Stuart Sinclair (aka ‘Beard’) was very much Bury’s unsung hero as the home side won comfortably 3-0 once Bristol Rovers went controversially down to ten men late in the first half.
Manager Lee Clark made the changes I anticipated to the starting lineup, bringing in Andrew Tutte for the injured Jacob Mellis in the centre of the park and also restoring target man Tom Pope to the forward line. Visiting boss Darrell Clarke rotated things a little more, with the aforementioned Sinclair chief among them.
What will of course rankle Clarke and the travelling Gas fans is that they were very much in the game up until that incident, with the opening exchanges evenly matched. James Vaughan, playing more of a supportive role than usual, played the ball after a good spell of possession by the home side through to Callum Styles, but the pass was a little too close to goalkeeper Joe Lumley and the danger was snuffed out. Vaughan then chose to go alone when both Styles and right wing-back Taylor Moore were free in the area, the end result being that he was crowded out. The way he out-muscled the defence up until that point was an indication of the torrid time he would continue to serve up for almost the entirety of the match.
Left back Lee Brown had a pop from outside of the area after the ball was only half-cleared but saw his effort go narrowly wide of custodian Joe Murphy’s near post.
The first moment of the controversy came shortly afterwards; Sinclair ran across Greg Leigh and went down. The referee immediately gave a free-kick to Bury and awarded him a yellow card, much to the roaming midfielder’s consternation.
Following a poorly placed pass, Styles was able to pick out Vaughan running in behind the yellows’ defensive line with a delightful lofted through ball. The forward was shaping to apply the finish when an exceptionally timed tackle from centre back Tom Lockyer prevented the away side going a goal behind.
A carbon copy at the other end occurred moments later; a hurried clearance by Moore was played back into danger and some clever work by Sinclair allowed Rovers’ own Moore in Byron to be in between the centre backs with only Murphy in goal to beat. Just like his compatriot on the opposing side, Leon Barnett was the exponent of probably the best goal-saving tackle in a Bury shirt all season long, clawing the ball away from a certain goal in one motion and in the next, preventing his striking partner Luke James from breaking his duck. Barnett has previously come in for some of the heaviest criticism and vitriol I’ve both read and heard in several seasons and in my mind, some of it crossed the line. He was brought back too quickly after an injury lay-off by David Flitcroft and both of them paid the price for it. He has found his niche as part of the current central back three and has barely put a foot wrong after a more phased return to the side after another spell on the sidelines.
The battle of the Moores continued with the striker winning out after a tussle near the byline; only a strong hand from Murphy kept proceedings at 0-0.
The moment that changed the course of the game happened five minutes from the end of the opening period; Sinclair, having been warned by the referee on a second occasion for what he deemed to be simulation, received the ball in space on the right flank after a slip from the otherwise rock solid Cameron Burgess. Styles covered for his teammate, tracking Sinclair’s dribble. ‘Beard’ once again went down and it is almost impossible to determine whether he was fouled or took a dive. The referee was much more certain, showing a second yellow to the 29 year-old and giving his manager plenty to chew on in the process.
Right back James Clarke then had to go off with what appeared to be a breathing complaint. Fortunately, he seems to be recovering well since and has been discharged from hospital. Rovers reverted to a back three in light of both of these events.
Lee Clark’s response after the interval was to take off Andrew Tutte (who hadn’t had the best game of his career and was on a booking) and bring on George Miller in his place, matching The Gas’ change of shape at the back in a very positive move. Another good spell of possession after Miller’s hold-up play allowed Styles to pick out Leigh, who cut inside into the penalty area. Byron Moore was the closest to him when the left wing-back went down quite easily and a spot kick was the result of it, which Vaughan converted with some power to open the scoring for his 21st of the season. It wasn’t Rovers’ evening at all.
In spite of this, the away side didn’t give up and remained very much in the tie. A terrible tackle by skipper Antony Kay on Chris Lines could easily have evened up the numbers but only resulted in yet another yellow being shown in the game. From the resulting free-kick, a training ground move saw Lockyer race to the edge of the box and hit an effort straight at Burgess, which lopped horribly onto the post and only an instinctive clearance by Pope stopped Lockyer’s defensive partner Ryan Sweeney from following up.
A Vaughan assist is a rare thing indeed but for only the second time in Bury colours, he turned provider. A Moore cross was headed out by Lockyer and onwards by Lines but with the ball bouncing, the hitman executed what was akin to a karate kick pass to the back post to give a stooping Leigh his first goal for the Shakers in his 42nd game and you could see just how much it meant to him and the group as a whole.
On-loan Manchester City hot prospect Kean Bryan, making only his second appearance since October and from the bench, was brought on to bring a bit more crunch and steel to the midfield. It was his bravery that set up the decisive third for Lee Clark’s charges. He won his 50/50 with Lines and Leigh, who has really improved as the season has progressed, clipped a curling ball over the defence. Miller had timed his run superbly to beat the offside trap and in a moment of brilliant composure, turned Sweeney and aimed high into the goal to claim his seventh of the season in just 873 minutes, underlining his talent. He still has plenty of scope (and time) to improve but under player-coach Ryan Lowe’s watchful eye, he has one of the best lower league marksmen of the 21st century for guidance. Their relationship was underlined when the 18 year-old went straight to his colleague on the sidelines, sparking joyous scenes in the technical area.
Still, The Gas came forward and their performance merited at least something from the game. Sub striker Rory Gaffney shot into the side netting and James drew a very good low, diving save from Murphy to keep the goalkeeper’s clean sheet intact. The final whistle blew and the visitors shouldn’t be too concerned by their own efforts but they can feel harshly treated by the referee on at least one of the three key decisions in the match. It makes their own late charge for the play-offs that little bit more improbable looking, especially with Millwall’s games in hand. The New Den is where Bury head off to on Saturday and they will need to keep up their own levels of endeavour and commitment to not come back to Greater Manchester empty-handed.