Bert Trautmann’s death this week, at the age of 89, prompted ANTON RIPPON to remember the awkward launch of the former Manchester City goalkeeper’s biography
The scene was Manchester’s Piccadilly Hotel in the autumn of 1990. I stepped into the lift to find myself dwarfed by several huge men wearing tracksuits. Australia’s Rugby League touring side had just checked in before the second Test at Old Trafford.
But it was another sporting giant that I was heading to see: Bernhard Carl Trautmann, whose biography I was publishing that day.
The arrangement had been that I would fly Bert Trautmann into Manchester, put him up for two nights at the Piccadilly, and then fly him home. In between, he would attend a press launch of Alan Rowlands’s Trautmann: The Biography, and then do a couple of signing sessions in Manchester city centre shops, together with an appearance at the Manchester City club shop at Maine Road.
Arrangements for all this were past the point of no return when Trautmann announced that there was a slight problem: actually, he wasn’t in Germany at that moment, he was coaching in Spain and would first have to be flown home to the Fatherland to collect some clothes. And then he had to call in home again before returning to Spain. That wasn’t in the budget but, thankfully, his biographer was also a British Airways cabin crew top ranker. So Alan did some phoning around and the bank wasn’t broken.
Now, though, it was time to meet a sporting legend. Trautmann was graciousness itself, absolutely polite and correct. He was also concerned about the pen with which he was to sign copies of the book.
“I need a black felt-tipped pen, please,” he said, his tone making it clear that this was a command not a request.
“I think you’ll be OK with the one we’ve provided,” I said.
Trautmann put his hand on my forearm: “With respect, Mr Rippon, I have been asked for my autograph many thousands of times. I doubt that you have. So, believe me when I say that I need a black felt-tipped pen.” His grip tightened for a moment, and then he let go.
Well, there didn’t seem any point in arguing. I sent someone round to WH Smith. And I’m now looking at my own copy of Trautmann: The Biography, beautifully inscribed, “Best wishes, Bert Trautmann” – in thick black ink, of course.
One of the most iconic sporting photographs of the 20th century shows a blond-haired goalkeeper leaving the Wembley pitch in obvious pain, clutching the back of his head: the 1956 FA Cup Final between Manchester City and Birmingham City will always be remembered as the game in which Bert Trautmann “broke his neck”.
Trautmann was already one of the most colourful characters in the history of the game. The Second World War was still vividly etched in people’s minds when the former German paratrooper, who had arrived in Britain as a prisoner-of-war, made his first-team debut for Manchester City – a club with strong support among Manchester’s Jewish community – in 1949.
Thus, Bremen-born Trautmann had to overcome enormous public hostility from the club’s supporters when he was chosen to replace the fans’ great favourite, Frank Swift, who had retired that year.
Trautmann had arrived in April 1945 and was a PoW at Ashton-in-Makerfield when he began keeping goal. Upon his release, he worked on a farm and played for St Helen’s FC, later marrying the club secretary’s daughter.
Signing for City, he could not have expected the warmest of Lancashire welcomes, and, sure enough, season ticket-holders threatened a boycott to protest at the signing of a former enemy so soon after the war. But after Trautmann retired in 1964, after 545 appearances, when he ran out for his testimonial match, he was welcomed by a crowd of 48,000.
The year 1956 was indeed a bitter-sweet one for him. On the one hand he won an FA Cup winners’ medal when City beat Birmingham 3-1, and he was elected the Footballer of the Year. But the medal had come at a cost: 15 minutes from the final whistle, he dived at the feet of Peter Murphy, and was accidentally caught in the neck by the Birmingham forward’s knee.
After lengthy treatment, Trautmann resumed in goal and played out the remaining minutes. As he was receiving his medal, Prince Philip asked him why he was cocking his head. “I’ve got a stiff neck,” Trautmann replied.
Only after the match was it discovered that he had dislocated five vertebrae, the second of which had cracked in two. The third had wedged against the second, preventing further damage and perhaps saving Trautmann’s life. As it was, the injury cost him seven months of his career and the chance to play for his native Germany.
Most tragic, however, was that in the same year, his five-year-old son was killed in a road accident.
Bert Trautmann was always assured of a huge welcome whenever he revisited Manchester, and in 2004 he was awarded the OBE at the British Embassy in Berlin, for his work in improving Anglo-German relations through football. He had just launched the Trautmann Foundation, promoting sportsmanship and exchange programmes between young and amateur players in Germany and the United Kingdom. He said: “I’m glad that I was able to do something for relations between our two countries in a difficult time. I truly would like to thank the British for the way I was treated as a prisoner-of-war and during the whole time I spent in your country.”
At that book launch more than 20 years ago, he was an absolute gem, greeting former teammates, talking to strangers as if he’d known them for years, mingling effortlessly and making time for anyone who wanted to talk with him. And there were plenty who wanted to do that.
He did keep the black felt-tipped pen, though.
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