In the Spotlight | Matt Grimes

23rd March
First team
Matt Grimes derby celebration

Matt Grimes is one of Swansea City's longest-serving current players and is in his fifth season as skipper at the Stadium. 

He has just led the Swans to a record seventh south Wales derby win with the armband following a superb all-round display.

Here, the midfielder reveals how a conversation with England boss Gareth Southgate proved a watershed moment in his captaincy, while also reflecting on his upbringing in Exeter, and explaining how football is not the only sport in which he has gained international honours.

Grimes also talks about the deep connection he feels with Swansea City and the local community as he closes in on nine years as a Swan, and why his desire to bring success to the club played a key role in him recently extending his contract.

He may have led Swansea City for the 200th time earlier this season and since secured a seventh south Wales derby win as skipper, but captain Matt Grimes has revealed how it took him time to adjust to the responsibility, and credits guidance from England manager Gareth Southgate with helping him find his way as a leader.

Although Grimes had previous captaincy experience with England Under-20s, the midfielder admits his pride at being named Swans skipper in the summer of 2019 was tempered by the weight of pressure and expectation he put on his own shoulders.

It’s easy to forget that – with Grimes having nearly 300 Swans appearances in the books and that 200th game as captain coming against Sheffield Wednesday in September  – there are some young supporters who will not have known any other player as their club’s on-field leader.

But Grimes is the first to acknowledge that his conversation with Southgate towards the end of the 2019-20 season, which was elongated following the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, made a big difference in his approach to captaincy and proved hugely beneficial.

“Gareth Southgate was so important for my journey as a captain,” he says.

“The meeting was set up by Steve Cooper and the advice he gave me was game-changing for me, it was incredible.

“When I was first named captain I felt I had the responsibility of the world on my shoulders, and I had to be involved in everything, that I had to be trying to do everything.

“He just made me realise that a good leader delegates. If you’re not the best person to do something, then ask the best person.

“It was almost taking the pressure off and learning how to be a good leader.

“I think the game is changing a little bit, it used to be the biggest player, the strongest player or the player who is hardest in the tackle who was your captain.

Matt Grimes arrival

“It’s different now, and it’s more about being the one that sets the standard for everyone in the whole club, and I like to think I do that.

“I was just massively thankful to speak to him (Southgate) and hear his experiences because he was a very young captain at Crystal Palace too. He talked me through all the scenarios he had dealt with, and it was invaluable.

“The longer you spend in a role the more comfortable you become. I was of the opinion that the leader had to be the one shouting at the ref and having a go if we made mistakes.

“As I started to do that, I felt my performances got worse because that’s not me. Don’t get me wrong there’s a time where you have a pop at each other and that's fair enough. That’s part of being a team and accountable to each other.

“But if I came in kicking things around all the time, I think the lads would see through it.

“I’m comfortable being myself and I know I’ve been picked to be a leader because of the qualities I bring and not because people want me to be something else.

“Obviously a lot of people are better at certain things than I am, but I just need to be the best version of myself to be the role model. If everyone is the best version of themselves then you have a successful side and that’s what we want here.”

Grimes has now been a Swansea player for over nine years, and extended his contract with the club through to the summer of 2027 earlier in the campaign.

But his football journey started in his hometown of Exeter, where he attended St Peter’s School, where his mother still works, and which also counts Josh Key among its alumni.

“My mum worked in my secondary school when I was there, and my dad was an accountant,” says Grimes reflecting on his upbringing.

“My brother has followed that path, he plays part-time football for Taunton, and he’s an accountant as well. It’s staying in the family a little bit!

“My mum still works at the secondary school, St Peter’s School. It’s the same school that Josh Key went to.

“As a kid I loved football but when I got to like 13 or 14, I had a spell where I felt I could take it or leave it. I don’t know what I would have done if I had moved away from football, maybe I would have gone down the accountancy route as I did enjoy maths at school. I was good with numbers.

“I did so many other sports in school, we were quite a sporty school with good facilities. I’d try my hand at rugby or tennis for example, and I’d just play loads of different sports.

Blackburn Rovers walk out Matt Grimes

“At 13 or 14 I would do training on Tuesdays and Thursdays with Exeter City, and play on a Sunday, but I kept playing other sports where I could.

“I have to admit I wasn’t any good at most of them! I just enjoyed playing them. I just feel like all kids at that age should just try their hand at most things.

“But when I got my scholarship at Exeter it was a case of head down and focusing on it. It became a bit more serious for me then.”

One other sport Grimes tried his hand at, and excelled at as a youngster, was ultimate frisbee. His school team would become national champions for three years in a row, while Grimes himself would be selected to represent Great Britain.

The game is played by teams of five or seven players who score points by passing the frisbee around and someone catching it in an end zone, similar to how American footballers score a touchdown. 

But Grimes almost discovered the sport, which has been formally recognised by the International Olympic Committee, by accident.

“It was a Friday after school and obviously, in Year Seven, you’re going into a new school, you don’t know what to do and you’re trying to make friends,” he said.

“A couple of the lads I was knocking around with said we should have a go even though we had no idea how the game worked.

“We went to the first session and just loved it, it was just a brilliant game. I’ve said it many times before, you should have a look at it on YouTube if you can because the top level of it is just frighteningly good.

“It was just enjoyment for me and was a bit of a break from football. There were weekends where we’d go away to Manchester or Birmingham and play whole weekends.

“You know you can’t make a career out of it and you know you can’t play it forever so I just enjoyed it for as long as I could. Back in the day, we were national champions and represented Great Britain. That came through beating all the best teams in the country.

“We always used to get invited for the trials for Great Britain. I was lucky enough to go away to Germany and it was basically like going away with your mates to do something you enjoy. I really enjoyed it. 

“It's a great game. It’s so fast-paced and technical. It’s a great one for everyone to watch.”

As Grimes progressed through the ranks at Exeter and got his move to Swansea, international recognition came his way in the sport he is best known for playing.

Matt Grimes

He represented England at the 2015 and 2016 Toulon tournaments for the under-20s and under-21s respectively, captaining the former and being part of the winning squad for the latter.

The likes of Jordan Pickford, Jack Grealish, James Ward-Prowse and Ruben Loftus-Cheek were among the members of the successful group, and Grimes has fond memories of playing in the prestigious competition.

“The under-21s one was probably the better of the two just because the squad we had was incredible and we ended up winning it,” he says.

“I played a bit part in it, probably in the less important games. It was a privilege to be there, Gareth (Southgate) was the manager at the time, Gareth and Steve Holland. It was great just to learn from them and the players, it was a great experience.

“I haven’t really kept in touch with many of the players but if I come into contact with them we’ll have a sit down and a catch up.

“You know what football is like, everyone is like ships in the night, it’s hard to get schedules aligned. But it was a good experience.”

Grimes has come a long way since those formative experiences as a young player, and a sign of the maturity and leadership qualities he speaks of extends beyond being the heartbeat of the Swansea midfield.

Off the field, he and his fiancé Angela played a part in establishing a WhatsApp group to help welcome the partners and families of new signings to Swansea when they join the club, hoping to help them settle into their new surroundings and build connections and friendships.

The bonds between the players and their families was underlined by the fact Grimes, Jamal Lowe and Jay Fulton all took their wives, partners and children to Disneyland together during one of the autumn international breaks, bumping into former Swan Korey Smith while there.

And that sense of togetherness is really important to the midfielder.

“We have had that WhatsApp group for a while now, we get sent the number of whoever is signing and then look to get in touch with their families or whoever is moving down with them," he said.

“It can be very lonely for family members, you arrive somewhere new, you don’t know anyone and being here could be very different to what you are used to.

“It’s important that everyone connected to the squad feels involved. It just helps people get connected in one place where they can be together and spend time with each other.

Bournemouth cup Matt Grimes celebration

“You build so many relationships and friendships that way. When we went away to Disneyland it was me, Jamal and Jay and all the families. Korey Smith and Hattie (Smith’s wife) were out there at the same time, so it was perfect timing.

“They all stay so close, Jamal talks to Korey a lot and the girls are still in touch with Hattie. It was just one of those really good coincidences.

“It just shows that everyone gets on so well here. It’s such a cliché but Swansea is just one big family and until you come here I don’t think you realise it.”

That family feeling was one of the driving forces behind Grimes extending his contract earlier this season.

But he also honestly acknowledges the deep desire he has to experience success with Swansea was also at the heart of that decision.

Grimes has been close to leading the club back to the Premier League, none more so than in 2021 when they suffered play-off final defeat to Brentford.

And those experiences continue to drive him forward.

“I don’t think about that game, or the play-offs the year before, all the time. But when you get so close that you can almost sort of feel it, then it really focuses the mind when you look back on it,” he says.

“We all want to be successful, why else would you play the game? I just know deep down that if I were to move on and Swansea were to get promoted without me that I would be desperately wishing I was part of it because I owe the club so much.

“I just want to have success here at the club and I want to keep trying to improve myself and help the team get better and push on.”

Grimes was a vital figure in last weekend’s south Wales derby victory under Luke Williams, and the captain has welcomed the head coach’s return to SA1 having previously been assistant head coach during the 2021-22 campaign.

He has every confidence a bright future lies ahead as players and staff continue to work and develop together.

“It’s brilliant to have him back. He is very enthusiastic, he is very hands-on, and he just gives you energy,” said Grimes.

“He gives you so much belief in what you are doing and what he is telling you.

“It will take a bit of time, we are not going to be the finished article immediately.

“We want to get to a place, whether it is in six months or a year’s time, where we are fully delivering what he and the staff want and how he wants to play.

“It’s the start of a process and one we are excited by.”

Those are words spoken with the calmness and composure of a man comfortable leading the way, setting the example and clear in what he wants to help Swansea City achieve. Gareth Southgate would surely be impressed.