If all you knew were the very basics of Bert Trautmann’s story, it would be remarkable: a German soldier in World War II, captured by the British, winds up playing goal for Manchester City, finishes and wins the 1956 FA Cup Final despite breaking his neck during the game.
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Of course, there is more to Trautmann’s story, and to learn more we suggest you watch the lovely film The Keeper, available for rent on Amazon Prime.
As always with a movie, the story is condensed, simplified and romanticized, and all the actors are no doubt much better-looking than the people they portray. But The Keeper is well done and well acted, and even with the focus being on the love story (of course), football is at the heart of it.
Who Was Bert Trautmann?
Trautmann was born in Bremen, Germany, in 1923 and by the late 1930s had joined the Hitler Youth. Naturally, this would come back to haunt him, but imagine yourself a teenage boy in a nation whipped into a patriotic frenzy and launched into war. He volunteered for the military early in the war and would always say later, “I had no choice.” From that point on, like any soldier, he was taking orders, experiencing the horror of war, and trying to survive.
Late in the war, he was captured by the British and brought to a camp in Lancashire, where he and his fellow soldiers were put to work in local farms, factories, etc. At some point, his skills as a goalkeeper were noticed, and he wound up playing for a local amateur club, St. Helens Town — which still exists, by the way. They are in the North West Counties League at tier 10 of the English football league system, but the ground where Trautmann played is long gone, and this film was shot almost entirely in Belfast, Northern Ireland.
His arrival at St. Helens so soon after the war was controversial, even after he married the club chairman’s daughter. And when he was signed by top-tier Manchester City, it set off protests numbering in the tens of thousands. Besides his war past, which included winning an Iron Cross, Manchester had a large Jewish population, and it was only when a local rabbi wrote an open letter urging forgiveness that Trautmann began to earn acceptance.
That, plus he was a hell of a goalkeeper. By the early 50s he was regarded as one of the best keepers in the country, and City made the 1955 FA Cup Final riding a style of play based in large part on Trautmann’s distribution after getting the ball. They lost the 1955 Final, but they went back the next year, when Trautmann was the first foreigner, and the first goalkeeper, to be voted Footballer of the Year for the season.
Bert Trautmann and the 1956 FA Cup Final
As a footballer, it’s the 1956 FA Cup Final that Trautmann is remembered for. He was excellent in the game, and with about 15 minutes to go, City were ahead, 3-1. Birmingham played the ball into Trautmann’s area, he dove for it just as a Birmingham player went in, and in the resulting collision Trautmann was knocked out cold. Play was stopped, trainers came on, and it looked like he would have to leave the game.
But in those days there were no substitutions, so instead of making his team go down to 10 men with a non-keeper in goal, Trautmann played on, even making two more saves, one of which essentially knocked him out again. City held on to win, and as Trautmann collected his winner’s medal, a member of the royal family even commented on the angle of Trautmann’s head.
It was discovered days later that he had broken his neck. And not just that, but some of the pieces of bone had settled together in just such a way that another impact — like in his subsequent saves — could have killed him.
It’s all here in the newsreel film of the day (skip ahead to 3:20 for the relevant bits):
Trautmann’s Life and Career After 1956
At this point, everything is great, right? The happy young couple have a son, Dad heals up and is a star… what could go wrong?
Well, this is life, not a fairy tale, and while I won’t give away the big twist that happened soon after the Final, let’s just say that there are still some pretty significant stories about the real Bert Trautmann you wouldn’t know if you only saw the film. Among the happier ones: he played 545 matches for City from 1949 to 1964, and after his last home game, fans tore apart the goal so that no one could ever stand in “Trautmann’s goal” again.
Also, consider this stat: The man saved 60% of the penalties he faced in his career! Teammates used to joke that the only way to beat him was to mis-hit the ball, since he already knew where you were trying to hit it.
Consider all of the challenges Trautmann faced: Imagine first you’ve seen the horrors of war but are of a generation not accustomed to dealing with that. Imagine also you might have met other women before your beautiful bride. Think of the effect a broken neck might have on your career. Think about how being a man without a country might affect your ability to play in the World Cup. Think also of how a real-life tragedy might affect you and your relationships.
In spite of this, Trautmann persevered, and lived to the age of 89, dying in 2013.
You won’t see all of that in The Keeper, but you will see terrific performances from the two lead actors. David Cross as Trautmann, in particular, is able to evoke layers of disbelief, sorrow, anger, and angst in what appears to be a blank stare. And while the film certainly cuts short the long, complex story of a man’s life, it also shies away, thankfully, from the kind of “football brings people together” tripe it could have fallen into.
Mainly, The Keeper will entertain, impress and inform. And it will introduce you to a pretty remarkable story from the 20th century in English football.
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