He faced down the Red Army, the French Resistance and Birmingham City

I remember, as a teenager, hearing of the Manchester City goalkeeper who played the last seventeen minutes of the 1956 FA Cup final with a broken neck, but I had no idea who the goalkeeper in question was, that he wasn’t British (since this was long before the days foreigners were a common sight in English football) or that he was notable for anything beyond that one single curiosity.

Some years later, I watched a documentary about German POWs who had been retained in camps in Britain, France and the United States for many years after the end of the Second World War and used essentially as slave labour.  It featured interviews with several such former POWs, including a pair who were sitting next to each other who had been held in a camp in England throughout the late 1940s.  It wasn’t until the very end of the documentary that one of them revealed that the fellow he was sitting next to–who seemed rather embarrassed to have this part talked about at all–had stayed in England after being released from camp, had played for Manchester City and was, in fact, the goalkeeper who had broken his neck in the 1956 final.

Bert Trautmann died on Friday.  He was a Luftwaffe paratrooper who had been captured by the Soviets, the French Resistance and the Americans, and had escaped from all three, before ultimately ending up in British Army custody at the war’s end.  He declined repatriation when released and stayed in England, working on a farm.  In 1949 he signed for City, eliciting furious protests at the idea of an English football club fielding a German war veteran (who had volunteered to serve!) as a player.  He won City supporters over, of course, but the abuse from spectators at away matches continued throughout his career.

But by the time he played in that fateful Cup Final against Birmingham City–Manchester City’s second successive Cup Final–he had already been voted Footballer of the Year for 1956, both the first foreigner and the first goalkeeper to win English football’s most prestigious award.  Despite being one of the most highly regarded keepers of the era, he never played for his country, as during this period West Germany had a policy (like most other national teams, whether officially or unofficially) of only selecting players who played for domestic clubs.

One thing I hadn’t thought of before reading his Wikipedia article: this was back in the 1950s, and it wasn’t until three days after the Cup Final that an X-ray confirmed his neck was, in fact, broken.

Hats off to one of football’s truly colourful stories.

(City seem to have, for whatever reason, a bit of a connection to the Luftwaffe; in addition to Trautmann, in the nineties they also became the club of Uwe Rösler, whose grandfather, famously, was a crewman aboard the bomber that dropped the bomb that hit Old Trafford.)

I

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