Frank Swift

Frank Swift

Frank Swift was born in Blackpool on 26th December 1913. A talented goalkeeper he played for Fleetwood City before joining Manchester City in 1932. He made his debut for the club against Derby County on 26th December 1933. City won 2-0 and Swift kept his place in the team.

Swift had a huge finger span of nearly 12 inches which meant he could easily grasp a ball in one hand. He also introduced the long throw out to start an attack rather than the more conventional kick into the opponents half.

In the 1933-34 season Manchester City finished 5th in the First Division of the Football League. The club also enjoyed a good FA Cup run beating Blackburn Rovers (3-1), Hull City (4-1), Sheffield Wednesday (2-0), Stoke City (1-0), Aston Villa (6-1) to reach the final against Portsmouth. On the way to Wembley the goals had been scored by Fred Tilson (7), Alec Herd (4) and Eric Brook (3). The defence, that included players such as Frank Swift, Jackie Bray, Sam Cowan and Matt Busby also performed well.

Manchester City played Portsmouth in the final at Wembley. Fred Tilson had such a terrible injury record that when Sam Cowan introduced him to George VI before the game, he said: "This is Tilson, your Majesty. He's playing today with two broken legs." It was a good job that Tilson did play as he scored both of the goals in the 2-1 victory to increase his total to nine in eight cup games that season. Swift, was so overcome by the achievement that he fainted at the final whistle.

In 1936 Wilf Wild purchased Peter Doherty from Blackpool for a club record fee of £10,000. By the end of 1936 Manchester City had obtained 23 points out of a possible 44. As Gary James points out in Manchester City: The Complete Record: "It was still not Championship form, but enough to give them a foundation to build on.

The New Year saw City climb up the table and, by the time of their meeting with the usual dominant Arsenal in April 1937, the two sides occupied the top two positions." A crowd of 74,918 watched Peter Doherty and Ernie Toseland score the goals that gave City a 2-0 victory.

Over the next three weeks Manchester City went on to beat Sunderland (3-1), Preston North End (5-2) and Sheffield Wednesday (4-1). City could only draw their last game 2-2 but by this time had been crowned champions. City scored 107 goals in the 1936-37 season, the main contributors being Peter Doherty (30), Eric Brook (20), Alec Herd (17), Fred Tilson (15) and Ernie Toseland (7). The defence, that included Frank Swift, Jackie Bray, Billy Dale and Sam Barkas, also did well that season, only letting in 61 goals in 42 games. Swift played in all 42 games that season.

The 1936-37 Championship team. Back row (left to right) Keller McCullough, Billy Dale, Frank Swift, Bobby Marshall, Jackie Bray. Middle: Ernie Toseland, Alec Herd, Fred Tilson, Wilf Wild, Sam Barkas, Peter Doherty, Eric Brook. Front: Jimmy Heale, Joe Rodgers, Gordon Clark and Peter Percival.
The 1936-37 Championship team. Back row (left to right) Keller McCullough, Billy Dale, Frank Swift, Bobby Marshall, Jackie Bray. Middle: Ernie Toseland, Alec Herd, Fred Tilson, Wilf Wild, Sam Barkas, Peter Doherty, Eric Brook. Front: Jimmy Heale, Joe Rodgers, Gordon Clark and Peter Percival.

It was the first time that Manchester City had won the First Division league title. The club celebrated by going on a tour of Nazi Germany. Over 70,000 turned up to the Berlin Olympic Stadium to watch City play a team made up of Germany's best players. Adolf Hitler wanted to make use of this game as propaganda for his Nazi government and the City players were asked to to give the raised arm Nazi salute during the playing of the German national anthem. Peter Doherty later recalled: "We were expected to give the Nazi salute at the line-up before the match started; but we decided merely to stand to attention. When the German national anthem was played, only 11 arms went up instead of the expected 22!" City lost the game 3-2 after a uncharacteristic mistake by Frank Swift.

In the 1937-38 season Manchester City once again scored more goals than any other club in the First Division. Once again Peter Doherty (23), Eric Brook (16) and Alec Herd (12) were the leading scorers. However the defence, performed badly letting in 77 goals. The club finished in 21st position and was relegated to the Second Division.

Swift's football career was interrupted by the Second World War. During the conflict he became a special constable. By the time the Football League started again after the war he was 33 years old and past his best. However, he retained his place in the team and was a member of the side that won the Second Division championship under manager Sam Cowan in the 1946-47 season.

Swift won his first international cap for England against Northern Ireland on 28th September 1946. England won the game 7-2 and held his place for the next three years. On 16th May 1948, Swift was chosen to captain England against Italy. Swift therefore became the first goalkeeper since 1873 to captain the national team.

After winning 14 caps Swift decided to retire from professional football in order to take up a career in journalism by joining the staff of the News of the World.

Frank Swift died on 6th February 1958 in the Munich Air Disaster after reporting on Manchester United's European Cup match against Red Star Belgrade.

Primary Sources

(1) Stan Mortensen, Football is My Game (1949)

Number one goalkeeper during my time, almost number one player in some respects, is Frank Swift. He has over-topped them all, a giant in build and a giant in skill. But there is more to Frank than mere goal keeping - he exudes personality, or whatever it is that lifts a man above his fellows.

Fairly heavily built, Frank is as active as a cat. To see him dive across the goal-mouth, so that the whole of his body seems to float horizontally through the air, is to give the suggestion that gravity is being defied.

He has huge hands, " frying pans " we call them, and he has the curious knack of making himself look bigger than he really is. When he has gathered the ball among a crowd of players, defenders and attackers all mixed up, he seems to expand himself like a telescope being pulled out to its maximum length. His dark head seems to rise above them all, up come his arms like two huge windmill sails, the ball held aloft beyond reach of everybody else, and he carries it clear of all trouble before sending it up-field.

His method of play inspires confidence right through the side. Possibly only those who have played as professionals in front of big crowds know what this means. When the goalkeeper gives his pals the jitters a rot can spread rapidly right through a side.

It is Frank who has developed the art of what I would call progressive clearances-starting an attack from his own goal-mouth. Other keepers have had the same ideas - Harry Holdcroft of Preston North End was one-but " Big Swifty", as he is usually called, was the man who brought this phase of the game to a fine art.

With his huge kicks he could plant the ball a dozen yards over the half-way line time after time, but the Manchester City man was not satisfied with this. He began to study the possibilities of placing the ball to a man even though that man stood thirty, forty, or fifty yards away. He didn't turn down the big kick clearance as useless. It can be very useful-and dangerous to the opposition, especially when there is a following wind.

(2) Stanley Matthews, The Way It Was (2000)

Of all the goalkeepers of that era, Frank Swift was my favourite. A large man with an even larger character, Swifty and I became great friends in the immediate post-war years when he made the England goalkeeper's jersey his own. Frank was born in Blackpool, so after my move there we had much in common. He signed for Manchester City in 1932 and made his first-team debut a year later at the age of 19. So competent a keeper was he, Frank never missed a first-team match for City for the next five years.

As opposed to Vic Woodley, Frank was so spectacular he bordered on the acrobatic. He had hands like shovels, fingers like bananas and his gorilla-like reach and spring-heeled take-off meant he could reach many shots other goalkeepers would give up on. When he left his line he'd swoop on the ball rather than bend and gather it. So enormous were his hands, he'd stand holding the ball in one hand, fingers encompassing it as if it were a grapefruit. For all his enormous size he was Swift by name and swift by nature - in midflight diving to save, Frank cut a figure as graceful as the bird. He was very much a daredevil. His indifference at meeting a rampaging forward full-on spoke volumes for his courage.

The reason for Frank Swift's popularity not only with Manchester City fans but opposing players and supporters was his ability to mix goalkeeping excellence and laughter in equal and engaging proportions to enliven even the dullest of matches. His fondness for the spectacular at times proved his undoing but more often than not he got away with it. The louder the opposition fans roared, the longer he leapt and the further he came out from his goal to clear a through ball upfield. I think it can be said that in 1937 he carried Manchester City on his broad shoulders to the First Division Championship.

(3) Matt Busby, Soccer at the Top (1973)

Then there was a young fellow I knew from his very beginnings in the League. He played for Manchester City and his name was Frank Swift, or, to the fraternity, Big Swifty, one of the greatest and certainly the most cheerful characters I have come across in a game which, in the grim, unsmiling days of the Seventies, could do with a few like him. Swifty was a mere boy when he played with me in City's winning Cup Final against Portsmouth in 1934. The occasion proved too much for him and at the end of it he fainted. Trying to pull himself together in the dressing room afterwards he stammered: "Have we won?"

Many years later, talking to a friend of mine, Frank told of the time when he was very young, playing for City against Birmingham. Alec Herd took a free kick from thirty yards out and the ball was in the net before the great Harry Hibbs could move. At the end of the game, as they went off together, the boy Swift said to the master Hibbs :"What happened with Alec's free kick ?" - and the great man said:"If you can't see 'em, son, you can't stop 'em."

Big Swifty fainted only once in a dressing room. He developed into the cheeriest dressing-room man in the game of football, whether playing for Manchester City or England. In any company he was a brilliant raconteur. In the dressing room his infectious good humour brought a smile to even the most nervous beginner.

On the pitch he was the first showman goalkeeper. But first he was a magnificent goalkeeper, second a showman. He believed in entertaining the crowd. He played with a smile and with banter to match. Some opponent would send in a mighty shot. The big hands of Big Swifty would envelop it as if it had been a gentle lob. "Good shot, that, Joe," he would say to the man who had cracked it in. No matter who was captain there was only one boss in Swifty's goalmouth. It went without saying, though he said it often enough: "If I shout, get out of my way. If you don't I'll knock you out of the way." He was the first goalkeeper I saw who threw the ball out, accurately and over great distances, to a colleague, instead of merely punting it up the pitch and giving the other team an equal chance of getting it. He would pick it up one-handed and throw it like a cricket ball.

For a big man, Swifty was phenomenally agile. He narrowed the angle for an opponent to shoot in as if he had made a science of it. His showmanship was not exhibitionism. He wanted to demonstrate that football could include a bit of fun, a quality sadly missing from the game today. He was immensely popular everywhere he played, as popular with opposition and opposition supporters as with his own team and his own team's supporters. If any footballer could be termed lovable, Big Swifty was the man.

(4) Nick Varley, Golden Boy (1997)

Swift made his name in his teens when, in May 1934, just four months after his first-team debut, he played for Manchester City in the FA Cup final. At the end, the photographers behind his goal who had been counting the minutes for him cheered the lad - and then watched him collapse as he succumbed to the nerves that had been so bad before kick-off that he was only prevented from being sick with a shot of whisky offered by a medicinally minded team-mate. His colleagues brought him around and a minute later he followed them to the Royal Box to be congratulated by the King.

"How are you feeling now, my boy?" the King asked. "Fine sir," big Frank replied.

"That's good," came the response. "You played very well. Here's your medal and good luck."

Swift didn't need any luck. He was a dedicated professional, always working to improve his game and that of his colleagues. He could often be found trying to work out how a shot had beaten him. He was also the first keeper to use his clearances to launch attacks rather than just to get rid of the ball. His kicks and revolutionary throws regularly paved the way to a Manchester City or England score.

(5) Nat Lofthouse, Goals Galore (1954)

The best goalkeeper I have ever faced is Frank Swift. The jovial giant of Manchester City and England literally filled the goal when he took possession. When Frank caught the ball in one hand as nonchalantly as if it were an orange, the crowd was always amused. But he gave many a player - including Nat Lofthouse - that sinking feeling. Frank sometimes slipped up in the course of the act and gave away an occasional goal, but everyone used to forgive him.

I've never seen any other 'keeper save so many "certainties" from finishing in the back of the net.

What made Frank Swift the hardest of all goalkeepers to beat? I think the secret of his success was a combination of extraordinary height and reach, great courage and a positional sense which could be appreciated best by forwards who played against him. "Big Swiftie", as he will always be affectionately known by footballers, was as lithe as a deer, and despite his size could get down to a low ball with all the quickness of a big cat. If anyone ever tells you that Frank Swift was a sucker for the fast low shot, please refer them to me. I've never seen the great 'keeper beaten easily by such a shot.