Frank Swift: a tribute by Gary James

By Gary James, Thu 26 December 2013 09:56

Frank Swift: a tribute by Gary JamesHistorian pays tribute to City legend on the 100th anniversary of his birth

About seven years ago I wrote a biographical piece on Frank Swift for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.  Swift was born 100 years ago (Boxing Day 1913) and so it feels appropriate to mark the centenary of his birth by publishing the profile here. 

When I wrote this piece I had written about 70,000 words of a 110,000 word biography of Swift I was planning to have published. The idea was that it would be a companion book, written in a similar style and comprising of a similar number of photos, as my biography of Joe Mercer “Football With A Smile”. 

Sadly, the publisher I was with at the time hit a number of problems and it was decided they couldn’t publish the book and another person has since written his story of Frank’s life and so my book will not now be published. Despite those issues I do want to stress that I believe Frank Swift to be one of the most important footballing figures the game has ever been blessed with.  He was a true sporting giant and I hope the following words do him justice and help to highlight his place in national sporting history.

By Gary James

Swift, Frank Victor (1913-1958), footballer and journalist was born in Blackpool, Lancashire on 26 December 1913, the second son of five children.  From his earliest memories, he was always obsessed with the game of football, playing at every opportunity with his brothers, one of whom, Fred, became first team goalkeeper for a variety of clubs, most notably Blackpool, Oldham Athletic and Bolton Wanderers.

On leaving school Swift went to work for the Blackpool Gasworks as a coke-keeper and each Saturday he kept goal for his employers’ football team.  As his confidence grew he took the unusual step of writing to the prominent local Lancashire Combination side Fleetwood.  In August 1931 they tested him in a trial match containing a mix of first team and reserve players, and after a good performance Harold Colley, secretary of Fleetwood, signed Swift.  The goalkeeper was named in the Fleetwood reserve side for the opening West Lancashire League game of the 1931-32 season.  Sadly, nerves got the better of Swift and he pulled out of the match shortly before kick off.  Despite this setback Colley and the Fleetwood committee recognised Swift’s potential and persuaded him to make his debut in the Fleetwood Reserve side against Blackburn Rovers ‘A’ team on 23rd September 1931.  By the end of the season Swift was established as the regular Reserve goalkeeper and at the start of the 1932-33 season it was widely acknowledged that he was on the verge of replacing first team ‘keeper Phil Barraclough, father of actor Roy Barraclough.  He was also drawing attention from League clubs.

On 8th October 1932 17 year old Swift was given a trial by First Division Manchester City and on 16th November 1932 he became registered as a Manchester player.  No transfer fee was paid as Swift was not a contracted Fleetwood player, however City secretary Wilf Wild made a donation of 10 guineas to the Fylde club in recognition of their role in his development on 23rd March 1934.

Swift’s progression at City was rapid.  In February 1933 he first appeared for the reserves, and on Christmas Day 1933 he made his first team debut against Derby County.  The game resulted in a 4-1 defeat however as the previous match had ended in a 8-0 defeat and injuries limited competition for places, Swift managed to retain his place for the rest of the season.  In fact he didn't miss a single League or Cup game until 17th September 1938 (a 6-1 defeat by Millwall).

The 1933-34 season brought much attention Swift’s way as he helped City to FA Cup glory.   The Manchester side beat Portsmouth 2-1 however the emotion of the game took its toll on the twenty year old goalkeeper.  As referee Stanley Rous blew the final whistle Swift fainted.  Immediately, the press found an appropriately sensational story to sell the following day's newspapers and Swift – at the time the youngest goalkeeper to appear in the FA Cup final - became a household name.  Twelve months earlier he had paid 2s 6d to watch City face Everton in the 1933 final.  The transformation from spectator to cup winning hero touched the nation.

Enormous crowds watched most of City’s cup games during 1934 with both the Maine Road, Manchester (84,569) and Hillsborough, Sheffield (72,841) attendance records being set, but these crowds brought tragedy and Swift, with his close position to the packed terraces, witnessed many injuries and in later life he commented on the sight of a dead supporter being carried out at Hillsborough.  Possibly because of that experience he remained passionate about conditions for supporters.

Swift’s career continued to progress, however during the summer months football took a back seat as he and his brothers operated a sailing boat providing trips along the Blackpool coast.  It was while performing this activity that he met his future wife, Doris Potter.  Swift was married on 27 July 1935 in Blackpool.  That year he appeared in a trial match for ‘The Rest’ against the England side.

In 1936-37 he was a key presence as City won the League Championship for the first time, and two years later he was on the verge of an England cap when war broke out, causing all League football to be cancelled.  A decision was taken to keep morale boosting internationals going and, on 18th November 1939, Swift made his international debut against Wales at Wrexham, although officially wartime internationals were not recognised as full internationals by the FA.  Inevitably, opportunities were few and far between during the following years – only two internationals were played in 1940 – however Swift did manage a total of 14 wartime and victory international appearances. 

Post-war he made 19 full international appearances, keeping 9 clean sheets, including two games as captain, making Swift the first goalkeeper to captain England in the twentieth century.  His first match as captain was against Italy in Turin, May 1948, and he guided England to a significant 4-0 victory.  At the final whistle, Swift was carried shoulder high by his team mates after a tremendous performance and in later years Tom Finney and Tommy Lawton, amongst others, claimed this as Swift’s greatest game.

After representing Great Britain in 1947, Swift made his final international appearance on 9th April 1949 against Scotland at Wembley.  Much to the annoyance of Manchester City and the regret of supporters, he had chosen to retire while at the top of his game, and on 27th April 1947 he appeared in what was supposed to be his final home game – a surprise 3-0 defeat by Arsenal.  Supporters invaded the pitch as Swift was chaired off the field by team mates.  Similar scenes were observed eleven days later at his final match in Huddersfield and Swift was feted with a celebratory procession back over the moors to Manchester. 

Fate determined however that Swift was to play again.  Alec Thurlow, his replacement became ill with Tuberculosis, and Swift was persuaded to fill the void, although he stipulated he would only keep goal until City found a replacement.  He went on to make four appearances with his last match being a goalless game at home to Everton in September 1949.  By that time the Manchester side had hastened their search for a replacement and were ready to take a gamble on ex-Luftwaffe paratrooper Bernhard (Bert) Trautmann.  It is often overlooked that City’s desperation to find a replacement for Swift caused the side to controversially select the former Prisoner of war. 

Swift could have played both domestic and international football for a further couple of seasons, however his desire to retire increased his reputation.  His former teammate at City Matt Busby tried tempting him out of retirement to play for Manchester United, while City stubbornly retained his registration until 1951. 

In retirement Swift became a representative for the confectionary firm Smallman’s  and developed a career as a sporting columnist for the News of the World.  His opinion on issues such as World Cup football, refereeing, European competition, and all the other main issues of the 1950s entertained readers.  By 1957 he was assigned to cover Manchester United’s European campaigns and he took the opportunity to call for the authorities to subsidise supporter travel abroad.

It was while fulfilling this role that Swift was killed on 6th February 1958.  He was flying with United back from their February 1958 match in Belgrade when their plane crashed while trying to take off at Munich.  In fact it was the sight of Swift – a man very popular on the continent and well known as England’s former ‘keeper - which made Professor Frank Kessel of the medical team aware that the victims were members of an English football team. 

Mancunians of both Blue and Red persuasion were devastated by the disaster.  Swift, who by this stage was also President of the Manchester City Supporters’ Club, was sorely missed.  The Sports Editor of the News of the World wrote a touching obituary.  He revealed how the newspaper had received calls, letters, and telegrams from thousands of people around the world expressing their sorrow.  These calls came from ordinary supporters and from significant international figures, even Senor Bernabeau, the President of Real Madrid, called.  Swift’s humour, courage, and general humility had touched everyone in the game.

Swift possessed the common touch, always known for his great rapport with the public.  He was recognised more as a showman than a daring style of goalkeeper, nevertheless he was a tremendously gifted goalkeeper who found League and Cup success before the age of 24, and appeared in 375 peacetime first team fixtures for Manchester City and a total of 33 full and wartime internationals for England.  Both his retirement and his death were premature.

In 1977 a street close to Manchester City’s Maine Road ground was named in his honour.


F. V. Swift, Football From The Goalmouth (1948), Frank Swift articles, News Of The World (1955-58), · F. Taylor OBE, The Day A Team Died (1983), G. James, Manchester: The Greatest City  (1997), · G. James, Manchester City The Complete Record (2006), G. James, Interview with Sir Tom Finney (1992), Manchester City FC Archive.
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