Bert Trautmann: From German PoW to Man City’s star goalkeeper

Former Hitler Youth member overcame animosity to become a star goalkeeper at Manchester City

Manchester City’s goalkeeper Bert Trautmann dives at the feet of Birmingham’s Peter Murphy during the 1956 FA Cup Final at Wembley. Trautmann broke his neck making the save, but played on. Photograph:  Allsport Hulton/Archive

Manchester City’s goalkeeper Bert Trautmann dives at the feet of Birmingham’s Peter Murphy during the 1956 FA Cup Final at Wembley. Trautmann broke his neck making the save, but played on. Photograph: Allsport Hulton/Archive

 

The main problem for the makers of The Keeper was what to leave out from the life of Bert Trautmann.

One can imagine a film – maybe a whole TV series – about a German prisoner of war who ended up defusing unexploded Luftwaffe bombs in Merseyside.

That happened, but it’s not mentioned in the film. There’s too much else to pack in.

“The story came to me 12 years ago,” Marcus H Rosenmüller, director of the biopic, tells me. “Somebody came into the editing room and asked me if I knew the story of Bert Trautmann and I had never heard it.”

Trautmann’s fame may have withered in the country of his birth, but the legend still lives in the north of England. Following the war, he was signed as goalkeeper to Saint Helens Town, married the club secretary’s daughter and, in 1949, was picked up by Manchester City.

He made 508 appearances for the club over the following 15 years. He became the first foreign player to win Footballer of the Year. He received an honorary OBE.

Trautmann’s experiences in the 1956 FA Cup Final would be enough in themselves to justify a biopic. Seventeen minutes before the end, he suffered a painful injury, but played on and helped to maintain his team’s 3-1 lead. Only later did he learn that he’d broken his neck.

Mark Trautmann, Bert’s son, was born in 1960 and, thus, remembers little of his dad’s experiences at the top of the English game, but he had opportunities to experience his popularity in the city.

“All my school friends knew about him,” Mark says. “But, as a child, he was first and foremost my father. Fame in those days was not the same as it is today. There is so much fuss now about celebrities. Mind you, if we went out for a meal, people would always come up to him.

“It’s incredible to see the Pathé News footage when they came back after winning the FA Cup. All of Manchester is there chanting his name. But he would still travel to the ground by public transport.”

Trautmann was not always so popular. The film relates the hostility that greeted his arrival at Manchester City. Many of his contemporaries had fought in the war and almost everyone had lost friends or family. Manchester also had one of the largest Jewish communities in England. There were protests. There were suggestions of a boycott.

Iron Cross

“He never went into any great depth about any animosity that he faced,” Mark, who now lives in East Anglia, explains.

“But it is obvious that he did face animosity. The film probably doesn’t display the extent of it. He did get poison-pen letters saying that if he were to walk onto Wembley he would be shot. Even by 1956, he still faced that. It was still there.”

The film tells us how Rabbi Alexander Altmann, an Orthodox scholar whose parents were murdered by the Nazis, came out in support of Trautmann and helped sway the fans in the goalkeeper’s favour. Bert had enlisted and he had won the Iron Cross. So it was a tricky situation.

“When he talked about his childhood he talked about his passion for sport,” Mark says. “The Hitler Youth to him was something like the Boys Brigade or the Scouts. Then it was a natural progression into the armed forces. Did he have a choice? It’s hard to put yourself in the same shoes.”

The story of the 1956 cup final still reads like something out of a contemporaneous Victor or Hotspur comic. When giving Bert his winner’s medal, the Duke of Edinburgh noted that he wasn’t holding his head straight. But nobody seems to have suspected quite how badly injured he was.

“I don’t think so, no,” Mark says. “It was a good three of four days before they saw the X-ray. Again if you look at the Pathé News footage of them returning, he is standing on the steps of the town hall and you get a slight indication he’s injured. He was extremely lucky. A piece of bone wedged there and prevented him from becoming paralysed.”

Manchester City’s German goalkeeper (once a German prisoner of war in Britain) saves a shot during a game against Tottenham Hotspur at White Hart Lane in 1956. Photograph: Ron Burton/Keystone/Getty Images
Manchester City’s German goalkeeper (once a German prisoner of war in Britain) saves a shot during a game against Tottenham Hotspur at White Hart Lane in 1956. Photograph: Ron Burton/Keystone/Getty Images

There was still more drama in Bert’s life. A few months after the final, his first son was killed in a car accident. He and Margaret Friar had two more children – including Mark – but they divorced in 1970. He married again on two occasions and died in Spain at the age of 89.

The obituaries in 2013 made gripping reading. Happily, unlike so many of his contemporaries, he did forge a successful career after hanging up his boots. Many were the poorly paid players who had nothing put away.

“My parents split up when I was about nine and he went back to Germany and got his coaching license,” Mark says. “He worked around the world. What money he did earn was through that and not through the games he played in England.”

World class

He managed clubs such as Preußen Münster and Opel Rüsselsheim. He managed national sides such as Burma and Pakistan. His reputation remained high with the football elite. Former Arsenal and Scotland goalkeeper Bob Wilson identified him as a hero.

“There have only been two world-class goalkeepers,” Lev Yashin, the legendary (and immodest) Russian goalkeeper, once said. “One was Lev Yashin, the other was the German boy who played for Manchester City.”

The Keeper, much of which is shot in Northern Ireland, presses home another legacy. His presence helped heal wounds and bring England together with one of its fiercest European rivals. A film about unity across borders emerges as the United Kingdom is tearing itself up over Brexit. The irony is inescapable.

“Ten years ago, when we started developing the film, we had no idea that Brexit was happening,” Rosenmüller says.

“It is more relevant than it was 10 years ago. Many parts of the nation are again making a judgment about people they have never met. That happens in Germany too. And this is a very bad thing.”

Three goalkeepers in cinema

Arthur Brauss in The Goalkeeper’s Fear of the Penalty (1972)
A classic from Wim Wenders’s early existential phase. Nodding towards Albert “Goalie” Camus’s L’Etranger, the film sends its goalkeeper protagonist on a journey towards murder after being sent off for dissent.

Sylvester Stallone in Escape to Victory (1981)
John Huston had to somehow squeeze an American star into his amusingly terrible film about prisoners of war footballing their way to freedom. Sylvester Stallone obliged as an unlikely goalie.

Jacob McCarthy in The Drummer and the Keeper (2017)
Sweet, responsibly made Irish film about a young man with Asperger’s syndrome who, when not goalkeeping, makes friends with the drummer in a rock band. Breakout turn by McCarthy as the goalkeeper.

The Keeper is in cinemas from Friday, April 5th

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