Remembering Frank Swift: Manchester City’s giant gentleman

Words By Stephen Tudor Illustration by Philippe Fenner
February 6, 2018

History sometimes repeats itself in the most wonderful of ways. This season Manchester City’s Brazilian goalkeeper Ederson has rightfully been much lauded for his distribution – and not simply for the consistent excellence of it but the methods employed that veer so noticeably from the norm. His 5-a-side passing from the back has become a talking point. It brought initial scoffs of disbelief followed by admiration. So successful has it been that it’s easy to imagine other keepers emulating his brave new style in years to come.

Way back in the nineteen thirties another Manchester City stopper also challenged conventional thinking. In an era when goalies routinely bounced the ball twice before punting it downfield into the great unknown Frank Swift began to throw the ball out to a team-mate instead of kicking it long. It became a talking point. It brought initial scoffs of disbelief followed by admiration. So successful was the strategy that it directly inspired Tottenham’s Ted Ditchburn to do likewise in the fifties and Manchester United’s Alex Stepney too a decade later.

Swift’s trailblazing was a consequence of common sense in that it was entirely logical to ensure that possession was retained rather than gamble on that occurring and it was this willingness to widen the parameters of the status quo that led to the former coke-keeper for Blackpool Gas Works drawing diagrams after games of goals that he had conceded. What could he have done differently? Where could he improve?

It is fair to state that Pep Guardiola would have absolutely loved Frank Swift.
As we all would have.

‘Swifty’ was a gentleman, but then again that was hardly a rarity in an age when manners and decency was aspired towards. But he also had a clownish humour that was coupled with a fierce intelligence, an aptitude that he wore lightly. He was a giant on the pitch. He was a thoroughly lovely man off it.

Ten thousand words would not do this man justice but in the thousand or so to come it would be remiss not to highlight the last knockings of two games seventy-two years apart. In the 1934 FA Cup Final City were 2-1 up with minutes to play and a 21 year old Swift began to repeatedly seek out the timekeeping of a photographer stationed behind the goal.

“Not long to go Frank”

“What about now?”

“Just a couple of minutes left Frank”

This was not yet the Swift who would go on to make 376 appearances for Manchester City despite a lengthy hiatus for war and captain arguably the most audaciously gifted England eleven of them all. This was not yet the keeper whose presence in sticks was so towering that legendary forward Raich Carter compared trying to score past him to placing a football into a matchbox. This was not yet the man who went by the nickname of ‘Frying Pan Hands’ due to his colossal fingerspan of 29.8cm. (Incidentally photographs bear this out with pictures of Swift holding a football bringing to mind two vast continents swamping a small globe).

“Fancy a strapping lad like me fainting in front of all those people and the king,” he later said. On the following Monday King George V sent a telegram enquiring about his well-being.

This was a 21 year old kid and he was nervous as hell, beating himself up for his decision to follow the Portsmouth keeper’s lead in not wearing gloves that afternoon due to the rain. It was that decision that Swift blamed for his concession of Pompey’s opener and saying this out loud at half-time prompted City forward Fred Tilson to reassure him that he would ‘plonk two in next half’. This was the FA Cup where folklore marries up with truth and things like this actually happened and Tilson was as good as his word but now seconds ticked like minutes and there was over 93,000 people watching on and it was all getting too much for Swift. On the final whistle, when victory was secured, he fainted, right there on his goal-line, and it took smelling salts to revive him so he could collect his medal.

“Fancy a strapping lad like me fainting in front of all those people and the king,” he later said. On the following Monday King George V sent a telegram enquiring about his well-being.

On February 10th 2008 serendipity brought both Manchester clubs together on the week of the fiftieth anniversary of the Munich air disaster. Prior to the game the fixture quirk was considered a potential curse by some as they mistook the stereotype of football supporters with the reality of them and feared a disruption to the minute’s silence by the away Blue contingent. It’s a notion that seems as ridiculous now and it was back then. City were impeccable that day. Manchester was impeccable that day. It was a city united in respectful remembrance of a tragedy that deprived football and the world beyond it of 23 souls eight of whom were members of Manchester United’s extraordinary ‘Busby Babes’ side.

With just minutes left on the clock in the 2008 derby Manchester United fans could have been forgiven for ignoring the chant that rose up from their rivals. After all, their team was 2-0 down, partly from being visibly affected by the emotion of the day and the fans too could be excused for being drained of sentiment at this late stage. Yet they did not ignore it.

“One Frank Swift, there’s only one Frank Swift,” the City fans sang and all four corners of the ground responded in warm applause.

There are few players, few men, who have straddled the Manchester divide like Frank Swift. On retirement he became President of the Manchester City Supporters Club while carving out a new career as a sports journalist reporting on many United games for the News of the World home and abroad. In 1957 he was assigned to cover the Reds’ European Cup campaign. The following year he joined the team, coaching staff, and ten other journalists on their fateful quarter final trip to Belgrade. Like twenty-two others he never came home.

After stopping to refuel in Germany on their way back from a 3-3 draw against Red Star there were two aborted attempts to take off from the snowy Munich-Riem Airport. Fearful of falling behind schedule Captain Thain decided on a third attempt and this time the plane hit slush and careered through a fence, its left wing hitting a nearby house.

Swift survived the impact and indeed it was his familiar face that first alerted the German medics that it was an English football team on board. This after all was the man who had captained England to their famous win in Italy in 1948, pulling off a goalkeeping masterclass into the bargain.

He died on route to the local hospital, his seat belt having cut into his aorta. He was 44 years of age.

As the travelling party left the terminal for their third attempt to return home Swift grabbed Tommy Taylor’s jacket and tried it on for size. On his enormous frame it was a comedic ill-fit and aware of this he set off for the runway to everyone’s amusement.

We can only imagine what Sir Matt Busby thought as he watched his former team-mate clown about but it’s tempting to believe that there was an appreciation. Perhaps too there was recognition, of a man who was once a scared lad, a bag of nerves, playing alongside Busby in a cup final; seeking the reassurance of his forward at half-time and a photographer towards the end now passing it forward and easing the nerves of boys half his age. This giant of a man. This gentleman for all time.

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