Six years ago, a floppy-haired, softly spoken John Swift arrived at Reading Football Club. He was 21 years old and making the permanent move away from Chelsea, where he had been since the age of 12.
It was a brave step to take. Swift had been offered a contract extension by the Blues and could easily have stuck around and continued to be part of the hoard of players shipped out on loan by the club each year. But he had had enough of that. After three loan spells in two years, he wanted to establish himself somewhere and find a place to really set his career in motion. The ambition, in time, would have been to return to the Premier League.
As Swift now departs Reading aged nearly 27, he has achieved a lot. He now has more than 250 senior appearances under his belt, has matured into an experienced leader and made a name for himself as one of the most creative talents in the Championship. He has even ditched the Justin Bieber-style fringe for a Jesse Pinkman-style buzz cut. But crucially, he is yet to make it back to the Premier League. Many people may be wondering why.
The answer is that the midfielder’s six years at Reading have been filled with ‘what ifs’. For all the goals, set pieces and visionary passes, it feels that for whatever reason, Swift has never taken the final step to the promised land. He is, as harsh as it sounds, a nearly 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, that campaign proved to be Swift’s joint second most productive in blue and white, as he registered nine goals and eight assists in all competitions. He provided a goal contribution in four of his first five appearances, including the winning goal on his debut against Preston North End, and struck 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 slumped. It was as saddening as it was infuriating to watch the game pass him by, knowing that the quality he possessed could have brought it to life. He gave the ball away more than any other Royal on the day and Yann Kermorgant was the only outfield player to have a worse pass success rate. It’s that inconsistency which has dogged his time at Reading.
Every year, there have been the reminders of his quality. A brace against Nottingham Forest to help Jaap Stam’s struggling side pick up a win five months after defeat in 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, with the best of the bunch coming against Wigan Athletic and Coventry City. It’s these moments which have seen him labelled as a player Reading cannot afford to lose.
Yet there is the other side of Swift that is not mentioned as much because, by definition, that side of him is very forgettable. He has gone through periods in seasons and indeed in individual games without doing very much at all. That brace against Forest was his only two goals in 2017/18. He went 13 games without a goal or assist the following season and 19 matches without finding the net the year after.
These spells of anonymity largely explain why a Premier League return has never materialised for him or Reading. It is rare to find a player who can be so influential but also invisible. He is more than capable of winning a game on his own, playing that killer through ball or dispatching that pinpoint set-piece, but there is always the chance that he might go missing too.
Injuries have not helped Swift’s cause and his battle with inconsistency. The midfielder spent at least one month on the sidelines in every one of his six seasons at Reading. His debut campaign was disrupted by an ankle injury before he missed 19 league games the following year with five separate hamstring injuries. His 2018/19 season was then ended prematurely because he required hip surgery. In 2020/21, he played just 14 times because of his recurring hamstring issue that ruled him out for three months and two months separately.
All of this time out of action has arguably held Swift back and not allowed him to flourish on a regular basis. It may also have warned off potential suitors higher up the Championship and in the Premier League. For Reading, they may well wonder how many recent seasons would have panned out differently had the midfielder managed to stay fit. That question was raised more than ever before in 2020/21, when the Royals battled for the play-offs throughout the season but ultimately fell short. In the 14 games that Swift did play, the team lost just once. Would they have finished in the top six if he’d been available more?
Of course, this season has been different. Swift saved his best campaign in a Royals shirt until last, coming into his own as the talisman and leader he has 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 as he made a strong early claim to be the Championship’s player of the season. There was a first senior hat-trick thrown in for good measure too against QPR.
In February, Swift became the first Championship player of 2021/22 to reach double figures for goals and assists and he finished the campaign with 11 and 13 respectively - his best ever return for a single season, which placed him top of both metrics in the squad. With Swift in the team, Reading recorded 1.11 points per game. Without him, that figure dropped to 0.63.
These are statistics which are hard to argue with, but I will tentatively do so anyway. From October onwards, Swift had a relatively ordinary campaign and particularly after the turn of the year his numbers dropped off. In 17 games from January 1, he provided only 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 as the season came to a close and Swift spent seven of the final 11 matches on the sidelines.
The campaign summed up his whole time at the club - a potential world-beater but also a frustrating luxury to have when he isn’t performing. Again, periods of anonymity and inconsistency stopped him from achieving what he threatened to. I voted for Swift for the fans’ player of the season award, but it didn’t come as too much of a shock when it was given to Andy Yiadom because of how much recency bias can play into these accolades.
There is even a sense of ‘what if?’ surrounding Swift’s departure. Anyone would have been naive to believe that he would be staying at Reading this summer, but seeing him join West Brom - who finished 10th in the Championship in 2021/22 - is slightly galling. It is not quite a sideways move as the Baggies have spent nine of the last 12 seasons in the Premier League and will have aspirations of getting back there next season, but at best it seems a little unambitious.
There will be multiple factors that have contributed to the deal and Swift is at least guaranteed regular football at the Hawthorns as West Brom are in desperate need of creativity in midfield, but it does feel like a move higher up the food chain could have come along. Leeds United, who held onto their Premier League status by the skin of their teeth, have been long-time admirers of Swift. Beaten Championship play-off semi-finalists Sheffield United have also maintained their interest since they had multiple bids rejected for him in the summer of 2020.
Perhaps he wanted his future sorted early in 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 of the window. But surely he would have had at least one or two other offers once clubs towards the bottom of the Premier League and top of the Championship finalised their summer plans.
Then again, maybe not. Swift has been a good player for a club like Reading to have and it is unsurprising that he has been kept for so long; Dai Yongge became particularly stubborn to retain him amid stern transfer interest two years ago. Because when a player can go through purple patches of stunning form or pop up with a magic moment to win a game, they are worth having despite their inconsistencies. No one else in the squad can do what he does and he will be hard to replace.
But for clubs higher up the ladder, you can understand why interest appears to have cooled in recent months. When you factor in his injury record and ability to every so often fade into the background, there’s no guarantee a bigger move would pay off. Swift undoubtedly deserves a crack at the Premier League because he has the talent and he’s put in the work in the Championship. But part of me wonders whether he’ll ever get that chance.