Bert Trautmann, WWII prisoner of war who played an FA Cup final with a broken neck, dies at 89

Brooks Peck
Dirty Tackle

One of the toughest and perhaps most important men to ever play football, Bernhard "Bert" Trautmann, died Friday morning at the age of 89. He had survived two heart attacks earlier this year, adding one last chapter of defiance to a long life of unthinkable achievements.

Trautmann, who made 545 appearances for Manchester City between 1945 and 1964, arrived in England as a German paratrooper and prisoner of war during World War II, having previously been captured and escaped from Russia and the French Resistance. In his early days as a soldier, he was sentenced to three months in a German prison for a practical joke that went wrong and resulted in a staff sergeant burning his arms. He went on to win five medals, including the Iron Cross First Class.

It was in a POW camp near Wigan that he became a goalkeeper and upon his release, he stayed in England, married a local girl, worked in bomb disposal and started drawing big crowds as something of a novelty — a footballer previously classified as a Nazi — while playing for non-league club St. Helen's Town. After playing well in a friendly against Man City, they signed him and Trautmann made the jump to the First Division in 1949.

The signing was obviously a controversial one for City, as 20,000 people protested while others wrote angry letters. But his teammates, some of whom fought against him in the war, accepted him and soon the public did, as well. The war was over. And Trautmann was the human embodiment of moving forward. From the AP:

During one of his first games in London, still bearing the signs of heavy damage from Germany's air raids, Trautmann overcame a hostile reception to play so well that at the end of the match, the players formed a line on either side of the tunnel and applauded him, while the Fulham crowd gave him a standing ovation.

Though his most famous act was still to come, Trautmann's proudest moment as a footballer was in 1955, when he became the first German to play in a FA Cup final at Wembley. Man City lost 3-1 to Newcastle, but the following year they reached the final again.

Up 3-1 against Birmingham, Trautmann made a diving save that resulted in his head colliding with striker Peter Murphy's knee (video above). Though he didn't know it at the time, Trautmann went on to play the final 17 minutes of the final with a broken neck.

At the time, no substitutions were allowed, and Trautmann, although unsteady, returned to his place between the posts, according to an account on City's website.

Trautmann made two more outstanding saves and then collided with his own defender, Dave Ewing, and had to be revived again before he could play on. While receiving his medal, Trautmann complained of a ''stiff neck.''

It was only three days later that an X-ray revealed a broken neck.

While Trautmann recovered from his injury, his firstborn son, John, was hit by a car and killed at the age of five. The tragedy led to the breakup of his marriage, but he went to play another eight years until the age of 40. He retired having never played for his country since West Germany only selected players within West Germany.

Trautmann went on to manage Stockport County, followed by a pair of German clubs before finally getting an eclectic taste of international football with Burma, Tanzania, Liberia and Pakistan.

The fact that Trautmann is best known for playing with a broken neck was something that he didn't really enjoy. He much preferred to be know as the first German to play an FA Cup final at Wembley the year before. From the PA:

"That was something absolutely magnificent," he said [two years ago]. "We lost 3-1 to Newcastle United on the day and yes, you feel a little sorry for yourself that you lose such a huge game, but it was an amazing day and I just looked around the stadium and thought 'you lucky man!'

"Then, of course, we returned a year later and won, but of course many people remember the game because of the injury I sustained during the match. I played over 500 league games for City but that moment is still the one people refer to, so it can be a little frustrating at times because no matter how well I played during that time, people will still say: 'Ah, you're the fellow who broke his neck playing at Wembley.' I'll admit it's not something I particularly like but it's something I've had to live with."

Trautmann's remarkable achievements in advancing Anglo-German post-war relations were recognized in 2004, however, when he was appointed as an honorary Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (OBE). Which isn't bad for a once hated prisoner of war.

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