My first footballing hero has passed away. His name was Bert Trautmann. He was 89. Legendary Manchester City goal-keeper, true gentleman and force for peace. Bert wasn’t just a hero to me, but to thousands of youngsters growing up in Lancashire. His story is the more remarkable because he isn’t English. Bert arrived in England as a prisoner of war. He had been a member of the Hitler Youth and joined the Luftwaffe as a paratrooper, earning an Iron Cross for bravery on the Eastern Front. During the war, he escaped from both the Russians and French resistance, before finally being captured by the British on the Western Front.
He could have returned to Germany after the war. He chose not to. Instead, he set about earning the trust, respect and love of his new countrymen. It wasn’t easy. 20,000 people marched in protest when he was first selected for Manchester City. He was abused at away games – in London especially, where the Luftwaffe had caused the most damage. But game by game he won us all over. His tenacity, skill and courage were legendary. As a 7-year-old, I watched as he dove at the feet of Birmingham City’s Peter Murphy in the 1956 FA Cup Final and was knocked out. He played on for the final 17 minutes and made a series of mesmerising saves to take Man City to victory. We didn’t know until three days later, but in that collision he had broken his neck. As you can imagine, that news cemented his hero status. He went on to be named footballer of the year that year.
But for all his skill as a footballer, his greatest legacy is helping to heal the rift between our two warring countries. Without doubt, the vile directed at him personally hurt. But he didn’t let it harden his heart. He used it as motivation. He made people stop and think. Yes, he fought for Germany. But he was man of honour and integrity. He didn’t ask for respect. He earned it. He brought England and Germany closer together.
Today, his legacy is being recounted across the world. His story led the Obituary pages of the weekend New York Times. Bert is an inspiration to all of us. He has shaped the lives and perceptions of millions of people. He showed me at a young age that nothing is impossible. It’s a lesson I have championed in my own life. And for that, I thank you Bert. Rest easy.