True confessions of the footballer who was always game for a laugh

HE once shook hands with the Pope, he is idolised by Robbie Williams and he got so drunk on the eve of the biggest game of his career as a professional footballer that he can't remember anything about the coach journey down Wembley Way.

Perhaps the biggest surprise about Peter Swan, the larger-than-life former Leeds United and Hull City defender, is that it has taken so long for his story to be told in print.

Swanny: Confessions of a Lower League Legend, released later this month, charts a 16-year career littered with so many outlandish tales that even a Hollywood script writer would be left worrying the plot was too far-fetched.

His story features a host of cameo appearances, from the aforementioned head of the Catholic Church through to darts legend Phil "The Power" Taylor and Sky Sports's Helen Chamberlain of Soccer AM fame. Plus, of course, all manner of footballing personalities that Swan's path crossed during a career that took him from the ecstasy of winning at Wembley to the despair of the chronic knee condition that could yet confine him to a wheelchair.

Now living in Normanton, near Wakefield, he is a man with few regrets about a life in football that began as an apprentice at Elland Road in the early Eighties.

"A lot has changed in those 20-odd years," says the Leeds-born 42-year-old. "But I wouldn't change anything. I have enjoyed it all.

"When I was a player, there was a huge drinking culture and I admit I fully embraced it. Every squad would go out together in midweek, every week. It was just how things were.

"My old manager at Port Vale, John Rudge, once said, 'Swanny, if you could stay off the drink you could be some player'. But I don't agree."

As justification, Swan points to the spring of 1993 when his then club Port Vale played twice at Wembley, first in the Autoglass Trophy final and then the Second Division play-off final.

"We played Stockport in the Autoglass final first and I shared with Keith Houchen the night before the game. Keith wasn't playing so we sneaked out for a drink and got back to the hotel at midnight. By then, we had the taste and as we were staying in the honeymoon suite, we raided the drinks cabinet and sat there playing cards. The next thing we knew it was 6am!

"I missed breakfast and was still drunk when we set off on the bus to Wembley. I can't remember a thing about it, even though my family say I was waving to them as we arrived at the ground.

"Then, during the warm-up, I had to go back in the dressing room because I was suffering from cramp. I just sat there thinking, 'I can't believe what I've done, this is the biggest day of my career and I've blown it'. I even got a hangover in the final 20 minutes of the game when the drink had worn off.

"In the end, though, we won 2-1 and I was named man of the match!

"We were back at Wembley eight days later for the play-off final and this time I vowed it would be different. So much so, I was in bed at 9pm. The result? We lost 3-0 and I got sent off."

Swan may have fallen foul of a couple of managers during his career, but they were far outweighed by those who valued his contribution to their teams. Making almost 500 appearances for six clubs, his never-say-die approach made him a popular figure – none more so than at Hull City where he now commentates for BBC Radio Humberside.

It was Stan Ternent, now in charge of Huddersfield Town, who took the then Leeds United player to Boothferry Park in a club record 200,000 deal.

Swan says: "Stan signed me three times in my career and

he is definitely a one-off. I remember one game for Hull at Middlesbrough when I got a whack in the eye and had to come off.

"Earlier, I'd had a pain-killing injection in my heel when the needle broke so I had already been struggling before the game.

"So, I came off and was laid on the treatment table in agony when the door was flung open. My eye was hanging out and I couldn't see but, straight away, I knew it was Stan. He strode over, lifted me up and said, 'I need another 20 minutes out of you, Swanny, come on'.

"I went back on but, to this day, do not even know what the score finished but we must have lost because Stan tore into the lads afterwards and said, 'You should show the guts of this man' when pointing at me.

"Mind, he wasn't always so happy with me. We were at Chesterfield with Burnley once and I was on the bench. It was

a freezing cold day so I went to warm up with about 15 minutes to go.

"A little old dear was sitting near the corner flag and she could see I was freezing, so she pointed to her flask and said, 'Have a nip of this to warm you up, lad'. I thought it was coffee so I took a huge swig, only to find out it was brandy. I felt sick!

"A couple of minutes later, Stan called me over because he wanted me to go on.

"Unfortunately, he leant in close and smelt my breath. He thought I had been drinking during the day and went ballistic. He sent me down the tunnel and I ended up getting fined two weeks' wages."

So rich and varied has Swan's life been that it should come as no surprise that the reminiscences in Confessions of a Lower League Legend extend way beyond the football world. Pope John Paul II may be the most unlikely to have crossed his path, but becoming the drinking partner of one of the world's biggest pop stars isn't far behind.

Swan recalls: "Robbie was in Take That when we first met in the Port Vale players' bar and it was actually his mum who asked if he could go for a drink with me. She said I was one of his heroes.

"We had some great nights out together, usually at either my local or the cricket club. Me and the missus also went to watch a lot of his gigs, both with Take That and then on his own.

"Being from Leeds, I particularly enjoyed one at Manchester where me and the missus were sitting in the VIP area surrounded by Manchester United players such as Teddy Sheringham, Paul Scholes and Dennis Irwin.

"Robbie looked over between songs, shouted 'Swanny!' and everyone looked round as I waved back. I could see all the United players, who didn't know me from Adam, thinking, 'Who the hell is he?'

"There was another funny time at the Town & Country in Leeds. I hadn't spoken to Robbie for about 10 months, we had fallen out because I was unhappy over him having got into drugs at the time.

"So, me and the missus just bought our own tickets and stood at the back. But then, near the end of the gig, the lights came up and Robbie spotted us. He shouted: 'Swanny, come for a drink afterwards.' I waved back but told the missus straight away that I didn't fancy it as it didn't feel right, seeing as we hadn't spoken in 10 months.

"So, we just walked downstairs after the gig and jumped in a taxi to go to the Parnaby Tavern in Hunslet as we had originally planned.

"What I hadn't realised until we got to the pub was that about 12 other taxis had followed us, full of fans hoping to see Robbie. "The landlord couldn't understand why he had suddenly become so busy, but the funny thing was all these kids who had been at the gig were trying to ignore me but also watching my every move. We left after just one drink, but at least the landlord made a few quid that night!"

And the photo with the Pope?

"We went to Italy for an Under 15s tournament," he adds. "And, as part of the tour, we went to the Vatican. We were told that the Pope would mention Leeds United during his blessing and that we should stand up at that point. We did that, but then afterwards he got in his buggy and it drove past us. I stuck my head in to find this bloke dressed in white so I put my hand out and he shook it and said, 'Bless you, my son'.

"I had forgotten all about it but then years later I was telling a few stories to a mate and he said, 'I bet you even know the Pope?' I replied, 'Actually, yes, and I have a photo to prove it'.

"My mate wouldn't believe me but, in the end, I tracked down the photo that had been taken by our coach at Leeds, Jack Roberts. And it is in the book."

Swanny: Confessions of a Lower League Legend by Peter Swan and Andrew Collomosse is published later this month by John Blake Publishing (17.99). To order a copy from the Yorkshire Post Bookshop, call free on 0800 0153232 or go online at www.yorkshirepostbookshop.co.uk. Postage and packing is 2.75.