Month: June 2017

Club ’82 Loses Its ‘Culture’: Three Veterans Leaving in the Close Season

The lull in inward transfer activity at Bury almost stretches into double digits in terms of the number of days that have elapsed since any newcomers were photoshopped in last season’s home shirt and splashed all over social media.

In a wide-ranging free video interview, manager Lee Clark states once more that James Vaughan is ‘not for sale’ whilst softening both his rhetoric and the fans up for the 24-goal hitman’s inevitable departure latter in the summer. It is hard to see it as anything else, given that the club allowed the local paper to publish a figure on a bid rejected. As anyone who saw Vaughan star in 2016/2017, there is much more to his game than just the more visible ‘output’ and finances will dictate his immediate future with no shortage of interest from sides higher up the ziggurat.

Clark also explained the reasoning behind Leon Barnett’s move south to Northampton Town a fortnight ago and that three more contracted members of the current squad have been told that they can leave, which probably means that somehow, the club will contribute to a compensation package for goalkeeper Ben Williams, centre back (and nominal captain) Antony Kay and the box-to-box stylings of Neil Danns, who is sure to be welcomed warmly at Blackpool should the door at Bloomfield Road be ajar for him after helping them to promotion from the fourth tier at Wembley.

There are two major things I note from this news: the first is that it further symbolises represents the ‘churn’ I feared would happen under his management; the caveat to that is of course that this summer represents his first transfer window at the helm and he was always going to stamp his authority in such a manner. The more cynical element will say that these three moving on in particular is yet another indictment against the name and recruitment policy of former manager David Flitcroft, who now finds himself attempting to take Swindon Town back to League One at the first time of asking. There is some truth in that but even the most ‘dead cert’ signing is inherent with risk.

The second major factor are the ages of the three – they were all born in 1982. With goalkeepers, their chronology tends to go largely ignored. Putting Williams together with Kay and Danns, the trio are the oldest still on the books and their hastened departures will help assuage my own concerns about the age demographics of the first team squad (should they not be replaced with equally grizzled veterans, of course!). This would change the complexion quite considerably as illustrated below:

For the sake of clarity, I have excluded players under 18 who are not yet  on professional deals

Again, goalkeeper aside, that would represent a decent mixture of ages in the current 20-strong roster. Assuming they represent the last first team players to leave, there would be several gaps to fill:

Tsun Dai could yet provide a ‘fifth option’ in the centre of midfield

The focus will again turn to possible additions. Hammering the point home once more, Clark stated in his latest interview that there will be two up front. A fourth option of a different type to Vaughan and Jermaine Beckford is required. Whether that comes from without or within (Rob Harker) is up for debate.

Despite Joe Skarz’ ability to play more centrally, look out for a fourth ‘specialist’ to be brought in, especially with lingering concerns over the fitness of fan favourite Nathan Cameron and Clark’s insistence that Skarz isn’t Greg Leigh’s replacement.

Perhaps the most interesting/important gap to fill is whoever comes in as understudy to Joe Murphy. A new goalkeeper coach is set to be announced in the next week or so and their identity will be crucial in ensuring that the #2 (likely to be much younger and perhaps on loan) is ready to don the gloves should anything happen to the former Huddersfield Town shot-stopper.

I will postulate on the names and faces of all three later in the week.


Scouting Report: Jay O’Shea – A Team of Jay O’Sheas?

2016/2017 stats (for Chesterfield & Sheffield United in all competitions): 2,903 minutes, 34 starts, 9 sub appearances; 11 goals, 1 assist.

The title is a nod to both the growing number of Irish-born players at Bury and also my good friends at A Team of John O’Sheas, who run both an excellent website and podcast. I am also an entrant in the Crayon d’Or, so please vote for me if you like my content!

Not 24 hours after Eoghan O’Connell put pen to paper on a three-year deal to join the Shakers, fellow countryman Jay O’Shea signed a two-year contract in a move I was hoping would come to fruition weeks ago. The 10th permanent player to come through the revolving doors at Carrington since the last ball was kicked in anger, he represents something different to all the other new faces thus far.

As I have previously discussed at length, manager Lee Clark will go for a high-tempo 4-4-2 shape with the wingers acting as inside forwards, pushing up to the strikers when in possession. On the face of it, O’Shea will be directly competing with both Danny Mayor and Zeli Ismail for those places, with injuries plaguing the pair in the previous campaign and already affecting their training regimen at the time of typing during the close season.

However, he’s the only attack-minded player with plenty of senior experience at the club who can fulfill several roles comfortably and should Clark make good on his promise to have more than one strategy up his sleeve, it’s O’Shea he will likely look to first to be the man to sit on the chair when the music stops.

Strong with his left foot and, like Mayor, particularly fond of cutting inside from out wide, O’Shea can help stretch the pitch when deployed there. He will also quite happily operate on the other flank and drift into the channels without the ball to be another option for a teammate to pick out and occupy the opposition’s defence.

He is also more than at home in a central area behind the forwards. Whilst there is little doubt he can be creative, he is equally as likely to try to score himself as he is to try to set someone up. The bulk of his assists actually come from dead-ball situations, which is yet another box that remained stubbornly unticked by any player in a white shirt all season long. Look out for him taking penalties should neither James Vaughan (if he stays) or Jermaine Beckford be on the pitch.

The most intriguing role I think we could see him perform is actually as a deep-lying forward, whose task is to link the second and third phases and ease the burden on his strike partner. This might be the case when Bury are either up against it and need that extra body to come back into midfield to close down any gaps or when Clark doesn’t anticipate to boss possession.

Whilst he made no secret of his desire to remain with the Blades once his loan spell expired, the lack of assurances offered to him by Chris Wilder meant that he had to look elsewhere following his release from relegated Chesterfield. In his prime at 28 and having enjoyed a productive 2016/2017 with both League One outfits he plied his trade with, O’Shea has demonstrated for several years that he has the consistency and versatility required to be a prominent figure in a side gunning for promotion. That aim becomes ever-so-slightly more likely with each promising player Clark brings in at the same time that questions over the financial sustainability grow and grow should that not be achieved immediately. The dice are almost certainly loaded.



Scouting Report: Eoghan O’Connell – Strong & Stable

2016/2017 stats (for CelticWalsall in all competitions): 2,001 minutes, 22 starts, 1 sub appearance; 1 goal, 0 assists.

An entire week nearly went by without a new player joining the swelling first team squad at Carrington. Winger Jack Mackreth departed to Wrexham during the lull with barely a whimper (through no fault of his own), temporarily stalling the growing contingent.

Manager Lee Clark moved quickly for 21 year-old ball-playing centre back Eoghan O’Connell from Celtic, a player his remaining contacts in Scotland were familiar with primarily from the Bhoys’ development squad. Joining the Glasgow outfit’s youth academy at 16, he broke into the senior reckoning two seasons later and made sporadic appearances during the next two campaigns, also taking in a loan spell at Bury’s near neighbours Oldham Athletic to further aid his acclimatisation to senior competitive football.

During the close season last year, Brendan Rodgers stepped into one of the most famous dugouts in the sport and, armed with a well-earned reputation for a progressive philosophy and an emphasis on bringing through young talent, handed the Cork-born and bred defender a full game against Kazakh team FC Astana in the third qualifying round stage of the Champions League, where he acquitted himself well in a difficult environment.

An ongoing injury crisis in the heart of their defence afforded O’Connell further starts, this time in the Premiership in away ties at Hearts and St. Johnstone. The biggest game of his career followed shortly afterwards; he had the extremely unenviable task of keeping an eye on the most potent front three in world football, coming on as a substitute with the Hoops already 5-0 down at the Camp Nou.

With the first choice backline fully restored, the fierce competition to be in the reckoning for a spot understandably proved very difficult and with the re-opening of the transfer window in January, he found himself once again crossing the Irish Sea but this time well-run Walsall was his destination. There, he established himself quickly in the XI and proved to be an assured presence with the Saddlers conceding a fraction higher than a goal per game with him on the pitch.

Upon his return north of the border, he was made surplus to requirements with no shortage of suitors. The assurance an offer of a three-year deal brings to almost any footballer below the elite level in the modern game is likely to have swung things in Bury’s favour. At the Shakers, he will probably square off against Nathan Cameron for the left-sided centre back berth or could operate in the middle of a three if Clark opts for a return to that shape, however temporary that proves to be. Strong in the tackle, an aerial presence in both boxes, reasonably quick on his feet and comfortable on the ball, O’Connell’s capture is yet another indicator of the direction of travel in terms of both on and off-field ambitions the club harbours and the tactics that will be employed.

His one major weakness other than a relative lack of first team opportunities at his parent club is being a little slow on the turn from a counter by the opposition. This can be partly remedied in a number of ways but it will be something to look for if, as expected, he starts the season alongside fellow new signing Adam Thompson.

Scouting Report: Joe Skarz – Much-Needed Defensive Conservativism

2016/2017 stats (for Oxford United in all competitions): 3,003 minutes, 36 starts, 2 sub appearances; 0 goals, 2 assists.

It was all quiet for a few days… at least regarding incoming players. The once much-maligned centre back Leon Barnett, who had a renaissance later in the season, has departed Gigg Lane for divisional rivals Northampton Town. The move took the first team squad back down to just two centre backs. Only a day later however, the number nominally doubled.

Just like Stephen Dawson this summer, Joe Skarz is of course no stranger to the club, having been on the books four years ago when the last big financial crisis occurred. In those days, he was only positioned at left back and whilst he had undoubted quality, he had a tendency to be targeted by the opposition, principally because of a lack of tracking back from Mike Jones or whoever happened to be ahead of him on the flank during his first spell in BL9. His arrival from Huddersfield Town in 2010 helped to solve what had been a problem area for several seasons and he was an ever-present in the side that eventually pushed Chesterfield all the way for the title but had to settle for the runners-up spot.

The step up to the third tier was initially a struggle for him. Not only did he often face a tricky winger and an overlapping full back but he often showed the former inside, which created a big gap in the defence and often led to clear-cut chances (and goals).

His loan move to Rotherham United in 2013 (such was the desperate situation at his parent club when he was still first choice in a team that latterly had just two substitutes on the bench) became permanent. Whilst it was a step down the pyramid, it proved to be just what he needed. Under the management of Steve Evans, the Millers gained back-to-back promotions and Skarz was an integral part of the play-off winning side, earning a reputation for warrior-like performances and adding steel to his playing style, which wasn’t always evident in a white shirt.

Having to adapt to a new higher league was a daunting challenge for the Yorkshire side and once he suffered an injury in November 2014, the writing was on the wall. He moved to Oxford United in the next transfer window, dropping back down to the fourth tier. In his first full season with the U’s, he tasted yet another promotion and became a very popular figure in the side and with the fans, playing through the pain barrier to ensure a swift return to League One.

Injuries by this stage were beginning to catch up with him and slow his pace down noticeably. It was partly for this reason that Michael Appleton started changing his role to a more safety-first approach and he stepped up to the plate, completing several games as an assured, calming left-sided centre back in a team full of dynamic individuals. His former manager was full of praise for him and the efforts he had given in the yellow jersey.

It is unlikely he has come back to Bury just to sit on the bench, which does raise an interesting question about Greg Leigh’s immediate future. Although their preferred position is the same, they vary wildly in their mentality. Leigh always looks to attack and use his considerable pace to support the inside forward. Skarz will hang back much more and help keep the defensive line disciplined and intact, with opposite full back Phil Edwards similarly conservative in his approach. In an ideal world, both left backs will duke it out over the course of 2017/2018 but that is far from a certainty. A more mature presence and at his peak, Skarz could get the nod, which would almost guarantee less onus on the full backs pushing up and leave all the wingplay to Danny Mayor and Zeli Ismail in a shape that will at times resemble a 4-2-4 in possession.

Clark has made a deliberate point of talking up his versatility and for good reason. He will need players like Skarz to fulfill more than one role during the course of the coming season and he is another close season signing that has both a Huddersfield connection and exeprience of winning promotion to the second tier. It’s very clear where he believes he can take Bury… it’s the getting there that will be extremely hard.

Scouting Report: Adam Thompson – The Jewel in the Crown?

2016/2017 stats (for Southend United in all competitions): 4,016 minutes, 45 starts, 0 sub appearances; 1 goal, 1 assist.

The second signing of yesterday, Adam Thompson was a surprise to both Shakers and Shrimpers fans. For the former contingent, it’s because he hasn’t played under Lee Clark previously or for Huddersfield Town and for the latter, it’s because he turned down a two-year contract extension at a side that only narrowly missed out on the play-offs to join another whose safety was only assured on the final day despite losing at Roots Hall on a three-year deal.

Only several days prior to his move, Thompson earned a call-up to the senior Northern Ireland squad for the first time in six years, both serving as recognition of his burgeoning talent and vastly increased gametime. Initially struggling to find form in 2016/2017, he looked much more assured once Anton Ferdinand was his regular partner in the heart of the Southend backline. The latter’s experience helped bring on his game signficantly and the pairing helped Phil Brown’s charges to be one of the meaner defences in the division, shipping a little over a goal per game.

A slow start to his playing career with only sporadic appearances out on loan from Watford, it was kicked into life once he joined the Essex outfit in 2013, which was initially on a temporary basis but he impressed Brown enough to make the move permanent in the next transfer window. It was the past season when things really started coming together and his name was regularly mentioned as being one of the stand-out performers in an upwardly mobile team.

Despite only scoring once last season (an expert finish into the far corner in the home game against Chesterfield), he is definitely an aerial presence in the penalty area from set pieces, a phenomenon that was sorely lacking in Bury’s recent campaign. His ability to disrupt the marking system the opposition employs could be just as important to his new side as any more ‘concrete’ contribution he makes in the goals for column. Reasonably quick on the ground and strong in the tackle, Thompson might opt to ‘mix it up’ more than Nathan Cameron would normally choose to do but in a first-choice back four that increasingly has a safety-first feel to it, there is nothing wrong with hitting it long or out of play if the pressure is concerted and it’s the most sensible option.

Like Cameron, he is coming into his peak years as a footballer, which is backed up by the length of the deal (putting my misgivings aside about the finances for a moment). Clark’s two signings yesterday have directly addressed problem areas both in terms of adding competition for places and more apparent solidity. His above-average speed also adds credence to my previous speculation that the defensive line will be more flexible in 2017/2018, which is a good tactical aid to call upon in a pinch. If the pair play together as seems likely to be the case, expect Cameron to be on the left, covering any gaps the box-to-box midfielders leave behind when possession is unexpectedly lost and Thompson on the right, sticking to the task at hand by keeping the defensive shape and not straying too far from his post.

Whilst not always the best barometer, the reaction of the vast majority of Southend’s fans online, both to his departure and Will Atkinson’s move to Mansfield, could be hints that some work needs to be done behind the scenes at Roots Hall to curtail the number of departures of players considered to be regulars in the first XI. Of course, there is plenty of time for Brown and his coaching staff to turn things around…

My next blogpost will be looking at the (dwindling) number of potential signings Bury could still make this summer.