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.