Bury manager Lee Clark will need the best performance yet from his players if they are to get a positive result away at local rivals Oldham. The Latics are a different beast under John Sheridan since he returned to the helm for a third time, winning six and pulling clear of the relegation zone where they looked destined to stay at the beginning of the year.
Even taking into consideration Port Vale’s games in hand (not something that favours them at this stage), both Oldham and Bury have very good recent form and one of them can go some way tomorrow to assuaging any lingering fears about dropping into the fourth tier. Sheridan is confident of a home win, with the hosts boasting one of the meanest rearguards in the entire league.
Oldham could look to match Bury’s shape or revert to a defensive-minded 4-4-2; I think it’s more likely that the middle men will go toe-to-toe. It’s not unreasonable to suggest that their survival hopes are mostly based on keeping clean sheets with goals at the other end still a premium but not nearly as rare in the past two months.
Every Shakers fan needs no (re)introduction to the qualities Peter Clarke possesses. Voted Player of the Season in 2015/2016, he exemplifies the never-say-die spirit that is always very endearing, especially when backed up with no shortage of ability. That Bury conceded 73 goals in the league and he still won the award is testament to that (although I thought it should have gone to Leon Clarke, personally). He is likely to drop a little behind the rest of the defence, which will already be quite deep. This is both to hide his negatives of being slow in a foot race and to accentuate his positives of aerial dominance, physical strength and last-ditch goal saving tackles. Somehow getting the better of him will be the key to getting a result out of the derby and it’s also important to remember he is a threat in the opposition penalty box too with an impressive five goals in all competitions to his name, which amazingly makes him the top scorer at the club.
Arguably, the man behind the sticks has been even more imperious. Connor Ripley, even casting his recent penalty heroics against Millwall to one side, is probably the best goalkeeper in the third tier. His kicking distribution could be a little better but that is the only slightly black mark on his overall game and it will be interesting to see whether he will feature for his parent club Middlesbrough if they are relegated back to the Championship. The defensive unit as a whole is formidable and shouldn’t be weakened too much by the suspension of right back Brian Wilson.
The midfield has good variety in it and again, at least two of them might take up deep starting positions, especially when out of possession and when in it, will look to supply another fans’ favourite in Chris Taylor, who might be the only winger in either side tomorrow. Sheridan is not one to commit many bodies forward unnecessarily, so a lot will hinge on him roving between the lines.
The central striking pair, whilst not exactly brimming with goals in blue shirts, are still not to be ignored. Tope Obadeyi, another former Bury player, will look to get between the central back three whilst his target man partner Aaron Amadi-Holloway draws defenders in to create space for him.The latter has chipped in with a few assists of late and Bury’s backline must be vigilant.
Captain Antony Kay’s return from suspension means the ‘back 9’ are almost picking themselves at present; I expect Sunderland loanee Tom Beadling to make way but safe in the knowledge that his impressive two game cameo will give Lee Clark no hesitation in calling upon him if he is needed once more.
The real dilemma is who to partner James Vaughan with up front and could be where this game is won for Bury. The factors to consider are as follows:
- Tom Pope possesses the most physical strength, overall hold-up play and also has the greatest understanding with Vaughan. He is also likely to go head-to-head (perhaps literally) with Clarke in an almighty battle in an attempt to soften him up, should that even be possible. However, he is slow and therefore ineffective at chasing down defenders or ‘lost causes’ and isn’t the ideal candidate to get in behind an already deep defensive line.
- Ryan Lowe isn’t especially quick either. However, he has the most natural ‘football intelligence’, for want of a better phrase. He is the best at drawing free kicks of any of Bury’s forwards and probably the best at linking up play in a lateral sense, as well as the coolest in front of goal.
- George Miller is a harrier and chaser of the ball. He covers more ground than any other outfield player (save possibly Greg Leigh). Not only that, he is quite direct, a goal threat and likes running from deep. On the other hand, his first touch isn’t the best and the conditions tomorrow are likely to magnify that from one extreme to the other.
The terrible state of the Boundary Park pitch is unlikely to make for a very pleasing spectacle of football and a war of attrition awaits. Expect lots of physicality but no room in, around or behind either defence to create too many clear-cut opportunities. No home side has won in this derby for well over a decade and I expect that to continue tomorrow with a 1-1 draw. Exile Jr. has plumped for a 4-2 success for Bury, which would be amazing if it happened but if you can count on any League One fixture to not yield many goals, it would be this one. Jr.’s perfect prediction at Gillingham last time out has brought the scores back to neck and neck, 5-4 in my favour. With games thick and fast, it’s still all to play for in both the real world and the father-and-son prediction tussle!