Frank Swift

Football's Pioneers: Frank Swift

Continuing an ongoing series, Professor Dilwyn Porter from De Montfort University’s International Centre for Sports History and Culture tells the story of Frank Swift, judged by many as the prototype of the modern goalkeeper.
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Among those who died when the plane carrying the Manchester United team crashed in Munich in 1958 was Frank Swift, who had been covering their match in Belgrade for the News of the World.  

‘Big Swifty’, though always on good terms with United, was a Manchester City legend, keeping goal for them in 376 Football League and FA Cup matches between 1933 and 1949. This total would have been far higher if his career had not been interrupted by the Second World War.

Born and brought up in Blackpool, Swift worked at the local gasworks after leaving school, while playing for non-league Fleetwood, signing for Manchester City in 1932.

There was something special about the Swift family genes because his big brother Fred was also a very good goalkeeper, playing for Blackpool, Oldham Athletic and Bolton Wanderers before the war. Frank liked to recall the odd occasions when they had kept goal for opposing teams, a rarity in top-class football.

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Frank Swift
Frank Swift

Swift established himself at Manchester City and then with England.

Swift broke into Manchester City’s first team in 1933/34, just before they began the run that took them to the FA Cup Final, then the highlight of the English season. On the way he played in front of what is still City’s record home crowd when 84,568 fans crammed into Maine Road to watch the sixth-round tie with Stoke.

At Wembley, he was devastated when Portsmouth took the lead with a shot that he possibly would have saved if he had decided to wear gloves. Sitting miserably in the dressing-room at half-time, Swift was told not to worry. ‘I’ll plonk two in next half’, said City striker Fred Tilson, and so he did.

But it was a tight finish and the last few minutes were agonisingly tense. It was all too much for young Swift who fainted at the final whistle, stealing all the headlines. King George V sent a telegram inquiring about his health.

Swift was a first-team regular when Manchester City won the league championship in 1936/37 and when they managed to get themselves relegated the following season. He went on to represent England 13 times in wartime internationals and 19 times when normal service was resumed after 1945.

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Frank Swift
Frank Swift

The 'keeper earned 19 caps for his national side after making his debut in 1946.

He was in his prime during the war years, claiming that the best team he ever played for was the England XI that beat Scotland 8-0 at Maine Road in 1943. At Turin in 1948, he became the first goalkeeper to captain the national team when England beat Italy 4-0.

A genial giant of a man, Swift was well known for his ‘frying-pan hands’ and his spectacular, acrobatic style. But he was much more than a safe pair of (very big) hands.

He was a prototype of the modern goalkeeper, a thoughtful footballer who liked to turn defence quickly into attack, preferring to throw the ball to the feet of an unmarked forward rather than simply clearing his lines. Stanley Matthews, who played with him for England, really appreciated this service.

Swift was only 44 when he died and was mourned by fans across the city of Manchester.

For more information about sports history at DMU, please click HERE.

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