Written by Jason McKeown (research and input by Alex Scott and Tim Penfold)
As Gary Bowyer’s men rested up over the weekend, Swindon Town leap-frogged the Bantams in the table thanks to a brace of goals from a Bradford City striker.
Eoin Doyle has been in stunning form for Swindon Town, netting 16 goals in 16 matches to take the Robins to the top of League Two. Since making the loan switch from Valley Parade, Doyle has become the leading goalscorer in the top four divisions. His deadly form saw him crowned League Two player of the month for October.
16 goals, when City’s own leading goalscorer, James Vaughan, only has five. Within Valley Parade, it must be a source of embarrassment just how well Doyle is performing for a direct promotion rival. And with the January transfer beginning to creep onto the horizon, a major dilemma lies ahead. One we discussed at length on our recent podcast.
Doyle’s exploits doesn’t exactly suggest the decision to loan out Doyle was a particularly clever one. But it’s worth revisiting the circumstances behind the Irishman’s August departure to the County Ground. Bradford City’s summer transfer activity had been going well, but stalled due to the fact the club was sailing close to the edge of exceeding the League Two salary cap.
It was made public, for example, that City were trying to sign Callum Cooke on loan from Peterborough. And that Posh were more than happy to sanction the move. But unless Bowyer could trim the wage bill, further incomings were in doubt. An unconvincing start to the season – draws against Cambridge and Grimsby, plus a League Cup hammering to Preston – only increased the urgency to strengthen.
The problems were all tied to the legacy of the summer before, where Edin Rahic embarked on an expensive recruitment drive with no one to resist his worst impulses. Doyle was bought as a direct replacement for Charlie Wyke, on a transfer fee rumoured to be around £200k. It is thought Doyle became one of the highest paid members of the squad.
At the end of a season that resulted in a needless relegation, City crashed into League Two with sizeable losses and a large number of under-performing players on high wages. In the circumstances, any offers from other clubs would be heavily considered. But it was telling that most of City’s underachievers attracted little interest. Doyle was one of the few to be linked with other clubs. And, as Bowyer’s rebuild included bringing in proven strikers Clayton Donaldson and Vaughan, it looked as though he was on borrowed time.
Doyle started in those first three games, but carried on where he left last season in struggling. Confidence was low. And the 4-3-1-2 formation deployed to accommodate him looked ineffective. This, coupled with a weak central midfield that needed strengthening, understandably made Swindon’s offer for Doyle attractive. If Bowyer had been flush with offers for last season’s squad – say clubs wanted to sign Hope Akpan or Anthony O’Connor – the manager might have opted to keep Doyle and sacrifice someone else. But he didn’t have that luxury, so had to make the call. It’s believed Swindon are paying most of Doyle’s wage. Not a bad deal, for what appeared to be damaged goods.
Yet Doyle has rediscovered his form and touch. Watching Swindon’s goals this season, the quality behind so many of Doyle’s strikes is obvious. He looks an accomplished forward. Utterly clinical in front of goal. Everything that he wasn’t during an unhappy year at Valley Parade.
Amongst City supporters over recent weeks there has been much soul searching. Is the club, in fact, a graveyard for strikers? Why can Doyle do it for Swindon but not for City? What did we do wrong? There’s no denying that Doyle was used badly at times. He is not a targetman, but last season was regularly asked to perform that role.
Whilst clearly some responsibility rests on the shoulders of Michael Collins, David Hopkin and even Bowyer for not getting the best out of Doyle, these things are never black and white. Doyle came for a big fee, and was paid well by the club. Watching him flourish now, when he struggled so much at City, does leave you feeling short-changed.
Like so many of last season’s team, Doyle let down the club by playing below his potential. At times, his body language was very poor. Three different managers can’t all have got it wrong with him – at least without Doyle sharing some accountability.
Doyle’s career has been far from flawless. Study his past history, and there are plenty of instances of him failing to succeed at other clubs. On three occasions – for Chesterfield in 2014/15 (25 goals in 33 games), Oldham in 2017 (13 in 21) and now Swindon – Doyle has enjoyed a stunning burst of form. But at other times, he has been goal shy. Just ask supporters of Cardiff (5 in 18), Preston (7 in 44) and Portsmouth (2 in 12). There’s a reason Doyle is playing in League Two – he lacks consistency.
By loaning Doyle to Swindon in August, coupled with Blackpool taking on Sean Scannell, Bowyer was able to significantly strengthen in areas that were needed. Doyle and Scannell funded the arrival of Harry Pritchard. Of Dylan Connolly. Of Cooke. And of Aramide Oteh. These players have all had a positive impact at Valley Parade. Pritchard and Cooke rival Ben Richards-Everton for player of the season so far. Connolly’s tricky wing play and Gary Jones-style tub-thumbing has made him a huge hit with fans. Oteh has scored three goals in his last six games.
City are unquestionably a stronger side for these four arrivals. And that’s why, even with the benefit of hindsight, it remains difficult to argue the Bantams were wrong to loan out Doyle. The style of play under Bowyer could still be more bold and attractive at times – it’s undoubtedly hurt Vaughan – but the results are very encouraging. And even though City now trail Swindon by three points in the league, they have two games in hand. Would they be in this position now, had they kept Doyle? Especially the Eoin Doyle of August.
The strange irony of the loan deal is that, without signing Doyle, Swindon would not be a top three side right now. And without loaning out Doyle, City would not be a top three side right now either.
But that doesn’t change the fact there’s a big decision to make in January.
With each goal that Doyle nets for Swindon, the calls for City to recall him grow louder. It’s not clear whether they have a clause to bring him back when the window opens, but the fact City wouldn’t allow Swindon to play Doyle in the FA Cup suggests an option exists. Doyle can only play for two clubs in the same season, so is either going to spend the second half of this campaign in Wiltshire or West Yorkshire. The Swindon manager, Richie Wellens, must be concerned that Bowyer didn’t allow Doyle to be cup tied. It shows Bowyer is not ruling out bringing Doyle back.
However, the situation is complicated by financial fair play – the same reason why Doyle moved to Swindon in the first place. The EFL rules state League Two clubs can spend no more than 55% of their turnover on player wages. So as it stands, bringing Doyle back would likely push them over the threshold and facing a punishment.
To recall Doyle, City would either have to send two or three out of Cooke, Connolly, Oteh and Matty Palmer back to their parent clubs, or find a way to increase their turnover. It’s unlikely Bowyer would be willing to sacrifice anyone beyond possibly Oteh, who probably isn’t on significant wages anyway. It therefore appears City must increase turnover so that Doyle can be incorporated into the 55%, or he will have to remain a Robin.
We’ve made a number of reasonable assumptions of how much money might be needed, based on what we roughly believe Doyle’s City wage to be, factoring in the pay cut he and others endured because of relegation from League One, and the proportion of wages we understand Swindon are currently paying. This has led to us estimating that bringing back Doyle onto his full wage would cost an additional £70,000-£80,000 over the remainder of the season. We might be wrong on this figure, but probably aren’t far off.
Whilst £70,000-£80,000 isn’t insignificant to find, it could be achieved within the next fortnight. If City can get past Shrewsbury Town in the FA Cup first round replay, they’ll collect £36,000 prize money. Defeat Mansfield in round two, and that’s another £54,000 – making £90,000. And that’s before the possibility of achieving a lucrative FA Cup third round draw.
Bowyer must surely be taking the FA Cup seriously, as there’s a very realistic path to the third round that can now be achieved without leaving Bradford. If you’re a Swindon Town fan, you’ll be frantically supporting Shrewsbury Town on Tuesday night. For how well their season is going, there’s a shadow emerging over the County Ground. On the basis of Swindon’s less-than-inspiring performance at Valley Parade in October, when Doyle couldn’t play, they’d struggle if they lose their top scorer in January.
If City don’t get through the next two rounds of the FA Cup – and assuming that commercial revenue from holding random events at Valley Parade like a Manchester United legends night next March doesn’t generate £80,000 – Stefan Rupp could face some pressure in January. EFL rules state cash injections are classed as turnover. So if Rupp was to put more money into the club – but not a loan that he can claim back – it can bulk up the 55% ratio.
Essentially for every £1 spent on wages above the 55% threshold, Rupp would need to inject £1.81. So this would mean gifting around £126,000-£135,000 directly from his own pocket. That’s a fair amount of money, but the potential rewards of promotion could justify the outlay. The consequences of leaving Doyle at Swindon, and City losing out on promotion to the Robins, could be felt for years to come.
The bottom line is that the deal to loan out Doyle in August was logical. Had he remained at Valley Parade, he would not have just scored 16 in 16. City probably wouldn’t be in the top three. And we’d have spent the last three months growing more and more frustrated about our weak midfield.
But with Doyle rejuvenated, it’s difficult to see why a place can’t now be found for the country’s leading scorer. Even if Doyle returns as a bit-part player behind Vaughan and a fit-again Donaldson, he might play enough of a role to get City over the line.
It promises to be a very interesting few weeks. And as we get closer to January, Swindon fans will be fretting about the situation as much as City supporters. By a strange quirk of the fixture list, City are scheduled to go to the County Ground just after the transfer window opens. Although if the Bantams can make the third round of the FA Cup, the game will be rescheduled.
Whenever City do travel to Swindon, home fans will be fearing Doyle will indeed be playing. Only this time, whilst wearing a Bantams’ shirt.