Thirty-eight days ago Borja Bastón replaced Oli McBurnie in the final throes of Swansea’s third pre-season friendly. It was there at St James Park in Exeter where the Spaniard’s improbable resurrection began in earnest, with his return to the first-team fold after an 805-day hiatus paving the way for an extraordinary rebirth that has led to the striker firing Swansea to second in the Championship and topping the goalscoring charts, with five goals in five games. In weeks Borja has gone from a lesser-spotted misfit to something of an undroppable force.
A £15.5m club-record signing three years ago, Borja proved a poster boy for the wrong reasons, a footnote of Swansea’s sorry decline after one goal from 20 top-flight matches en route to relegation. When Borja struck on the opening day this season, it was his first Swansea goal for 1,022 days, only his fifth league start and his first 90 minutes for the club since November 2016, when Bob Bradley was in charge.
The numbers provide some perspective for a player afforded a second chance under Steve Cooper, who is yet to taste defeat as Swansea’s head coach. The club have made their best start to a league campaign for 41 years and have a tasty clash at the leaders, Leeds United, on Saturday to follow Wednesday’s Carabao Cup tie at home to Cambridge. Swansea’s home form has been particularly irresistible; only Manchester City have won at the Liberty Stadium since Boxing Day.
Borja’s renaissance was envisaged by few fans, with the forward – who spent the past two seasons on loan in La Liga – explicitly for sale this summer and absent from the 24-man squad that travelled to Andalucía in pre-season, when he stayed at home to train with the under-23s. “He has been a bit ‘out of sight, out of mind’ in the last couple of years and he didn’t really do anything in Spain to grab the attention,” says Steve Carroll, the editor of the Swansea Oh Swansea fanzine. “No one really expected him to come back and what he has done has been a big surprise. There was always a belief that he had that ability but you just didn’t think we’d ever see it at Swansea.”
When McBurnie, Swansea’s talisman, was sold on the eve of the season, Borja was handed the No 9 shirt. Borja is in the final year of his contract but together with André Ayew – the club’s highest-earner and also made available by the chairman, Trevor Birch, during another summer of upheaval – £33.5m-worth of talent is determined not to go quietly. Jefferson Montero and Jordan Ayew have been offloaded and it is not impossible Borja or André Ayew – or both – will depart before the European deadline on Monday, though the sales of McBurnie to Sheffield United and Daniel James, who came within minutes of signing for Leeds in January, to Manchester United have given Swansea, who expect the pair to stay, some financial leeway.
“We had been desperately hoping that somebody would come in and take them off our hands; now we’re looking at it and thinking: ‘What happens if we do let them go and if we lose them?’” says Nigel Davies, the editor of the fanzine A Touch Far Vetched.
Borja’s transformation has been particularly costly for Davies, who, along with fellow season-ticket holder Aaron O’Shea, has pledged to donate £1 for every Championship point and goal Swansea score this season to the local Samaritans branch. “Every time Borja scores now, there is a bit of a cheer and then it’s: ‘That’s another quid gone but, if he can hold off on the hat-trick until my next payday, I’d appreciate it,” Davies says, laughing. “It will help them with some of their training costs, which in turn may save someone’s life.”
Cooper, a former academy manager at Liverpool who won the Under-17 World Cup with England two years ago, has continued where Graham Potter left off, handing a core of young players responsibility and opportunity to thrive, with the Jamaica-born winger Jordon Garrick the latest youngster to follow a path from the under-23s to the first team, in the manner of James, Connor Roberts and Joe Rodon. Garrick’s explosive speed and trickery helped win a penalty at QPR (where Swansea were cheered on by McBurnie in the away end) and the 21-year-old has not looked back since swapping Ossett Albion and training with the rugby league side Bradford Bulls for Swansea 18 months ago.
“He has pace to burn and a box of tricks to go with it,” says Davies. “For a fan-base trying to get over the loss of Dan James, Garrick has filled that little niche and, as for Borja, he is filling the McBurnie role, getting goals and working his nuts off. It looked as though his Swansea career would go down as an unmitigated disaster but it’s probably the greatest comeback since Morecambe and Wise went back to ITV after nine years at the Beeb.”
Comparisons to Michu are far‑fetched but the hope is that there is more to come, with Borja settled in Swansea with his partner and seven‑month-old son, Enzo. “The first time he was here, he was in and out of a struggling team when we were fighting relegation at the bottom of the Premier League,” says Lee Trundle, the former Swansea striker. “I don’t think he ever really felt that love but I think Cooper has had him in, talked to him, put his arm round him and I think he feels wanted more than anything.
“That has given the freedom to go and play. And I don’t care who you are, as a striker you need that love off the fans, off your manager. When you have that, you can have a totally different mindset. Sometimes I would try a trick or try a shot and sometimes it wouldn’t come off – but the fans always got behind me – and when you are playing with that freedom you are not scared to make mistakes or get your shots off, and Borja is really benefiting from that at the moment.”
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