By Jason McKeown
There’s a tired cliche in football that the return of any player from a long-term absence is “like a new signing”. But that old adage could really prove true in the case of Eoin Doyle’s recall to Bradford City.
Doyle was last seen in these parts ploughing a lone furrow up front for the Bantams in a heavy League Cup home defeat to Championship side Preston North End. Doyle was starved of service. He looked disconsolate and desperately short of confidence. And when a few days later he was loaned out to Swindon Town for the season, it seemed like a sensible move for all parties.
To his immense credit, Doyle has rediscovered his swagger down at the County Ground. His return of 23 goals from 22 appearances is truly outstanding. Over the first half of the season, Doyle’s exploits have attracted national media attention, earned him the nickname ‘The Ginger Pele’ and fired Swindon to the top of the table, six points clear of fourth-placed City.
Within the corridors of Valley Parade, there must be considerable embarrassment about just how well Doyle has fared since his move to Wiltshire. WOAP has already written extensively about the sensible, squad-building reasoning behind the Bantams allowing Doyle to leave, but with City the second-lowest goalscorers in League Two’s top 10, it would be stretching credibility to suggest the 31-year-old hasn’t been missed. No City player has hit double figures this season. James Vaughan is top scorer on nine goals, but that total includes four penalties.
We also wrote in November that City and Stefan Rupp did have the financial capacity to bring Doyle back in January if they were really prepared to, and to their credit they have taken that decision.
It is a remarkable moment. City have effectively signed the top goalscorer in the division, whilst significantly damaging a major promotion rival at the same time. And all they have done is recalled their own player.
This has the potential to be the most pivotal moment of the season, but right now there’s still an awful lot of questions that will need answering. Via the extra press attention for his Swindon form, Doyle has made it very clear that he did not want to return to Valley Parade. What sort of frame of mind is he going to be in, as he reports back for duty in West Yorkshire? And given Gary Bowyer’s increasingly functional style of football is in stark contrast to the Swindon team that Robins manager Richie Wellens has built around Doyle, will The Ginger Pele be able to keep up his form?
It has the potential to go very, very right, but it also has the possibility of going very, very wrong. Firstly, for Doyle this represents a big test of his character. When he was loaned out in August, the majority of City fans were frustrated with his average performances in claret and amber, and more than happy to see him go. That he is now being welcomed back with open arms undoubtedly showcases football fans at their most fickle. But we also have long memories.
Doyle might not want to come back, but he was a significant investment for City. Signed for a six-figure sum and reportedly one of our highest earners, Doyle was not the worst offender of an apathetic 2018/19 squad, but we didn’t exactly produce a great return. Doyle suffered from managers not playing to his strengths, expecting him to play as a targetman. But at times his body language was poor. It felt like he had more to give.
Watching Doyle soar at Swindon has brought about mixed feelings. On the one hand, it certainly highlights how badly managed he was at City. But it also demonstrates he was capable of producing better last season. If Doyle brings his disappointment at being recalled onto the field, failing to maintain the high effort he has clearly being putting in for Swindon, the fickleness will lead to an angry backlash. He owes City some strong performances.
City and Bowyer will gamble that there is too much at stake for Doyle to not deliver. His Swindon record has put him back on the map, and when it comes to this summer – when he is out of contract at City – he will surely have a lengthy queue of clubs wanting to sign him. But if he now displays a poor attitude, that won’t go unnoticed by would-be suitors. He has a lot to play for, even if it is for his own career.
The cautionary tale for Doyle is his former City team-mate, Jack Payne. Having signed on loan for the Bantams at the start of the 2018/19 campaign, Payne was exceptional up until January and was rumoured to be attracting Championship interest. But after City arranged a deal to preserve his loan, Payne’s form fell off a cliff. Released by Huddersfield in the summer, Payne has ended up at Lincoln City. A clear downwards revision of his expectations.
Beyond that, the risk for Bowyer is that he can’t get the same tune out of Doyle that Wellens has been managing. It is difficult, half way through the season, to significantly change your style of play. But if Bowyer wants to get the best out of Doyle, he will have to adapt City’s approach in some way. The current set up does not obviously suit Doyle, although with wingers like Dylan Connolly, Harry Pritchard and Zeli Ismail, ball players Jake Reeves, Callum Cooke, Matty Palmer, Shay McCartan and Jamie Devitt, plus Vaughan, Aramide Oteh and Clayton Donaldson to partner Doyle, the potential is certainly there.
The obvious lesson, watching Swindon from afar, is that with the right service Doyle will thrive. If Bowyer fails to achieve a decent return from Doyle, it will only add to the current criticism of his conservative nature. I think we need to be mindful of expectations – Bowyer is not going to suddenly change his beliefs – yet if Doyle struggles it won’t reflect well on the manager. It will be another stick to beat him with.
But if Doyle continues where he left off at Swindon, and Bowyer finds an approach that suits his strengths, City are well set up to seal an instant return to League One. And if in May there are promotion celebrations in Bradford, Doyle’s whole season can be looked back upon in BD8 as a success. After all, his goals for Swindon against promotion rivals Exeter, Cheltenham, Plymouth, Crewe, Forest Green have been very useful. He’s scored against every side in the top seven, apart from City of course.
Doyle’s 143 days at the County Ground has seen a significant shift in the player’s value. And it is Bradford City who now stand to benefit from it.