Every Manchester United fan is more than aware of the devastation caused by the dreadful plane crash at Munich in 1958, but not many know about the other lives that were sadly lost when flight 609 crashed in the Bavarian snow; including one of Manchester City’s greatest ever players who also died on that awful day.
Former City goalkeeper Frank Swift played 376 games for the Blues and was a personal friend as well as ex-teammate of United’s then manager Matt Busby; and although he had retired from playing eight years earlier he travelled to Belgrade as a columnist for the News of the World, tragically he would never return.
Swift would regularly travel with United on European trips as part of his job and was treated like one of the lads by the players and coaching staff despite playing for the team from the other side of Manchester, even taking the field for a kick-about with the likes of Bobby Charlton, Duncan Edwards and the rest of the “Busby Babes” during the warm up for the European Cup semi-final the previous season.
He joined the Blues from Fleetwood on a free transfer in 1933 making his debut at the age of just 18, as they, not United, became the dominant side in the city winning both a league championship in 19 and FA Cup in 1934 playing alongside Matt Busby.
Among his fellow players he had the reputation of being something of a genial giant, often messing around and being the fool in order to get a laugh, sometimes even winning over opposition fans with his wit and making friends with his harshest critics during a game.
Aside from his antics, Swift was also regarded as one of the greatest ‘keepers of his time. He was big, strong and domineering in the penalty area and with huge palms and fingers his trademark move was coming out to collect crosses quite literally from the head of onrushing attackers and even catching the heavy leather football with just one hand.
Swift also played 19 times for England but it was with City that he made his name, becoming a fan favourite in the days long before replica shirts and squad numbers were a term of endearment. And if it wasn’t for the outbreak of World War II he would surely have played more games for the Maine Road club.
After hostilities ended, Swift played for another four seasons for City before calling it a day in 1950, so highly regarded was he that Matt Busby even tried to tempt him out of retirement to play for United in the years that followed but Swift declined; preferring to forge a career in sports writing.
Like 22 others Swift’s life was cut cruelly short by the tragic crash at Munich on February 6, 1958 and, although initially pulled from the wreckage of the crash alive he died, aged 43, as he was being carried into the Rechts der Isar hospital from a severed aorta believed to have been caused by his seat belt.
At City’s first game after the tragedy, City’s players all wore black armbands and a minute’s silence was observed in honour of those who had died, while in the match programme City’s chairman Alan Douglas wrote an emotional address.
“For many, many years, there has existed a rivalry between the two clubs,” he said. “But just as we at Maine Road have rejoiced in United’s many triumphs, so now we share their sorrow. If we can do anything to help them in any way, however small, to achieve that objective, we shall regard it as a privilege to do it.”
Munich is seen very much as a Manchester United tragedy and understandably so, but such loss of life and suffering mean the events of that day are a tragedy for human kind that is not exclusive nor bound by club colours.
And the fact that one of Manchester City’s most cherished sons lost his life along with eight of his friends from the same city who were best known for wearing Red means that despite the animosity which has developed between the two clubs in the years that have followed, the two Manchester sides will forever be United in their grief due to the tragic events of February 6, 1958.