To say it’s been an eventful couple of years for Reading goalkeeper Luke Southwood would be something of an understatement.
From the cosseted surrounds of the club’s under-23 ranks, he headed to the hustle and bustle of the Scottish Premiership and was quickly thrust into the spotlight with high-profile encounters against Celtic and Rangers.
Last season was spent back in the shadows, after he had been frozen out of football completely in light of the global pandemic, yet all these experiences have helped shape the 23-year-old, whose journey has taken him into the Royals’ first team this season – the highlight being an eye-catching display in a surprise win at promotion favourites Fulham.
“I’d come back for pre-season but found myself at that ‘in between’ stage,” recalls Oxford-born Luke of the events which led to his loan move in August 2019. “I was a pro but nowhere near the first team yet. I was on the look-out for loans, which are always hard to come by when you’re a young keeper, but one morning my goalkeeper coach, James Bittner, pulled me from the changing room and told me of Hamilton’s interest.
“All that matters to me is playing games, so I jumped at the opportunity. I could be on Barcelona’s bench but would be happier somewhere else playing, so had no questions or doubts, it was just a case of ‘let’s go!’
“When I got there, I wasn’t immediately number as they had Owain Fon Williams, who was part of the Wales squad when they got to the Euro semis in 2016. It took me about two months before I got my chance – a Sunday game, against Rangers, live on BT Sport!”
Naturally, the butterflies had started to kick in for Luke, who would face a Gers side that included Jermain Defoe as the vocal point of its attack. It would also be his first taste of a big-game atmosphere, with over 5,000 fans crammed into New Douglas Park.
“I was thrown in at the deep end and very nervous before the game, but once the whistle blew, the adrenaline took over. You forget about the surrounds, the opposition’s quality, and just switch into game mode, doing the things you’ve been doing your whole life. Although we lost the game 3-1, I did well and kept my place in the team for the rest of the season.”
A clean sheet in a goalless draw at Livingston followed before a trip to champions-elect Celtic was played out in front of 54,584 fans – a far cry from his under-23 encounters for the Royals or his earlier non-league loans with Bath City and Eastleigh. “It was crazy, my first taste of a proper away day,” he recalled of the narrow 2-1 defeat. “To be honest, that game did take me ten minutes to adjust, as I took everything in, but as I say, you just lock in – that’s the best way to describe it. I was up against Fraser Forster, who wished me well afterwards. He knew I’d come up from England and was a top guy, to be fair.”
Sadly, the season was curtailed in March 2020 due to the pandemic but it was in Luke’s penultimate game that brought one of his career highlights to date – a 1-0 win in the return fixture against Rangers, with more than 48,000 fans in attendance at Ibrox.
“That night will be tough to top,” smiled the former England U20 keeper. “It’s a funny mindset going into those games because although you want to do well, you’re also mindful not to be beaten by four, five or six. You’ve just got to play to the best of your ability and try to help your team-mates get something from the game. I think they had something like 37 shots that night and we won 1-0. It was probably the best game I’ve ever had!
“It was just a shame the league ended early but when I look back, my whole time there, on and off the pitch, turned me from an academy product into a man – that’s the best way to describe it. I learnt how to deal with those outside influences, such as big crowds and big-name players, and to just focus on doing my job to the best of my abilities.”
Like many people, the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic was a fraught time for Luke – even more so due to the fact that he was still registered as a Hamilton player and unable to return to his parent club once his team-mates received the green light.
“I ended up having five or six months where I had to train on my own at home. I went from playing in front of thousands of fans, and in some incredible atmospheres, to just being home alone at my mum’s house and doing whatever I could on my own. It was a tough time but, again, it was another experience that has helped shape me.”
When Luke returned for season 2020/21, he found himself elevated to the first-team squad but with Rafael Cabral firmly established as number one, he was restricted to just four appearances – three of them coming in cup competitions.
“Last season my aim was to break through at Reading, as I knew I was close, but Rafael is a good keeper and we were doing well, so I just had to be patient.
“When you’re not playing you’re never going to be fully happy but James [Bittner] was good for me in that respect. We had a chat and he said my opportunities to impress were going to be in training, so I had to flip my motivation from match day to training sessions.
“I used training as a way to improve, rather than to maintain my levels and be ready for games. In fact, last season was my biggest year in terms of improvement and learning – and that was all done on the training pitch. If I was to impress the gaffer, it was going to be on a Thursday and Friday rather than a Saturday.”
Reading boss Veljko Paunovic handed Luke his Championship debut on the final day of last season against Huddersfield Town but it’s only in recent weeks that he has bedded down a regular berth in the side – coinciding with a good run of results for the Berkshire club.
“We hadn’t started too well, we’d lost four of our first seven games,” Luke said. “I then came in for our game away at Peterborough on a Tuesday night and I felt ready. We played well, won 3-1 and I’ve stayed in ever since.”
It was the first of three consecutive wins that have taken the Royals into the top-half of the table, with the stand-out result being a 2-1 win at Craven Cottage last month. “That was similar to the Rangers game; we had a squad with a lot of injuries, one fit centre-back and had that same mentality where we didn’t worry about how good they were, it was a case of going out there and doing a job for ourselves individually and for each other as a team. We came through it and I made a big save in 94th minute to help us get the win. It was another surreal moment for me.”
Like at Hamilton, the target now is to keep working hard and maintain a place in the side over a sustained period of time. Southwood, however, prefers to set shorter-term goals as he continues to rack up the minutes… and saves.
“It’s all about keeping my head down, keep working hard and being in the best shape possible ready for the next game. I don’t look at what might happen in the next two or three months, I’m just taking it game by game and showing what I can do in this spell.
“My aim has always been to become Reading’s number one and so it’s an honour to be wearing the shirt right now. I know I still have much to learn but feel I’m on the right track – and I’m enjoying my football which is also important.”