Playing on with a broken neck

There are plenty of examples of footballers playing on with injuries. No self respecting football hard man is going to let a head wound get the better of him, no matter how enthusiastically the blood may be flowing out of it. The urge to play on no matter what has produced iconic images of Giorgio Chellini, Paul Ince, and off course Terry Butcher, playing with a blood stained shirt and a turban of bandages. But playing on with an broken neck? That’s taking things to a whole other level. Still, that’s exactly what happend at Wembley on the 5th of May 1956, when Manchester City and Birmingham City met in the final of the FA-Cup

In goal for Manchester City that day was the German goalkeeper Bert Trautmann. He had come to England as a prisoner of war during the Second World War. Trautmann had decided to stick around after the war and had stumbled onto a career as a goalkeeper, even though he had only started playing during his time as a POW. After having initially encountered a lot of resistance, he had earned the esteem of crowds and colleagues alike. Trautmann was living up to his reputation, when in the 75th minute, with Manchester leading 3-1, he collided with a Birmingham attacker in a brave attempt to stifle a breakthrough that threatened to throw the game wide open.

“It was like a train crash,” Trautmann would later recall. With substitutions not allowed at the time, even when injuries occurred, the German decided to play on in spite of the crippling neck-pain he was suffering. He performed a number of crucial saves in the last fifteen minutes of the game, but it was purely a case of instinct kicking in, as the world was a blur to him. Trautmann: “I collapsed two or three more times in those last 15 minutes. I was in absolute agony and I was having to support my neck with my right hand”

Embed from Getty Images
Bert Trautmann leaving the field with his hand in his neck after winning the FA-Cup

Manchester City and it’s injured keeper hung on to their lead and won the game 3-1. Collecting his winner’s medal, Trautmann was asked by Prince Philip why his neck was crooked. The German had apparently mastered the British sense of understatement during his fifteen years in the country, answering: “Stiff neck, sir.” Trautmann even attended the winners banquet, although by that time he found himself completely unable to move his neck. He only sought medical aid the next day, the doctor assuring him the pain would fade away with some rest. When that advice failed to yield any benefits after three days, it was decided a x-ray might be in order.

In hospital is was discovered that Trautmann was dealing with a little more than just a stiff neck. The x-ray showed that he had suffered five dislocated vertebrae, one of which had broken. The only reason the German goalkeeper had avoided being paralyzed, or even killed, as he had played on after sustaining his injury, was that one of the dislocated vertebrae had wedged itself tightly against the broken one, preventing it from moving.

Suddenly, a blood stained shirt and a turban of bandages seem a lot less impressive.

And Trautmann? He was voted Footballer of the Year by the press that year. The German would make a complete recovery from his neck injury and tend goal for Manchester City until 1964.