English football now has more foreign players in the top division than native ones, but when Bert Trautmann pulled on a Manchester City shirt more than 60 years ago they were rare indeed. What made Trautmann exceptional was that he had come to England as a German prisoner of war.
There were protests and hate mail when Trautmann, who died yesterday in Valencia, Spain, at the age of 89, signed for City. The Second World War had finished only four years earlier and the full horror of the Holocaust was still being absorbed. By the time he retired from playing, in 1964, Trautmann was revered. This was partly because of his longevity and presence, but mainly because of his heroic performance in the 1956 FA Cup final when he broke his neck.
Trautmann, a paratrooper who won the Iron Cross for his bravery on the Russian Front, played on – helping City to a 3-1 win over Birmingham City. The injury was not correctly diagnosed for three days; when it was he was told he would never play top-flight football again. He played another eight years, retiring at the age of 42.
Tributes followed swiftly after news of Trautmann’s death broke. His former club described him as “one of the greatest Manchester City goalkeepers of all time and a true club legend.”
Bob Wilson, the former Arsenal goalkeeper and BBC presenter, tweeted: “Sad news. My hero Bert Trautmann has died. Amazing man who helped bring our warring countries closer together. Thank you Bert.”
Born in Bremen in 1923 Trautmann was an admittedly ardent member of the Hitler Youth who volunteered for the Lutftwaffe. He was captured on the Russian Front and escaped, only to be recaptured by the British in France in 1944. He was sent to a PoW camp in Lancashire, which is where he began a process of de-Nazification that began with a film about the Belsen concentration camp. Trautmann gradually came to realise he had been brainwashed by his years in the Hitler Youth and increasingly felt at home in Lancashire. He began playing football for a PoW team, initially as a defender, before switching to playing in goal.
He was then signed by non-League St Helens where he was an instant hit. Anti-German feeling re-emerged when he moved to City in 1949, but he won over supporters with his all-action style, equable nature and ability. He was, said Sir Bobby Charlton, “the best goalkeeper I ever played against”.
Such was Trautmann’s status he was voted Football Writers’ Association Footballer of the Year in 1956, chosen to captain a Football League Select XI, granted a testimonial between the Manchester clubs that attracted 48,000 and, later in life, awarded the MBE for his work promoting Anglo-German sportsmanship and young player exchanges.