x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

Trautmann had real PoW factor

Robert Philip talks to Manchester City's legendary goalkeeper Bert Trautman on his 85th birthday.

Trautman in action for Manchester City against Wolves in a 1951 First Division fixture.
Trautman in action for Manchester City against Wolves in a 1951 First Division fixture.

Robinho, the Brazilian sorcerer, is the new hero at Manchester City. But six decades ago the club made their most famous signing when Bert Trautmann, who will celebrate his 85th birthday today at home in Valencia with his third wife, Marlis, joined the Blues. It was Oct 1949, when Manchester City's goalkeeper Frank Swift suddenly announced his retirement. The captain of England and beloved by football fans of all persuasions Swift, who would die in the Munich air disaster in his second career as a journalist, was regarded as irreplaceable.

A giant in stature and reputation, who could possibly fill his woolly jersey? Chairman Bob Smith's choice was controversial to say the least - Bernd Trautmann, former Luftwaffe paratrooper, awarded the Iron Cross for his courage on the Eastern Front and, until recently, a prisoner of war. Tall, blond and blue-eyed, he was the embodiment of Hitler's deranged notion of an Aryan master-race. It says everything about the man that long before he won an FA Cup medal while playing with a broken neck "Bert" had become the most popular player in the land.

Awarded an honorary OBE in 2004 at a special ceremony in the British Embassy in Berlin for promoting Anglo-German understanding through football, Trautmann says: "It's me who has to thank them, the people of England. Without their help, I would never have achieved the little bit I did achieve. So I thank everyone for their acceptance, for their hospitality and for their friendship. "I put this over playing at Wembley, winning a Cup-winner's medal, being named Footballer of the Year, and even my OBE. Being taken POW was the best thing that ever happened to me..."

Having previously been captured by the Red Army at Zaporozhye in what is now the Ukraine, the French Resistance at St Valery-sur-Somme and by the US 94th Infantry during the Allies push for Berlin, Trautmann's war finally came to an end in March 1945, when, while fleeing from the Americans, he flung himself into a ditch and landed beside a pair of British Army boots. "Hello Fritz, fancy a cup of tea?" he recalls of his introduction to the English way of life.

It was on a makeshift pitch behind the barbed wire fence of Prison Camp 50, near Manchester, where the German PoWs were training for their first "international" against local amateur side Haydock Park in the winter of 1946 that Trautmann took his first steps to glory. Playing at centre-half, he suffered a leg knock and asked goalkeeper Gunther Luhr if they could swap places. "And 18 years later, I was still playing in goal," he smiles proudly after making 545 first-team appear- ances for Manchester City following a three-year spell with St Helens Town of the Liverpool Combination League, who had first spotted him behind the barbed wire.

As a one-time member of the Hitler Youth - "For the simple reason that like any seven-year-old I liked sport and camping." - Trautmann had been officially classified as a Nazi after his capture. "The camp was divided in two and the supposed Nazis were kept separate from the ordinary prisoners, though away from the real hard-liners like the SS. But whenever we played, our fellow countrymen would boo and hiss, shouting 'Nazi murderers' and that kind of thing.

"When I volunteered, I had no idea what war was about, what Hitler had in mind. I don't need to talk about the war or my experiences because millions of our boys, your boys, Americans, Australians, New Zealanders, the boys on the Burma rail line all suffered in different ways. "I saw a German television programme once in which they interviewed British pilots talking about the bombing of Dresden. They had tears in their eyes as they admitted how they knew it was useless to bomb Dresden, that the war was nearing an end, that there was no industry, yet 50,000 people burned to death. 'We had our orders...' they explained. Where have you heard that phrase before?"

The scars of war were still understandably raw when the letters of protest began descending upon Maine Road. "After all the dreadful nights we went through until the dawn came, women and children being dug out dead from under bricks, do City expect supporters to go and watch a German playing football with men the Germans tried to kill?" "If the players are proper men, they will refuse to turn out with such a man."

"As a disabled serviceman from the last war, I am writing with bitterness in my heart. To think that after all we went through and are still going through, you want to sign a German. I have followed City up and down the country but will cease to follow the club if they sign this man." "When I think of all the millions of Jews who were tortured and murdered, I can only marvel at Manchester City's crass stupidity."

Week by week, however, Trautmann gradually won the hearts of all through his dignity and daring. "The English are fair people. Of course, there was hate mail but others wrote to me in support. "A local Rabbi issued a statement saying: 'He is a decent fellow, unconnected with any German crimes.' "I don't pretend to be very special but the situation so soon after the war made it special." Such was Trautmann's popularity that by the time Manchester City faced Birmingham City in the 1956 FA Cup final, he had become the first foreigner to be named Footballer of the Year. What happened next, only furthered the legend.

With City leading 3-1 after 73 minutes, Trautmann saved a near-certain goal when he dived at the feet of Birmingham centre-forward Peter Murphy, knocking himself unconscious even while clutching the ball in his huge hands. It would be three days before an X-ray showed he had played the final 17 minutes with a broken neck and that he was lucky to be alive. "When I came to lying on the pitch with City trainer Laurie Burnett waving smelling salts under my nose, the pain was incredible.

"I couldn't see properly, it was as though I was standing in thick fog and remember very little of the rest of the game or receiving my medal from the Queen." Concussed and a reeling like a drunk, Trautmann pulled off three further stunning saves, "none of which I can remember although I can picture teammate Bill Leivers helping me up the steps to the Royal Box". Trautmann subsequently spent six months in an uncomfortable space helmet-shaped plaster but a far greater tragedy was to befall him three weeks after the Cup final when his five-year-old son, John, was killed in a road accident, hastening the breakdown of his first marriage.

Although he lives in Spain, he still looks upon Bremen, his birthplace, and Manchester as his twin "homes". "I have two families, my English family [children Freida, 60, Steven, 50, and Mark, 48] and my German family. But if I could afford to live in England then I would never have left because the people are so wonderful. "Before I made my first trip back to Bremen in 1949, the St Helens supporters, players and officials gave me a hamper packed with tinned food, ham, cakes, butter, sugar and an envelope containing 50 one pound notes. They had used their food rations to help my family in Germany. Their kindness reduced me to tears."

His adopted country bestowed another heartfelt gift on Trautmann with his OBE, following which he renewed acquaintance with the Queen at a concert given by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra to raise funds towards the restoration of the Frauenkirche, the Dresden church flattened by the Allies in Feb 1945. "'Ah, Herr Trautmann', Her Majesty said to me, 'Have you still got that pain in the neck?'" rphilip@thenational.ae