Football: From prisoner of war to folklore

For Bert Trautmann, football really is a matter of life and death. He talks to Simon Turnbull
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The Independent Online
IT WAS NOT just at the partying Brunton Park and the mournful McCain Stadium that Jimmy Glass had folk shaking heads in disbelief last weekend. Bert Trautmann, watching Sky News at his home in Valencia, could scarcely believe the tale of the goalkeeper's goalscoring save of the season. "You always get these dramas at the end of the season, in these life-and-death games," he said. "But that goal . . . Well, it was pretty incredible, wasn't it ?"

The same, of course, could be said of Trautmann's finest goalkeeping hour and a half. That truly was a life-and-death situation. It was four days after the FA Cup final of 1956 that Manchester City's German goalkeeper discovered he had broken his neck while diving at the feet of the Birmingham City forward Peter Murphy. "You should be dead," Professor David Lloyd Griffiths, an orthopaedic surgeon at Manchester's Royal Infirmary, told him. An X-ray showed that the second of five broken vertebrae had split in two. Trautmann was alive only because the third vertebrae had slammed against it and wedged it into position.

The incident had occurred with 17 minutes of the match remaining. Trautmann was knocked unconscious, clutching the ball in his hands. He was revived by smelling salts. Without a substitute to replace him, he played on in agony, making several more saves to help his side to a 3-1 victory.

He had to be supported by a team-mate, Bill Leivers, as he ascended the 39 steps to to the Royal Box to collect his winner's medal from the Queen. Trautmann thought he had merely a muscle strain - until the pain became unbearable and he was persuaded to see a specialist.

"Yes, I can still feel it," he said, "especially in the autumn and winter. The cold and damp seem to affect it." Trautmann, 75 now, has long since retired to the warmth of Spain's fiesta city. He does, though, get a painfully cold shiver up his spine whenever he sees a replay of the incident that almost cut his life short at the age of 32. "It gives me the goosebumps," he said. "I have a video of the final but I only look at it if someone asks to see it."

The black and white footage is sure to be shown this coming week, and not just in the Valencian Trautmann household. When Dietmar Hamann lines up for Newcastle United at Wembley next Saturday he will become only the second German, after the Manchester City hero of 1956, to appear in an FA Cup final. "Yes, I am aware of that," Trautmann said. "I am not an old recluse. I have Sky here. I follow what is happening in English football.

"I'm pleased for `Didi'. Forget that I was the first German to play in the Cup final. It is a great honour for him. When you think about it, so many great English players have never played in the FA Cup final. It is a great occasion, a great experience for any player. I hope that he enjoys it and I wish him all the best. I just hope he doesn't go through the same experience that I did - of losing the first one, I mean."

It was in 1955 that Trautmann made his FA Cup final debut, conceding a goal to Jackie Milburn after 45 seconds as Manchester City lost 3-1 to Newcastle. He returned to Wembley 12 months later as the new Footballer of the Year, the first from overseas - the only one, indeed, until Frans Thijssen was honoured in 1981. The Football Writers' Association prize has since become the exclusive property of the Premiership's foreign legion, having been won by Jurgen Klinsmann in 1995, Eric Cantona in 1996, Gianfranco Zola in 1997, Dennis Bergkamp in 1998 and David Ginola in 1999. Trautmann, though, did not come to England to win football trophies. He came to win a war.

A native of Bremen, he was a member of the Luftwaffe's parachute regiment. He was, in fact, one of only 90 from an original 1,000 to survive the Second World War, though he used up several of his nine lives in the process. He was captured by the Russians and escaped. He was captured by the French resistance and escaped. He was one of a handful of survivors of an allied bombing mission on the town of Kleve. He survived a hand-grenade blowing up in his face. And he escaped from the Americans when two merciful GIs pretended to execute him. In scaling a fence to elude them he landed at the feet of a British soldier whose first words were: "Hello, Fritz, fancy a cup of tea?"

Only the British could hold on to Trautmann. Interred in a prisoner of war camp in Lancashire, he helped to build the roads around Manchester's Ringway Airport. He joined the camp's football team as a centre-half, retired to the nets because of injury and, after his release, stayed in England to keep goal for St Helens Town. When he signed for Manchester City in 1949, as the replacement for Frank Swift, there was a public outrage.

Jewish supporters and Maine Road regulars who had fought in the war threatened to boycott the club and for several years Trautmann received hate mail. He had become accepted as a local hero, though, long before he hung up his gloves and his boots - with 47,000 packed into Maine Road for his testimonial match in 1964. He was admired for his exceptional skill, which he attributed to his parachutist training, and for his exceptional bravery too, of course. It was feared, after his Wembley accident, that he would never play again. But he was back in goal for City before the end of 1956 and went on to make 508 appearances for the club, a record which Alan Oakes later surpassed. He also captained City and the Football League XI.

"I still follow what City are doing," Trautmann said. "I keep in touch with Nobby Clarke, who also played in the 1956 final, and I look for the results on Sky. I still have three children in England. Freida is 51. She lives near Wigan. Steven is 41. He lives on Anglesey. And Mark is 39. He lives near Ipswich. But it must be two years now since I last got across to Maine Road.

"I did get an invitation to come back to England this week, actually, to be honoured as one of the Football League's 100 living legends. Unfortunately, I have to go to the dentist. I have a virus in my gums. I've got to have 10 teeth taken out."

Sympathy was proferred, though it must have seemed a mite pathetic given all that Trautmann has endured in his 75 years. "It's OK," he said, with due courtesy. "It's just one of those things. You just have to accept it."

There has been talk for many years of making the Trautmann story into a film, though nothing celluloid has materialised yet. "They'll probably do it when I'm dead," the subject said, chuckling. The fact is Bert Trautmann is still starring in a real-life blockbuster. "Yes," he said, "I have to agree with you. It is a pretty amazing story."