Bert Trautmann: 'Stoke have better team spirit. I'd make them favourites'

The Brian Viner Interview: Goalkeeping legend, who helped them win the '56 Cup with a broken neck, thinks City will lose tomorrow – not that he will be there...
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The Independent Online

Unless something truly extraordinary occurs in tomorrow's FA Cup final, 87-year-old Bert Trautmann, the goalkeeper who in the 1956 final successfully protected Manchester City's 3-1 lead over Birmingham City despite an injury that turned out to be a broken neck, will finish the weekend as he starts it: City's greatest Cup hero of all time, if not the greatest of all Wembley heroes, full stop.

All of which makes it more than a little sad that when I phone him at his home in Spain to set up a time for our interview, Trautmann is feeling upset that he has not been formally invited to the final. His old team-mate Johnny Williamson has called to say that the club have asked if he would like to go, but Trautmann declined, reasoning that he and his wife should have been sent an official invitation.

"I know City don't owe me anything," he tells me. "And they are better than they were when I was playing, when you had to get down on your knees to get a cup of tea. But they've had three weeks to invite me properly, and they haven't. Something is missing in football now. It is run by technocrats and bureaucrats. The warm-heartedness has gone."

Three days later when we speak again, Trautmann charmingly and unnecessarily apologises. His views about the elusive Cup final invitation have not changed, but he seems to think he'd been impolite. "I was a bit annoyed, actually, and you copped it," he says, his near-fluent English laced not only with a German accent, but distinct Lancashire vowels. "So, how may I be of assistance?"

How can he be of assistance? I suppose by giving me some first-person insights into what is perhaps the most remarkable tale of any footballer ever to play the game, encompassing the Hitler Youth movement, wartime service in the Luftwaffe's elite parachute regiment and a prisoner-of-war camp in Ashton-in-Makerfield even before he signed for City from St Helens Town in 1949. In due course he was assimilated into English life to such an extent that in 1956, with his heroics in the Cup final yet to come, he was voted Footballer of the Year, the first foreigner to receive an honour that previously had gone to Stanley Matthews, Nat Lofthouse and Tom Finney. More recently he was awarded an honourary OBE for promoting Anglo-German understanding. Not for nothing was Catrine Clay's engrossing 2010 biography called Trautmann's Journey.

But let us stay topical and focus on the FA Cup. And not just the 1956 competition, but also that of 1955, in which City played Newcastle United in the final. The night before the match, Trautmann's team-mates voted to go to the pictures to watch a war film. He chuckles at the memory. "I said to the manager [Les McDowall], 'I'm not going'. He said, 'You have to go'. I said 'Those war films, they always show German generals making such stupid mistakes, the kind of mistakes I would have been shot for.'"

Trautmann made no mistakes in the 1955 Cup final, but City lost 3-1, not least because in an age before substitutes, full-back Jimmy Meadows was carried off early in the first-half with a nasty injury. They had reached Wembley largely through clever deployment of the so-called Revie Plan, inspired by the brilliant Hungarian team that with Nandor Hidegkuti as a deep-lying centre-forward had destroyed England two years earlier. And Trautmann, with his powerfully accurate throw, was crucial to the way it worked, scarcely less than the man it was named after, Don Revie.

"Don Revie, myself, Roy Paul and Ken Barnes, we were really the mainstays of the team," he recalls. "And those others knew my ability to distribute by hand. As soon as I picked up a cross I delivered the ball, eliminating five or six of the opposition. Revie would collect it deep, and start the attack. Revie was a schemer. It is the one thing missing in the City team today, a schemer."

The then-and-now comparison seems even more pertinent when we move on to the famous 1956 final, and his brave, fateful dive, with just over 15 minutes of the match remaining, at the feet of the Birmingham inside-left Peter Murphy. "I was totally knocked out," he says. " But the coach came on with his magic sponge, and I got on my feet again. For the rest of the game I really carried on subconsciously. Everything was foggy. The players were like silhouettes." And yet, with his head tilted to one side owing, though no one yet knew it, to the broken bone in his neck, he continued making instinctive saves. It is hard not to contrast that image with the modern footballer who responds to a tap on the ankle as if he has been poleaxed; Didier Drogba comes irresistibly to mind, although he is by no means the only miscreant, of course. What does Trautmann, of all people, make of the play-acting?

"Well, it's not just fouls. It's being ill, complaining about aches and pains, crying off. They take advantage because they don't lose anything by not playing. We had to win to get a £2 bonus, and now there are three players in the City side getting £230,000 a week. Last April I was at the training ground, and seeing the recuperation facilities, the swimming pool, I said "no wonder they don't mind not playing.'"

He laughs. Times have indeed changed, and he can hardly believe what he hears about the moronic minority of City fans who use the 1958 Munich disaster to bait Manchester United supporters. Trautmann, after all, was a successor in the City goal to mighty Frank Swift, who was a friend and mentor to him, and as football correspondent for the News of the World, died in the crash.

"Yes, I heard about this on Sky News. It's an absolute disgrace. I remember standing on the roadside waiting for the coffins to come back. They were supposed to arrive at Manchester airport at 10pm, but they were delayed until about 1.30am, and hundreds of thousands of people waited, City fans as much as United... it was very sad."

One of the Munich survivors, Sir Bobby Charlton, continues to cite Trautmann as the best goalkeeper he ever played against, which is a remarkable endorsement when you consider the competition. But who, I wonder, is the best goalie Trautmann ever saw?

"Ted Sagar was a beautiful goalkeeper. While I was still a POW I used to go to Everton to watch him. There were so many great British keepers: Sam Bartram, Ted Ditchburn, Gil Merrick, Jack Kelsey, George Farm, Harry Gregg, and later on Pat Jennings. But today, you know, British goalkeepers do not have a good name on the continent. There aren't many good ones. I don't understand why."

What, then, of Joe Hart, of Manchester City and England? "Well, he is good, and he will get better, but from what I see he has weaknesses. We all have weaknesses. Mine was that I tried to catch the ball every time, and sometimes I dropped it. I think his is that he should come more off his line, that he's not always the boss of the penalty box. That's where I would fault him."

Like all modern goalies, though, Hart gets the kind of protection from the referee that was never available to Trautmann and his contemporaries. It is a topic that, unsurprisingly, exercises him greatly. "Sometimes there is only the slightest touch and the referee blows his whistle. It has become habitual. Some of the decisions I see, I say 'good god'. Because in my time, playing against Nat Lofthouse, John Charles, Trevor Ford, you knew there would be bodily contact. When I first started at Man City I played with my legs straight, but then my own players said 'Hey, big fella, use your knees, let them know you're there'. I heeded their advice, and after that opposing players always knew to leave the big fella alone. I was taught never to go for a ball and stop half way. Because then he has all the time in the world to head it. If you go for it but don't get it, he will still take his eye off the ball."

Speaking of the ball, that too bore little similarity to its modern incarnation. Except, I venture, that it was round. Usually. Trautmann laughs. "And the pitches. By Christmas the only grass we could see was by the corner flags, otherwise it was mud. And the boots we wore. We had to break them in, like car engines. Between you and me we had to wee in them, to get the acid out of the leather. And then we'd train in them for about two months before we could wear them to play in."

I don't think, despite Trautmann's affectionate view of his 1950s heyday, that he is advocating a return to footballers urinating in their boots to break them in. He cheerfully concedes that he would love to have played on modern pitches, with modern balls, in modern boots. And, of course, receive a modern salary. He never earnt more than £35 a week, and today lives modestly near Valencia, watching with bemusement the metamorphosis of City into the world's richest club.

"We see it here in Spain, too, with Santander, Getafe... Indians buying football clubs, and Arabs. I don't think it's a good thing. In fact in Germany they don't allow it. And you see the consequence with the English national team. If I had been an Englishman, I would have been very ashamed of my team in the last World Cup. The motherland of football, playing like that? But that is the outcome of buying foreign players, always buying, buying, buying. You know, Germany is the inventor of handball. It has the strongest handball league in the world. It has won the World Cup in handball eight or nine times. But now we are ninth in the world. Why? Because there are very few German youngsters coming through. The league is filled with Nordic players, Spanish, French, and the youngsters are neglected. It is the same thing."

A heavy sigh. "Of course I would rather that Man City were rich, not poor, but whether it will bring success, I don't know. Considering the buying policy, I think the team should be better. They're all chiefs, they haven't got anyone in the engine room. And actually, in my opinion, I would say that Stoke are favourites to win on Saturday. They are a very close-knit unit, with better team spirit. The City players carry a big burden. They know everyone expects them to win, and that they will be a laughing stock if they don't."

Nonetheless, this robust old man would like to be there cheering them on. That he won't be, and that he's not even sure whether he will get TV coverage on the Costa Blanca, seems rather shameful.