 1904 and 1934. Les McDowall and Don Revie’s newly formed system “Revie Plan” had worked out their way and they were only 90 minutes away from ending the two decade draught of winning the trophy. Unfortunately, Doug Livingstone’s men turned out to be even stronger than “The Sky Blues” of Manchester. Foggy weather and nerves got the better of McDowall’s men. Jackie Milburn took only 45 seconds to give the lead to the “Magpies”. Jimmy Meadows’ injury after 18 minutes added further to the problem as City were left with 10 men for the remaining 72 minutes as in those days the substitute rule hadn’t yet taken effect. The match ended in a comfortable 3-1 victory for Newcastle. Trautmann became the first German to feature in a FA cup final but he was still a long way from the glory.
City captain Roy Paul promised after the defeat that he would return to lift the trophy himself 12 months later and with him Trautmann also made a promise to himself: One must cross a mountain between the sticks to help the ball cross the white goal line. They both kept their words. City reached their consecutive second FA Cup final in 1956. City’s road to the final had drawn more sweat from them than Birmingham, the other finalist in that season. They had several close finishes, and even had to play a replay against Liverpool after failing to break the deadlock at Maine Road. On the other hand, Birmingham scored 18 goals in their last five games to reach the final. Quite naturally they were considered “firm favourites” to win the tie but despite the struggling run, Roy Paul and company vowed that they would fight till the final whistle all guns blazing. Who would have thought that their custodian Trautmann, who became the first goalkeeper to win the FWA Footballer of the Year award only two days before the match, was about to create history.
Both teams implemented similar formation typical of the era, 3-4-2-1. However, they deployed different tactical approaches. Birmingham, with a strong their defence, relied on powerful tackling and strong final challenges. They had a conventional open direct English approach: getting the ball to the outside-forwards as quickly as possible. But City successfully deployed their “Revie Plan” this time. The system involved using Don Revie in a deeper position than a traditional centre-forward in order to draw a defender out of position. City took only three minutes to break the deadlock. Don Revie created the move, exchanged quick passes with Roy Clarke and then back-heeled into the path of an unmarked Joe Hayes who rattled the back of the net to shake Birmingham’s confidence.
1 – 0 to City.
City kept pressing Birmingham with a series of counter attacks resulting in a number of corners but the opponents replied on the 15th minute mark. Gordon Astall poked a loose ball to Eddy Brown who suddenly felt optimistic and fired a powerful inbound shot which took a deflection off a City defender into the path of Welsh international inside‑forward Noel Kinsey. He fired home through Trautmann’s far post.
1 – 1.
With the sudden blow, Birmingham gained momentum and kept the pressure on City for the remainder of the first half. Eddy Brown twice netted the ball but both times he was ruled offside. In the second half, City made some strategic changes in their play. They concentrated on a possession-based football that made their opponents chase the ball, while Ken Barnes maintained a high line of defence and started to play in a more advance role. The change of plan worked for them. Right after the hour mark, Bobby Johnstone and Jack Dyson struck twice to take the lead to 3 – 1 in City’s favour. Just when it looked like City were going to lift their third title, something unexpected happened. With 17 minutes remaining, Birmingham forward Peter Murphy outpaced City defender Dave Ewing and rushed into the 18 yards box. Trautmann made a decisive call and dived at the feet of Murphy to win the ball only to end up suffering a fatal collision as Murphy’s right knee hit Trautmann’s neck with a forceful blow. Trautmann was knocked unconscious. Referee Alf Bond stopped play immediately.
City trainer Laurie Barnett rushed on to the pitch and treatment continued for several minutes. Barnett knew that Trautmann would not be able to continue for the remaining part, hence full back Roy Little was chosen to keep the goal and while they would play with ten men as substitutes were not permitted in those days.
When it seemed that City’s hope for the silverware had been dealt a big challenge, Trautmann did something supernatural. He stood up on his feet dazed and unsteady and insisted on keeping goal until the final whistle. City defenders tried to clear the ball as far as possible whenever it came near the box but in spite of that, Trautmann had to make two further crucial saves from Eddy Brown and Peter Murphy to deny Birmingham from coming back into the match. One such save resulted in another collision with City defender Dave Ewing that left Trautmann in complete agony. After the final whistle, City registered their third FA Cup title, ending the two decade drought and with it, Bert Trautmann entered football folklore. As the players left the field, the crowd sang a chorus of “For he’s a jolly good fellow” as a tribute to Trautmann’s bravery.
Three days after the final, doctors at Manchester Royal Infirmary revealed that he had dislocated five vertebrae, the second of which was cracked in two. The third vertebra had wedged against the second, preventing further damage which could have cost Trautmann his life.
Trautmann took a long time before coming back to the field again which resulted in him missing a large part of the 1956-57 season. Even after he regained his place in the starting XI, he lacked his confidence. The following 1957-58 season, City became the only English first division side till date to both score and concede 100 goals in a season. He could sense that he was not the same keeper he used to be but he didn’t give up. He slowly picked up the pieces and in 1960, he became the first German to be selected for the Football League, an honour compounded when he was awarded the captaincy.
Being a football romantic, I’ve considered this question many times. How did it feel to be Bert Trautmann? A man having his hands stained with the blood of innocents. Should I detest him for his actions as a German soldier or should I respect him for the artist he was on the green field? Then Trautmann answered “I volunteered when I was 17,” he said. “People say ‘why?’, but when you are a young boy war seems like an adventure. Then, when you’re involved in fighting its very different, you see all the horrible things that happen, the death, the bodies, the scariness. You can’t control yourself. Your whole body is shaking and you’re making a mess in your pants.” He also recollected how England had changed him. “When people ask me about life, I say my education began when I got to England. I learnt about humanity, tolerance and forgiveness.” Bert Trautmann showed us the way of reforming ones character. Of course he made terrible mistakes in his life. Being a part of Hitler’s army that killed millions of innocent people, leaving behind Margaret Friar, his first wife while she was pregnant…they all seem unforgivable sins but we must remember that human beings tend to make mistakes and the greatest example of humanity is set only by learning from the mistakes and rectifying them. Trautmann did exactly the same. He became such an icon whom people followed, not only for his goalkeeping excellence but also for his humanist ideology. Arsenal goalkeeper Bob Wilson, England international Gordon Banks, these are some of the names who had cited Trautmann as their inspiration. What’s interesting is that in order to come back to a normal life, he chose a lifeless object that over the ages had spread life into countless lives. Football.
In spite of being considered as one of the best goalkeepers of his era, he never got the opportunity to represent his homeland. He met with the German national coach Sepp Herberger in 1953 who explained that travel and political implications prevented him from selecting a player who was not readily available but he could consider including Trautmann if he were playing in a German league.
Bernhard Carl Trautmann played his testimonial match for Manchester City in 1964 where more than 47,000 people came to watch the master for the very last time.
After his retirement, he had hoped for the managerial role at Maine Road but he was left disappointed. An initial financial setback struck him but his love for the game never faded away. He started his managerial role from Stockport County. Later he went back to his homeland to manage Preußen Münster and Opel Rüsselsheim. Though he lacked silverware as a manager, his work caught the right attention and, subsequently, took him to managing Burma, Tanzania, Liberia, Pakistan and North Yemen. On 19th July, 2013, when Trautmann breathed his last, he didn’t have his Iron Cross with him, but had only the love of the people he earned through his transformed life in the green field.
There have only been two world-class goalkeepers. One was Lev Yashin, the other was the German boy who played in Manchester – Trautmann. Lev Ivanovich Yashin