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Football and the First World War
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Frank Swift was just over six feet tall and weighed thirteen stone in his prime, and for many was England's greatest goalkeeper.
Swift, Frank Victor was born on 26 December 1913 in Blackpool the second son of five children. As a child he was obsessed with football, which he played at every opportunity with his brothers, one of whom, Fred, became first-team goalkeeper for a variety of clubs, including Blackpool, Oldham Athletic, and Bolton Wanderers. His huge finger span of nearly 12 inches meant he could easily grasp a ball in one hand.
On leaving school Swift worked at the Blackpool gasworks as a coke-keeper and each Saturday kept goal for his employers' football team. He was signed by local club Fleetwood in 1931, but was so overcome with nerves when picked for the reserve side for the opening west Lancashire league game of the 1931–2 season but, overcome with nerves, he pulled out of the match shortly before kick off. Despite this setback Swift was established as the regular reserve goalkeeper and at the start of the next season it was widely acknowledged that he was on the verge of replacing Fleetwood's first-team goalkeeper. By now he was also drawing attention from clubs in the football league.
On 8 October 1932 Swift was given a trial by the first division club Manchester City and on 16 November he registered as a Manchester player. Swift's progression at City was rapid. He appeared for the reserves in February 1933 and made his first-team début against Derby County on 25 December—a game City lost 4–1. However, since the previous match had been an 8–0 defeat, and with injuries limiting competition, Swift retained his place for the rest of the season. Thereafter he played continuously for City until 17 September 1938, when he missed his only game before the war (a 6–1 defeat by Millwall). In his 231 pre-war league appearances he kept 51 clean sheets.
In May 1934 Swift gained wider prominence for his part in Manchester City's victory over Portsmouth in the FA cup final. As the referee, Stanley Rous, blew the final whistle Swift fainted. His collapse gave the press a perfect story for the following day's sports headlines and Swift—then the youngest goalkeeper to appear in an FA cup final—became a household name. King George V—who was present at the 1934 final and witnessed Swift's collapse—later sent a telegram to inquire about his health.
During the 1936–7 season Swift was a key figure in securing Manchester City's first league championship, and two years later he was on the verge of an England call-up when the outbreak of war led to the cancellation of all football league fixtures. However, international matches did continue (though wartime games were not recognized as full internationals by the Football Association) and Swift made his England début against Wales at Wrexham on 18 November 1939. Though opportunities were limited during the following years—only two internationals were played in 1940, for example—Swift played in fourteen wartime and victory internationals. After the war he made nineteen full international appearances, in which he kept nine clean sheets, and played two games as captain, making him the first goalkeeper to lead the England team in the twentieth century. His first match as captain was against Italy in Turin (May 1948) when he guided England to a 4–0 victory. At the final whistle, Swift was carried shoulder high by his team mates after a tremendous performance; in later years Tom Finney and Tommy Lawton, among others, remembered this as Swift's greatest game.
Swift surprised many when he chose to retire while at the top of his game, and on 27 April 1947 he appeared in what was intended to be his final home game—a surprise 3–0 defeat by Arsenal. Supporters invaded the pitch as Swift was chaired off the field by his team mates. There were similar scenes eleven days later at his final match in Huddersfield after which Swift was fêted with a celebratory procession over the moors to Manchester. This, however, was not his final game for City. When the club's new goalkeeper contracted tuberculosis Swift was persuaded to play again though only until a replacement was found. He made four more appearances, with his last match being at home to Everton in September 1949. Matt Busby later tried unsuccessfully to tempt him to play for Manchester United, while City stubbornly retained his registration until 1951.
In retirement Swift became a representative for the confectionery firm Smallman's, and developed a career as a sporting columnist for the News of the World. By 1957 he was assigned to cover Manchester United's European campaigns. It was while reporting on United's campaign that Swift was killed at Munich on 6 February 1958. He was returning home with the Manchester team following a match in Belgrade when their plane crashed on take-off at the city's Riem airport.
He was widely regarded as one of the country's finest goalkeepers of the twentieth century, who introduced such new goalkeeping techniques as throwing the ball overarm, and at considerable distance, to begin an attacking move. In total Swift made 375 peacetime appearances for Manchester City's first team, as well as thirty-three full and wartime internationals for England. In 1977 a street near to Manchester City's Maine Road ground was named in his honour.