Brian Viner: Pioneer Swift's legend is undimmed though his legacy has been mislaid

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The Independent Online

Had he lived into old age, big Frank Swift, a legendary goalkeeper for Manchester City and England, would have been 90 on the eve of Christmas just gone. Instead, he died on 6 February 1958, in the Munich air disaster. He was football correspondent for The News of the World and his main aorta artery was severed in the crash, apparently by his seat belt. He died as he was being carried into Munich's Rechts der Isar hospital. He was 43 years and a few weeks old; the age, almost to the day, that I am now.

Had he lived into old age, big Frank Swift, a legendary goalkeeper for Manchester City and England, would have been 90 on the eve of Christmas just gone. Instead, he died on 6 February 1958, in the Munich air disaster. He was football correspondent for The News of the World and his main aorta artery was severed in the crash, apparently by his seat belt. He died as he was being carried into Munich's Rechts der Isar hospital. He was 43 years and a few weeks old; the age, almost to the day, that I am now.

Swift emerged from the womb, probably crying "my ball!", on Christmas Eve 1914. He later became the first goalkeeper to captain England, albeit only twice. Once was in 1948 against Italy, the World Cup holders from before the war, in Turin. The England team flew there from RAF Northolt, but had to change planes in Switzerland, because the pilot wasn't sure they'd make it in increasingly dodgy weather. Afterwards, Swift described the journey over the Alps, in a twin-engined Dakota, as "a bit of a snorter". He was relieved to get off the plane alive. Less than 10 years later, he didn't. Or only barely.

All of which is a bit gloomy for any time of year, so let me focus on Swift's life, rather than the manner of his tragic and untimely death. He was signed by City in 1932 and offered 10 shillings a week. To get by financially, he needed to retain his job as coke-keeper at Blackpool gasworks. There are one or two modern goalkeepers who keep coke, too. But old Swifty's stuff wasn't for sniffing. When City realised quite how good he was, his wages went up to £1 a week and he was able to give up his job at the gasworks.

The festive season looms large in the story of Frank Swift; he made his first-team debut for City on Christmas Day 1933. And in May 1934, not yet 20, he was selected to play in the FA Cup final against Portsmouth.

According to The Goalkeeper's History of Britain by Peter Chapman - a book so good I've read it three times - Swift was beside himself with nerves before the Cup final, almost vomiting at the sight of a senior colleague so jittery that he couldn't tie his laces. The youngster was duly hauled off to the washroom by the trainer, slapped around the face and given a glug of whisky. Then, just after the match started, the City right-half passed back to him, giving him a reassuring feel of the ball. Years later, the same man nearly accompanied him to the Rechts der Isar morgue: Matt Busby.

City, having lost 3-0 to Everton in the final the year before, beat Portsmouth 2-1 that day. When the final whistle blew, Swift bent to pick up his cap from the back of the net, and fainted. Like Gazza's tears, it was Swift's faint that propelled him from popular young footballer to national treasure. He was revived by the same trainer, this time with water and a sponge father than whisky and a slap, and was helped up the 39 steps to receive his medal from George V. Even the king was touched by what he had seen. He sent a message the following week, enquiring after the young man's health.

His place in the annals secured, Swift then developed into the best goalie around. He it was who pioneered the throw as the most effective method of distribution, and who dominated his penalty area like no other. He was a showman, too, adding a flourish to his dives and chatting with people in the crowd when the ball was at the other end of the pitch. But it was his agility and fearlessness which made him supreme, and which helped City to win the league title in 1937.

The crowning achievement of his career, however, was that 1948 match in Turin. Not only was he captain, he also played a blinder. Against a very good Italian team, England won 4-0. It is true that an attack comprising Stan Mortensen, Tommy Lawton, Stan Matthews and Tom Finney was moderately useful, but many considered Swift to have been man of the match. Within a few months, however, a decision was taken in a smoke-filled room to drop him as England goalkeeper. Aghast, he promptly retired not only from international football, but from football altogether, having cemented the reputation of English goalkeepers as the best in the world.

That reputation has all but disappeared now. English goalkeepers - including Swift's successor in the Manchester City goal, David James - are not even in the best in England.

So unless you're having an abstemious January, raise a glass tonight to the memory of Frank Swift, who should just have celebrated his 90th birthday.

b.viner@independent.co.uk

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