Peter Swales: Obituary

Derek Hodgson
Monday 06 May 1996 23:02

The story of Peter Swales, who died three days before Manchester City lost their place in the Premiership, and of his former partner Noel White, is worthy of Thomas Hardy. The two men formed a small business (radio and hi fi) at exactly the right time - in the early Sixties - when technological advance and rising affluence met, for a huge market to be crested. Their prosperity gave the partners the time and money to indulge in a hobby, in their case a local football club, Altrincham.

Their knowledge, enthusiasm, hard work and choice of managers, turned Altrincham from nobodies into one of the leading clubs outside the Football League.

In nearby Manchester the two big clubs, United and City, were not far off parity. Would United ever recover from the loss of Matt Busby's shrewdness and wisdom? Could City, the major club pre-war, overtake them again? The essential difference lay in the boardrooms: United managed to keep any friction to themselves; City, the more friendly and open club, kept their heart on their sleeve.

At Maine Road, a majority shareholding became available in 1973. City's directors wanted someone with money and preferably with a knowledge and love of football. One director rang me: "Did I think White and Swales might be interested ?"

I telephoned Swales and put the question to him. There was a pause and he replied "Yes, I think I would". I passed on the City director's number only vaguely aware that history might be being made.

In recent years it has become fashionable to denigrate Swales. While Noel White went into the hotel busines and from there to the Liverpool Board and chairmanship, Swales applied fierce energy to two ambitions: first to put City ahead of United and second to win a personal position of power within the game.

He achieved the second but the first proved beyond him, and in his impatience to succeed he appointed and sacked 11 managers, many of them good choices. While he was a generous supporter of the managers in their transfer dealings he could interfere. Malcolm Allison, City's most prodigious spender, relatively, on transfers, always maintained that one of Swales's most extraordinary deals, the signing of an almost unknown Wolves midfielder Tony Daley for the then phenomenal sum of pounds 1 million, was done behind his back.

Allison had agreed a much lesser fee with the Wolves' manager and had turned his attention elsewhere while Wolves waited for boardroom ratification. Swales, according to Allison, intervened on a chairman to chairman basis and secured the transfer instantly but at a much higher price.

Thus it would be fair to say that no manager felt entirely secure with Swales. The situation might never have become threatening, however, but for the arrival of Alex Ferguson at Old Trafford. City, who for a decade had had the pick of local promise, found a reconstructed United with them on every school and youth club touchline. Ferguson also used United's greater financial resources to better effect in the transfer market as he rebuilt Busby's empire. The pressure for such success at Maine Road grew heavier almost daily.

White had risen with Liverpool to unparalleled success and Swales's consolation was a climb through the ranks of the FA until he became chairman of the International Committee, the body that controls the England management. The choice of Graham Taylor to succeed Bobby Robson was greeted, at the time, with almost universal approval, but the honeymoon did not last.

When Swales found a manager who might have taken City back to the summit, Howard Kendall, he soon lost him to Everton. He did find another, Peter Reid, who showed promise, but the progress wasn't fast enough and Reid had to go, a decision that Swales admitted afterwards was a mistake.

And when United started to win again on a regular bias, the support at Maine Road became increasingly challenging, confrontational and bitter.

Once Francis Lee, a City hero of the 1970s and millionaire businessman, had expres-sed an interest in taking over City, Swales's days were numbered. His boardroom position was still sound, but the violence of the attacks by fans, at Maine Road, and against his family, eventually persuaded him to stand down although he retain-ed his position with the FA.

City offered him the privileges and perks of a life presidency but he never returned to Maine Road.

City's relegation, last Monday, would have twisted his heart. Peter Swales died unswerving in his belief that Manchester City could be a bigger club than United.

Peter Swales, football administrator: born Manchester 25 December 1932; married (three daughters); died Manchester 2 May 1996.

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