As expected, Bradford City had too much without really hitting top gear for a Bury side who now go into their final four games of 2016/2017 a single point above the relegation zone, having shipped seven goals in their last two games without a single one in reply from open play.
Manager Lee Clark recalled Shakers veteran Craig Jones to the first XI after his latest spell out from injury, slotting in at right wing back in place of loanee Taylor Moore; Clark also surprisingly plumped for perennial sub George Miller to partner James Vaughan up front. His opposite number Stuart McCall set up the Bantams as I had anticipated, with Mark Marshall being asked to swap wings and provide most of the width in the side.
The visitors looked to play out from the back at every opportunity, which they were more often than not afforded because of a lack of pressing high up the pitch from the opposition. One such passage of play in the opening exchanges included a passing triangle that completely bypassed the Shakers’ midfield; impressive left back James Meredith was only just beaten to the ball by goalkeeper Joe Murphy, who took a heavy hit in the process.
Greg Leigh, who played in the claret and amber last season, was visibly up for this encounter and clearly relishes any chance to burst forward (a throwback to his days in the Manchester City academy age groups as a winger playing much higher up the pitch). A neat move allowed Jacob Mellis time and space to cross, but as is almost always the case at present from anyone in white, the final ball was badly lacking and didn’t trouble Colin Doyle. Directly from his hands, Bradford broke with the irrepressible Marshall getting the better of Cameron Burgess and sending in a ball that Alex Jones could’ve done more with, especially given that he wasn’t tightly marked.
Jones of the Craig variety then conspired to give away possession extremely cheaply, with Bury’s deep defensive line backing off even deeper but hotshot Charlie Wyke could only sting the palm of Murphy on that occasion.
Marshall had the run of both flanks and his movement and quick feet are exactly what Bury are lacking in the prolonged absence of both Danny Mayor and Zeli Ismail. His good cross was picked up on the opposite wing and sent straight back in to the far post, with Murphy missing the ball but in doing so, inadvertently put Wyke off what would otherwise have been a presentable chance to head in for the lead.
Unfortunately, Craig Jones then succumbed to yet another injury after only half an hour back in the starting lineup, which sums up his season. As much as Clark has expressed his admiration for him during interviews, it makes you wonder whether a more clinical approach might be taken with his contract expiring in two months’ time.
Right back Tony McMahon then demonstrated his qualities with a looping cross that fell at the feet of Romain Vincelot but the anchor man fluffed his lines and the chance was gone.
The hosts hit back with the opening period coming to a close. Callum Styles, also back in the XI and just turned 17, picked up the ball and dribbled to the edge of the area with three men in black chasing him. He then played an excellent through ball that evaded the remaining two defenders and just in front of Vaughan and in space. However, the former Birmingham striker was closed down superbly by Doyle and opted to go for his near post. With clear cut chances really coming at a premium in recent outings (for Bury in general), the 22-goal hitman must make the most of what comes his way if relegation is to be averted.
Leigh was again very positive and managed to maintain his balance in a battle with Marshall by the corner flag; he cut the back ball to Mellis who struck it well but a yard or so wide of the post. The Lancashire outfit were passing the ball crisply but were consistently let down by the final decision or pass, with the midfield line often stretched beyond breaking point when Bradford regained possession. From one such passage, Jones laid the ball to Marshall in a two-on-two situation but his effort was beaten away by Murphy. The away side were well set up to play on the break and were making their hosts run hard in the hot weather for every lost ball.
Styles, perhaps under instruction from Clark, was getting further forward than in most of his appearances to date and opting to shoot more often; he skied an effort from the edge of the area with his first try, however.
Marshall stole the show by opening the scoring from a curling that was finessed into the corner. Meredith beat two defenders with some close control and recycled the ball to Wyke. Vincelot then spread the play to McMahon, who linked up well with his compatriot all afternoon long. He cut inside and with no-one coming to meet him, angled it past a statuesque Murphy to give the play-off contenders the advantage.
Miller’s first touch was shown once again to be his biggest weakness when even a half-decent connection would’ve set him free for a direct run at goal. Styles was once again the architect of that move and received the ball again, this time an on-target chance that Doyle did well to remove from more immediate danger.
Marshall had the beating of the defenders once more and another shot just inside the 18 yard box was saved by Murphy. More concerted pressure from Bury was the aim of substituting on Ryan Lowe for Moore in a purely tactical switch (which nevertheless always looks humiliating for a player who himself came on earlier). Leigh and McMahon were having a closely fought duel and this time the former Bantam won out, skipping past his man but his drilled cross was well defended at the near post by Rory McArdle. From the resultant throw-in, Scott Burgess, thrown on for Mellis in the last 10 minutes of the match, weakly shot on the turn and Doyle could breathe a sigh of relief.
Wyke sealed the victory for McCall’s charges with several minutes remaining. A slightly aimless header by Barnett inside his own half was won cleanly in a 50/50 battle by Josh Cullen. With gaps opening in front of him and to his left, he spread the ball to Jordie Hiwula (a previous tormentor of the Shakers this season in the Checkatrade Trophy). He cut back across the six yard area for Wyke to tap in. I can only guess Cameron Burgess wasn’t aware of Wyke’s presence because he was equally statuesque as Murphy was for Bradford’s opener.
Once more, the final whistle sounded and Bury were pointless. Two crucial derby games have now become even more intense events with almost all the pressure on the relegation threatened side to find a way to turn things around. Most fans have now identified that the main problem is the midfield – the balance is still incorrect and it’s hampering their endeavours in both boxes. Rochdale await on Thursday and a vast improvement in the area where their near neighbours are strongest will be the only way Bury will come out of it with any kind of positive result.