League One Club-by-Club Preview for 2017/2018: Bury

Best Blog or Account to Follow: This is a tricky one for me. There are plenty of good accounts out there that I’m aware of but no active blogs as such other than my own. gigglane.com is however an excellent forum and not just because I post there!


Record Last Season + Quick Summary: 

League One - 19th; W 13 / D 11 / L 22 / F 61 / A 73 / Pts 50


I’ve summed it previously on my blog but here is the condensed version: another summer of churn under previous manager David Flitcroft to improve on the Shakers’ 14th 16th-placed finish got off to an excellent start with an unexpected opening day win over recently relegated Charlton Athletic and continued in a similar way until the end of September, with late summer signing James Vaughan’s pairing with Tom Pope up top instrumental. A closely-fought table-topping clash against Scunthorpe United at Gigg Lane went the way of the visitors and things quickly spiralled out of control with 12 straight league defeats, the worst run in the club’s history. Flitcroft was dismissed after an utterly shambolic thrashing to AFC Wimbledon in the FA Cup, only for the same side to dish out another five-goal blitz in the league in the same week.

Under caretaker head coach Chris Brass, there was a very gradual improvement. Grit and determination not seen whatsoever in October and November slowly came back to the XI, as well as the introduction of several U18s into proceedings. The slide was eventually arrested with a shellacking of Bury’s own at the expense of Peterborough United in January, by which time it had been nearly four months since the Lancashire outfit had tasted victory.

Lee Clark was appointed in February and the best bit of form after the early stages coincided with his stewardship, largely keeping the 5-3-2 shape Brass had adopted in a bid to stop an alarming number of goals being conceded. Whilst it was successful in rescuing the men in white and royal blue from the relegation zone, it came at the expense of some attacking impetus and it quickly became apparent that if Vaughan or young supersub George Miller didn’t score, no-one could be relied upon to do so in their stead in a roster decimated by injuries all year long. A barren spell, coupled with rivals’ improvements, hauled Bury right back into danger. On the final day, despite a limp display against Southend United, the 50 point mark proved sufficient to retain third tier status for at least another season.

In the close season, the churn began anew.

Top Goalscorer: James Vaughan (24 goals in 36 starts/3,068 minutes)

Top Creator: Tom Pope (7 assists in 33 starts/2,554 minutes)

Tsun Dai (centre) was the only second year scholar in the U18s to be rewarded with a pro deal at Bury in the close season; the central midfielder has impressed so much in training and pre-season that not only has his contract been extended until 2020, he also stands on the verge of a place in the starting XI at home to Walsall a week on Saturday


Manager/Head Coach: Lee Clark; a successful playing career at the highest level, most notably for Newcastle United, segued into a coaching role after injury forced him to take the decision to retire. To date, his time in the dugout has been a mixed bag; in his first role with Huddersfield Town, he set a 43-game unbeaten record stretching over the course of two seasons but still couldn’t quite guide the Terriers out of League One, losing in the play-offs twice in a row. He was then sacked in February 2012 despite his side lying in fourth position.

He was made Birmingham City boss in June of that year but under severe budgetary restraints, coupled with a penchant for chopping and changing personnel, meant that the final standing of 12th in the 2012/2013 campaign was as good as it got for him at St. Andrew’s and it took a Paul Caddis equaliser deep in injury time on the final day of the subsequent season to prevent the Blues from embarrassingly slipping into the third tier. A woeful start saw him dismissed in October and he unwisely took the reins at then-Championship Blackpool just 10 days later, with the Tangerine Army in utter turmoil (he documents life at Bloomfield Road quite vividly in his ghost-written autobiography).

Suffice it to say, his time on the Fylde coast didn’t go swimmingly and the club were relegated, at which point Clark tendered his resignation. He took some time before applying for his next post, which was at SPFL side Kilmarnock. His remit in 2015/2016 was to keep them in the top tier and this was achieved following a relegation play-off aggregate victory over Falkirk. With further significant transfer activity in both the summer and winter transfer windows, the dyed-in-the-wool Geordie was offered the job at Bury with Killie in 6th place, which had been the side’s minimum target. It says something about the current system in Scotland that it was considered a sideways rather than downward step by most commentators.

An honest, somewhat emotional individual, Clark has won over the vast majority of the Shakers faithful with straight-talking interviews and significantly overhauling the roster, as well as making some notable signings as evidenced by the long list of names below. He demands high levels of commitment and fitness from his players and is far from afraid of blooding youngsters, frequently stating that ‘age is no barrier’ when it comes to being his plans for the senior team.

Ins: Phil Edwards (Burton Albion), Jermaine Beckford (Preston North End), Joe Skarz (Oxford United), Tom Aldred (Blackpool), Chris Maguire (Oxford United), Joe Murphy (Huddersfield Town), Chris Humphrey (Hibernian), Jay O’Shea (Chesterfield), Eoghan O’Connell (Celtic), Callum Reilly (Burton Albion), Stephen Dawson (Scunthorpe United), Adam Thompson (Southend United), Nicky Ajose (Charlton Athletic on loan) & Tom Heardman (Newcastle United U23s on loan).

Outs: James Vaughan (Sunderland), Tom Pope (Port Vale), Antony Kay (Port Vale), Kelvin Etuhu (Carlisle United), Rob Lainton (Port Vale), Jack Mackreth (Wrexham), Anthony Dudley (Salford), Scott Burgess (Macclesfield Town on loan), Jacob Mellis (Mansfield Town), Paul Caddis (Blackburn Rovers), Reece Brown (Rochdale), Hallam Hope (Carlisle United), Leon Barnett (Northampton Town), Ben Williams (Blackpool), George Miller (Middlesbrough U23s), Ishmael Miller (free agent), Niall Maher (free agent), Paul Rachubka (free agent), Jermaine Pennant (free agent) & Chris Brown (free agent).

Predicted First XI & Shape:


Tactics: Joe Murphy is a constantly communicating custodian and will be able to relax in the knowledge that the back four (as it will usually be) in front of him are all well-versed in the ‘art’ of defending and experienced to boot. His distribution will help the Shakers retain the ball more often than they would with most other goalkeepers in League One and his penchant for sweeping up any loose balls lofted over the defence will help win their trust quickly.

Joe Skarz and Phil Edwards are unlikely to push on too much from full-back; their conservatism is in contrast to the other options but both Greg Leigh and Craig Jones are more than capable of taking their places if called upon but the strategy would need to be adjusted accordingly. Skarz’ defensive positioning will be particularly key as there are no senior centre backs who are naturally left-sided. Adam Thompson is the closest reliably fit approximation and he will probably adopt a covering role to plug any gaps between him and Tom Aldred. The former Tangerines captain will remain fairly static going forward and will be the last line of defence between an attacker and Murphy.

Stephen Dawson’s box-to-box stylings are the foundations on which Clark’s high-tempo, high-pressing 4-4-2 will be built upon. The years since his first period at the club have seen him hone it down to a fine art and maintaining the high level of ground he will cover throughout the entire match is obligatory to ensure the front and back fours are not completely cut off from each other. Who will line up alongside him is anyone’s guess at this stage. Fellow new signing Callum Reilly is left-footed and has experience of a similar role in the colours of Coventry City in 2016/2017, but he needs to work on his concentration to make the ultra-disciplined spot his own.

Callum Styles is another option but of a completely different playstyle to Reilly or Dawson. Still only 17 years of age, his emergence last term into the first XI was a breath of fresh air and often left supporters on their feet with his playmaking, skill, ‘showing’ for the ball and willingness to drive forwards with it. He is quite slight in build but has been working on that over the summer in order to have more presence when both on the ball in tight areas and to win it back. Again, he is left-footed and would provide balance in that sense but is perhaps utilised most effectively directly (and closely) behind the front two, which I will cover in a future blog as to how I would set out the team if I were somehow the manager.

Tsun Dai has just turned 18 and, like Styles, big things are expected of him in the future… and, like Styles, he has the ability to produce today. His pre-season has probably been the best and easily the most notable of anyone in a Bury shirt. He is comfortable anywhere centrally in midfield and has made numerous appearances for the youth team on the right flank of a front three, underlining once more the options Clark has at his disposal across the park. There is currently no reason to disbelieve that his name could be on the team sheet for the first league match of the season as he has enough attributes in each role to make his inclusion undergo serious consideration.

The new wide players will offer a dimension not witnessed at Gigg Lane for years, at least on paper. The persistent injury problems Danny Mayor has are less of a concern than has ever previously been the case during his time at the club. Jay O’Shea or Chris Maguire will take his place but the way they play is markedly different to him and to each other.

The similarities with O’Shea begin and end with cutting inside on the right foot. The former Chesterfield talisman is much more involved in the transitions and superior at pressing the opposition. He is also likelier to try something unexpected and make darting off-the-ball runs into the area.

On the opposite wing, time will tell if Zeli Ismail is back to full fitness and his brilliant best. He will try to beat the offside trap and run around or in between the opposing full-back and nearest central defender, dribbling on his left foot to make it that bit more difficult to take the ball off him. Low crosses from the byline are his hallmark and there should be plenty of movement in the box to make the most of the chances he creates.

The aforementioned Maguire or Nicky Ajose, in BL9 for a third separate spell, will partner Jermaine Beckford in attack. Ajose is likely to stay further apart from the ex-Leeds hit and than James Vaughan would’ve done. The Charlton loanee likes to work the channel and can set up opportunities for his partner in a way Vaughan didn’t really do.

Chris Maguire’s celebrations full of bravado will go down a treat with the fanbase if they’re as frequent a sight as they were in Oxford colours last term; the Scottish utility forward is a dead ball taker almost without peer in League One, but his link-up work and quick feet in open play are an equally exciting prospect

Beckford still has the pace, strength and ability he always has possessed and must be glad that the options around him are quite varied. He is good in the air and it will be interesting to see how much his strength is utilised, as well as through balls in behind for him to latch onto.

Jay O’Shea is the sort of player Bury have been crying out for; more than capable of playing on the left or right flank, in an attacking midfield role or as a shadow striker, his positional flexibility, genuine unpredictability and goal threat will be crucial to the Shakers’ fortunes if they are to get anywhere close to the aim of promotion in 2017/2018

Predicted ‘Area’ of Finish: Play-off chasers. Make no mistake, it will be a struggle to achieve the stated aim of promotion. The turnover in the squad will almost certainly mean that the start to the campaign is slow and there are still one or two areas of concern in the squad. Eoghan O’Connell is sidelined for 10 weeks already and Nathan Cameron is by no means out of the woods regarding his own physical health. They represent the current backup to the centre back pairing and although Skarz can cover in that area, it’s not ideal when he’s first choice left-back. U18 scholar Saul Shotton may be called upon earlier than Clark would have originally envisaged.

There is also no competition for Murphy between the sticks, with the manager biding his time to find someone who can offer a serious alternative to the Irish veteran. Time is running out with only eight days to sign and register the right player.

The alternatives up front are mostly untried and untested. Chris Sang looks bright and a link player between midfield and attack but has no experience of senior football. Target man Tom Heardman is not dissimilar in that regard, so the scant gametime they do get in the first few months must be grabbed with both hands.

Clark has a well-earned reputation for churning personnel and given the money already spent this summer, must now focus on developing the people already present when the second goalkeeper arrives. He needs to prove that he has the same tactical flexibility his squad does, especially in attacking areas. There are very promising youth players coming through the ranks and the hope is he is as good as his word when utilising them whilst also being patient with their more senior teammates if things aren’t going as well as expected.

A late surge to the play-off places is not an unrealistic possibility for the Shakers. There are however many other clubs whose management are thinking exactly the same in an open field. Bury must reverse many of the negatives from last season to reach and stay in the top six, not least of which is closing games out when in the lead against fancied opposition. That’s where game management and Dawson, as well as other leaders in the locker room, will come to the forefront. At the very least, 2017/2018 should see a great leap forward from the lowly position of 19th.