Month: May 2017

Transformer Man: Paul Iannoccone

At the very start of the close season, I mentioned the possibility of interviewing some of the players and management at Bury. What I deliberately didn’t specify was who I wanted to speak to, obviously because things can change quickly and you can’t always be certain you’ll get a positive response. I’d rather promise nothing and ‘deliver’ nothing than come up empty-handed. In any case, my first attempt was successful. Paul Iannnoccone, who has two roles at the club: manager of Bury Ladies FC and head of football at The Football College was only too happy to field my questions.

I sought out Paul deliberately to be the first because I don’t feel enough attention has been paid to the wonders he has worked with the women’s teams at the club in the short period of time he has been their manager. It is my personal belief that my support of the club encompasses all the aspects of it, not merely the part that is most prominently in the public eye. This includes the ambition to attend at least one women’s match in the not-too-distant future.

Although there has been a football club in Bury covering open-aged women for 21 years, it has not always had such a close association with what most think of as ‘the club’. It has only been relatively recently that the links have strengthened and hopefully will continue to do so in the not too distant future.

I hope that by reading this post and sharing it with friends that even one more person will follow the fortunes of the side in the North West Women’s Regional Football League Division 1 North and feel optimistic about just how high it can go under Iannoccone and the rest of the coaching staff after leading the Wolfpack to third place and a cup final in 2016/2017 and the reserve side to a runners-up finish in their Greater Manchester division, too.

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Members of the current first team outside Gigg Lane – they have flourished under Iannoccone’s guidance

I wanted to know what had persuaded him to take the reins at the club and to do that, we had to start at the beginning of his burgeoning interest in the sport.

Q: In your own words, can you tell me a bit about your background and what inspired or led you into football management?

A: I played until I was 15 at a pro academy in the north-west. I was very ill as a young child and had over 40 surgeries on various different issues with my stomach. When I was told at 15 that I could not play anymore by my doctor, I knew I had to stay in the game because I loved it so much. I took up coaching pretty much straight away. My parents and grandparents have always supported me and my late granddad especially taught me so much about the game. I hope I’m making him proud with my career in the game now.

Q: You were a coach once before at Bury as an apprentice in the Football In the Community Programme. What made you want to do your apprenticeship there?

A: I did my work experience there while I was at high school. When I was finishing my GCSEs they got in touch and asked me if I would be interested. I knew I wanted to be a coach so it was ideal for me. I got great experience there from a young age and it set me up for the rest of my career to date. I owe a lot to the guys I started with at Bury. Steve Raynor, Seb Piper, Calum Rushton and Matt Clarke. I can’t thank them enough for the start they gave me in football coaching.

Q: You were then at nearby Radcliffe Borough. What was your experience like with them and did their FITC programme differ much in their approach to Bury’s at the time?

A: It was a part-time programme there. Very different to Bury in terms of the amount of schools they were in and amount of work going on. However, it was another great experience for me and the club really worked hard to get into the Radcliffe schools and support the local community.

Q: What exactly was the Kickz Project at Oldham Athletic?

A: A project ran in a troubled area of Oldham to get youths off the street and into playing football instead of getting up to no good.

Q: What was your experience like in the United States? How did ways of coaching there differ from in England, especially with girls and women playing football being much more prominent and ‘mainstream’ for lack of a better term?

A: Coaching in the United States made me the coach I am today. My time there in the pitch 12 hours a day, seven days a week taught me more than any coaching course ever could. I was lucky enough to coach elite nationally ranked teams there and travel the country for the most prestigious tournaments. Over there, driving four hours for a game was normal, even at U12s! Parents were so committed to getting their kids to training and games. The end goal for them was a college scholarship, which I’m proud to say most of the players I coached achieved in the end.

I worked with some wonderful players and met some amazing families who I still keep in touch with to this day. Also, my boss in the U.S. is the most influential person on my career to date. His mentoring has shaped my coaching style and I still to this day find myself saying things that he says! I can’t thank him enough for all that he taught me. Any future success I have as a coach will always be dedicated to him.

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The continued extremely high participation rate of women playing football in the United States has made their continued international success sustainable

Q: You came back to the north-west with various age groups in Accrington Stanley’s academy. How did it feel to be part of a club that is constantly punching well above its weight at all levels?

A: I have nothing but great things to say about Accrington Stanley. I was made to feel so welcome there and everyone is pulling in the right direction. The club and academy works so well because of the staff on the ground running it. I had the opportunity to work with the U10s and the U14s and it gave me professional academy experience, which long-term is a potential interest of mine to get into full-time. All the staff at the academy are great people and I made friends for life there.

Q: Finally, we get on to your return to Bury. As Head of Football at The Football College for one of your two current roles, can you describe in a bit of detail how the Player Pathway Programme works?

A: As Head of Football, my role is to coach, manage and organise all the football within the college. I oversee six teams across two campuses that play in the ECFA College Leagues. I take a lead coaching role on our Youth Shadow Squad that are directly underneath Bury FC’s youth team. The Player Pathway Programme is specifically designed to identify players for the next level of football. I look at the players we have in the college and identify clubs at various levels for them to go into and then I contact those clubs and get them in for trials which leads to them hopefully signing.

I have pushed players into North-West Counties and Evo-Stik clubs so far and will continue to do so. Exceptional talent is run through our academy before being pushed on anywhere else in case the academy want to take that player on. It’s a great model to get our young lads playing high level football.

Q: As manager of Bury Ladies FC, I think it is reasonable to say that you have transformed the fortunes of the senior side. What changes have you implemented since being appointed that explain the side’s rise?

A: There are a number of fundamentals I demand day-to-day. It started with discipline and structure. When I came in, I immediately demanded commitment. Players must be at training in order to play on a Sunday. Many teams at our level do not have that rule in place. Then there’s respect. Every player must listen to what I want and implement it while giving 100%. Some players have had to leave since I came in due to this. They could not give me what I wanted. However, the players I have now I trust with everything. They are the ones that have bought in to this way of working, this structure, this commitment.

When your players trust you and you trust them, it makes everything on the pitch evolve quicker. I look at every one of my players now in the eyes and I know they will do what I ask them to do. As a coach, there is no better feeling.

In terms of actual coaching, I have a philosophy that I believe in and stick to no matter what. I want my players to be very technically proficient, keep the ball for as long as possible through the thirds, and attack with pace and creativity. Off the ball my players must be organised, disciplined, know their defensive jobs and most of all, run. If they cannot run, they cannot play for me. If they want to smash the ball long, they cannot play for me. I feel as though the group I have now truly believe and enjoy how we play football. When the players believe and enjoy, it makes coaching them an absolute pleasure.

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Prolific advanced forward Leah Tibbott has been an integral part of the side’s success in 2016/2017

Q: How important is it (if at all) that the club sign relatively high-profile players like Hulda Sigurðardóttir and Leah Tibbott?

A: It’s important. In order to compete, we must improve every year. We are big believers in promoting from within as we have a fantastic youth structure underneath our seniors. However,  the young players are not always ready to jump straight to senior level, the commitment and the demands of that. Some of our youth players like Aimee Hall and Ellie Whittle have come straight in and been outstanding. Others have struggled. It’s about finding the right moment to expose those players coming through to this level and something we still need to work on.

In terms of signing new players, we want players who want to come here, who want to play for me and play for this club, and want to be part of what we are aiming for. Someone like Leah Tibbott is a perfect example. Leah has been unbelievable this season after joining us from Manchester City. She has bought in 100% to the philosophy and our ways of working and will only improve season by season. If we can get more players of her quality with similar attitude and approach, we won’t go far wrong.

Q: What lessons can be learned from how the season panned out, the cup final defeat to FC United of Manchester in particular?

A: I think we had an amazing season. Our goals in pre-season were to finish in the top half and win more games than we lost. That would have been fantastic based on last season. However to finish third and get to the league cup final was a massive overachievement considering the young age of our squad.

The lessons that can be learnt… there are a few. We dropped points in games that we should have won. We went there with the wrong mentality, thinking that we had beaten those teams before so would again. We need to have a stronger more focused mentality. We are very young so will learn from that. We showed how good we can be by beating the champions of our league 4-1 and on that day we were unbelievable.

Also, the quarter-final of the cup against Bootle who were unbeaten at the time and then the semi-final against Manchester Stingers who were a division above. Those performances will live long in the memory of all players and staff. We need to believe in ourselves and our ways of working but also know that every single 90 minutes is just as important as the last. The cup final was a fantastic spectacle, a joy to watch for the neutral fan. Many people said after the game it was a credit to women’s football, and it truly was. We prepared for the final better than I’ve ever prepared a team for any single game. We knew everything about them, how they would play, how we needed to play. They were just simply the better team on the day. There’s nothing more we could have done. FC United are an outstanding football team with superb players all over the pitch. I’m so proud of the difficult game we presented to them and the respect from their fans after it. They knew they had been in a game. My young players coped so well with the large crowd and if we ever get to another big final in future, we can safely know we have had that experience early in our journey together, and that will stand us in good stead.

Q: Speaking of the journey, what is your ultimate ambition as manager, especially taking into consideration your richly deserved five-year contract?

A: The ultimate ambition is to take the team to the Women’s Premier League. Nothing would make me prouder. Being a home-town lad who was raised right here in Bury, to bring the women’s team into one of the most prestigious leagues in the country would be a dream come true. We have a long way to go. The WPL is two promotions for us. And in our regional league only one team goes up from Division 1 North and up from the Premier. So,  basically it means winning two titles.

My contract is for five years but I am not looking at that as an end. I want to achieve as much as possible in that timeframe and hopefully by then I would deserve another contract. I love working with these players, and this club and I hope it continues for many more years.

Q: Lastly, what do you think are the barriers facing women’s football in England when it comes to how it’s perceived as a whole, increasing the level of funding in the sport and the exposure to challenge stereotypes and negativity/apathy from some quarters?

A: I’d like to think the stereotypes of old are starting to wane away. The quality levels of the WSL and the fanbase is taking off. Our English Women’s team are excellent to watch and compete on the world stage. I know from spending time at St. George’s Park recently that the FA are putting a lot of time and effort into the women’s game, as are other countries. I think in the next five to 10 years you will see fewer and fewer barriers and if I can play a small part in helping that, I’ll be delighted.

People just need to simply understand now that what has been perceived for so long as a men’s sport… it’s no longer the case. The women’s game is blossoming and there are many out there that can see that and thankfully, those people are backing it all the way.

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The recent FA Cup Final was watched by over 35,000 and represents a very small but important step in the right direction

It was very clear to me that Paul is very passionate but considered person when it comes to talking about the sport and his work at Bury as a whole. If you’ve watched even a short clip of one of the matches on YouTube, you will have been witness to his constant encouragement of his players, regardless of whether they have done something well or made a mistake and conceded a goal as a result of their (in)actions.

He strives for the very best and you can’t help but feel deeply enthused by his mentality and how he conveys his thoughts. I will certainly be keeping a very close eye on how things pan out next season and beyond: there will also certainly be more articles on this blog on the women’s teams in the future, so watch this space for those.

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Scouting Report: Callum Reilly – Balancing Act?

2016/2017 stats (for Burton AlbionCoventry City in all competitions): 1,785 minutes, 20 starts, 1 sub appearance; 1 goal, 1 assist.

Bury manager Lee Clark last week added a fourth signing to swell the squad’s ranks even before the end of May in the shape of Callum Reilly after his release by Championship outfit Burton Albion. Once again, he fits the profile of a player with experience of gaining promotion to the second tier or at least playing in it recently but where he differs from the other three most markedly is in his age, which goes some distance to redressing the balance thus far.

The versatile 23 year-old had a loan spell at relegated Coventry City cut short through injury, so he missed out on featuring in the EFL Trophy final at Wembley. His time at the Sky Blues earned mixed reviews which, given how desperately poor the side were as a whole until Mark Robins’ return to the dugout, must be treated with a pinch of salt but not dismissed.

He is first and foremost a left-footed box-to-box midfielder, which is exactly what Clark requires for his preferred system. Like new teammate Stephen Dawson, one aspect he hasn’t had to his game is the ability to score goals with only a trio of them in his career to date; inevitably, one of these was against the Shakers back in the EFL Cup clash of August 2016 with the Brewers.

He has also been utilised at times as a screen for the defence and also as an attacking left back; with the latter role, it will be intriguing to see whether a second ‘specialist’ is still brought in for more direct competition for Greg Leigh or if the cover he could provide is adequate enough in his new manager’s mind for no part of the XI to be weakened as a result of him changing roles.

Other key attributes he possesses currently are an abundance of stamina, the correct level of aggression required for such a demanding role, a powerful shot at times, competent delivery from set pieces and perhaps best of all, an exceptionally strong ‘weak’ foot – that will help open up the pitch for him when he’s on the ball and be less predictable with where he will look to move and pass to.

As ever, there are weaknesses to work on and/or minimise. The most pressing one is a propensity to dwell on the ball could be costly if as expected, he represents half of Bury’s central midfield. There just isn’t likely to be that much time and space afforded to him in the first instance and he will often find himself with two opposition players attempting to regain possession of the ball. He cannot surrender it cheaply on too many occasions with that existing ‘disadvantage’ already present.

As a player Clark already knows from his time at Birmingham City, he must believe that he has on his hands an individual who he can work with to help fulfill his potential and form part of a midfield where the onus is unlikely to be on the pair to help out too much with making or scoring goals but shuttling the ball from one phase of the pitch to another and when required, shutting down the opposition from creating too much of their own in order to protect a lead. Only time will tell.

Everything else equal, there is now likely to be only one slot in the first choice XI still to be filled – left-sided centre back. Fulham have yet to announce their retained list after their agonising semi-final defeat in the play-offs. Many supporters’ eyes will be looking for Cameron Burgess’ name to be on it when it is released. If not, there are other candidates for that position and more besides, which will be explored in the next blogpost (unless another signing comes along before then).

 

Deep Pools & Shallow Oceans: Assessing the Current Squad’s Collective Strengths & Weaknesses in Mid-May 2017

A week has now passed for the dust to settle a little since the early reckless signings  ‘statements of intent’ and with it, a much better handle on what the shape of the squad will be once pre-season commences. Target man Tom Pope unsurprisingly returned to former club Port Vale and is likely to play a starring role in the Burslem outfit’s attempts to bounce back from their relegation to the fourth tier at the first time of asking.

His departure has trimmed the roster down to 25 and there are bound to be a handful more who leave BL9 before July, but I’m going to pretend for the purposes of this post that it won’t happen and that the current group will head into the 5th of August as they are now, with the transfer window open for less than four weeks. To do this, I will ask three key questions:

  1. What would be the collective strengths and weaknesses of the individuals when viewed as a whole?
  2. How is Lee Clark likely to set his first choice XI up?
  3. How will opposition sides counter the threats?

1. What would be the collective strengths and weaknesses of the individuals when viewed as a whole?

Below is a simplified illustration of the current level of squad depth for each generic position:

DepthCSMay1718

A few at-a-glance observations:

  • Plenty of goalkeeping pedigree but a distinct lack of a third option.
  • With Ciaran Best’s release from the U18s, the ‘cupboard’ at left back is once again bare.
  • The almost certain reversion to a two-man centre back partnership makes the current situation a little better, but none of the three are left-footed.
  • A good variety of styles at right back, especially if you include Paul Caddis.
  • Both ‘wings’ below Danny Mayor and Zeli Ismail are devoid of experience in the third tier.
  • Just one of the eight central midfielders are particularly defensive-minded.
  • Up front, undoubted quality but three of the four play very similarly to each other.

Left-Right Balance

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Not as stark as in previous years but if you discount Joe Murphy (principally because goalkeepers use their feet less in open play), only one of the four others are likely to be named in the first choice XI. That said, there are a number of other player whose left feet are quite strong but not their kicking foot: James Vaughan, Jermaine Beckford and Zeli Ismail chief amongst them and that bodes well as they are almost certain to feature prominently; of course, the question mark over Vaughan’s future will likely remain until the end of the transfer window if it’s not resolved before.

Why is achieving some semblance of balance important? Simply because it allows a wider variety of options on the field. 20 or so years ago, a full back’s job was mainly to stop the opposition’s winger from a) getting to the byline and/or b) putting in crosses. Now, they are more often than not expected to join in the attacking transition and overlap the archetypal winger, whose own narrow role has evolved and has trickled down from the elite rung of the sport.

Collective Weaknesses

Due to my contrarian nature, I always find it’s better to start with where is weakest. Of course, all of these observations are subjective; players can improve and to a certain extent, change their tendencies and roles. Nevertheless, here is my current list:

  • Often losing the aerial battle when defending set pieces. Nathan Cameron’s prolonged absence from the Shakers side is only a partial explanation of this and the intricacies of their setup from an attacking point of view vary wildly from team to team. There are also not that many in the squad that fall into the desirable part of a Venn diagram of being both tall and agile as one trait and anticipating where the ball will go as the other, especially if it becomes loose. This is something that can be worked on during training but is still an area where one or two astute signings could counter the current deficiencies.
  • Cameron aside, the other centre backs aren’t that comfortable on the ball when under pressure. Both Antony Kay and Leon Barnett have their qualities and in the case of the former, used to be deployed as a screen in midfield. However, you always sense that both of them would prefer to get rid of it quickly even if that meant surrendering possession.
  • No current competition for Greg Leigh. The former Bradford full back greatly improved in the latter half of 2016/2017 but Clark must find someone else to provide competition, even if their function is slightly different. As things stand, he is quite predictable to play against.
  • No natural agile midfield screen for the defence. Paul Caddis might still be that player with a full pre-season programme behind him but as we’ll see later in this article, he is unlikely to be one of the ‘two’ in midfield because of the roles they will perform. Even if he is selected, he might need more support. Any Bury fan will tell you that they quickly lost count of the number of goals conceded because of runners from midfield in the recent campaign. The back five/six are partly culpable but the complete absence of support from their own midfield teammates tracking back was a common sight.
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Whilst not a definite starter, the versatility of Caddis will offer Bury good options in both midfield and defensive roles

  • No natural second box-to-box midfielder to partner Stephen Dawson. Andrew Tutte is the closest approximate to him but as discussed at some length previously, he will have to hone the defensive part of his game to prove effective in that role over a long period of time. I wouldn’t say it’s strictly necessary for the second player to be predominantly left-footed but it would help open up the pitch a bit more. Callum Styles and Scott Burgess favour charging towards the opposition penalty area and in any case, lack the necessary physicality to prove effective.
  • Both Mayor and Ismail are too attack-minded to be relied upon to track back when possession is lost. The inside forwards have several different skills to their names but must feature in more than one phase of play, especially if the full back they are playing ahead of finds themselves in two-on-one situations. Jack Mackreth, albeit on limited evidence, is more naturally inclined to rove back down his flank but will he get the chance to prove his worth?
  • Vaughan and Beckford could be too similar. If the strike partners make the same sorts of runs, attempt to find the same pockets of space and elect to shoot in the same situations, there is a chance they will end up getting in each other’s way and the opportunity might be lost in fixtures where they might be at a premium.

Collective Strengths

It’s not all doom and gloom, though. Far from it. There are reasons to be optimistic about the club on the pitch:

  • The spine of the first XI (Murphy-Cameron-Dawson-Vaughan) is as strong on paper as it has been since the halcyon days of Stan Ternent’s stewardship between 1995 and 1998. Rock solid in between the sticks and in defence, snarling in midfield and prolific in attack. The key will be keeping them all fit and having suitable replacements of similar quality should the worst occur.
  • A back four that can play a variety of lines to suit the opposition and dimensions of the pitch. Shorn of Cameron and Craig Jones, the gap between the defence and the midfield was the major issue last season. With both back in contention for 2017/2018, coupled with Leigh’s improvement, this could be one of the two components required to improve on last season’s dismal final position.
  • A central midfield troupe that all differ on where their strengths lie. That sounds like a potential double-edged sword but if they are utilised well by Clark, they could help to change games much more than was the case in the recent campaign.
  • Unpredictably behind the attack. Yes, Mayor has his go-to moves but there will be greater mobility in the area to aim for and more support from midfield should he need it. Ismail, whilst performing a similar role, isn’t an exact mirror of his compatriot. Behind them both in the pecking order, there is even greater variety; Mackreth is slightly more old-fashioned in his approach and as for Will Ferry and Callum Hulme, they both want to be the focal point of the team and that means looking for the ball as often as possible and popping up in unexpected places to find it and do damage. Let’s not forget that out wide at the start of last August, it was pretty much Mayor on one side and Ismail on the other without anyone to cover for them without weakening another part of the team.
  • More goals in attack/less reliance on Vaughan. If Mayor and Ismail can stay injury-free, they can contribute greatly. The same goes for Beckford and George Miller, with the latter looking to continue his excellent goals to minutes return into the coming season. He is likely to start more matches and prove to be good support for the more ‘marquee’ names in the squad.

2. How is Lee Clark likely to set his first choice XI up?

There are probably two missing from the ideal XI in Clark’s mind. He is almost certain to recruit another ball-playing centre back who is bullies forwards and at least a second box-to-box midfielder. This is how I currently envisage it:

LikelySideAugust1718CSMay

He has stated repeatedly that he wants to adopt a high energy, high tempo style of football. To do that, he needs his squad to have the requisite stamina to last the entire match and maintain that throughout the entire nine months.

The system above has a lot of vertical movement but mainly in a single direction; of course, the onus will be on the box-to-box midfielders to be the pivots of the XI and ensure that the yawning chasm between the defence and attack that has characterised the past two campaigns is consigned to the history books.

If Phil Edwards gets the nod at right back (at least initially), he will provide a counterbalance for Leigh’s drive to get forward that is unlikely to be dulled too much by any instructions given to him by the coaching staff. Edwards’ comparative conservatism would mean that there are always three Bury players behind the ball at all times.

It is still unclear who will partner Nathan Cameron; Kay nominally remains captain but that could of course change, especially when you consider Dawson’s arrival. Much like Barnett, he appeared much more comfortable in a central defensive three, ably backed up by Murphy and his willingness to sweep up away from the comfort zone of the goalmouth. As I mentioned earlier, neither have particularly honed the ability to pass accurately with their left foot and that could be crucial to minimise the danger when Leigh is thirty or forty yards higher up the pitch than the rest of the defence. That is because the foot preference often dictates the way a player holds their body and which way they will turn when faced with an attack. This is why I think there will be at least one new signing to fulfill that role.

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Having a goalkeeper like Murphy who sweeps up behind the defence helps to instill confidence and allows the line to push up the pitch

Almost certainly, the story will be the same in midfield. Dawson is certain to start but he will need someone alongside him who can play to the same level and possibly contribute more goals to the side. I’m less sure that they will necessarily need to be left-footed but Tutte aside, there isn’t really anything close to a candidate for the job at the time of writing. They will also need to work in tandem with the left-sided centre back to plug the holes left by Leigh on the counter and provide support if their teammate is dragged out wide towards the ball.

A high tempo style means moving the ball quickly and with the standard of players available to Clark in his system, it will be a fairly even mixture of direct balls to win in midfield and playing on the ground from the back but with the onus on speed to disrupt the opposition’s shape. The midfield ‘two’ will need to be tireless in their efforts to dictate the tempo as the vast majority of third tier opposition sides will operate with three men in the middle and as wing backs have regained popularity, potentially five, especially on narrower pitches or if the battle is being repeatedly ‘lost’. They will be charged with shuttling the ball from defence and making the transition into midfield and then attack; ensuring Mayor and Ismail don’t become isolated will be key to the success of the system.

It is debatable how much support the inside forwards will offer the midfield two in terms of regaining possession or tracking back. They will need to find pockets of space and come inside to prevent being cut off and occasionally swap wings to maximise the unpredictability factor. Crosses into the area of whichever type will almost be exclusively their domain (although Leigh will offer Mayor an outlet from deeper but as it stands, a less accurate one). Either Dawson or his partner will lurk outside the area to claim the second ball or track back if the attack breaks down and the other will provide a threat inside the box through an aerial challenge or being another body for the opposition to mark (regardless of whether they operate a zonal system).

Another key flaw in the team in 2016/2017 was not striking the correct balance between piling forward and flooding the 18 yard area and keeping enough men back to shut down a quick break. This is why so much rests with the box-to-box midfielders. The inside forward on the opposite flank to where the ball is could tuck in and be that third (or fourth) man if the situation requires, too.

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Vaughan is the most complete forward Bury have had in decades – somehow keeping hold of him for 2017/2018 is critical to Clark’s desire to play on the front foot

It’s difficult to overstate how much threat on paper Vaughan and Beckford have between them. Again, the objective will be to differentiate their runs just enough to not take up the spaces but still maintain close contact and be aware of the movements the other makes. Thankfully, their effectiveness will not be confined to just inside the box – their dribbling skills are competent, as is their strength to hold the ball up (although I stress that neither are target men in the classic sense). The variety of goals they score is what makes them a good fit, both for playing alongside one another as they have done previously at Huddersfield Town several years ago and the tactics Clark will adopt. Their speed will help them to press from the front in a way that wasn’t possible with Pope in the side and in doing so, will make sure that the opposition’s defensive line either has to keep quite far back or maintain rigorous discipline and deploy an offside trap. Of course, Vaughan and Beckford enjoy playing on the shoulder of the last defender, so that would be a risky move if the unit doesn’t have a good leader, excellent timing and a collective ability to read the game well.

3. How will opposition sides counter the threats?

There are still a couple of components missing from the squad. I have concerns that the chosen system will be countered in a number of ways – some avoidable, some not. One of the beauties of the sport is that even the strategies elite sides deploy are imperfect and new ways of organising a team are always evolving. Of course, with League One, there tends to be fewer intricacies because the level of consistency is lower than at the top of the pyramid. Skill is also a factor but not to my mind the main degree of separation.

In Clark’s autobiography, which I read after his appointment (and highly recommend), it quickly becomes clear that with the sides he has managed, he has attempted to replicate tactically the highly successful and entertaining Newcastle United team of the mid-1990s he was a star in to varying success thus far. They had a heady mixture of a commanding goalkeeper, centre backs who could mix it up, full backs happy to balance their duties, an engine room with two midfielders who employed the ‘dark arts’ but were equally useful roving forward, skillful wingers who cut inside and two strikers whose movement and aerial ability you could rely upon. He has rarely deviated from that vision since becoming a first team coach in his own right. That isn’t to say he doesn’t have a backup plan but you can be quite certain if you’re scouting one of his sides how they will initially set themselves up.

Lee Clark and Andy Cole Goal Celebration
Clark has taken what he learned during his playing career and only slightly tweaked it in management

The most obvious way to stop Bury playing the way they want to in 2017/2018 is to have three central midfielders, preferably deploying two of them close together at all times in an attempt to isolate one of the men in white if the Lancashire outfit are in possession. That cuts off half of the midfield straightaway if it can be maintained throughout a match. The second of the ‘two’ has to then look for another option, either by encouraging one of the full backs up the field or bringing the nearest inside forward back, potentially nullifying their effectiveness as the opposition’s full back can track their run or the spare man in the centre can read the intent.

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Faced with three central midfielders, Bury’s two must be dynamic to escape their attentions and maintain possession

I believe more than half the sides in League One will deploy three in midfield – that immediately gives them a numerical advantage. The roles will vary within the three but the point I am making is that there will sometimes be a need for extra help or a different approach from Clark.

Another area they could exploit is the space behind Leigh and this could be done in a number of ways. If the opposition deploy a traditional winger, then the manager could mirror Leigh’s own attacking instincts and keep that winger as high up the pitch as possible for a counter or to press high. That would then mean that Leigh is left with a dilemma: does he curtail a large part of his game and give the midfield and Mayor fewer outlets or ignore the threat and potentially leave another unfavourable numerical situation if there’s a sudden turnover in possession? That isn’t to be critical of the former Bradford left back at all but for Bury to play on the front foot, the option chosen will be the latter more often than not.

I’ve already discussed isolating Mayor and Ismail and will probably prove more effective by not having wing-backs of their own. With a traditional flat four, the numbers are even and they can sit deep to not allow Ismail in particular behind their line. A three/five muddies the water when it comes to whose job it is to mark an inside forward if you know they’re going to cut inside or run in a direct fashion at the defence. With the four, you can combine the efforts of the full back and nearest centre back to try to show Mayor onto his left foot if the ball can’t be won. Ismail dribbles with his left foot, which can play into the hands of a full back or left-sided centre back who actually favour their right as the ball will be closer to the side they’re more comfortable with.

Ultimately, the less predictable the play, the better. On the surface, it looks like David Flitcroft and Clark share a lot in common with their philosophies. The latter must prove he is less predictable and more open to changing things if they’re not working to even come close to the top six next May.

In the next blogpost, I’ll explore who Clark might be looking to still sign to reach that goal.

Rolling the Dice: Are Bury’s First Three Signings of the Close Season the Shape of Things to Come?

I should preface this piece by saying that I believe all three signings thus far are (at the very least) good players. That should be self-evident from this post but read on for a slightly different take on events thus far.

The tendency in the lower leagues is that the more successful teams (whatever their aims are) make their moves early in the transfer window. Whilst far from an exact science, it allows the management at those clubs to have more time to instill whatever their particular ethos is in those individuals and the players in question familiarise themselves with their teammates, environment and training programmes and become well versed more quickly.

Bury manager Lee Clark spoke of the need recently to get business done early for the reasons listed above and in a fiercely competitive transfer market like England’s, it makes complete sense. He has targetted players that he believes are ‘winners’, either by gaining promotion from the third tier or by holding their own in the Championship, which is completely understandable given the stated aim of reaching the top six in 2017/2018. However, I did not expect three signings to arrive quite so early and there has already been a pattern that has emerged other than the ‘winners’ tag – their ages.

Let’s first look at the three signings in a little more detail:

Jermaine Beckford, 33

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2016/2017 stats (for Preston North End in all competitions): 525 minutes, 4 starts, 14 sub appearances; 1 goal, 1 assist.

Largely frozen out of the first XI by Lilywhites’ boss Simon Grayson, arguably his most memorable ‘contribution’ was this:

Moreover, his playing opportunities have been limited ever since their promotion in 2015 but he has demonstrated in several seasons that he is prolific in the third tier and there are definitely parallels with Leon Clarke in this regard. He has previously partnered James Vaughan when the pair were at Huddersfield Town and their time together was fruitful but brief. Still possessing considerable pace and power despite his age and with a decent weak foot, Beckford also revels in the same ‘advanced forward’ role that Vaughan does a, which can be a double-edged sword from a tactical point of view and I’ll explore that in my next blogpost in much more depth.

Fans of clubs he has been at previously are mostly complimentary, with concern reserved for the occasional lack of discipline and seemingly like almost every Bury signing these days, his injury proneness.

Phil Edwards, 31

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2016/2017 stats (for Burton Albion & Oxford United in all competitions): 4,588 minutes, 51 starts, 1 sub appearance; 5 goals, 0 assists.

By far the least ‘bombastic’ of the three on paper, Edwards will offer vast experience and direct competition to Craig Jones in the right full back role. Featured against the Shakers for Championship survivors Burton in the EFL Cup and was quickly loaned out to Oxford, where he was almost ever-present and an important part of their very respectable league finish and serious tilt at the EFL Trophy, only to fall to defeat in the final. Gained promotion with the Brewers in 2015/2016, which is a big tick in Clark’s box.

Edwards’ style is much more conservative than the ‘typical’ modern full back. He is neither likely to drive forwards recklessly, nor will he provide much in the way of telling crosses or overlapping runs. What he will do is help to organise the defence, dominate in the air against the vast majority of wide players and perhaps equally as importantly, offer a threat in the opposing penalty area. He can also operate more centrally if required.

I canvassed opinion on him too, with the one major failing in his game being a propensity to give away penalties. Which brings me on neatly to…

Stephen Dawson, 31

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2016/2017 stats (for Scunthorpe United): 4,164 minutes, 47 starts, 3 sub appearances; 2 goals, 5 assists.

A player that needs no introduction whatsoever to Bury fans, especially after the recent campaign. Between his first and second stints at Gigg Lane, he starred for all four of his sides and held his own in the Championship for Barnsley under both Keith Hill and David Flitcroft, the former of whom secured his signature for Rochdale in 2014 after his own return to the Spotland dugout.

Highly competitive and combative, Dawson will plug the gap in midfield that some supporters have felt was missing since… Dawson. Seven years on, his positional sense is much improved and he is better at providing protection for the defence. Still liable to pick up a high number of yellow cards and be in the referee’s ear frequently, which is a trait I deplore and I’m not going to change my mind just because he is back in BL9.

At 31, he shows no signs of slowing down and featured in nigh-on every game for Scunthorpe in 2016/2017. He was deployed in a wide midfield role to limited effect in recent matches and whilst he is not slow, he lacks the raw skill that is often demanded in such positions. Clark is effusive in his praise of the box-to-box midfielder, having revealed he has attempted to sign him on a couple of occasions earlier in his managerial career; he is also bullish about Dawson’s continued ability to carry the midfield for the duration of his three-year contract, stating that age is just a number and that conditioning is paramount.

Opinion

What is increasingly noticeable when looking at the squad at present is that the average age is shooting up, bearing in mind it was already reasonably high (as illustrated by this excellent Experimental 3-6-1 graph). There aren’t actually that many members who can be considered to be at their ‘peak’ ages, even accounting for their main roles in the table below:

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The list above is still likely to fluctuate substantially and so that caveat currently exists in my argument. Things could still change in that regard. However, I am becoming more concerned as the days go by as to the transfer policy that has been adopted by Clark and approved by chairman Stewart Day. There is nothing wrong with targetting ‘winners’ but the profile of such players, given Bury’s current standing on the football pyramid, will always tend to be on the older side and deemed surplus to requirements (Dawson is a noteable exception in the latter case). They are also next to improbable to be cheap to sign.

The club’s finances are well documented and it is a path trodden by several others, particularly on social media and the message board. I’ve tended to stay away from directly involving myself in the debate as I feel that there is realistically little I could do, were the worst ever to happen to the club. What it feels like at the moment though goes back to the title of this post – rolling the dice to gain promotion in 2017/2018 and putting the future of the football club at risk. Every team ‘gambles’ in one sense or another that the players they identify and subsequently sign are of greater or at least equal quality to the ones who depart for pastures new.

However, I come back to the player profile of the three above. There are almost certainly going to be more bodies incoming in the weeks and months ahead – three minimum by my estimations and with Clark’s track record, I doubt that will be all. Every ‘new’ management team inevitably shapes their squad in their own image but the churn already has been considerable. Whilst the academy is performing brilliantly in terms of its output and at least several of the current crop of U18s could still have a big say next season, there is a yawning gap opening between their age band and the over 30 group. The saleable assets in the light purple (‘peak’) above all have very spotty injury records and combined with the season Vaughan has just enjoyed, it makes me a lot less bullish than Clark is that he will still be here to partner Beckford.

The latest accounts submitted to Companies House show another substantial loss for Bury, with wages and salaries close to £4,000,000 for financial year 2015/2016. Whilst it should be noted that the quoted figure will include non-playing staff, it still seems extreme for a club that has had very moderate/low gates for half a century and does not yet possess a method of generating sufficient levels of income on non-matchdays. With the mooted new stadium still some way off (or being a smokescreen depending on who you listen to), that won’t change for at least several more years.

It is hard to understate just how much is being bet on promotion in order to fulfill Day’s dream of Championship football at Bury by the fifth anniversary of his stewardship of the club. If it is achieved, I will celebrate just like any other supporter would do so as it might mean the future is a little more secure in the longer term… but there are (higher) associated costs with participation in the second tier, despite the near-tenfold increase in solidarity payments from the Premier League.

An equilibrium must be sought quickly to alleviate the impending financial woes: promotion is only one half of the ‘puzzle’ and despite the excellent signings thus far, it is still in my mind an outside chance as things stand, with a tougher League One on the horizon. More care and a longer term consideration needs to be devoted to whoever the next players are to sign on the dotted line at Carrington. They need to be younger/coming up or just in their peak so that the greatest possible fee is recouped if they prove to be a success on the field.

Whilst no fan enjoys feeling that the star turns in the side are ephemeral, if that is what it takes to get the business (because it is a business unfortunately) on an even footing, then so be it. I have no shame whatsoever in wishing that the club was ran much more like near neighbours Rochdale. Unless there is a big shake-up in how money in the game in England is (re)distributed, then they remain one of the acts to follow.

I want Exile Jr., currently nearly 20 months old, to be a Bury fan too… but that is only going to be possible with a more prudent attitude towards transfers than is currently the reality. Promotion alone will not solve these problems.

Assessment of Every Remaining Bury Player in the Close Season of 2016/2017

With the retained list covered, my attention now turns to the 18 (plus Ryan Lowe) currently remaining players and how they performed in 2016/2017:

williams-43-shirt107-3213480_613x460Ben Williams, 34

2016/2017 Bury stats (all competitions): 2,550 minutes played, 28 starts, 0 sub appearances; 61 goals conceded, 2 clean sheets; 0 goals, 0 assists, 2 hockey passes.

Assessment: One of the more difficult players to truly judge. He arrived on a free transfer from Bradford City having been part of a defensive unit which kept an outstanding 22 clean sheets in the league in 2015/2016. Didn’t make many glaring errors when the going was good before the post-September collapse. His ability to command his area and communicate with an ever-changing defence in front of him was brought into sharp focus and his confidence began to visibly evaporate along with the team’s fortunes. Particularly weak at claiming crosses and often reluctant to stray far from his line, his last game was the opening match of 2017.

With Joe Murphy consigning him to the bench for the remainder of the campaign and also returning next season, there is a big question mark over his future at Gigg Lane. Will such an experienced goalkeeper who, whilst certainly being culpable on several occasions for the eye-watering number of goals conceded, be content to play second fiddle at this stage in his career? Lee Clark seems to prize the art of defending to a greater extent than his predecessor, so it could be that if he chooses to stay and see out the second year of his contract, he is a more reliable custodian should he be called upon.

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Joe Murphy, 35

2016/2017 Bury stats (all competitions): 1,440 minutes played, 16 starts, 0 sub appearances; 15 goals conceded, 9 clean sheets; 0 goals, 2 assists, 0 hockey passes.

Assessment: Initially brought in on loan from Huddersfield Town, the two-time Republic of Ireland international immediately felt like an upgrade on the other three goalkeepers to feature between the sticks. Extremely communicative, good in one-on-one situations (although fewer have arisen since his arrival) and completely unafraid to come off his line – in fact, he almost plays as a ‘sweeper keeper’ in order to ensure that the gap between him and the defence is minimised when necessary. Distribution from kicking out of his hands is particularly impressive and has led directly to two goals at the other end. Only one clanger dropped against Rochdale from a free kick, you would expect such occurrences from even the elite and on the groundswell of positive contributions, cannot really be held against him. Accrued nine clean sheets from just 16 matches in a struggling side, the confidence he instills in the management, teammates and fans alike should not be treated lightly and he is an excellent base to build and improve the spine of the team from.

Craig Jones, 30

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2016/2017 Bury stats (all competitions): 1,076 minutes played, 14 starts, 1 sub appearance; 0 goals, 0 assists, 1 hockey pass.

Principal Role: Attacking Full Back

Exile’s ‘Best’ role: Attacking Full Back

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Assessment: He had his gametime severely restricted in an injury-hit campaign. Jones has developed positionally in his five years at Bury from an out-and-out winger to a dependable right back who loves to support the man in front of him both up (and crucially) down the flank. Excellent at tracking back and frequently winning aerial battles many players with the same height rarely do, his effort and defensive qualities are why every manager since Kevin Blackwell have been glowing in their praise of him and doubtlessly why Clark offered him a one-year extension on his current deal. I maintain that either attacking full back or wing back roles because of his lack of output when deployed upfield – he doesn’t have the ability to beat his man despite possessing no shortage of speed, his crossing is not accurate enough to be relied upon from a creative sense and isn’t much of a goal threat (just nine goals in that timeframe is testament to that). If he can steer clear of severe injuries, he will be an asset to the club’s tilt at the op six. That’s a big ‘if’.

Paul Caddis, 29

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2016/2017 Bury stats (all competitions): 1,145 minutes played, 13 starts, 0 sub appearances; 0 goals, 0 assists, 0 hockey passes.

Principal Role: Central Midfielder

Exile’s ‘Best’ role: Full Back

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Assessment: The first in what is likely to be a long line of signings Clark will make as Bury manager who he has worked with before, Caddis came into the club with the distinct disadvantage of not having played any competitive football for almost half a year at Birmingham City. I saw his debut away at Charlton in the black and neon green shirt and it was clear he still had the talent, with a mixture of tough tackling, calm passing and leadership. What was also self-evident was that he was far from match fit and it would take around a dozen games to rectify. Nominally operated as the most defensive-minded of the midfield three, he is nevertheless unlikely to have the athleticism for a sustained box-to-box role in 2017/2018. Could be asked to provide backup when the strategy needs to be changed or fall back to his preferred right back role, although he would be far from assured of a place there either.

Antony Kay, 34

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2016/2017 Bury stats (all competitions): 4,260 minutes played, 47 starts, 0 sub appearances; 1 goal, 1 assist, 3 hockey passes.

Principal Role: Ball-playing Centre Back

Exile’s ‘Best’ role: Limited Centre Back

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Assessment: Like Williams, he was severely criticised for his perceived role in the defensive shambles spanning from October to Christmas. Made captain on his arrival, some fans were expecting him to be like Player of the Season from 2015/2016 Peter Clarke (who has since repeated that feat at Oldham Athletic). His playing style is completely different, however. Deployed as a defensive midfielder by Huddersfield Town and MK Dons before slowing moving ‘backwards’ into central defence, his ability on the ball was principally why he was brought in but it could sometimes be found wanting on more than just the odd occasion. Not threatening enough at the other end from set pieces but the poor quality in general can go at least part of the way to explaining that.

Constant rotation through injury of defensive colleagues disrupted his rhythm and was made a scapegoat for the wider issues but still responsible at least a handful of times for goals scored by the opposition. The eventual return of Nathan Cameron, coupled with the presence of Leon Barnett and doubtlessly at least one new face at the heart of the defence (possibly Cameron Burgess to provide left-sided balance) will put his starting position in jeopardy.

Nathan Cameron, 25

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2016/2017 Bury stats (all competitions): 391 minutes played, 4 starts, 1 sub appearance; 0 goals, 0 assists, 0 hockey passes.

Principal Role: Ball-playing Centre Back (with emphasis on covering)

Exile’s ‘Best’ role: Ball-playing Centre Back (with emphasis on covering)

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Assessment: Refreshingly frank about his “nightmare season” and doubts over whether he could return, his promising start to the campaign was cut short and with it, a lot of the solidity and assurance that he provides Bury’s defence. One of the more elegant centre backs on the ball, he combines that skill with an all-action mentality that endears him to Shakers faithful, covering gaps in the backline with his quickness and anticipation. A large threat in the opposition penalty area too, his aerial prowess and finishing are all reasons why he has been scouted by clubs from the second tier before. They might think twice about it now after a second season plagued by serious injury. Like Jones, he needs to remain in and around the XI consistently to regain his confidence because what he gives to the team in other areas isn’t in question.

Leon Barnett, 31

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2016/2017 Bury stats (all competitions): 2,274 minutes played, 26 starts, 0 sub appearances; 1 goal, 1 assist, 0 hockey passes.

Principal Role: Centre Back (with emphasis on covering)

Exile’s ‘Best’ role: Centre Back (with emphasis on covering)

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Assessment: Thrust into the action too quickly after Cameron’s injury before the Oldham match in August, his rustiness (and misfortune) was plain to see. Contributed well from an attacking point of view in the first 3-3 thriller with Walsall. Second spell in the team was once again borne from emergency and two hapless performances in a week away to AFC Wimbledon had some fans branding him one of the worst signings the club had ever made. A more prolonged spell on the sidelines ended in February, when he quietly and (mostly) calmly slotted in to a back five as the right-sided centre half, who was tasked with covering for Taylor Moore’s oft-fruitless forays up the flank. It was in this role that he excelled at times. Much more comfortable on the ‘front’ foot than the back; has an air of panic when faced with a direct winger who enjoys cutting inside. His place in the side is under huge threat with the almost certain reversion to a flat four, especially given his right-footed preference. Might have to be content with being Cameron’s understudy for 2017/2018.

Greg Leigh, 22

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2016/2017 Bury stats (all competitions): 4,562 minutes played, 51 starts, 0 sub appearances; 1 goal, 1 assist, 3 hockey passes.

Principal Role: Attacking Full Back

Exile’s ‘Best’ role: Attacking Full Back

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Assessment: Signed on as the one and only player who could play a left back role in the entire squad last summer, Leigh’s early outings were not particularly brilliant. Often caught out positionally (partly in my view playing to Flitcroft’s instructions in that case as he had a penchant for having the full backs overlap) and not helped by Mayor’s continued reluctance to track back and support his inexperienced teammate. Form improved considerably after Christmas and perhaps with the added pressure of Sylvain Deslandes as cover, it spurred him on to new heights. He is probably almost as equally adept as a wing back save for not being able to cross accurately at this point in time. Only 22, has plenty of time to refine the weaker aspects of his game. Having made 51 from a possible 52 matches in 2016/2017, he will need more permanent competition to continue to get the best from him and also afford him the occasional breather. Attacking instincts may be curtailed slightly next season, so he might need to adapt in that aspect, too.

Zeli Ismail, 23

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2016/2017 Bury stats (all competitions): 1,374 minutes played, 15 starts, 4 sub appearances; 4 goals, 3 assists, 3 hockey passes.

Principal Role: Winger

Exile’s ‘Best’ role: Inside Forward

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Assessment: Hugely promising start to his Shakers career curtailed by what ultimately proved to be a season-ending injury in the original FA Cup game against AFC Wimbledon. Helped to provide much-needed balance on the flanks but his playing style is markedly different from Mayor’s; emphasises low, drilled crosses much more than this compatriot, as well as running in behind the opposition’s backline when receiving a pass in the half-space. Curiously, he has a tendency to dribble on his left foot, which can assist him when cutting inside against especially one-sided defenders. His consistency wavered slightly when without Pope, there was a less obvious ‘target’ in the middle to aim for and is similarly reluctant to help out his full back on the counter or under sustained pressure. With a full pre-season behind him, he is likely to regain his spot in the XI but will face competition from both Jack Mackreth (should he stay) and at least two promising youth players, neither of which were factors when he was one of the first names on the team-sheet in the early part of the season.

Jack Mackreth, 25

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2016/2017 Bury stats (all competitions): 155 minutes played, 1 start, 2 sub appearances; 0 goals, 1 assist, 0 hockey passes.

Principal Role: Winger

Exile’s ‘Best’ role: Defensive Winger

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Assessment: Difficult to draw too many definitive conclusions from such limited viewing. Mackreth’s signing by Chris Brass was certainly a surprise but once the shape was changed to wing-backs, it sounded the death knell for his continued inclusion, at least for last season. He did manage an assist on his debut against Sheffield United but that was the only one of the three games he started. Should he still be in Clark’s plans (and he was recalled early from his loan deal at previous club Macclesfield Town). Tendency to track back could see him be a more prominent figure in games where Bury are underdogs to win or play against teams mostly set up for counter-attacks. Again, caution must be advised on this assessment but I hope to see more of him if he remains a Bury player.

Neil Danns, 34

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2016/2017 Bury stats (all competitions): 1,303 minutes played, 16 starts, 5 sub appearances; 2 goals, 1 assist, 0 hockey passes.

Principal Role: Box-to-Box Midfielder

Exile’s ‘Best’ role: Box-to-Box Midfielder

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Assessment: Initial games, especially his competitive debut for Bury, had this blogger hopeful that the long search for a ‘true’ box-to-box midfielder was over. More than any other outfield player however, he disappointed, particularly given his pedigree. A victim of erratic role changes (exacerbated by injuries), he was woefully inadequate at right back and you could tell that teams were targetting him, which is never a good sign. Blackpool appear to have got the best from him as he continues his loan spell at Bloomfield Road with the Tangerines in the play-off semis. Future at Gigg Lane despite change of management since he commenced his stint in the fourth tier brings little assurance to his future, even though the shape is likely to be favourable.

Andrew Tutte, 26

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2016/2017 Bury stats (all competitions): 1,212 minutes played, 14 starts, 7 sub appearances; 1 goal, 1 assist, 0 hockey passes.

Principal Role: Central Midfielder

Exile’s ‘Best’ role: Central Midfielder

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Assessment: Still the most ‘balanced’ central midfielder on the books, Tutte’s season, like so many others, never really got going thanks in chief to several sustained injury spells. I maintain that he is better facing away from his own goal than towards it and has most of the key ingredients required for his role – no lack of effort and endeavour, tough and mostly clean when attempting to win the ball, plays simple passes well and can be capable of the spectacular when shooting from distance. However, he has not improved enough in his time at the club to be anything but a squad player. That said, his chances to demonstrate anything to the contrary have been stifled because of two sustained years without long runs in the XI. If the coaching team can work extensively on drills with him to work on his defensive qualities on the counter and creativity going forwards, he could still prove himself to be capable. Like with Jones, there are a few variables that hinge on sustained match fitness.

Scott Burgess, 20

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2016/2017 Bury stats (all competitions): 1,079 minutes played, 14 starts, 3 sub appearances; 2 goals, 2 assists, 1 hockey pass.

Principal Role: Central Midfielder

Exile’s ‘Best’ role: Attacking Midfielder

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Assessment: Leapt at the chance afforded to him by Brass and came in from the cold with his involvement in the first team under Flitcroft almost non-existent for whatever reason. Can fulfill a number of roles competently, including wide midfield but likes to drift inside from that starting position. Both goals he scored demonstrated excellent technique; a good dribbler and not short of skill, his shortcomings are mostly physical but he showed against Bolton Wanderers that he can mix it up at times, too. Stiff competition likely to count against him on the right flank and his gametime was definitely less pronounced under Clark. Still only 20, the coming campaign will be crucial to his development as a player.

Callum Styles, 17

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2016/2017 Bury stats (all competitions): 972 minutes played, 12 starts, 1 sub appearance; 0 goals, 3 assists, 1 hockey pass.

Principal Role: Central Midfielder

Exile’s ‘Best’ role: Roaming Playmaker

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Assessment: It is very rare at Bury to see a 16 year-old hold his own against seasoned opposition. It is even rarer that the same player can also cause excitement amongst the Shakers fans with almost every touch of the ball. Styles is far from the finished article: he needs to build his strength, tune his positioning and become more disciplined. Yet, with attentive coaching and personal resolve, he could one day play in the Premier League. Brass put his faith in him by introducing the precocious talent when older teammates were on a losing streak of 12 in the league. Only really bullied off the ball in the match against Scunthorpe United, his vision and deft passing help to make up for a lack of raw speed. Doesn’t hide away from challenges and operates well even in crowded areas of the pitch. With the forthcoming change of shape, he will need to find a way of remaining at the forefront of Clark’s mind. Interest from other clubs remains very high but with his first professional contract safely signed several months ago, only an offer the club couldn’t refuse is likely to prevent him from at least remaining on the books for another campaign.

Danny Mayor, 26

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2016/2017 Bury stats (all competitions): 1,963 minutes played, 21 starts, 4 sub appearances; 3 goals, 6 assists, 1 hockey pass.

Principal Role: Inside Forward

Exile’s ‘Best’ role: Inside Forward

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Assessment: Historic over-reliance on him to create something ended with Ismail’s arrival and the visible burden was lifted from his shoulders. Early displays were positive and reminders of his abundant talent when he can concentrate on being as high up the pitch and as direct as possible. The number of assists he made also increased during 2016/2017, but along with his fellow winger, his year was cut short by an injury which he has only just started to recover from. An attacking 4-4-2 will play to his strengths if the left back (Leigh or otherwise) can be relied upon to cover for Mayor’s half-hearted and/or poorly timed challenges when possession is lost. A crucial season awaits.

Tom Pope, 31

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2016/2017 Bury stats (all competitions): 2,793 minutes played, 35 starts, 5 sub appearances; 7 goals, 9 assists, 4 hockey passes.

Principal Role: Target Man

Exile’s ‘Best’ role: Target Man

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Assessment: With his rib break against Peterborough United in the televised encounter, Bury’s early form similarly crumbled. Pope can only really fulfill one role well at this stage in his career and as long as he has sufficient aid, he is one of the best in the lower leagues at doing so, as evidenced by the bulk of his goals tally being before the injury. Flitcroft never found an answer to his absence and it could be argued his entire strategy was built with the former Port Vale favourite in mind. Didn’t look as effective on his return when the management, playing personnel and shape had almost completely changed. Extremely unlikely to be first choice alongside James Vaughan regardless of whether the latter stays, a return to Burslem could be on the cards.

James Vaughan, 28

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2016/2017 Bury stats (all competitions): 3,315 minutes played, 39 starts, 1 sub appearance; 24 goals, 2 assists, 1 hockey pass.

Principal Role: Advanced Forward

Exile’s ‘Best’ role: Advanced Forward

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Assessment: Hard to throw enough superlatives at Vaughan given how his season panned out. The most ‘complete’ striker in my 23 years of watching Bury play but was greeted with no shortage of skepticism on his arrival, owing to his extremely storied injury history. His ability was immediately apparent on his scoring debut and he was always most potent with Pope alongside him to occupy the physical attention of the opposition defenders. Adept with his left foot, he is capable of fulfilling a number of roles, given his astonishingly high work rate, above average physicality, hold-up play and the range of shots he tries. Understandably on-committal when interviewed about his future when receiving the never-in-doubt Player of the Season award, it would almost certainly take a record transfer fee received by the club for him to be allowed to leave.

George Miller, 18

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2016/2017 Bury stats (all competitions): 1,140 minutes played, 5 starts, 26 sub appearances; 8 goals, 0 assists, 0 hockey passes.

Principal Role: Shadow Striker

Exile’s ‘Best’ role: Shadow Striker

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Assessment: With a goals-per-minute ratio startlingly similar to Vaughan’s, Bury have another raw talent on their hands. Thrown on with nothing to lose against Northampton, he popped up with a well-taken header and hasn’t looked back since. Extensive work is required on his first touch but his actual dribbling skills are at least competent. His gait belies his speed and seems most at home when running from deep, harrying opposition defenders into mistakes. Could equally work as a poacher, the perennial sub is likely to remain just that in 2017/2018 but his goals record won’t have been ignored by other clubs either. He has all the mental ingredients a striker needs in the modern game: he just needs the physical side to catch up in the coming months.

Ryan Lowe, 38

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2016/2017 Bury stats (all competitions): 533 minutes played, 7 starts, 5 sub appearances; 1 goal, 1 assist, 1 hockey pass.

Principal Role: Advanced Forward

Exile’s ‘Best’ role: Defensive Forward

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Assessment: The very popular striker was brought back for a third time to Gigg Lane in January but principally to be a coach. He has always held ambitions of becoming a manager (and has stated on local radio that he wants to be Bury’s at some future point in time). On the pitch, his reading of the flow of a match and game management ranked amongst the best in the third tier. Crucial winner against Charlton demonstrated he still had a clinical edge. Didn’t complete 90 minutes in any of his seven starts, which goes a little way to explaining his tally (as does the missed penalty against Chesterfield). Intelligent movement helped to create space for his strike partner and found a new niche as an attacking midfielder in the last two fixtures. Understandably, his age was beginning to show in other ways on the pitch but with this player registration still held, he could yet be called upon in the event of an injury crisis in attack.

U18s Promoted for 2017/2018

Tsun Dai, 17

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The only second year scholar to be offered a professional contract this season with the club, Dai will likely have to bide his time to see meaningful first team action. Signed from Reading’s academy last summer, he has gone on to fill a number of roles for the youth team from an anchor man in front of the back four to a winger with instructions to run directly at the opposition. Versatility, dead ball ability and passing range are three big factors as to why he could play his part in 2017/2018. His main downside at present is dwelling on the ball in possession when it could be recycled earlier, but that is something that comes with experience. Time will tell if Clark uses him or decides he would benefit more from a loan spell further down the football pyramid to test his mettle.

Current U18s to Watch

Will Ferry, 16

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Probably the first of the five who will feature for Clark in his first full season in charge. Capped at youth level by the Republic of Ireland, the talented youngster has already been the subject of interest elsewhere and made the bench for the final game against Southend United for the senior side. Like Dai, his versatility is one of his biggest assets with spells in the U18s across the frontline, on both flanks and in more central midfield areas. Left-footed but comfortable using either, he enjoys cutting in from the right (which is in perfect symmetry to Mayor). Another whose talent shines bright and much like Styles, wants to be the focal point when starting attacking moves.

Callum Hulme, 16

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Released by neighbours Manchester City, Hulme can play anywhere down the left side. Bury were very quick to pounce for his signature and make a fanfare of it. Like Ferry, he has also been on the first team bench and it will be interesting to see if that pattern is repeated next season.

Rob Harker, 17

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Prolific goalscorer at U18 level, he made a brief appearance against Bradford in the EFL Trophy. Bad injury put paid to any further first team forays and also significantly impacted the success of the youth team. Not short of pace or power and with an obvious eye for goal, if he can regain form, he might sneak his way into Clark’s plans.

Dougie Nyaupembe, 17

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The Zimbabwean defender has come on leaps and bounds since being a late capture by Ryan Kidd for the U18s at the start of the season. Relishes getting forward and has an excellent work rate, he can perform well at either full back or wing back. The only caveat is that there are now three players ahead of him in the queue.

Joe Adams, 16

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Compared in favourable terms with the way he plays to Mayor, Adams can play on either flank and has been a key component already for the U18s. Electric pace and good dribbling skills need to be allied with knowing when to release the ball, but once again, the talent is there.

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A more comprehensive tactical article covering where and how Bury as a collective on the pitch need to improve next season will be published later this week, including the two new signings (at the time of writing!).

 

2016/2017 Season Review

Another season of tumult is done and three months of more of the same are likely to await both Bury as a football club and its fans. The retained list is only the start of a massive rebuilding process Lee Clark, Alan Thompson, the board and the rest of the management and recruiting team will undertake to achieve Stewart Day’s stated aim of pushing for promotion by this time in 2018.

Of course, at the dawn of 2016/2017, David Flitcroft’s job was considered to be one of the safest in the EFL. Many column inches in the local press, airtime given on talkSPORT and BBC Radio Manchester and YouTube to the ‘special relationship’ he and Day enjoyed. The Shakers had of course a mixed campaign in 2015/2016, with a strong start that was halted by injuries, tactical naivety and inflexibility on the manager’s part, eventually finishing in 14th 16th after the decision to give Callum Styles a very early debut in his career backfired (through no fault of the player).

My own personal expectations were tempered by not adequately replacing Leon Clarke. The languid target man had largely carried the Shakers’ forward line but had departed to promotion favourites Sheffield United; Tom Pope had found goals at a premium and Nicky Clark, signed after his release by Glasgow Rangers, was untested in English football. All in all, I would have been happy by a repeat of the original finishing position, considering question marks were present in attack, whether Neil Danns could be the midfield dynamo Bury had required for years in an attacking 4-4-2 shape, not forgetting the lack of defensive cover for Greg Leigh.

August

Not much was expected from the first match of the campaign against recently relegated Charlton Athletic, but thanks to a Danns penalty and a rare goal from Kelvin Etuhu, Bury got their season off to a perfect start. They then made their customary first round exit in the EFL Cup away at Championship outfit Burton Albion after at least forcing the encounter to go to extra time.

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A winless run of three games (which would look like an Indian summer not long afterwards) followed, with a stalemate at Coventry City bettering the previous trip to the Ricoh by six sandwiched between narrow defeats to Gillingham and local rivals Oldham Athletic, with Leon Barnett deflecting the ball into his own goal; the former other Latics centre back was only drafted into the XI after a late injury to Nathan Cameron in the warm-up put paid to him featuring for the rest of the season.

At this stage, the absence of someone to finish off the decent number of chances being created by wide players Danny Mayor and Zeli Ismail was causing Bury to stutter badly; in stepped James Vaughan on a free after he had his contract with Birmingham cancelled. His reputation, like several other signings made in the summer, was someone who had a lot of natural ability but a very spotty injury record, but this was to prove to be one gamble that spectacularly paid off almost immediately.

A trip to the Banks’s Stadium to face Walsall awaited Vaughan and his new teammates, but few would’ve foreseen what a topsy-turvy game was to be played out. The Saddlers were more than good value for their 3-0 lead at half-time, with teething problems in defence and the home side possessing players who enjoy playing between the lines. A tactical switch at the interval by the manager shifted momentum in the away side’s favour, with parity restored before the 70 minute mark and a debut strike for Vaughan to boot. Indeed, Flitcroft’s men were unlucky not to make the journey back up the M6 with all three points.

The change in format to the EFL Trophy placed Bury in a group with fellow League One side Bradford City, Stoke City ‘U23s’ from the Premier League and Morecambe from the tier below their hosts at the end of the month. The coastal Lancashire side were… swept away by their county compatriots, falling to a 4-1 reverse with a strong XI put out by Flitcroft in a bid to progress from their mini-league. 15 year-old centre back Emeka Obi came on as a late substitute and shortly after was the subject of a bidding war, with Liverpool the eventual winners of his signature.

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Bury 2-0 Charlton Athletic
Burton Albion 3-2 Bury (aet; EFL Cup)
Gillingham 2-1 Bury
Coventry City 0-0 Bury
Bury 0-1 Oldham Athletic
Walsall 3-3 Bury
Bury 4-1 Morecambe (EFL Trophy)

14th, Played 5, Won 1, Drawn 2, Lost 2, For 6, Against 6, Points 5, GD 0
Top Scorer - Tom Pope (2 in all competitions)

September

Bury repeated the 4-1 scoreline just days later at home to Port Vale. Vaughan was already proving his credentials by this point, bagging a brace; the divisive Jacob Mellis scored one of the goals of the season and it would prove to be one of the few games that the Shakers truly dominated throughout.

Another win put the men in white and blue on an upward curve in a feisty encounter on and off the pitch with Shrewsbury Town, with both teams being reduced to 10. Vaughan received a second yellow in the first half for a very late challenge on ex-loanee Adam El-Abd, but the Egyptian centre back also received his marching orders for a ridiculous bodycheck on Mayor in a dangerous area of the field. With the scores level in the dying embers, the inside forward produced a remarkable turn and finish to claim all three points (it’s worth slowing down the video to truly appreciate the work he had to do).

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A rare Hallam Hope double put paid to Swindon Town at the County Ground for another 2-1 triumph and a trio of them was secured with a draw on the cards after a great recovering tackle and cross by on-loan Tom Walker that found Pope perfectly.

I was then witness to a slightly fortunate fifth win in a row, this time over MK Dons. Karl Robinson’s charges gave a good account of themselves but lacked a cutting edge, with the Shakers profiting on the counter for all three of their goals, enabling Flitcroft to claim the Manager of the Month award for racking up maximum points and second position. Two injuries in defence to Craig Jones and (nominally) his cover Niall Maher would come back to bite as the days got shorter…

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Bury 4-1 Port Vale
Bury 2-1 Shrewsbury Town
Swindon Town 1-2 Bury
Bury 2-1 Chesterfield
MK Dons 1-3 Bury

2nd, Played 10, Won 6, Drawn 2, Lost 2, For 19, Against 11, Points 20, GD 8
Top Scorer - Tom Pope & James Vaughan (5 each in all competitions)

October

A tight but entertaining top-of-the-table clash at Gigg Lane against early pacesetters Scunthorpe United ended in the Irons’ favour; Tom Soares and Mellis collected their fifth yellow cards, putting him out of the televised game away at Peterborough United. Mellis picked up a knock during the second 2-1 defeat in the space of four days at Bradford in the EFL Trophy, leaving Bury without their first choice midfield pairing, who, up until that juncture, were performing remarkably well in unfamiliar box-to-box roles despite often being a man short against most other sides’ shapes.

Their absences were keenly felt at the ABAX Stadium. Despite another former Shakers loanee, Hayden White, giving the visitors the perfect start with an own goal from a low Ismail cross, the home side rallied and dictated the tempo of the game, especially once Pope was forced off after a rib-cracking aerial challenge from goalkeeper Luke McGee. That proved to be the first real evidence that without him as a focal point in attack, the ball would not stick and the opposition would quickly regain possession, a trend that would continue for many more matches.

Another woeful performance away to Rochdale was the nadir in a literally pointless month for Bury; disciplinary problems were beginning to show, with only nine men completing the game. Versatile Kean Bryan, who hadn’t put a foot wrong when called upon previously, then had both off the ground and wasn’t seen again until March after ironically suffering an injury in training whilst serving his suspension. Mellis also saw red late on for another poor tackle, which only highlighted his lack of ability in timing them correctly.

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Flitcroft could count himself unlucky to lose to AFC Wimbledon the following Tuesday, however. An injury time winner by Jonathan Meades dealt another hammer blow to dwindling confidence amongst both players and fans that there was any chance of turning the corner and arresting the slide back down the standings.

Another televised game followed at home to local rivals Bolton Wanderers for the first league meeting in 17 years. The dour tie was settled by two penalties scored by the talented and… canny forward Zach Clough, who had a slice of fortune with both incidents but showed his composure to stroke the ball past Ben Williams on each occasion.

A sixth league defeat in a row was dished out at the Sixfields Stadium by Northampton Town. The Cobblers romped to a 3-0 lead at a canter; two late goals in reply were insufficient. However, the first consolation was also a first for George Miller at senior level and he would often be looked to on the subs bench to help change proceedings thereafter.

Bury 1-2 Scunthorpe United
Bradford City 2-1 Bury (EFL Trophy)
Peterborough United 3-1 Bury
Rochdale 2-0 Bury
Bury 1-2 AFC Wimbledon
Bury 0-2 Bolton Wanderers
Northampton Town 3-2 Bury

15th, Played 16, Won 6, Drawn 2, Lost 8, For 24, Against 25, Pts 20, GD -1
Top Scorer - Tom Pope & James Vaughan (5 each in all competitions)

November

The draw for the first round of the FA Cup pitted Bury against AFC Wimbledon, with the two clubs facing each other for the second time in a three-week span. The Shakers raced into a 2-0 lead by the half-hour mark, with Hope once again scoring a brace. The visitors roared back in the second period, and, with the men in white squandering numerous opportunities, ensured a replay would be necessary to progress to the next round in a very winnable trip on paper to Curzon Ashton.

Stoke City ‘U23s’ were the next opponents – the quote marks there are because the Potters’ equaliser came courtesy of a Peter Crouch knockdown to Bojan, which forced the game to a penalty shoot-out. Andrew Tutte and Danns missed Bury’s first two and gave the Premier League side two points for the win and one point for the visitors.

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What I have termed ‘the week of thwackings’ commenced the following Saturday, with Southend the next side to profit from defensive indecisiveness and cut through the rearguard all too easily; 4-1 did not flatter Phil Brown’s men. The result marked the 10th game without a win and the pressure was really mounting from the sidelines on Flitcroft. My own personal opinion at the time was he had to rally his squad to at the very least a gutsy performance in the replay to still have my backing…

What followed was one of the most lacklustre displays in living memory for any fan, be they a stalwart or a newcomer. A 5-0 roasting, especially considering the financial incentives on offer to the club for progression, was unforgivable. That was the final straw for supporters and also Stewart Day, who reluctantly terminated Flitcroft’s contract and placed director of football operations Chris Brass and U18s manager Ryan Kidd in temporary charge.

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The fixture computer had conspired to throw up a very swift return to the scene of Bury’s collective ‘crimes’ and with the change in management, there had to be some change on the field, right? Right? Well, Vaughan managed to score… with the Shakers already 4-0 at that point. Three of those AFC Wimbledon goals came in a nightmarish spell of just two minutes. I’d certainly picked another game I could see in person that I wouldn’t forget in a hurry. An unfit Barnett was at the centre of a lot of ire and Pope, who had managed to return extremely early from two broken ribs, had this damning assessment of how things were going after the game.

The daunting short trip to leaders Sheffield United followed quickly. The Blades dominated the ball from the first to last whistle but came up against a newly stubborn defence. Then, very deep into injury time, yet another one-time loanee, Ethan Ebanks-Landell, found a yard of space in the area to ensure that all the resolute efforts of the away side were in vain.

Bury then snatched defeat from the jaws of victory in the final game of the month against Millwall. Two Vaughan strikes had the home side well on course for a desperately needed three points, only for the collapse to start after Maher deliberately handled on the line to concede a penalty and receive a red card. The Lions’ relentless pressure kept building and with the game poised at 2-2 into the third minute of added on time, Aiden O’Brien popped up with the winner to compound matters.

Bury 2-2 AFC Wimbledon (FA Cup)
Stoke City U23s 1-1 Bury (aet; Stoke won 4-3 on penalties; EFL Trophy)
Bury 1-4 Southend United
AFC Wimbledon 5-0 Bury (FA Cup replay)
AFC Wimbledon 5-1 Bury
Sheffield United 1-0 Bury
Bury 2-3 Millwall

20th, Pld 20, Won 6, Drawn 2, Lost 12, For 28, Against 38, Pts 20, GD -10
Top Scorer - James Vaughan (9 in all competitions)

December

There was a significant gap until the next match for the Shakers, owing to the almost annual lack of participation in the second round of the FA Cup. As well as the form column at this point appearing as though someone had put a large weight on the ‘L’ key, the goals conceded column was increasing at an alarming rate.

The centre back situation in particular had reached a critical juncture, with 16 year-old Jacob Bedeau drafted in from the U18s midway through the Millwall game and making his full debut at the Memorial Stadium against Bristol Rovers in an odd and worrying pairing with Soares. Danns and Etuhu offered the youngster scant protection from a marauding Pirates midfield, with the former getting himself sent off in one of the stupidest ways possible, hitting James Clarke for no apparent reason. General fan opinion of Danns was brutal before the incident but turned positively mutinous afterwards.

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The two small chinks of light from the 4-2 defeat were the goalscorers Scott Burgess and George Miller. Burgess had found opportunities severely limited under Flitcroft for whatever reason and I had hitherto concluded that his future in the game lay away from BL9. Under Brass and Kidd however, he was beginning to feature much more prominently and look like one of the better individual players in a side that had scarcely shown themselves to be a coherent unit in the losing run. The fitter younger Miller was mostly being used as a late sub but had found the knack of being in the right place at the right time to score, which is half the battle for any forward.

Goalkeeper Ben Williams was also coming under a lot of scrutiny, with several mistakes damaging confidence in him and affecting his on-field rapport with his defence. He was dropped for the home match versus Oxford United, only to be witness to his replacement Paul Rachubka simply not dealing with the free kicks Michael Appleton’s men won in advanced areas. Bury let another lead slip and the 12th straight league defeat was sealed when the hapless Leigh turned a low cross into his own net.

The Christmas period is historically not a time of good tidings on the pitch for the Shakers with trips to Fleetwood Town and Bradford appearing to be written off as numbers 13 and 14 on the long run, especially considering that no team in League One up to that point had prevented the Cod Army from scoring and Valley Parade always enjoying a large contingent of support and a partisan atmosphere.

Remarkably, both encounters ended in draws 0-0 and 1-1 respectively. Rob Lainton had been brought back to the club just prior to the short drive to Highbury Stadium but in truth, had little to do as Uwe Rösler’s players couldn’t find a consistent way through the backline, with Bedeau acquitting himself well alongside captain Antony Kay (another senior player who had received a barrage of criticism since joining).

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The match on the 30th was a more entertaining affair, which had probably my favourite assist of the season from Pope’s hold-up play and pass to Burgess was matched by his finish. Nicky Law deservedly gave the Bantams a share of the spoils with a fierce shot just outside the area in the second half but a modicum of pride was restored for the fight and at time skill Bury had displayed in the pair of fixtures. One of the chief architects in the mini revival was Callum Styles, who held his own admirably by coming into a high pressure environment and arguably showing up several of his peers with his early performances. Remarkably, they still found themselves just outside the relegation zone as 2016 segued into the new year.

Bristol Rovers 4-2 Bury
Bury 2-3 Oxford United
Fleetwood Town 0-0 Bury
Bradford City 1-1 Bury

20th, Pld 24, Won 6, Drawn 4, Lost 14, For 33, Against 46, Pts 22, GD -13
Top Scorer - James Vaughan (10 in all competitions)

January

The transfer window reopened and Brass wasted little time in making a move, signing winger Jack Mackreth from National League outfit Macclesfield Town. He could scarcely have asked for a tougher debut with league leaders Sheffield United his first opposition in the third tier. An excellent goal from a shot outside of the area by Mellis was as good as it got for the Shakers and the constant pressure from the Blades was too much in the end.

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Two more players were added to the ranks: Reece Brown was re-signed on a short-term contract until the end of the campaign and the problem right back area appeared to be resolved with the loan signing of Taylor Moore from Bristol City.

Scunthorpe were next on January’s fixture list and it was little surprise that Stephen Dawson ran the show (in more ways than one), physically dominating Styles in midfield and finishing expertly after a long dribble for the hosts’ second. He also displayed his propensity to be in the referee’s ear constantly and appeared to be a big influence in persuading the officials to allow Josh Morris’ free kick for the Irons’ third to stand.*

(*Unfortunately, you need to have a PlayerHD/iFollow subscription to see the full incident).

Brass sought a more combative centre back in the prolonged absences of Cameron and Barnett and found his man in the imposing shape of Cameron Burgess on loan from Fulham. His first outing in the white shirt was a thrilling goalfest against Peterborough, with Bury rallying from conceding in the opening minutes to claim all three points after going a goal down for the first time all season long (and win for the first time since September). The centre stage belonged completely to Vaughan, however. The former Evertonian had been quietly impressive considering he was often bereft of service and isolated with Pope but on this occasion, he burst into life with a barely believable four goal haul in just 20 minutes. Both teams had further good chances of their own and in truth, the margin of victory flattered the home side a little but you wouldn’t find anyone associated with the club who cared.

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It was vitally important to continue the long-awaited return to winning ways and a match against Port Vale was certainly a presentable opportunity to do just that, with the Valiants similarly floundering at the foot of the table. Despite Vaughan taking his tally to six from just two games, Bury had to settle for a draw, coming back twice to claim a point but there was more than a tinge of disappointment that it wasn’t the maximum.

By the time the Walsall game rolled around, another very familiar face had returned to the fold. Veteran striker Ryan Lowe signed for a third time, combining coaching duties with his playing ones. He was joined surprisingly by Jermaine Pennant, who had a storied career of his own and many fans were skeptic as to what he could add after a long period outside of the English game, having once been at the very top of it.

For the only time in Bury’s entire professional league history, both games against the same opponents ended 3-3. On this occasion, it was Brass’ charges that had a comfortable lead, only to once again surrender it in a short flurry. With the clock ticking, Tom Soares equalised in his last appearance before signing for AFC Wimbledon on deadline day.

Bedeau also left after protracted negotiations, joining Aston Villa for the second highest transfer fee ever received by the club. The much-maligned Danns departed temporarily to Blackpool to aid their play-off push in League Two.

Further cover was added to the defence in the shapes of Sylvain Deslandes at left back from Wolves and centre back Tom Beadling from Sunderland in order to provide much-needed competition for places in an underperforming side.

Experienced goalkeeper Joe Murphy was brought in two days prior from Huddersfield Town with the first team squad now ‘boasting’ four contenders for the gloves in between the sticks.

Bury 1-3 Sheffield United
Scunthorpe United 3-2 Bury
Bury 5-1 Peterborough United
Port Vale 2-2 Bury
Bury 3-3 Walsall

21st, Pld 29, Won 7, Drawn 6, Lost 16, For 46, Against 58, Pts 27, GD -11
Top Scorer - James Vaughan (17 in all competitions)

February

It was at this point that I decided to start my own blog. I needed something to focus my mind on other than some very difficult personal circumstances and I couldn’t see any others out there solely dedicated to writing about the club. That you are reading this is hopefully proof that my choice was a good one!

What was mostly considered an underwhelming transfer window by fans was brought into sharp focus by the midfield’s collective showing in a 2-1 reverse at Shrewsbury. A late Mellis consolation was not was required against another relegation rival with the defence once again not coping with runners from midfield.

It was perhaps this more than any other factor that prompted Brass’ more pragmatic approach, adding an extra centre back for greater solidity from thereon. The home fixture against Swindon had both sides employing similar systems but it was Bury that narrowly won the game with a very softly won penalty converted by Vaughan proving decisive.

Pragmatism was once again the main talking point in a terribly dull stalemate against MK Dons. The balance between fewer risks being taken and ensuring no space was found in the defensive line was a little too skewed towards the latter. There cannot be much doubt that Brass had at least righted some of the (many) wrongs of the season and whilst it wasn’t too great a surprise that someone more permanent was brought in… but the timing and the man himself was. Lee Clark arrived with a reputation for honesty and passion but also one of overseeing a high turnover of players and a heavy reliance on the loan system to supplement his squad. Of course, a large portion of that remains to be seen…

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His first game in charge was another ‘six-pointer’ away to Chesterfield. A rare mistake from Cameron Burgess allowed the Spireites the lead and Lowe was fortunate his missed chances, especially from the spot, weren’t too costly. Tutte, who had flitted in and out of the matchday squad in another season dogged by lengthy injury lay-offs, scored a long-range screamer that levelled matters (and would later be voted Goal of 2016/2017 by supporters). George Miller displayed persistence in forcing goalkeeper Thorsten Stuckmann into a bad first touch, allowing the young striker to poach the ball off his toe and nick the winner at the death to ensure Clark started his stint in the dugout with a precious three points.

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I then took the short train to London the following week to see Bury withstand concerted pressure from Charlton to complete the double over them. Lowe atoned for his last match in the best way possible with a cool finish after the Addicks failed to clear their lines three times. The relatively new shape of the defence appeared to have the right balance and the midfield had a good mixture of creativity and pressing during certain periods of the encounter, with the signing of free agent Paul Caddis adding experience and he did well considering his lack of gametime at Birmingham for several months.

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The winning streak stretched to three after the Shakers held off a spirited Coventry fightback to be the victors and put clear daylight between themselves and the bottom four.

Shrewsbury Town 2-1 Bury
Bury 1-0 Swindon Town
Bury 0-0 MK Dons
Charlton Athletic 0-1 Bury
Bury 2-1 Coventry City

18th, Pld 35, Won 11, Drawn 7, Lost 17, For 53, Against 62, Pts 40, GD -9
Top Scorer - James Vaughan (19 in all competitions)

March

Shot and possession dominance were for once in Bury’s favour in 2016/2017 at home to Gillingham but even Vaughan’s spectacular overhead kick wasn’t enough to claim a point as the Kent outfit demonstrated the clichéd art of ‘playing poorly but taking your chances’.

Another goalless display in a local derby seemingly played on a beach at Oldham was a result that neither side would’ve wanted going into the game with the hosts at Boundary Park keeping Vaughan at arm’s length and having the greater number of chances.

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Stuart Sinclair’s ‘double dive’ swung an end-to-end affair at Gigg Lane heavily in favour of the Shakers, who also benefitted from a(nother) kind decision from the referee to award a penalty after the steadily improving Greg Leigh went down easily in the area. The 3-0 scoreline was again not a completely fair representation of the game, with the Pirates giving more than a good account of themselves despite being a man short for the majority.

The two subsequent matches were goalless affairs, with Millwall unsurprisingly bossing the tempo at the Den and Bury edging it against Fleetwood back in Lancashire.

The four shutouts in a row were testament to a well-drilled defence, with Barnett looking much more solid since slotting into the back five and the combination of a vocal Murphy and Kay marshalling and organising in a highly competent manner. It was for that reason that it was a bit of a mystery why the shape was drastically altered for the rearranged Tuesday night game at the Kassam Stadium, with EFL finalists Oxford routing Bury 5-1 in a display out of character under Clark.

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The individual ‘performance’ (in the loosest possible sense) of Pennant epitomised just why fans at lower league clubs are cynical about players who drop down the steps from the Premier League, with a gutless, lazy outing that helped horribly expose the outnumbered defenders and undermined the solid platform the club had built up over the month. Lowe’s horror tackle on Marvin Johnson, borne from frustration, was reckless and he set a poor example to his teammates with his ‘challenge’ when experienced and cool heads were required.

Bury 1-2 Gillingham
Oldham Athletic 0-0 Bury
Bury 3-0 Bristol Rovers
Millwall 0-0 Bury
Bury 0-0 Fleetwood Town
Oxford United 5-1 Bury

18th, Pld 41, Won 12, Drawn 10, Lost 19, For 58, Against 69, Pts 46, GD -11
Top Scorer - James Vaughan (22 in all competitions)

April

Bury headed into the final month of the season with a difficult five games on paper to negotiate to ensure safety was achieved. They had a longer break between the Oxford and Bradford games than usual but it didn’t appear to have brought any benefit to them as a listless showing afforded the Bantams a comfortable 2-0 win on their quest to tighten their grip on their play-off position.

Both Easter fixtures were moved days on police advice, so the derby between the Shakers and Dale was contested on a Thursday. Clark again experimented with the midfield shape (in a narrow diamond) but it’s reasonable to say that it didn’t have the desired effect. A very rare error from Murphy from a Callum Camps free kick gave the away side the boost they needed to chase the top six whilst plunging their near neighbours back into serious trouble.

Indeed, such were the poor individual and collective displays from the midfield that none of them were even in the XVIII that made the hop to the Macron the following Tuesday. Phil Parkinson’s men had the bulk of possession but found their opponents resolute, badly damaging their slim chances of catching Sheffield United at the very top and the ‘replacements’ in the engine room sticking doggedly to the task and numerous threats from the Trotters’ lineup.

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Spirited as the display was, the chronic shortage of created chances and goals were a big concern with only two games remaining. Thankfully, with Northampton’s own status assured, Bury took full advantage and ran out 3-0 winners. Nathan Cameron made a very welcome cameo from the bench after being out of action for eight months and Vaughan took his tally to 24 for the campaign, second in the top goalscorer charts in League One only to Billy Sharp. All eyes then shifted to Port Vale’s rearranged trip to Walsall in the final gameweek of the season. Another Shakers old boy, Chris Eagles, made certain that it would go down to the wire between the two sides and Gillingham.

None of the trio could muster a single goal between them, condemning caretaker manager Michael Brown’s team to League Two. Bury seemed to strangely lack any urgency against Southend, who were cruelly denied the last play-off place by Millwall’s thrilling 4-3 win over Bristol Rovers. The remit had been achieved by Clark by a single point.

Bury 0-2 Bradford City
Bury 0-1 Rochdale
Bolton Wanderers 0-0 Bury
Bury 3-0 Northampton Town
Southend United 1-0 Bury

19th, Pld 46, Won 13, Drawn 11, Lost 22, For 61, Against 73, Pts 50, GD -12
Top Scorer - James Vaughan (24 in all competitions)

Overall Assessment of the Season

Even by Bury’s own standards, 2016/2017 will go down as a very strange campaign with undoubtedly many more lows than highs. As I stated at the start of this blogpost, my own expectations were, I thought, relatively conservative. The number of injuries were one of the two biggest reasons why things started going so wrong so quickly; the finger of blame rests squarely on David Flitcroft for failing to demonstrate his ability to arrest another slide and come up with an adequate Plan B.

To an extent, the attacking talents of Danny Mayor, Zeli Ismail and James Vaughan (ably assisted by Tom Pope) papered over the cracks in midfield especially that had not had adequate attention given to them in the close season. The retained list and Lee Clark’s own philosophy are not massively dissimilar to Flitcroft’s and he will need to succeed where his permanent predecessor failed. On current evidence, he achieved what he was tasked with and credit must also go to Chris Brass for eventually finding a formula that would keep the club in League One. It is remarkable that a side that lost 12 straight games and went 16 without a win is still in the third tier and such barren spells cannot be allowed to happen again.

It is likely that this close season will be another hive of activity; youth products George Miller (with eight goals in his first full senior year) and playmaker Callum Styles will doubtlessly attract interest from larger clubs, as will several of the current U16s and U18s. Vaughan’s all-round talents, coupled with his largely injury-free season, will severely test the board’s resolve to keep hold of him.

The return to fitness of Mayor, Ismail and Cameron (and keeping them that way) will be vital to next season’s fortunes. Clark is more than willing to give young players a chance, so we will see if he sticks to his word and bucks his trend at other teams he has managed up until now. I am cautiously optimistic that things will improve but not to the degree that chairman Stewart Day is; he believes Bury can clinch promotion in the final year of his plan when he took over the football club of playing in the Championship. Much will depend on who Clark can persuade to join, flexibility in strategy and how training methods are changed to prevent the biblical scale of injuries suffered in 2016/2017.

In my next article, I will run the rule over the remaining players at the club.

The Retained List 2016/2017: What it Might Mean for Next Season

Last Friday, this season’s retained list was released by the club. I made my prediction on what it would be on the largest unofficial Bury message board as per below:

RL20162017

The reality is largely in line with my forecast; in previous years, it’s been wildly different. Listening to Lee Clark’s rhetoric since being appointed manager, it has come as little surprise that so many have been released and whilst you could argue that 17 have still been retained from the first team playing squad, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they will all still be there come the opening weekend in August, especially in one or two specific cases.

It is also a mistake to assume that because a player has been released, it means that they’re not good enough. There are countless reasons why a manager/director of football chooses to take this action, including a different tactical approach, personality clash, player unhappiness, a player’s salary being too high or having a release clause in their contract in the event of relegation or another criteria not being achieved and so on.

As I set out in my previous post, I will now try to assess why the 11 who are being let go and then the six loanees who have returned to their parent clubs. For each one and in future squad reviews, I will state what their principal or most used role was at Bury/their previous club and where possible, what I believe their best role to be based on my own opinion from observing them during matches:

Contracted Players

dudley

Anthony Dudley, 20

Principal role: Advanced Forward

Exile’s ‘Best’ role: Inside Forward

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2016/2017 Bury stats (all competitions): 180 minutes played, 2 starts, 4 sub appearances; 0 goals, 0 assists, 0 hockey passes.

Assessment: A player who undoubtedly performed well at U18 level, Dudley is another who has found the step up to professional football difficult despite high hopes being placed on him. His chances have been scant but he has witnessed both George Miller and Rob Harker move ahead of him and they are significantly younger. Successful loan spells at fifth tier sides Guiseley and Macclesfield have indicated that he has a future in the sport and it would be hasty to write him off completely just yet. Expect the Silkmen to make a move for him in the coming weeks.

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Kelvin Etuhu, 28 

Principal role: Central Midfielder

Exile’s ‘Best’ role: Ball-Winning Midfielder

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2016/2017 Bury stats (all competitions): 1,369 minutes played, 13 starts, 9 sub appearances; 2 goals, 0 assists, 1 hockey pass.

Assessment: Not achieved the level of consistency required to continue his time at Gigg Lane in the third tier. There have been purple patches where he has been deployed to great effect as a shield in front of the defence (when it was a back four) and even popped up with the odd goal or two. One of many utilised too quickly in wildly different roles as the season progressed. Hampered by injury and, after Clark’s arrival, out of favour even when fit and the team setup was crying out for some protection in midfield.

hope

Hallam Hope, 23

Principal role: Defensive Winger

Exile’s ‘Best’ role: Deep Lying Forward

Hope1617

2016/2017 Bury stats (all competitions): 2,091 minutes played, 22 starts, 17 sub appearances; 5 goals, 3 assists, 2 hockey passes.

Assessment: Hasn’t progressed on the pitch since signing permanently after two loan spells from Everton. There is no questioning the level of effort he puts into every performance but the end product is sadly not there and his endeavours are often curtailed by a poor first touch. Too often, his anticipation let him down when a more predatory instinct in the penalty area was required on the occasions he found himself in such positions. Previous manager David Flitcroft often placed him in a wide left role where his endless running helped out Greg Leigh early in the season but not much was forthcoming from an attacking point of view. A return to Carlisle might be in the offing, especially if their play-off bid falls short later this month.

Bury v Charlton Athletic EFL Sky Bet League 1 6/08/2016. Jacob Mellis, 26

Principal Role: Central Midfielder

Exile’s ‘Best’ role: Roaming Playmaker

Mellis1617

2016/2017 Bury stats (all competitions): 3,210 minutes played, 36 starts, 5 sub appearances; 3 goals, 6 assists, 4 hockey passes.

Assessment: The most divisive individual on this list in terms of whether he should have been offered new terms to stay at Gigg Lane. Recovered from a generally poor first season at the club in 2015/2016 to form a brief but potent ‘box-to-box’ midfield partnership with Tom Soares, whose rhythm once broken up through injury and suspension was never quite the same. Almost always proved to be more effective as the spearhead of a three-man midfield as his penchant for not tracking back and rash tackles rankled many fans’ perceptions of him.

When at his best, he was the sole player (besides Callum Styles later on in the campaign) capable of creating something out of nothing from the middle of the park. Often attempted through balls, which were his calling card and when they came off, they were reminders of why he once played at a higher level. Playmakers often drift in and out of matches if their creative outlets are thin on the ground and Mellis was no exception to that. Beguiling and frustrating in equal measure, his release comes at a pivotal point in his career and also could serve as an indication of how Bury will set up for their Plan A in 2017/2018. I don’t think he will have a problem in finding a new club but he must work on his discipline and be used correctly by his new manager if he is to prove Lee Clark definitively wrong for releasing him.

maher

Niall Maher, 21

Principal Role: Limited Centre Back

Exile’s ‘Best’ role: Limited Full Back

maher1617

2016/2017 Bury stats (all competitions): 1,422 minutes played, 16 starts, 6 sub appearances; 1 goal, 0 assists, 0 hockey passes.

Assessment: He will be remembered for two things in years to come whilst in Bury colours: firstly, being the only player to score a direct free kick for the Shakers in the entire season. Secondly, for harshly conceding a penalty in the televised game against Bolton (as shown in the photo above). Ostensibly signed to provide cover initially, he was thrust into the first team picture by a defensive injury crisis and suffered a baptism of fire, where every mistake he made seemed to cost goals and points.

As with Nathan Cameron in his inaugural season several years ago, it is clear to me that there is a ‘player’ in there and with the right kind of coaching (especially with regards to defensive positioning), his abilities will come to the fore. Asked to slot in to too many roles and positions too quickly, he is nevertheless comfortable on the ball and a threat down the flank. He might have to drop down to come back up but in my view, he could still have a long-term future in the game.

rob-lainton107-3568386_231x264 Rob Lainton, 27

2016/2017 Bury stats (all competitions): 630 minutes played, 7 starts, 0 sub appearances; 12 goals conceded, 1 clean sheet; 0 assists, 0 hockey passes.

Assessment: The first of two players on this list to be released at the end of the previous season, only to be re-signed under Chris Brass’ temporary management. Impressive on his second debut to keep Fleetwood at bay (a turning point after a wretched, record-breaking losing run), he nevertheless lost his place to Joe Murphy when the Irish stopper from Huddersfield initially arrived on loan in January. Shot stopping has never been in question but there are persistent doubts about his temperament, which is equally important as ability in professional sport.

Propensity to be statuesque from long distance drives has decreased since his first stints in 2013 but hasn’t been able to achieve the high level of consistency required of a goalkeeper in the third tier. Emergency loan to Cheltenham earned him favourable reviews from Robins’ fans despite conceding three; long-term future could be at stake this summer and he needs to find a club that will invest their resources into making him their #1 and keeping him there through positive reinforcement.

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Reece Brown, 25

Principal Role: Anchor Man

Exile’s ‘Best’ role: Anchor Man

Brown1617

2016/2017 Bury stats (all competitions): 586 minutes played, 7 starts, 0 sub appearances; 1 goal, 1 assist, 0 hockey passes.

Assessment: Another mixed bag for the much younger brother of Wes and the second of two on this list to be re-signed by Brass. It is my belief that football will (continue to) evolve to a state where almost all outfield players are utility men/women and he certainly embodies that now. Not quick enough to be a full back, his positional sense is best utilised in a deep-lying midfield role. Crumbled along with the rest of the midfield in a diamond shape against Rochdale, his legacy will be an indirect free kick goal that he didn’t mean. Competent, full of effort and carries himself in an understated manner.

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Jermaine Pennant, 34

Principal Role: Roaming Playmaker

Exile’s ‘Best’ role: Winger

Pennant1617

2016/2017 Bury stats (all competitions): 201 minutes played, 2 starts, 5 sub appearances; 0 goals, 0 assists, 0 hockey passes.

Assessment: The cynics who questioned his signing from day one were proven to be emphatically correct based on the limited evidence available. The only mitigating factor was being shoehorned into a more central role, where he seemed especially unsuited for, given the need for discipline, the ability to track back on the counter and be in positions to support team-mates and take the game to the opposition. His halcyon days are far behind him and had he been able to play in his more favoured role, Brass and subsequently Clark might have squeezed something productive out of him. The first half shambles against Oxford will continue to both give fans nightmares well into the foreseeable future and be a warning to Clark and chairman Stewart Day against signing players based on past glories and reputation rather than current (and potential) ability and effort.

Chris Brown, 32; Paul Rachubka, 35; Ishmael Miller, 30

2016/2017 Bury stats (all competitions) – Chris Brown: 0 minutes played, 0 starts, 0 sub appearances; 0 goals, 0 assists, 0 hockey passes.

2016/2017 Bury stats (all competitions) – Paul Rachubka: 90 minutes played, 1 start, 0 sub appearances; 3 goals conceded, 0 clean sheets; 0 goal, 1 assist, 0 hockey passes.

2016/2017 Bury stats (all competitions) – Ishmael Miller: 55 minutes played, 0 starts, 3 sub appearances; 0 goals, 0 assists, 0 hockey passes.

None of these three managed more than 90 minutes between them, so it’s difficult to really ‘assess’ any of them. In Chris Brown’s case, he was injured shortly after arriving and never even kicked a ball in training afterwards.

In Paul Rachubka’s case, the perennial substitute goalkeeper only signed for Bury because of Chris Kirkland needing time away from the game. His one appearance had him badly at fault for two of Oxford’s goals from set pieces but still managed to chalk up an assist of his own. He leaves the Shakers with only two senior goalkeepers on the books at present.

In Ishmael Miller’s case, the signing smacked of desperation by Flitcroft to bolster the one area of the pitch that really didn’t need it at the time. Out of shape and often injured (stop me if you’ve heard that sad, old refrain before), he made zero impact in his ephemeral time in Bury colours.

Loanees

Cameron+Burgess+Bury+v+Northampton+Town+Sky+jUnEhDrPqCsl Cameron Burgess, 21 (Fulham)

Principal Role: Centre Back

Exile’s ‘Best’ role: Centre Back

CBurgess1617

2016/2017 Bury stats (all competitions): 1,620 minutes played, 18 starts, 0 sub appearances; 0 goals, 0 assists, 1 hockey pass.

Assessment: Spent the first half of the season at neighbours Oldham and whilst he was part of the meanest defences in the league, praise from their fans wasn’t exactly glowing. However, in a white shirt, he has barely put a foot wrong (with the exception of a mistimed header leading to Chesterfield’s goal in Clark’s first game in the dugout). His solidity and physicality were key additions to a defence that had lacked a bit from both columns in the prolonged absence of Nathan Cameron. Strong left foot provided much-needed balance to the back line and his positional sense helped Leigh feel more confident to bomb forward. With Fulham in the Championship play-offs and a one-year extension to his contract a possibility the Cottagers could look into, his immediate future is unclear. If he can improve his composure on the ball, the young Socceroo could eventually go to the highest level of the sport on merit and hopefully Bury can be a more permanent step on that journey.

bryan-website107-3302448_231x264 Kean Bryan, 20 (Manchester City)

Principal Role: Ball-Winning Midfielder

Exile’s ‘Best’ role: Anchor Man

Bryan1617

2016/2017 Bury stats (all competitions): 791 minutes played, 7 starts, 6 sub appearances; 0 goals, 0 assists, 1 hockey pass.

Assessment: Like Cameron Burgess, his presence helped bring balance to a squad bereft of natural left-footed players. Impressive when I saw him in person against MK Dons last September in a four-man defence that suffered two injuries in the same match, he kept his composure well. His horror tackle against Rochdale signalled a long hiatus, firstly through suspension and then injury. His eventual return wasn’t as promising but he was utilised in a number of different positions within quick succession. He needs a sustained run in a settled side next season but that is almost certainly not going to be with his parent club.

tom-walker-bury-4x3201-3348941_613x460 Tom Walker, 21 (Bolton Wanderers)

Principal Role: Winger

Exile’s ‘Best’ role: Winger (but slightly further forward)

Walker1617

2016/2017 Bury stats (all competitions): 611 minutes played, 4 starts, 11 sub appearances; 0 goals, 0 assists, 1 hockey pass.

Assessment: Signed on loan to provide competition for Danny Mayor, he is another in need of regular senior appearances at this point in his career. He did have two highlights in his limited outings: a superb recovering tackle and cross to Tom Pope to provide the winner in the dying embers of the home match against Chesterfield and his run and finish against Bradford in the EFL Trophy. Almost certain to be released by Bolton following their immediate return back to the second tier.

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Taylor Moore, 19 (Bristol City)

Principal Role: Wing Back

Exile’s ‘Best’ role: Ball-playing Centre Back

Moore1617

2016/2017 Bury stats (all competitions): 1,574 minutes played, 18 starts, 1 sub appearance; 0 goals, 2 assists, 0 hockey passes.

Assessment: Tasked almost exclusively with playing an unfamiliar role, Moore acquitted himself very well. Oddly better at crossing with his left foot, he was mostly ineffective in the final third but understandably so given his preferred position and career thus far. Excellent with the ball at his feet and comes across very intelligently and eloquently during interviews, he needs to work on his left side and positioning in order to make the step up and claim a more permanent spot in Lee Johnson’s XI at Bristol City.

tom-beadling-profile107-3568371_231x264  Tom Beadling, 21 (Sunderland)

Principal Role: Ball-playing Centre Back

Exile’s ‘Best’ role: Half Back

Beadling1617

2016/2017 Bury stats (all competitions): 180 minutes played, 2 starts, 0 sub appearances; 0 goals, 0 assists, 0 hockey passes.

Assessment: Opportunities dented by a vastly improved defence during the latter days of Brass and then Clark, he performed admirably during captain Antony Kay’s suspension. His penchant for carrying the ball out from the back during admittedly limited viewing time suggests someone who could fulfill a role higher up the pitch and slot in as an auxiliary centre back if his side are under pressure. Like many of Sunderland’s younger players, he has not been given any chances at his parent club and the tumult surrounding the Black Cats at present after an early relegation to the Championship. A repeated refrain on these pages, he needs minutes in a competitive environment to help reach his potential.

Sylvain Deslandes, 20 (Wolverhampton Wanderers)

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2016/2017 Bury stats (all competitions): 0 minutes played, 0 starts, 0 sub appearances; 0 goals, 0 assists, 0 hockey passes.

Assessment: Hmm. Not much can be said without a single minute on the pitch. Was his presence helpful in pushing Greg Leigh to greater heights because he had genuine competition on the left flank? It’s impossible to know for certain. All I hope is that it doesn’t dissuade Paul Lambert and Wolves from loaning their young players in the future as their academy is one of the better ones outside of the Premier League.

Conclusion

With the exceptions of Mellis and Hope, none of the contracted players featured in even half of the games in 2016/2017, with injuries continually decimating the squad. The aforementioned pair’s exit suggests a change of direction in how Bury will shape up during 2017/2018. Clark is known to favour two ‘box-to-box’ midfielders and two forwards, which limits the scope for playmakers in such a system and forwards who have been played as defensive wingers for extended periods of time and shorn of confidence. The two in the middle will need to emulate Soares and Mellis’ early season performances but on a more consistent, sustained basis if what I believe comes to fruition. Tsun Dai has been promoted from the youth team and as he can fulfill a number of roles throughout the centre of midfield well (and even on the right flank), his versatility is likely to be one of the main reasons why he and he alone from the second year scholars who didn’t feature for the first team has been retained.

Creativity is more likely to be sought from the wings and one of the strikers. With James Vaughan almost certain to leave for a bigger club, Tom Pope’s future uncertain, Ryan Lowe all but retired, Brown, I. Miller and Hope released (as well as mobile target man Nathan Turner from the U18s), the forward line is likely to undergo almost as big a shake-up as ‘the engine room’.

In my next blogpost, I will review the season month-by month and subsequent to that, look at the retained players (as well as the U18s likely to feature), assess their performances from 2016/2017 where possible and see how they can improve and also where they are likely to be used.

Bury Me in Exile: Plans for the Close Season

The close season for some football fans when there isn’t an international tournament in the summer can consist of little more than looking out for the fixture announcements and watching YouTube highlight reels of players their club signs. Whilst there will obviously be fewer consistent posts per week, this blog aims to do things a bit differently and below is a taster of what’s to come and roughly when it will:

  • Analysis of the retained list, which is due to be published on Thursday. I will try to get something up the day after or on the following Monday. I am expecting at least 10 of the current squad to be released and/or made available for transfer. Short reports on each of the players who are being released from their contracts or placed on the transfer list.
  • Review of 2016/2017 for Bury as a whole, which will drop late next week.
  • Review of 2016/2017 for each individual player not covered by the retained list post.
  • Team of the Year/Season for League One, which I will publish after the play-offs have concluded.
  • Where and how Bury need to improve next season to be both more consistent and achieve the stated aim of promotion (which will be a tough ask), plus analysis of the ‘current’ players and how to get the best out of them.
  • A look at other clubs’ retained lists for realistic potential signings Lee Clark could make to improve the squad, with an emphasis on where he has been before in either a playing or coaching capacity. That is likely to be towards the end of the month.
  • ‘Scouting reports’ on confirmed signings shortly after they happen.
  • An in-depth preview of every League One team in 2017/2018, with rough predictions of where they will finish (e.g. ‘pushing for promotion’ rather than 1st or 2nd), as well as how they could line up on opening day. To ensure the highest accuracy possible, this will be done just before the opening weekend of matches.
  • Very short summaries or snippets of friendly matches if there is something particularly relevant from them, e.g. a particular player plays or is on trial or a new shape is tried out.
  • Opinion pieces on other EFL issues, such as what format next season’s EFL Checkatrade Trophy will have.
  • I’m also looking into the possibility of interviewing Bury players and staff, but I can’t at this stage promise that will definitely come to fruition.

Apropos of little, something I will never do on this blog is make any (c)overt political posts unless it directly affects football itself; for example, if legislation was passed capping salaries or the price of matchday tickets to £20… or how badly the EFL are currently ‘running’ things (Leyton Orient). I feel it would alienate some of the potential and current audience and I want to maintain the balanced tone I try to strike with my blog. Many other football blogs I have read cross this line, especially since the General Election was called in the UK the other week. However, very few do it well and even fewer still successfully prevent the political dominating the personal in what is still ostensibly words on a screen about eleven men or women kicking a ball against eleven other men or women.

Southend United 1-0 Bury: Mini Review

 

  • On Sunday’s evidence however, Lee Clark’s admission that his side had “limped over the line” was an understatement. The Shrimpers managed to keep the attacking trio of James Vaughan, Tom Pope and Ryan Lowe extremely quiet and the visitors didn’t manage a single shot on target, which is a particularly damning statistic given the very high stakes of the match. In contrast to my preview, captain Anton Ferdinand shrugged off both his recent poor form and the potential threats against him and his fellow defenders with consummate ease. George Miller was similarly dominated when he came on for Pope early in the second half and it will prove to be a harsh learning experience for the youngster.

 

  • The midfield shape that had worked well against Northampton for Clark was found wanting against a more organised, quicker and skillful unit. With Lowe often too far in advance of Andrew Tutte and Paul Caddis, Phil Brown’s men were able to play in between them effectively and hog possession in more penetrative areas. Ryan Leonard was desperately unlucky with a snapshot from outside the box in one such passage of play to hit the outside of the post with stopper Joe Murphy beaten at his near post by the pace of the ball.

 

  • The hosts’ midfield dominance made for a solid platform for Simon Cox and Marc-Antoine Fortuné to stay as high up the pitch as possible and look for pockets of space in between the centre backs and draw fouls from them on the turn. With three of Bury’s back five issued with yellow cards, proceedings increasingly played into the strikers’ hands.

 

  • Stephen McLaughlin’s terrific half-volley for the only goal at Roots Hall was a reminder of the effectiveness of late runs into the area from midfield in open play. Very rarely this season have the Lancashire outfit had more than two lurking from crosses and although Leon Barnett’s poor headed clearance was straight into his unmarked path, it underlines how important the second ball can be from such situations from both a defensive and attacking point of view. Most successful teams know when and where to get bodies forward to hurt their opposition. Southend have frequently managed to do this throughout 2016/2017 and even with several injuries of their own to key players, they look to have the squad to push on next season and go higher.

 

  • There were only two small silver linings for the away supporters to hold onto (other than retaining third tier status). Danny Mayor made a cameo from the bench after such a long spell out and whilst clearly not 100% yet, he showed flashes of why he has been so sorely missed. The second green shoot of promise was having Will Ferry named alongside him after another excellent showing for the U18s in the penalty shootout defeat to Blackpool in midweek. Like Mayor, he carries a threat in the final third in wide(r) areas that has been lacking and it would be no surprise to see him feature heavily in Clark’s plans next season and he is bound to be joined by at least several of his teammates given the manager’s emphasis on handing sustained opportunities to talented players regardless of age.

 

  • I managed to narrowly triumph over my 19 month-old son with score predictions from when this blog started at the end of January. I’m not sure I deserve much of an award for it though!