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Mark Metcalf Hails 'England's Greatest Keeper' - Frank Swift

The Premier League takes a break this weekend, and since Sunderland are generally annoying us at the moment, we thought we'd ask Mark Metcalf to tell us all about someone with no affiliation with the club at all, but who was one of England's lesser-heralded greats - Frank Swift.

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With England facing World Cup qualifiers this weekend we are fortunate to be able to discover a little bit more about the man who is arguably England's greatest keeper.


Frank Swift represented his country on 33 occasions between 1941 and 1949. In 1948 he became the first ‘keeper to captain his country in the professional era. Swift was adored by fans for his sportsmanship, broad smile and constant banter with spectators behind his goal.

As Manchester City's greatest keeper, Frank Swift was a First and Second Division, FA Cup and Charity Shield winner with his only League club. Swift was to die tragically at Munich as a reporter for the News of the World. Frank Swift was born in Blackpool on 25 December 1913.

Sir Matt Busby on Frank Swift: ‘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? ‘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 and 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.

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.'

The keeper made his debut for his country in a wartime international against Wales on Saturday 18 November 1939. Blackpool's Dai Astley, later to manage Inter Milan, put two past him but England narrowly triumphed 3-2 with an own goal from Tommy Jones, and efforts from Aston Villa's John Martin and Liverpool's John Balmer.


WALES: Cyril Sidlow, Bill Hughes, Arthur Smith, Bill Burgess, Tommy Jones, Doug Witcomb, Idris Hopkins, Bill Redfern, Dai Astley, Bryn Jones, Reg Cumner

ENGLAND: Frank Swift [Manchester City], Bert Sproston [Manchester City], Walter Crook [Blackburn Rovers], Ken Willingham [Huddersfield Town] Stan Cullis [c] [Wolverhampton Wanderers], Joe Mercer [Everton], Stanley Matthews [Stoke City], John Martin [Aston Villa], Tommy Lawton [Everton], John Balmer [Liverpool], Eric Brook [Manchester City]

Referee: McCarthy (Wales)

Swift had been joined in the side by teammate Bert Sproston in defence and Eric Brook up front. Unlike Swift, both had played for England at official level with eleven and eighteen appearances respectively. In May 1938 Sproston was a member of the England team that played against Germany in Berlin. It was a game the Nazi regime were desperate to win, and before which a reluctant England team, at the behest of the British ambassador, Sir Neville Henderson, gave the Nazi outstretched arm salute.

On the pitch things proved more palatable with England playing their opponents off it to win 6-3. Sheffield Wednesday's Jackie Robinson got two before a crowd of 110,000. After the game Sproston, reported Stanley Matthews, had told him: ‘I know nowt 'bout politics and t'like. All I knows is football. But t'way I see it, yon ‘itler fella is an evil little twat'. Sproston, of course, was right.

There were just 17,000 at the Racecourse Ground for a match billed as ‘the "Red Cross' international, and the entrance fees they paid helped send a cheque for £1,060 to the charity and the Order of St John, a body which was also empowered to raise voluntary aid detachments under the War Office Voluntary Aid Scheme. The organisations had worked well together during the First World War and when hostilities resumed they combined to form the Joint War Organisation.

The game was a thrilling one for the Welsh crowd, who saw their side take a two-goal lead in the second half only for England captain Stan Cullis to rally his troops and produce a stirring comeback. The first half was a very even affair, with Willingham, Matthews and Martin down the English right finding it difficult to break down the Welsh defence in which left-back Arthur Smith played heroically.
Good first-half performance

In attack the Welsh forwards had enough purpose to constantly worry Swift in the England goal, and when Derby County's Bill Redfern broke clean through the City keeper showed his quality by the way which he parried the ball. Bryn Jones then gave Swift cause for concern with a shot that flashed narrowly wide before Astley struck the angle of the bar. The keeper then had to be smart to clear in a goalmouth melee before for the second time Wales, on this occasion by Reg Cumner, hit the woodwork.

Wales took the lead on 47 minutes when Swift in collecting a high ball from Cumner was heavily challenged by Redfern. Today it would be a free kick, a melee of protesting defenders and a yellow card. In 1939, when the Manchester City keeper was forced to drop the ball, it was ‘play on' and when it went out to Astley he drove it back to find the net. Two minutes later the scorer swerved away from Cullis to beat Swift for a second time.

England though were not beaten, and as if by a switch of a light the away forwards suddenly clicked. Initially Everton's inspirational centre-half TG Jones seemed to be unbeatable but when his club colleague Tommy Lawton drilled a low shot he was unable to get out of the way and the ricocheting ball beat Cyril Sidlow to make it 2-1. Then out on the England left, Brook began to weave his magic and from one of his centres, Martin equalised. Then a perfect pass from the winger opened up the Welsh defence for Balmer to strike what proved to be the winner. All five goals had come in a ten-minute spell, and at the end the crowd - many in khaki or Air Force blue - cheered the teams to the dressing room.

Writing in the North Wales regional newspaper the Leader X.Y.Z felt England had deserved to win and that ‘Swift, Sproston, Crook, Cullis, Willingham and Mercer made up three fine lines with efficiency written all over them.'

England 8 Scotland 0

On 16 October 1943 Swift was back in goal for England at his old stamping ground, Maine Road. With the Germans in full retreat from the Red Army around Kiev, Scotland were also pushed back on the football field and were slaughtered - not literally, of course - 8-0. England even missed a penalty to make it 9-0. Tommy Lawton had finished top scorer in Division One in 1937-38 and 1938-39, where he was equal with Mickey Fenton of Middlesbrough, and he was on fire as he scored four times with inside left Jimmy Hagan, of Sheffield United scoring twice.

England: Swift, Scott [Arsenal], Hardwick [Middlesbrough]; Britton [Everton], Cullis [Wolves] captain, Mercer [Everton], Matthews [Stoke], Carter [Sunderland], Lawton [Everton], Hagan [Sheffield United}, D Compton [Arsenal]

Frank Swift, like Tommy Lawton, rated the England XI that day as the finest team he ever played in.

He said: ‘Taking into consideration that it was a war-time game, with both sets of players affected by war-time conditions, and lack of training facilities, long hours of travel to get to the match - it was a magnificent, if one-sided match. And I've yet to see such perfection of movement, unselfishness, or team spirit as England showed that afternoon. Or the courage to equal that of the Scots, beaten though they were, but never humbled.

‘It was sheer delight to be the goalkeeper on this great side. For long periods I was able to watch the machine swing into action, to note the brilliant half-back play of the three musketeers, Britton, Cullis, Mercer, the terrific shooting of Lawton, the methodical destruction of the Scottish defensive plan by Carter and Hagan, and the sheer wizardry of Stanley Matthews.

Well though everybody played, I think it will go into history as Stanley's match. At times he seemed to bamboozle the whole of the Scottish rearguard on his own. When he got the eighth goal, entirely on his own, the whole crowd rose as one man and cheered for minutes on end and even some of the Scots clapped their hands.'
Keeper sets up England's seventh with a great throw

As might be expected the England keeper hardly touched the ball, but when in the second half, Scotland's left half, Campbell struck a fearsome long-range drive into the left-hand corner of the home goal Swift leapt like a salmon and tipped the ball over the bar, before getting up, performing a theatrical bow and receiving rapturous applause from the crowd. Poor Morton was left scratching his head in amazement. Lawton's fourth and England's seventh was also the result of a marvelous long throw from the keeper, the England centre scoring without anyone else touching the ball.

Such had been England's brilliance that Frank Butler in the Daily Express wrote - ‘I doubt if an English crowd will enjoy a football exhibition as much again'.

Captaining His Country

Full international football returned for England in September 1946 with matches in Belfast and Dublin. Swift was delighted to be selected for his first peace-time international. Preston's Tom Finney replaced the injured Stanley Matthews in the thirteen-man squad.

Finney, who went on to make 76 full appearances for his country, was a big fan of Frank Swift. In Paul Agnew's authorised biography on the Preston legend the forward is quoted as saying, ‘England has been blessed with some outstanding goalkeepers throughout my life span. You only need to think of Bert Williams, Ted Ditchburn, Frank Swift, Gordon Banks, Peter Shilton and David Seaman. With good justification you could pick any of these but I must go for Frank Swift as the best.

Frank was a giant of a man, capable of picking the ball off the ground with one hand and then, quite effortlessly, tossing it half the length of the field and beyond. At well over six feet tall, he had a huge frame but was surprisingly agile, particularly quick at getting down to low shots, which is so often a weakness in big keepers. He was a master at reducing angles and anything in the six-yard box was his. When the ball came into that danger area it was bad news for anyone, opponent or colleague, who had the misfortune to be standing in his path."

Windsor Park, Linfield's ground, was bursting at the seams for the game between the whole of Ireland and England on Saturday 28 September. So much so, that the referee Mr Willie Webb, a Scots train-driver during the week, had to delay the kick-off by ten minutes while the crowd was pushed back over the touchline.

The tone of the game was set with a no holds barred challenge between the Irish centre forward Eddie McMorran, a Belfast blacksmith who later moved from Belfast Celtic to play at Manchester City, and Swift. This had the crowd roaring its approval, but it was silenced when England went up the field and Carter - whose combination at inside forward with fellow north easterner Wilf Mannion was one of the highlights of the game - put the away side in the lead.

England dominated the game thereafter and at the final whistle came off 7-2 winners, with all five forwards having scored. In his first official international Mannion got three. May 16 1948 England captain and hero: Italy 0 England 4

England had a new captain in Frank Swift for this and the game against Italy proved to be his finest for his country.
The reigning World Champions chose to play the match in the cauldron of Turin's Stadio Comunale in May 1948. In front of 58,000 baying home supporters, and with the temperature touching 90 degrees, Swift had a brilliant match and his genius and courage between the posts turned the Italian FA's 50th anniversary celebrations into a wake. In fact, Italy's fans were calling for the head of manager Vittorio Pozzo long before the final whistle!

It was tough on Pozzo for there was no way he could foresee Frank's wonder show... or indeed, the blinding destruction delivered by the Blackpool centre-forward Stan Mortensen.

Before the game, business was brisk for the ticket touts lingering outside the stadium. There was pulsating tension in the air and one could sense all round that the stakes were high!

The Italians were reputedly on bonuses of £1,000 each to win, whereas the England players, whatever the outcome, would pick up £20.

Recalled Tom Finney ‘Italy opened up breathing fire and it looked as if we could be in for a beating. But we stuck in there and after four minutes they were in disarray, victims of a sucker punch. Stan Matthews fed his Blackpool team-mate Stan Mortensen who cut inside left-back Eliani before hammering the ball home from the tightest of angles.

Then it was backs to the wall for England's defence as the Italians swarmed forward in numbers with the Torino trio of Mazzola, Gabetto and Loik all looking dangerous. But Frank quickly became the star of the show, pulling off three stunning saves to deny Italy an equaliser - one being quite breath-taking from a close range header by Carapellese.'

Then, totally against the run of play, England scored again. Frank Swift's precise throw-out found Billy Wright who moved the ball forward to Stanley Matthews who in turn flicked it on to Mortensen near the halfway line. He darted away, raced past two defenders and pulled the ball back perfectly for Chelsea's Tommy Lawton to fire, hard and low past Bacigalupo.

As Italy pegged England back in their own half, Swift pulled off three more outstanding saves - one of them at point blank range to deny Gabetto who sank to the ground and beat his fists on the turf in frustration. Italy also had two goals disallowed as England hardly mustered an attack during the first quarter-of-an-hour of the second-half. But then, with home players arguing between themselves, England mounted an attack down the left. Wilf Mannion bore down towards the penalty-area and when the opportunity presented itself, he crossed perfectly for Tom Finney to volley home from 12 yards.

It was all over bar the shouting, and with the barricades down, England poured forward once more and rubbed salt into the Italian wounds, with a fourth goal 20 minutes from time, scored in style by Finney, who slammed the ball high into the net after fine approach work by Henry Cockburn and a surging run by Mortensen.

‘I rate it the greatest display I've ever seen from an England team. Under a blazing sun, faced by a fine team, England fought to a 4-0 win, and as we walked off the field, the Italians giving us the big hand, I know how proud we all felt to be Englishmen.' Billy Wright, writing in 1958.

Frank Swift was a giant of a man and was rightly named in the Football League 100 legends selected to celebrate 100 seasons of League football in 1998.


A huge thanks to Mark once again. If you want to learn more about a genuinely remarkable character in English football history, don't hesitate to check out the full book, which can be found HERE.A genuine treat for you history buffs out there.

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