A resolute and dogged display by Bury allowed them to escape the Lions’ Den with a point and clean sheet intact.
Veteran player-coach Ryan Lowe was the man preferred up top next to James Vaughan for the Shakers in a change that is beginning to become a pattern away from home. Manager Lee Clark must believe that the former three-time Crewe talisman is a better bet defending from the front than either Tom Pope or George Miller, given his many years of experience and ability to still cover a lot of ground… and there was certainly a lot of defending to be done against Neil Harris’ men but little in the way of clear-cut opportunities. As I predicted, Callum Styles was left out of the XI, but for Jacob Mellis and not Kean Bryan. The latter then made his entrance after only 10 minutes with Andrew Tutte reporting cramp in his leg. I sincerely hope it is just that as I’m sure the management team will be closely monitoring injury proneness and records when deciding whose contracts to renew in little over five weeks’ time.
The match itself was characterised by well-drilled backlines, half cleared balls and hopeful punts from outside the area. The first to chance his arm was the lively Jed Wallace from a poor clearance inside the 18 yard box, but the winger didn’t get a good connection on the ball and it span high over Joe Murphy’s bar. Many of Millwall’s early forays came down Taylor Moore’s flank, perhaps sensing that he is still adapting to his new role. One of these crosses from the left was again only cleared as far as a blue and white striped shirt; Ben Thompson beat his midfield rival Bryan in the air and this time it was Steve Morison who drove the ball into Murphy’s arms from 20 yards out.
Bury’s best chance of the game didn’t even result in a shot being taken. Bryan hooked the ball away from the edge of his own area and bounced in front of a tussling Vaughan and Byron Webster. For once, the centre back made a misjudgment, allowing the 21 goal striker to run free and leave both Webster and right back Shaun Cummings trailing. However, he then dribbled too far in front of himself with Lowe free in acres of space to his right and in the process, losing both the chance to finish himself or pick his partner out. That said, nothing can be taken away from the superb sliding challenge from the covering left back Tony Craig, underlining his importance to his side.
The play-off hopefuls enjoyed long but largely fruitless spells of possession in their opponents’ half for much of the game as Bury were continuing to successfully restrict their hosts to long distance efforts that barely constituted a quarter-chance; Shaun Williams sent a left-footed drive well wide with little in the way of viable options. Their best opportunity of the first half was the result of some fine work in the area after a long, angled pass from Cummings. Morison headed down to his strike partner Lee Gregory, with the latter playing the ball back rapidly. Instead of hitting it first time however, he opted to take another touch and the much-improved Leon Barnett was able to apply enough pressure to turn a presentable chance into a half-one, with Morison trickling the shot wide with his second touch.
After the restart, the London side became a little more penetrative for a short spell. A high ball from Thompson had Morison wriggling in between Cameron Burgess and Greg Leigh; he just about managed to get to the ball first and Murphy stopped it with his leg but it was still loose in the area. The Welsh striker deftly backheeled it looking for Gregory’s run but Barnett beat him to the punch and hooked the ball away to safety in the nick of time.
From a well-executed short corner, Wallace was again on the ball at the edge of the box, his shot fizzing close to Murphy, who nevertheless had to get a lot of power behind to save to prevent the opening goal. The on-loan Huddersfield sweeper keeper was at his imperious best all afternoon; the few saves and he had to make he did with aplomb, he was decisive in coming for high balls and he was constantly cajoling and organising his teammates in front of him effectively to the extent that he drew praise from Harris after the game. I think the goalkeeping ‘woes’ Bury have suffered over the past few seasons are a little overblown, with some fans too quick to judge past custodians. On the other hand, the difference Murphy has made is very lucid and he can boast an incredible record of six clean sheets in nine outings and only four conceded in the games he didn’t manage to keep the opposition’s tally down to nil.
Having said all of that, there would’ve been little he could have been able to do about Jake Cooper’s downward header from another Lions corner had the centre back directed it better at the far post, but credit must go to the home side’s organisation and action from set pieces.
Subsequent to that chance, Bury had their only shot on target all game. A neat triangle between Leigh, Caddis and Mellis was executed down the Shakers’ left flank from an initial throw-in. Mellis cut the ball back to the waiting Caddis, whose first time effort was comfortably saved by an under-employed Tom King. Vaughan flashed over on the volley a little while afterwards and that was the closest he came with any shot he took to adding to his impressive season’s haul.
It was from a cut-out pass Vaughan attempted to make to Leigh in the opposition penalty area that Millwall’s best move (and disallowed goal) occurred. Wallace picked up the ball well inside his own half and ran more than half the length of the entire pitch. Morison had peeled off Barnett but in doing so had crucially made himself half a yard offside when receiving the through ball. His finish was expertly taken but all in vain. Despite more sustained pressure, the game petered out to another away day stalemate for Bury and a costly two points dropped for Millwall, especially with Southend leapfrogging them in the table into sixth spot.
The home side must now make the long trip to another team in the upper echelons in the league with dreams of a trip to Wembley in the form of Rochdale, fresh from a reinvigorating (and convincing) 4-1 success over Gillingham. They will need to be more penetrative in order to maximise their chances of punching their way back into the top six with the three games in hand available. For Bury, the difficult run of games continues with surprise promotion contenders Fleetwood Town coming to Gigg Lane on Saturday in what is bound to be a must-win game for both Lancashire outfits, especially if as expected, Port Vale beat Coventry tonight to crank up the pressure on the teams surrounding them in the table.