So, ‘real football’ is finally back™.
Bury and Walsall supporters go into the 2017/2018 with very different levels of expectations. At the start of the close season, I thought the Shakers being above the Saddlers come May next year would be an indication of good progress and perhaps even a play-off spot. However, the summer has been far from sunny in a small part of the West Midlands. No sooner had I published my preview for the visitors to Gigg Lane tomorrow, a slightly bizarre statement from the board on the club’s website was issued, an excerpt of which is below:
"The club can confirm that this season’s ‘Playing Budget’ has been increased compared to last season. While exact figures are commercially sensitive and will not be disclosed, we can confirm it is the biggest playing budget we have ever had in this division. We can further confirm that funds remain available to the manager for further recruitment."
If taken in isolation, there doesn’t seem to be much more to it. However, it was in stark contrast to what the manager Jon Whitney had stated days before. In an even weirder twist, Whitney revealed afterwards that he had helped to write the board’s statement! The confusion was shared by many of their fans because the evidence (as far as someone can glean without unfettered access to the business accounts) appears to be contrary to that or if it is larger, it’s by an infinitesimal amount. No more signings have come through the doors at the Banks’s Stadium since my blogpost went live on the 26th of July and only five in total have joined the ranks, one of them on loan. From the outs, Walsall accepted a fee for Andreas Makris which was slightly lower than their outlay at this juncture last year.
It is felt in some quarters that the controversial ‘Football Fortune’ policy (an even split of monies made on transfers and cup prize money goes to club infrastructure and the playing budget respectively) needs to be altered in favour of the latter in order to keep them competitive in the third tier, especially given the reports of players’ wage demands increasing because of the trickle-down effect from the divisions above.
It is on the back of these tensions that the first league game of the season will take place tomorrow. The only likely changes from my predicted lineup are Liam Kinsella covering for the suspended Nicky Devlin and if Whitney does opt for a flat back four, Kieron Morris could be tasked with providing width in attacking areas. The squad is not exactly flush currently with natural centre back or options on the wings but the problems are most acute in defence – James O’Connor has been told in no uncertain terms he can leave, which would mean that there are just two real options if he’s not being considered whilst still present.
For Bury, a smoother ride has been had compared to their opponents leading up to the curtain-raiser… but not without one or two casualties of their own; former Saddler loanee Eoghan O’Connell is out for the best part of three months and Alex Whitmore has been drafted in from Burnley on loan until January to cover for the likely first choice pairing of Nathan Thompson and Tom Aldred in his absence and Nathan Cameron’s ongoing restricted training régime. Right-back Phil Edwards is also out of contention due to injury but might make the bench in the local derby against Wigan Athletic a week on Sunday. Craig Jones will step in for him and on the other flank, it’s a toss-up between the more conservative stylings of Joe Skarz or the pacey, greater attacking impetus of Greg Leigh.
Lee Clark has dropped his biggest hint yet that Hong Kong central midfielder Tsun Dai will get the nod to perform a box-to-box role alongside captain Stephen Dawson, stating that “he has been the standout player in pre-season”. Chris Maguire might have to be satisfied with a place on the substitutes’ bench initially as his fitness is a touch behind some of the others. Nicky Ajose is in a similar boat but could still partner Jermaine Beckford.
As for a prediction, most eyes will naturally be on Erhun Oztumer for the Saddlers but don’t completely discount Amadou Bakayoko, who, if he can reproduce the form he showed in last season’s EFL Trophy, will provide a stern test of the Shakers’ new-look centre back partnership. It will take a while for Clark’s side to hit their stride and even though prospects on paper are dim for their opponents for the season, they are good value to snatch a 1-1 draw. Whilst the scoreline isn’t as thrilling as the two 3-3 matches in 2016/2017, I think most supporters travelling up the M6 would probably take it as things stand. The home faithful might need to have a bit of patience before things come together.
A quick word on the Son Predictions: they will be coming back in an ‘improved form’ later in the season. Watch this space!