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Trautmann's Journey, By Catrine Clay

An absorbing biography reveals the singular story of the Nazi who became the toast of Manchester

In a year in which Anglo-German footballing rivalry could well be rekindled in South Africa, it is perhaps timely that a new book should recall the remarkable contribution made to the English game by "Traut the Kraut" – Bert Trautmann. One of the most iconic figures of domestic postwar football, Trautmann is the only man ever to have been awarded both the Iron Cross and the OBE, and is most famous for breaking his neck during the 1956 FA Cup final – and playing on. (The 86- year-old will also be making an appearance at today's rematch between the same two teams, Manchester City and Birmingham City.)

Looking beyond those headlines, Catrine Clay's new biography reveals a fascinating backstory. Born in humble circumstances in Bremen in 1923, Trautmann was tall, blond and excelled at sport. He joined the Hitler Youth, then the paratroopers, spending three years on the Eastern Front, during which he was captured by the Soviets and witnessed a massacre of Ukrainian Jews. Sent to the Western Front in 1944, he fought in Normandy, Arnhem and the Ardennes, before literally stumbling into British captivity, where he was greeted with the words, "Fancy a cup of tea, Fritz?" He would be one of only 90 of his unit of 1,000 to survive the war.

Yet, for all these experiences, Trautmann admits that his real education began when he reached English shores in the spring of 1945. Transferred into the PoW camp system in the north-west, he worked as a driver and then in bomb disposal, and was consistently surprised by the kindness, forgiveness and understanding demonstrated by the ordinary Britons with whom he came into contact.

His real passion was still football, however. He played his first game in goal in England in 1946, immediately showing the athleticism that had earnt him numerous accolades as a youth. From there, his ascent was swift. Signed by St Helens Town and then Manchester City, he would soon be making the first of his two FA Cup final appearances; Bobby Charlton would refer to Trautmann as the best goalkeeper he'd ever played against.

Trautmann's Journey is a remarkable story, well told. Only occasionally does Clay incorporate too much extraneous material into her account. In general, her narrative moves along briskly, ably combining the narrow focus of her subject's life with the broad sweep of events. She also does well to tease out a number of salient themes, such as Trautmann's sometimes difficult relationship with his parents and the significance – for all parties – of his decision to make his home in the UK.

Though it is not short of affection for its subject, this is no hagiography. Trautmann emerges as an often equivocal character; a sport-obsessed curmudgeon with a quick temper and an apparent inability to accept authority. Imprisoned by the Nazis for insubordination, he would also be classified by the British authorities as a category "C" prisoner – a hardened Nazi – primarily because of his surly and uncooperative attitude in interviews. Even time did not mellow him: in his very last game as a player, he was sent off for violent conduct.

For all his foibles, Trautmann enjoyed an illustrious career, being the first foreigner named Player of the Year, and later being inducted into the English Football Hall of Fame. As this book details, by his example and his efforts, he has been a tireless ambassador for Anglo-German relations. And if those countries resume their rivalry in South Africa this summer, supporters of both sides should be united in raising a toast to his name.

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