John Swift: Reading FC’s Visionary Near Man
Six years ago, a floppy-haired, soft-spoken John Swift arrived at Reading Football Club. He was 21 and was leaving Chelsea for good, where he had been since he was 12.
It was a brave step to take. Swift had been offered a contract extension by the Blues and could easily have stayed and continued to be part of the club’s trove of players loaned out each year. But he had had enough of that. After three loan spells in two years, he wanted to settle somewhere and find a place to really launch his career. The ambition, in the long term, would have been to return to the Premier League.
While Swift now leaves Reading at almost 27, he has achieved a lot. He now has over 250 senior appearances to his name, has become an experienced leader and has made a name for himself as one of the most creative talents in the Championship. He even ditched Justin Bieber-style bangs for a Jesse Pinkman-style bob cut. But above all, he has not yet returned to the Premier League. Many people may wonder why.
The answer is that the midfielder’s six years at Reading were filled with ‘what ifs’. Despite all the visionary goals, set pieces and assists, it seems that for some reason Swift never took the final step to the promised land. He is, as hard as it sounds, an almost man.
Of course, the biggest near miss of all came in the midfielder’s debut season as Reading reached the play-off final under Jaap Stam. Statistically, this campaign proved to be Swift’s second most productive blue-and-white campaign, as he netted nine goals and eight assists in all competitions. He provided goal contribution in four of his first five appearances, including the winning goal on his debut against Preston North End, and scored the decisive goals later in the campaign against Birmingham City and Rotherham United.
Yet when it came to the biggest game of the year against Huddersfield Town at Wembley, Swift crumbled. It was as sad as it was infuriating to watch the game pass him by, knowing that the quality he possessed could have brought him to life. He gave the ball away more than any other Royal that day and Yann Kermorgant was the only outfield player to have a worse pass success rate. It was this inconsistency that ate away at his time at Reading.
Every year there have been reminders of its quality. A brace against Nottingham Forest to help struggling Jaap Stam’s side to a victory five months after losing the play-off final. A long-range stunner against QPR on Boxing Day 2019, the first of three successive games in which he scored. No player has scored more direct free-kicks for Reading this century than Swift’s seven, the best of the group coming against Wigan Athletic and Coventry City. It was these moments that saw him tagged as a player Reading cannot afford to lose.
Still, there’s the other side of Swift that doesn’t get mentioned as much because, by definition, that side of him is very forgettable. He went through periods of seasons and even individual games without doing much. That brace against Forest was his only two goals in 2017/18. He went 13 games without a goal or an assist the following season and 19 games without finding the net the following year.
These periods of anonymity are a big part of why a return to the Premier League never materialized for him or Reading. It is rare to find such an influential yet invisible player. He’s more than capable of winning a game on his own, playing that killer through the ball or sending that set piece, but there’s always the possibility that he’s gone too.
Injuries haven’t helped Swift’s cause and his battle with inconsistency. The midfielder spent at least a month on the sidelines in each of his six seasons at Reading. His debut campaign was cut short by an ankle injury before missing 19 league games the following year with five separate hamstring injuries. His 2018/19 season was then cut short as he required hip surgery. In 2020/21, he has only featured 14 times due to his recurring hamstring problem which ruled him out for three months and two months apart.
All this time of inaction arguably held Swift back and didn’t allow her to flourish on a regular basis. He may also have warned potential suitors higher up in the Championship and Premier League. For Reading, they might well wonder how many recent seasons would have gone differently had the midfielder managed to stay fit. This question was raised more than ever before in 2020/21, when the Royals battled for the play-offs throughout the season but ultimately failed. In the 14 games Swift has played, the team has only lost once. Would they have finished in the top six if he had been more available?
Of course, this season has been different. Swift saved his best campaign in a Royals shirt until the end, becoming the talisman and leader he always promised to be. By the end of September, he had already registered seven goals and five assists, contributing to 75% of the team’s goals despite having established himself as the Championship player of the season early on. There was a first senior hat-trick for good measure too against QPR.
In February Swift became the first player in the 2021/22 Championship to hit double the goals and assists and he finished the campaign with 11 and 13 respectively – his best return for a single season, which puts him on the mend. ‘placed in the lead of the two measures in the team. With Swift in the squad, Reading recorded 1.11 points per game. Without him, that figure dropped to 0.63.
These are statistics that are difficult to argue with, but I will tentatively do so anyway. Starting in October, Swift had a relatively ordinary campaign and particularly after the turn of the year, her numbers plummeted. In 17 games since January 1, he has registered just three goals and four assists. His last goal and assist for Reading came in February in Paul Ince’s first game in charge against Birmingham. Injuries became a factor again at the end of the season and Swift spent seven of the last 11 games on the sidelines.
The campaign summed up his entire time at the club – a potential world champion but also a frustrating luxury to have when not playing. Again, periods of anonymity and inconsistency kept him from realizing what he threatened. I voted for Swift for the Fan Player of the Season award, but it wasn’t too shocking when it went to Andy Yiadom due to the recency bias that can play into those accolades.
There is even a sense of ‘what if?’ surrounding Swift’s departure. Anyone would have been naïve to believe he would stay at Reading this summer, but to see him join West Brom – who finished 10th in the Championship in 2021/22 – is slightly infuriating. It’s not quite a side move as the Baggies have spent nine of the last 12 seasons in the Premier League and will aspire to return there next season, but at best it seems a bit unambitious.
There will be several factors that contributed to the deal and Swift is at least assured of regular football at the Hawthorns as West Brom desperately need creativity in midfield, but it feels like a move more high in the food chain could have happened. . Leeds United, who have retained their Premier League status by the skin of their teeth, are longtime admirers of Swift. Beaten Championship play-off semi-finalists Sheffield United have also maintained their interest since having several rejected offers for him in the summer of 2020.
Perhaps he wanted his future sorted out at the start of the transfer window and, with West Brom looking to recruit in earnest under Steve Bruce, it was a quick and easy solution for both parties. With Leeds confirming the signing of Brenden Aaronson on the same day Swift signed for Albion, the midfielder saw another possible destination go out the window. But he would surely have had at least one or two more offers once clubs down the Premier League and top of the Championship finalized their summer plans.
Again, maybe not. Swift has been a good player for a club like Reading and it’s no surprise he’s been kept for so long; Dai Yongge became particularly stubborn to hold him back amid harsh transfer interest two years ago. Because when a player can go through stunningly shaped purple patches or spawn with a magic moment to win a game, they are worth having despite their inconsistencies. No one else on the team can do what he does and he will be hard to replace.
But for clubs further up the ladder, you can see why interest seems to have cooled off in recent months. When you factor in his injury record and ability to fade from time to time, there’s no guarantee a bigger move would pay off. Swift undoubtedly deserves a chance in the Premier League because he has the talent and he has worked in the Championship. But part of me wonders if he’ll ever get that chance.