When he rifled an unstoppable shot into Christian Baldinger’s top corner away to Basel on Matchday Five of the UEFA Youth League earlier this week, John Swift reached something of a landmark.
His eighth goal of the season came in his 12th outing of the campaign. That’s a pretty good strike rate merely in isolation, but take into account that it had taken him his previous 70 appearances at Under-18/19/21 level to tally as many prior to this season, and you have a remarkable about-turn on your hands.
It’s a fascinating and pleasing turn for the 18 year-old’s development to have taken. Many observers of Chelsea’s younger age groups (plus a scattering of neutral observers) had immediately been drawn to the tall and languid midfielder who made dribbling look easy and possessed body control belying his tender years, but at the same time there was a growing concern that he was too often on the periphery of things; either during the play itself or watching on from the bench whilst the likes of Lewis Baker, Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Jeremie Boga made considerable gains in his stead.
To understand why, you really have to go back to Swift’s formative years in elite-level football. A failed trialist at the Blues’ Cobham academy as a 12 year-old, he went away and worked at his game before returning at the age of 14 good enough to this time make his stay a permanent one. It’s not unusual for clubs to bring in players at that age group, but it is rarer to see someone come in having had no formal connections to another professional outfit beforehand. There’s a certain degree of catching up required at that point – although it’s not considerable – as naturally those exposed to a high-level working environment for longer will have benefitted to a greater degree.
Less than a season later his burgeoning talent had pushed him as far as two brief outings for Dermot Drummy’s Under-18s; no mean feat for a player yet to turn 15. More would have certainly followed in 2010-11 but for a succession of injuries which limited him to just seven appearances for the youth team and cost him involvement for England’s Under-16s in the annual Victory Shield Tournament.
Those growing pains having subsided, Swift was keen to make up for lost time when he began as a full-time scholar in the summer of 2011. He played 28 times – scoring four goals – for a team now under the guidance of Adi Viveash and was an ever-present in their FA Youth Cup success (although this time he arguably benefitted from the injury-enforced absence of Ruben Loftus-Cheek, who suffered similar growing-related ailments).
He capped a positive year with a debut at Under-21 level where he earned praise from Drummy for being one of the few to come out of a season-closing defeat to Manchester United with any great credit. Everything appeared set up for him to move into Drummy’s group and make good on the previous season, but as happens to numerous players up and down the country, he found the jump in quality a little tougher to handle.
He didn’t complete a single match in the NextGen Series, starting just three times and remaining an unused substitute in the Final, and although nine Under-21 appearances represented a healthy increase in involvement, only five of them featured a starting place and they all came towards the end of busy schedule where resources were being stretched and the cream of the crop were being held back for cup competitions at home and abroad.
Instead, he played for the Under-18s again for the most part, making 18 appearances (many as captain) and scoring four more goals before leaving that behind as we ticked into 2013. All along, we saw the same glimpses of flair and trickery and guile, and he always caught the eye in dispatches, but the rest of his game hadn’t quite come together and he was often the first one off had he started, or the first substitute after an hour of play.
At this stage it’s important to remember that we’re talking about a player who only turned 18 back in June and therefore can only be expected to still be working on refining his game and filling in the gaps. In Swift’s personal case, however, Drummy and Chelsea TV offered something of a public insight into his issues and how they intended to solve them.
It came at the end of a brief interview with more general overtones to it, but the experienced Under-21 coach noted that his midfielder often struggled to deal with low midfield blocks and would cede possession trying to do ‘too much’ with the ball. As well as studying his own footage and working on a number of solutions, the England Under-19 international also struck up something of a relationship with Frank Lampard, who was asked to get involved and offer some pearls of wisdom.
Fast forward six months and it’s hard to argue that the arrangement has been anything other than a categorical success. When asked exactly how he benefitted from working with the club’s all-time leading goalscorer, Swift himself gave us further information:
“The main thing he said to me was to get in the box. Obviously he gets into the box more than any other midfielder at Chelsea and he’s got a lot of goals from it. Since pre-season I’ve done that a lot and it’s paid off.”
And how. A summer up against older opposition at various non-league grounds saw a flurry of goals and he’s continued in the same vein when the season proper got underway. Against Leicester City, Manchester City and West Ham he displayed the requisite desire to get into the six yard box and fight for scraps to get his goal, whilst Lampard-esque, well timed runs from deep rewarded him with strikes against Basel and Steaua Bucharest.
Throw in more spectacular efforts against the same two opponents in the return fixtures and a stunning long-range missile at Everton and you’ve got a player at the very top of his game who is reaping the benefits of a more dedicated focus and approach.
What does the long term future have in store? A loan move is probably unlikely for this season at least, given he doesn’t turn 19 until midway through the World Cup and the general reluctance of lower league managers to give players like Swift a fair chance. Mike Calvin’s excellent recent book on the world of scouting shed some light on the lay of the land at lower levels, with a Liverpool scout opining that he was the ‘sort of player that would get you sacked rather than save your job’. It sounds harsh in isolation but the realities of professional life further down the ladder mean that every decision could well be your last at the club.
If Swift can continue to add to his game and lay solid foundations from which to build upon next season, a spell elsewhere will almost certainly follow. He has all the technical ability needed to have a positive impact at a good standard of football, and if he can continue to find the back of the net with regularity, people will sit up and take notice rather than worry about their job security. He’d be a worthwhile gamble.