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Bert Trautmann obituary: Footballer who overcame prejudice and went on to play with a broken neck in the FA Cup final

A prisoner of war, he spurned repatriation and worked instead with a bomb disposal unit - he later served as attache to the West Germany squad during the 1966 World Cup finals in England

For most footballers, keeping goal in an FA Cup final while suffering from a broken neck would be the most dramatic, and traumatic, event of their lives. But for Bert Trautmann, by common consent among the finest goalkeepers in football history despite never playing for his country, an excruciating, life-threatening interlude at Wembley in 1956 was a mere trifle compared to what he had lived through already.

Indeed, Trautmann counted himself fortunate to be still breathing, let alone playing for Manchester City in the English game’s annual showpiece. As a German paratrooper in the Second World War he had survived bloody battles and debilitating deprivations, first during his country’s abortive invasion of Russia and later while fighting to repel the Allies on the Western Front.

Then, after settling in England and choosing to make his living in the public eye, he faced a cruel barrage of racist vitriol from those who could not put aside the bitterness of the recent conflict. That he emerged from the ordeal as one of the best-loved and most highly respected players of his generation speaks volumes for the blond giant’s immense talent, his bullish strength of will and, not least, his sheer charisma.

A self-confident, gregarious, though rather quick-tempered boy, Trautmann grew up in a Germany in which the Hitler youth movement was gaining rampant momentum and, caught inexorably by the spirit of the times, he became a member. However, the ceaseless propaganda and indoctrination never turned him into a political zealot, most of his energy being concentrated on a wide range of sports. He was a natural athlete, representing the Silesia region in national championships at Berlin’s Olympic stadium in 1938, displaying the physical strength and dexterity that was to stand him in good stead in later life.

However, professional football was not on the horizon when Trautmann took his first job, as an apprentice car mechanic in Bremen, an occupation for which he showed natural aptitude. Soon after the war began he joined the Luftwaffe, yearning to be a pilot but serving as a wireless operator before transferring to the paratroop regiment. He was sent to Poland and thence to Russia, enduring the horrors and hardship of a long and fruitless campaign. Trautmann fought and killed in nightmarish conditions – the ground was frozen so hard that the dead could not be buried – before falling back to help combat the Allies’ advance into France. During this operation he emerged unscathed from a succession of scrapes, including capture by and escape from the Resistance when serving as a dispatch rider, before being taken for the final time as the Allies were mopping up after D-Day.

In 1945, having won five medals for bravery, the 22-year-old “veteran” was shipped, bewildered and fatigued, to England as a prisoner of war. He was placed in a camp at Ashton-in-Makerfield in Lancashire, where he was quick to recover his characteristic joie de vivre, revelling in the camaraderie and relishing conditions which amounted to luxury compared to his recent privations. He spurned the chance of repatriation, making a new start in a new land with jobs on a local farm and with a bomb-disposal unit.

Meanwhile, the seeds of future fame and fortune had been sown. At the camp Trautmann had played plenty of football, switching from his former position of rumbustious centre-forward to goalkeeper and discovering that he was enormously good at it. In 1948 he signed for St Helens Town, an enterprising non-League team with whom he made such rapid and gigantic strides that he was trailed by a small posse of leading clubs. Burnley appeared favourites to acquire his signature, but in November 1949 they were pipped by Manchester City, and a few weeks later Trautmann found himself pitched into First Division action.

Instantly, and inevitably, the big, muscular German was embroiled in harrowing controversy. A large and vociferous faction of Manchester’s extensive Jewish community objected vigorously to the employment of a former paratrooper so soon after the war. Others joined what became an hysterical campaign, with Trautmann subjected to a flood of hate mail and more reasoned, if equally heated, letters appearing in the press. Some ex-servicemen threatened to boycott City if the new ’keeper remained, season tickets were returned and there was predictable abuse at away grounds.

Trautmann’s dignified reaction spoke volumes for his strength of character, never more so than on his first visit to bomb-ravaged London. That day at Fulham he was confronted by the most malicious jibes to date, but he refused to be intimidated. As “Heil Hitler” chants resounded around a seething Craven Cottage he performed so magnificently that at the final whistle he was given a standing ovation by the majority of the crowd and the Fulham players formed a spontaneous guard of honour as he left the pitch.

Trautmann’s cause was furthered immeasurably by his ever-more outstanding prowess. A huge and commanding figure radiating authority between the posts, he combined agility and sharp reflexes with boundless courage and a highly developed positional sense. At times he was a showman, playing shamelessly to the gallery; at others he frustrated opponents with the apparent ease of his saves, gathering powerful shots calmly in his bucket-like, seemingly prehensile hands. It became apparent that here was a worthy successor to Frank Swift, City’s previous brilliant and much-loved goalkeeper, but the team was woefully poor, being relegated at the end of his first season at Maine Road.

Newly married to an English girl, Trautmann seemed settled in his adopted country and contributed mightily as his club bounced back into the top flight at the first attempt in 1950-51. Thereafter, while working part-time in a garage, he helped them to consolidate, refusing at least one tempting offer to return to Germany.

As the 1950s wore on the German-baiting declined and Trautmann became one of the most widely admired footballers in the League. However, his absence from his homeland appeared to preclude international honours and it was not until 1955 that he came within touching distance of a major domestic prize when City reached the FA Cup final. Hamstrung by an injury to full-back Jimmy Meadows, they were beaten by Newcastle United, but their day – and Trautmann’s – was not long in coming. The following season was to prove the most momentous of his life, encompassing professional accolades, a potentially fatal accident and a devastating personal tragedy.

He became the first goalkeeper and the first foreigner to be voted Footballer of the Year, then performed to his customary splendid standard as City moved into a match-winning position in their second successive FA Cup final. Then with 17 minutes left he was knocked out in a sickening collision with Birmingham City’s Peter Murphy after plunging at the attacker’s feet with typical boldness.

Regaining consciousness, he reeled around in a daze before rejoining the action and before long was diving among the boots once more. The match won, he was in mounting pain, but dragged himself up to the Royal box to receive his medal from the Queen, then gritted his teeth throughout the celebrations at the Cafe Royal. The rest of the City party believed he had merely aggravated an old muscle strain and it was not until several days later, after a series of examinations had revealed nothing untoward, that an X-ray told the terrifying truth: his second vertebra was broken in two and lodged against a third, which held the fragments in place and so saved his life. Any sudden jolt could have killed him.

He was out for seven months, and even then recovery proved gradual, but in the mean time he was subjected to still greater trauma. His five-year-old son John was killed in a road accident, a blow which left him and his wife, Margaret, mentally shattered.

Slowly he picked up the pieces of his career and in 1958-59 – boosted by the arrival of another son, Stephen – he played some of the finest football of his life as he helped City avoid demotion. Though never quite as acrobatic as before, Trautmann regained his position as one of the world’s leading ’keepers, and in 1960 became the first, and still the only, German to be selected for the Football League, an honour compounded when he was awarded the captaincy.

Despite attaining his late thirties Trautmann remained City’s first-choice ’keeper until 1962-63; he retired in 1964 when more than 48,000 fans paid tribute at his testimonial match.

Thereafter he was denied the Maine Road coaching post for which he had hoped, playing briefly and ingloriously – he was sent off in his second and final match – for non-League Wellington Town. Next came a spell as general manager (for most of one season he was team manager also) of Fourth Division Stockport County, whom he left after disagreements with the owner, Victor Bernard. Trautmann’s worldwide renown was underlined by his success as attache to West Germany during the 1966 World Cup finals in England, an association which led to coaching jobs in his homeland, first with Preussen Munster in 1967, then with Opel Russelheim in 1969.

They brought no success, however, and, his marriage having broken down (despite the arrival of another son, Mark), Trautmann was at a temporarily low ebb. But the big man was nothing if not resilient and, after returning to garage work for a time he was employed by the German government to coach around the world. Two successful years in charge of Burma’s national side were followed by stints in Tanzania, Liberia, Pakistan, Yemen and Malta, before he retired – having remarried twice, to Ushi and then Marlys – in 1988.

Bert Trautmann, who died at home in Spain having suffered two heart attacks earlier in the year, lived an eventful and fulfilling life. He was a magnificent goalkeeper, a magnetic and occasionally headstrong character and a very brave man. The post-war sporting scene would have been immeasurably the poorer for his absence.

Bernhard Carl Trautmann, footballer and manager: born Bremen 22 October 1923; played for Manchester City 1949-64; manager, Stockport County 1964-66; national coach, Burma 1972-74, Liberia 1978-80, Pakistan 1980-83; honorary OBE 2004; married 1950 Margaret Friar (marriage dissolved; two sons, and one son deceased), secondly Ursula Van der Heyde (divorced 1982), thirdly Marlis; died Valencia 19 July 2013.