Tuesday, 29 June 2010

Trautmann's Journey

“Trautmann’s Journey”
by Catrine Clay
Yellow Jersey, £16.99, 340pp, index, notes, illustrations.

In a year in which Anglo-German footballing rivalry might well be rekindled in South Africa, it is perhaps timely that a new book should recall the remarkable contribution made to the English game by “Traut the Kraut” - Bert Trautmann. One of the most iconic figures of domestic post-war football, Trautmann is the only man ever to have been awarded both the Iron Cross and the OBE, and is most famous for breaking his neck in the 1956 FA Cup Final - and playing on.

Beyond these headlines, however, Catrine Clay’s new biography – “Trautmann’s Journey” – reveals a fascinating back-story. Born in humble circumstances in Bremen in 1923, Trautmann was tall, blond and athletic and excelled at sport. He joined the Hitler Youth, then the Paratroopers, spending three years on the Eastern Front in which he was briefly captured by the Soviets and even witnessed a massacre of Ukrainian Jews. Transferred to the west in 1944, he then fought in Normandy, Arnhem and in the Ardennes before literally stumbling into British captivity, where he was greeted with the words “Fancy a cup of tea, Fritz?” He would be one of only 90 of his unit of 1,000 to survive the war.

Yet, for all these experiences, Trautmann himself admits that his real education began when he reached English shores in the spring of 1945. Transferred into the POW camp system in the north-west, he worked as a driver and later in bomb disposal and was consistently surprised by the kindness, forgiveness and understanding demonstrated by the ordinary Britons with whom he came into contact.

His real passion was still football, however, and he played his first game in goal in 1946, immediately showing the determination and athleticism that had earned him numerous accolades and awards as a youth in the Third Reich. From there, his ascent was swift. Signed by St Helens Town and then Manchester City, he would soon be making the first of his two FA Cup Final appearances. None other than Bobby Charlton would refer to Trautmann as the best goalkeeper that he had ever played against.

“Trautmann’s Journey” is a remarkable story, well told. Only occasionally does Clay attempt to incorporate too much extraneous material into her account. In general, her narrative moves along briskly, ably combining the narrow focus of her subject’s life with the broad sweep of events. She also does well to tease out a number of salient themes, such as Trautmann’s sometimes difficult relationship with his parents and the significance – for all parties – of his decision to make his home in the UK.

Though it is not short of affection for its subject, Clay’s biography is no hagiography, however. Trautmann emerges as an often equivocal character; a sport-obsessed curmudgeon with a quick temper and an apparent inability to accept authority. Imprisoned by the Nazis for insubordination, he would also be classified by the British authorities as a category ‘C’ prisoner – a hardened Nazi – primarily because of his surly and uncooperative attitude in interview. Even time did not mellow him. In 1954, Trautmann was suspended for tangling with a referee, and in his very last game as a player, he was sent off for violent conduct.

For all his foibles, Trautmann enjoyed an illustrious career, being the first foreigner to be named Player of the Year and later being inducted into English Football’s Hall of Fame. As this book demonstrates, by his example and his efforts, he has been a tireless ambassador for Anglo-German relations. And if those two countries resume their rivalry in South Africa this summer, supporters of both sides should be united in raising a toast to his name.

© Roger Moorhouse 2010

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