Bury still have their destiny in their own hands but that will only remain the case with a long-awaited league victory over local rivals Rochdale, with both sides needing maximum points for very differing reasons.
The wheels have fallen off the Shakers’ revival of late, with the dreaded combination of goals drying up in attack and the defence springing a leak once again. The pressure is now really on manager Lee Clark to get his players performing to a higher standard (especially between both boxes) with their third tier status depending on the final four games.
Only a single point separates the three sides immediately above the drop-zone and Port Vale, who still have a game in hand away at Walsall in the same week as the last round of fixtures of the regular season. The Valiants still have to play the top two at home but defeats in either or both of those clashes cannot be relied upon to take place. Similarly, Shrewsbury and Gillingham stopped the rot with positive results on Saturday, with the former coming against Rochdale.
The 1-0 reverse at the Greenhous Meadow Stadium dealt a hammer blow to Dale’s play-off prospects and manager Keith Hill didn’t hold back in his post-match interview, lambasting their away form and even stating that some of his players whose contracts are expiring at the end of the season will take no further part in the first team.* Indeed, they have only won five on the road and accrued the same number of points as their hosts tomorrow evening, which is the chief reason why they’re unlikely to be still playing into May.
All that being said, I would give almost anything for Bury to be run in the same way as Rochdale; chairman Chris Dunphy runs a very tight ship, they’re much less reliant on selling academy graduates before they have firmly established themselves for a number of seasons in the first team and because of the relative success of a lot of their signings in recent history, when they do leave and are sold on again, the deals are structured in such a way as to guarantee their continued operation on an even keel.
There is also much to admire about the managerial philosophy of Hill himself and how he sets out his teams. They rarely hit and hope, value incisive wing play and have had shapes in the past where the deployment of three players in forward positions didn’t detract from their strategy. Like Clark, he is completely unafraid of extensively using academy players if he feels they are of sufficient quality and that has been the bedrock of a lot of Dale’s success. He is also a man who clearly holds the club close to his heart and in my view, is one of the best managers outside of the top flight. The challenge for him is to push on next season and claim at least a top six spot after two (probably three) near misses in successive years. It will just take a bit more consistency.
With Craig Jones out injured yet again after a 30 minute cameo, Taylor Moore will regain his place. As I have written extensively before, the game will be won or lost in midfield. Expect to see Kean Bryan come in for one of Jacob Mellis or Callum Styles to plug gaps in front of the backline. Paul Caddis is likely to be the pivot and could gain confidence from having another more defensively minded player alongside him. A lot of the attacking onus will fall on Greg Leigh and whoever the most advanced midfielder is. Styles created Bury’s best openings against a tight Bradford defence but Mellis has more big match experience and is stronger (but not necessarily any better) in challenging for the ball and there are bound to be some crunching tackles during proceedings.
Hill promised to ring the changes ahead of the derby match and with that in mind, I have tried my best to predict what those will be. The immediate oddity is of course Calvin Andrew at left back; he has plied his trade as a mobile target man for most of his career in the lower leagues, with occasional stints playing in the right channel off the front one or two. However, he has been asked to play a very unfamiliar role due to Joe Bunney’s injury and Joel Taylor not featuring for two months. Whilst that would ordinarily be an exploitable weakness, it remains to be seen whether Bury will be able to. Without Jones or a winger to press higher, there is less chance that he will be pinned back and could roam forward quite far without really being challenged.
Former Shaker Jim McNulty will cover for Andrew; however, his partnership with Harrison McGahey has been shaky and numerous individual errors from the defence as a whole have cost Dale points, with 60 goals in total shipped. The hosts must look to unsettle the back line of their near neighbours as much as possible. George Miller might have to settle for another substitute appearance after fluffing his lines last time out. Tom Pope could come back in and provide the foil that James Vaughan has been missing as of late.
It is probably midfield where Rochdale are strongest, which will in turn make tomorrow night extremely difficult for Bury. Callum Camps is a young star able to fulfill several wildly different roles in the middle of the park more than comfortably. Capped at youth level by Northern Ireland, he has a bright future ahead of him and will look to carry the ball from one transition to the next and take the game to the opposition.
Camps is likely to be flanked by a rotation of Peter Vincenti, Nathaniel Mendez-Laing and Reuben Noble-Lazarus. The ‘middle’ of those three has already scored against Bury this season and his pace and trickery will test Greg Leigh and Moore’s collective mettle. Vincenti is the slowest of the group and whilst he has only been selected sparingly in 2016/2017, he is more than capable of hurting the opposition and his goal record in the blue and black shirt is proof of that. Noble-Lazarus has good feet and his ‘weak’ right is better than most in the third tier.
They will be the supporting cast to acting captain Ian Henderson and possibly Steven Davies. The latter has been utilised from the bench frequently and his physical presence will be something to look out for, especially from crosses and set pieces. The former likes to work the left channel and is very creative; he manages to combine that with a deadly eye for goal, with admirable composure in one-on-one situations. With a combined tally of 22 goals and assists in League One (13 and 9 respectively), he is in the vaunted company of Vaughan and the three Player of the Year finalists in terms of output.
As for a prediction, I’m going to plump for a scoreline that will suit neither team. Even on the road, Dale rarely remain goalless after 90 minutes and against a very accommodating midfield and defence that likes to back off, they’re going to get numerous chances to add to their goals for column. However, with defensive jitters of their own and the stakes so high, Bury will at least restore a modicum of confidence before the daunting trip to the Macron Stadium to face Bolton next Tuesday with a 2-2 draw. Exile Jr. has opted for a 2-1 win for the home side, which would shift all the pressure back onto the five sides currently below them. Here’s hoping…
On a more serious note, the 15th minute will mark a round of applause for Joe Thompson, who is fighting cancer for a second time at the age of just 28. Having played for both sides and returned to the visitors, his battle is a great reminder of the power football can have to bring fans of even bitter rivals to get behind a common cause and I wish him all the best and for a speedy recovery. I would also like to express my admiration for the way Rochdale have continued to support him.
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