The cruellest of diseases and being better than Bobby Moore - there was so much more to Sheffield Wednesday legend Peter Swan than a bad bet
There were times during the writing of Peter Swan’s tell-all autobiography that the legendary Sheffield Wednesday centre-half would lose all memory of the subject matter.
In conversation with journalist Nick Johnson, who wrote the book with him, the 19-cap England international spoke candidly about a range of subjects, most notably his role in a betting scandal that would sadly come to define his career.
But it was clear even then, nearly 20 years ago, that the perils of Alzheimer’s disease were making themselves felt on Swan, a warm and popular character who moved into the pub trade after football had turned his back on him.
“There were obvious signs then that he was struggling with his memory,” said Johnson looking back warmly on a near two-year process to put the book, entitled ‘Setting the Record Straight’, together.
“That made it a challenge and it was sad. He’d forget meetings. There was one time I turned up at his pub and he told me he hadn’t been expecting me. I’d only spoken to him to arrange it an hour earlier.
“But he had this wicked sense of humour. After that incident I turned up another time when a barmaid told me he didn’t know I was coming. Anyway, it turned out he was hiding round the corner. They’d set me up.
“You could imagine in his heyday and from what people tell me, he was such a good laugh. Such a great sense of humour.”
Swan played over 300 times for his beloved Wednesday across two spells, a career that was of course splintered by a lifetime ban, later overturned, for his role in a betting scandal that also saw him serve four months in prison.
One of three Owls players to have placed a small bet on their side to lose at Ipswich, he, Tony Kay and David Layne famously denied any notion that they had lost on purpose.
“They saw it as putting on a small bet against their win bonus,” Johnson remembers. “None of them did anything to affect the outcome, they have always insisted. Key won man of the match!
“Players in the opposition side said that there was no way they’d thrown the game. They paid a massive price for it.”
A massive price indeed. He was banned for eight years, during which time he watched on as England won a World Cup many maintain he would’ve starred in. A classy, ball-playing defender, he had played in 19 consecutive matches in the run-up to the 1962 World Cup, where illness cost him an appearance.
He was banned in December that year, returning in 1972 to make 15 appearances with Derek Dooley’s Wednesday before moving on to Bury. Circumstances wiped out the best years of his career.
Wednesdayites of a certain age maintain he could’ve been better than Bobby Moore and that the two of them would’ve made a central defensive partnership even greater than the one that won the Jules Rimet trophy four years on from Swan’s football exit.
“Everyone says he would certainly have been ahead of Jack Charlton,” Johnson remembers. “It was a massive thing for him to comprehend, that he missed out on playing in that game [the 66 World Cup final].
“He was philosophical in that he could have suffered injury or loss of form and so he took that into account.
“But to see his career and life affected in that way was a great burden for him and his family.
“He seemed the most remorseful for what he’d put his family through. His wife and children were taunted and it affected his livelihood in such a way. There was a great deal of regret but also a feeling that the punishment didn’t fit the crime. To be sent down as well was an incredible decision, really.
“He was adamant, as they all were, that he hadn’t done what he was accused of, which was match fixing. Match fixing is very different to what they did.”
After retirement, an ambitious Swan pushed on into management with non-league Matlock Town, with whom he won the FA Trophy in 1975, where he watched his side beat Scarborough 4-0.
A burning desire to make his way in league management, for the opportunity to make a name for himself in the game so harshly taken from him whilst a player, was not forthcoming. The story goes Brian Clough refused to shake his hand prior to a pre-season friendly. Football had turned its back.
Johnson said: “Anybody else would have gone on to forge a good management career from there, to take a club the size of Matlock to win the FA Trophy was a great achievement.
“He’d write to all sorts of League clubs asking to be considered for the manager’s job and he didn’t get one reply.
“Now, people go to prison, come out and are given another chance. People weren’t afforded that opportunity in the 60s ad 70s. They were cast aside.
“From there he was disillusioned and finished his management career fairly early.”
Swan went on to revel in the role of pub landlord and ran pubs in Chesterfield. His book was released in 2006 and from then on, Swan’s battle with Alzheimer’s got steadily worse. He died on Wednesday evening having never recovered from a fall. It is not believed to be coronavirus-related. He was 84.
“We spoke about it back then, about the constant heading of the ball, especially the heavier balls they had at times back in those days,” Johnson said.
“He felt it had contributed to his problem. There are too many players from that era who have had issues with dementia for it to be a coincidence.
“Everybody I spoke to said how much of a classy player he was. So many people thought so very fondly of him and he’s somebody that will genuinely be very, very sadly missed.”