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.

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