For dyed-in-the-wool Manchester City supporter Bill Cronshaw, an admiration for goalkeeper Bert Trautmann which began as hero-worship as a child has grown into inspiration for a play that is currentlytouring the country and proving to be a resounding success among young, old and non-football fans alike.
Like many boys growing up in the 1950s, Cronshaw would step out on to his local playing field and stake his claim to what he believed was the most important role in the team – the keeper – with the words: "I'll be Bert". As he laid down his jumper and coat for goalposts, he was mentally preparing to face his fate – either he would leave the field as a hero in the eyes of his peers or he would fail spectacularly.
Fifty years later, the muddy field has made way for the dusty boards of England's playhouses and the familiar words I'll Be Bert now form the title of the play that Cronshaw performs nightly to a new group of judgemental peers.
Where many theatrical productions might lead to reluctant husbands trailing into the theatre behind their eager wives, this play turns the tables in a move not seen since the well-received play (and television adaptation) An Evening With Gary Lineker.
Cronshaw says: "I can hardly believehow the play is taking off. I've received the most amazing emails. And it isn't just Man City fans or even football fans who seem impressed. I've had emails from several men who admit to 'conning' their wives into accompanying them to my play.
"They, er, 'forget' to tell them that it is about Man City and perhaps omit information about who Bert was. However, their comments in their emails testify to the fact that their wives are won over by half-time."
In I'll Be Bert, a man looks back on his life as he prepares to meet up with old schoolmates who have contacted him through the website Friends Reunited. He describes his childhood growing up in post-war Manchester shortly after a controversy that rocked the footballing world.
In 1949, Manchester City signed the ex-Luftwaffe paratrooper Trautmann. The man who was firmly in attack against England in the Second World War was now entrenched as the last line of defence for City. The signing was so controversial that it sparkeda 20,000-strong protest by fans. However, Trautmann quickly won over the fans with his extraordinary skills in goal and, of course, with his remarkable performance in the 1956 FA Cup final, which marked his place as a true footballing hero.
With 15 minutes of the match remaining, Trautmann suffered a serious injury to his neck after diving at the feet of Birmingham City's Peter Murphy. Despite the injury, he played on, making crucial saves to preserve his side's 3-1 lead and help City to win the Cup. It later transpired that Trautmann's neck was broken.
Cronshaw says: "Although I was young, I was very aware of the controversy surrounding Bert's signing. But to me, as a schoolboy, the only thing that mattered was his performance in goal. I used to dream of commanding the goal like Bert, wonder what it would be like to meet him and would talk of nothing else but how he played the previous Saturday."
In the play, the audience travel with Cronshaw through his rites-of-passage journey from boyhood in 1950s Manchester. Since the first performance, Cronshaw has updated the script, adding the topical line: "It's typical of City that as soon as they become the richest club in the world, the money markets crash!"
He adds: "Man City is the kind of team that seems to be loved by all – with the exception of the obvious set of fans, of course [Manchester United's]. No matter where you go as a fan, you meet with a kind of admiration and affection from other fans, and I think this has helped the play have a broader appeal. I'll Be Bert, on one hand, is about a true hero but on the other hand it is about an ordinary boy."
Among his growing list of supporters, Cronshaw can name Britain's leading theatrical producer, Bill Kenwright – the Everton chairman – a contact who may hold the key to the promotion of I'll Be Bert to the next league.
But the canny twist in this football tale, one which would bring the entirestory full circle, is that it looks like Cronshaw could soon be performing before the man who set the ball rolling – Trautmann himself, who is now 85 and lives in Spain. In a reflection of the play's underlying theme, the event is being organised by an old school- mate of Cronshaw's who contacted him via Friends Reunited.
'I'll Be Bert' will be staged at the Old Red Lion, Islington, north London, on 19 January. Box office: 020 7837 7816Reuse content