Any time Reading win a free-kick anywhere within shooting range – John Swift’s name is the first you’ll hear to be sung around Madejski Stadium as he lines up another strike at goal.
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Alongside his prowess from a dead-ball situation, Swift’s 99 Reading matches to date have seen him establish himself as a key cog in the Royals side, with his creativity and passing range proving to be one of the backbones of the Reading squad as it stands.
After taking the plunge and leaving Chelsea, the club from which he graduated their Academy setup, Swift joined Reading in 2016 and played his first full Championship season to great acclaim, before a niggling injury hampered his progress and limited his game time for the Royals last term.
He has since overcome his injury worries and has played a bigger part in Reading’s season this time around, with the 23-year-old still having plenty of time ahead in his promising career.
The man himself is a picture of calm as an interviewee, speaking matter-of-factly about his future ambitions, life outside of football and the competitiveness he has with himself to try and prove himself at the highest level possible.
In the week leading up to his 100th appearance as a Reading player, Swift sat down with The Royal to discuss his long-standing playing relationship with a current teammate, the landmark of a century of Royals matches and much more…
For anyone who has spent any amount of time with John Swift, you quickly get a sense of how seriously he takes his craft.
He’s often found after training with a bag of Mitre balls, fine-tuning his free-kick technique and trying to extract every ounce of his natural talent, which he clearly has in abundance.
As he approached his 100th match for the Royals – a landmark he reached against Rotherham United at the weekend – he took a look back at the ups and downs of his time as a Reading player to date.
“It’s good, I’ve enjoyed my time here so far. Obviously there have been a lot of ups and downs, but I’m glad to finally get there. Especially after last season, it went mad with injuries - I had five recurrences of the same injury.
“I think I maybe could have got there a bit sooner this season – but hopefully I can get to 150 quicker!
“After the first one, I thought it was just an injury and I’d be fine. The second time it got a bit harder, then when it came to the third, fourth and fifth time – I needed to go and see specialists, I went to Ireland.
“It was hard to put our finger on what it was. It wasn’t a bad injury, it was just a slight strain. I was going everywhere to try and sort it, then eventually I started playing more, training harder and it just managed to go away.
“I think it was something to do with my hips, the angle of them and the way I run. After I came back from Ireland, I started playing again. I’ve carried on doing all the exercises and I’ve not had it since.”
His growth as a player has stemmed from his younger days at Chelsea, all the while gaining valuable senior experience in loan spells at Rotherham, Swindon and Brentford.
But the time eventually came to step away from his comfort zone – turning down a new contract at Stamford Bridge to get his career started in earnest, with Reading being his destination in June 2016, offering a new sense of freedom to the England U21 international.
“It was a difficult decision, but I’d been on three loans. When I was at Chelsea and I was about 20, I’d finished the season at Brentford and I’d done quite well, and I didn’t want to go back, do pre-season then just go on loan again.
“It was a big decision to say I didn’t want to sign a contract – they had one there ready for me. I just didn’t want to go out on loan again, I wanted to play for a team, move there and really settle down in a team.
“When Reading came, Jaap Stam had just joined and everyone knows I like to get on the ball, move the ball quickly and stuff like that so, when he joined, it was a no-brainer that Reading would be the team that I would go to.
“I wanted to go out and play, and I thought I was good enough to go out and play in a first team in the Championship. I don’t think I was ever going to make the Chelsea first team, but it was such a good place to be and a good team to play for, I could have easily stayed.
“I’m glad I decided to leave, take my career into my own hands and push forward.
“Reading was quite close to home – I think they showed interest before and there were a couple of teams who showed interest too.”
“When you’re on loan, when it’s not going well you can just think that I’d go back to Chelsea, train with them and then go out on loan again, then it would hopefully go right.
“When I finally left and joined up for pre-season, it felt different. I had to prove myself, I had to get in the team. I’d not left before, so it was very different to going on loan and I had to prove myself this time.
“It wasn’t a case of hoping it goes well, then if it didn’t, I’d go back. If it didn’t go well, I’d be stuck. It was about proving I was ready for that level.
“It’s made me a better player, one million per cent. Playing a lot of games is hard on your body, but I think for anyone who leaves a top team because they want to get more football, unless you go to a team who plays the way you want to play, you’re going to be uncomfortable.
“As soon as I joined Reading, with the way we set up to play, I was very happy.”
One way that Swift asserts himself on the field is his talent when standing over a free-kick – with a memorable strike against Birmingham in the Carabao Cup this season coming from a dead ball – but it hasn’t always been a part of his arsenal, as he revealed…
“I started doing my free-kicks at Brentford, they had a guy who came in and changed the technique of people doing free-kicks. I had one session with him and afterwards, I was kicking the ball differently and I got so much better at doing it.
“So, I ended up doing 10-12 sessions with him at Brentford, and when I left to come here, I wanted to carry that on. He comes in every now and then, I’d liked to have seen him a lot more, but the injuries took a bit of a hit on that.
“We have a bit of competition now that Lewis is here! Growing up, I was at Chelsea with him, so it’s always been a thing that when someone goes down on the edge of the box, we’d look at each other and wonder who’s taking it.
“We’d come to the decision that, when we were younger, we’d maybe do rock, paper, scissors on the pitch to see who takes it!
“When we were younger, he would always be the one who steps up and takes free-kicks, but the roles are reversed a little bit now. I think I’m leading on maybe getting two in a game, then he would get the third.”
Swift’s relationship with Baker goes all the way back to Chelsea’s Academy, with a long string of success while playing in the same team.
“I’ve known Lewis for years,” Swift smiled. “I went to Chelsea when I was 11 for six months, just on trial, and I didn’t end up getting in. I played with him then, but then I went back to play Sunday league for two years until I was 14, then I signed for Chelsea again.
“When we played for Chelsea, in the youth team, it was always a rotating midfield, so no-one played attacking, no-one played holding, but we’ve always played alongside each other.
“I think the best run we had was in the FA Youth Cup when we won it, we won the Under-21s league too and we played alongside each other there, too.
“When I was on loan and when I signed here, we were both still going away with England U21s. So, we were in the same club, away on loan and then still in the same team. In pre-season we were still together, but when I signed for Reading, I’d still see him when we went away with the Under-21s.
“Then when he signed here, it’s weird because we’re training every day together now, playing games in the Championship where it’s such a big stage and you’re fighting for one another, it’s just like old times and what we used to do.”
Now that he’s about to reach a big landmark in a player’s career, Swift admits that he hopes to kick on further in a blue and white hooped shirt
“When I started playing for Reading, you don’t think this far ahead – getting to 100 games. But I saw Liam Moore getting his 100th game, Gunts got to 250, I’d been here for two and a half years but I hadn’t reached 100 yet.
“Every player in the Championship wants to go up a level, either with the club they’re with or getting a move up there. You’ve got to do your best in the Championship now, like Bacuna, he did really well and got his move to the Premier League – so it’s never too late.”
Attention turned briefly away from football, and Swift discussed his other passion in life – golf. A typical day off will often include 18 holes as the players gain brief respite from the rigours of the Championship season.
“I go home quite a bit to see my family, they don’t live too far away,” he said. “If I get two days off, I’ll go into London with a few of the lads or my mates from home.
“When the weather’s good I’ll play golf quite a bit, we finish in the early afternoon, so I don’t want to go home and stay inside when it’s sunny. And footballers are known for being quite good at golf, aren’t they?
“If you’d asked me a year ago, my handicap would have been about five or six, but now I’m a member at Sand Martins, I’m about 12 or 13 now.
“I could go out and play a round of golf on my own and I’d be raging if I didn’t play well, but I go out and play with Gunts quite a lot.
“Then when the weather’s cold I’ll play PlayStation with Cal (Harriott) and Lew (Baker).
“Me and Cal have a good competition on FIFA for away games, Lew isn’t quite at our level but me and Cal play for lunch – playing to see who plates up each other’s lunch!”
The Long Read is an ongoing series of feature-length interviews with the Reading squad, found first in our matchday programme, The Royal. Pick up your copy on a Madejski Stadium matchday for just £3.