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The curious case of 35 goals that suddenly disappeared (and then reappeared)

Those whose knowledge of current footballing affairs rarely ventures outside the Premier League’s sphere may be unaware of one of the most interesting stories in English football this season.

Swindon Town are currently leading League Two and the fans are hopeful of reversing the relegation from League One suffered in 2017.

The Robins’ ascendancy owes a lot to Eoin Doyle and Jerry Yates who, between them, have scored two thirds of Swindon’s league goals in 2019/20.

Dubliner Doyle has been exceptionally prolific; his tally of 23 goals is the highest in the EFL at this stage.

Players left in his wake: Vardy, Aguero, Watkins, Mitrovic…

Getty Images - Getty
Players left in his wake: Vardy, Aguero, Watkins, Mitrovic…

At the time of writing, the man the fans mischievously call Ginger Pele is the only player to have scored more League Two goals this season than 23-year-old Yates.

Earlier this month, both marksmen disappeared in a puff of smoke.

Swindon suddenly found themselves not just without their two top scorers, but without the league’s two most prolific strikers.

Far from ideal when promotion is at stake

Rex Features
Far from ideal when promotion is at stake

Doyle was the first to go, recalled by parent club Bradford after his loan to the Wiltshire club proved unexpectedly successful.

As part of our Football’s Front Lines campaign, we spoke to fans at the County Ground as they endured the inevitable separation anxiety last weekend.

“There’s a common phrase in the lower leagues,” mused Daniel Hunt of the Swindon Town Supporters’ Trust. “You should never fall in love with loan players.

“Unfortunately, me and seven thousand others have fallen head over heels in love with Mr Doyle and Mr Yates.”

You can understand why the fans made an exception for the pair; it’s rare for the league’s top two scorers to be team-mates.

For example, Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge (2013/14) plus Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah (2018/19) are the only two cases of such an occurrence in Premier League history.

While Doyle and Yates may not be as glamorous as those pairings, their importance to the team is equivalent, if not more so.

Very much the Doyle and Yates of the Premier League

Very much the Doyle and Yates of the Premier League

What really hurt the fans is that Doyle returned to a team in the same league as Swindon.

More than that, Bradford are promotion contenders themselves.

To apply the situation to a hypothetical Premier League scenario, imagine if Salah and Mane had joined Spurs last January.

Naturally, friction between the two fan bases has increased as the story has unfolded.

“In this age of social media things can escalate pretty tamely,” Daniel explained. “There’s been quite a lot of angst between Swindon and Bradford fans.

“The Bradford game here [County Ground] a couple of weeks ago was quite interesting, a lot of songs back and forth focusing on Doyle.”

Lifelong fan Jonathan Burrows echoed similar views.

“There’s a bit of banter on Facebook between the two sets of supporters,” he said.

“I don’t think Doyle wants to be up there but it’s Bradford’s way taking away what Swindon had.”

Daniel Hunt of the Supporters’ Trust

Daniel Hunt of the Supporters’ Trust

Season ticket holder Andy Nelmes explained how the County Ground faithful took Doyle into their hearts, despite anticipating a premature end to his loan.

“If you get a loan player in and he starts banging in the goals then you can’t help but get attached,” he said.

“The Town End were singing his name every game, and Yatesy. You don’t get many loan players who come in and get their own songs.”

With Doyle averaging better than a goal per start, nobody could blame Bradford for recalling him, especially with the Bantams struggling for goals in comparison to the other promotion chasers.

However, the 31-year-old failed to score in four games after returning to Yorkshire; a run of games that only yielded two points for Gary Bowyer’s side.

Not the right fit

PA:Empics Sport
Not the right fit

Doyle instantly looked a shadow of the poacher who scored 15 goals in 11 consecutive games for Swindon between mid-October and Boxing Day.

The ex-Preston forward was openly reluctant about a return to Bradford and many suspected his drought was just as influenced by a drop in morale as problems gelling with Bowyer’s tactics.

“We wouldn’t be top without Doyle and Yates’ goals,” Burrows admitted, “but it’s a team game.

“Hallam Hope’s been brought in from Carisle and hopefully he can hit the ground running.”

Hope did indeed get off to the perfect start, scoring on his debut against Port Vale in a comfortable 3-0 win.

The nature of the performance would have encouraged manager Richie Wellens as his side showed they were not wholly reliant on Doyle and Yates to score goals.

However, defeats away from home to Newport County and Colchester since Doyle’s departure evidence a weakened promotion charge.

Impressing in the dugout

Getty - Contributor
Impressing in the dugout

Two weeks after Doyle’s exit, Rotherham recalled Yates in a unanticipated sucker punch.

The Millers are currently top of League One and few thought they would require additional resources.

“With Yates, it came as much more of a shock,” Daniel said. “All the noises coming out of Rotherham’s end were that they were really happy with how he was doing here.

“They wanted him to stay here, see the season out, and help get Swindon promoted.”

It’s not that 35 goals literally disappeared with the departures of Doyle and Yates of course, more the capacity for as many goals again in the crucial second half of the season.

Season ticket holder Andy Nelmes

Season ticket holder Andy Nelmes

But to quote Michael Caine’s character from The Prestige about the mechanics of a good magic trick: “Making some disappear isn’t enough, you have to bring it back.”

In a reaction to the defeat at Colchester, Swindon have successfully negotiated a second loan for Yates and – the big one – signed Doyle on a permanent basis.

The Irishman’s contract was set to expire in the summer and while Bradford would have been hesitant to strengthen the league-leaders’ promotion hopes, the prospect of receiving money for a discontented 31-year-old proved too tempting from a business viewpoint.

And so, after the initial threat of derailment, January has ended on a positive note for the Robins.

Though the ordeal has still caused some fans to reevaluate their opinion of loan signings.

Happy to be back

Getty Images - Getty
Happy to be back

“It’s got to be permanent signings going forward,” Andy told us. “You can’t have it where you’ve got a player scoring loads of goals and then suddenly goes.

“It’s got to be a team that sees you right through the season.”

Yates and Doyle’s unprecedented form emphasised the fundamental issue of loan signings.

If a player does too well, it can actually be detrimental to their temporary team as a recall can potentially leave them with an unsolvable problem.

In Swindon’s case, they have closed the case file with a satisfactory conclusion.

But it may act as a lesson for other clubs considering a similar approach, as the next disappearing act may not have a happy ending.