Expectations are extremely low from both sets of supporters for the first of three derby matches between the two sides (the EFL Trophy game in September sandwiches the two league encounters). On the surface, it’s very easy to see why this is the case. At Rochdale, Keith Hill quietly talked up his squad in pre-season, fully cognisant that the Spotland outfit would once again go under the radar when pundits and third tier enthusiasts alike were forming their predictions for how 2017/2018 would pan out. In contrast, Lee Clark’s Bury had plenty of bombast and media attention in the summer months, making many eyebrow-raising signings and seeing their odds drop for promotion significantly as a result.
The opening fixtures have neither yielded the performances nor points either manager would’ve wanted at this juncture. The men in blue and black had a difficult opening day down on the south coast, falling to a buoyant Portsmouth side 2-0. They followed this up by escaping from Mansfield with a slim victory to put them in the second round of the EFL Cup and did so a player light after Keith Keane’s red card. A highly creditable 1-1 tie with Scunthorpe United segued into a very disappointing 3-2 reverse at Shrewsbury Town, with a multitude of penalties deciding the outcome. A largely expected 4-0 hammering at the hands of Stoke City on Wednesday night brought their foray into the secondary cup competition to a close but there was no shame in losing to an extremely strong Potters’ XI. Of more concern is their defensive shakiness and an attack whilst boasting the likes of Ian Henderson, Matty Done and Steve Davies, still hasn’t quite clicked yet, particularly in open play.
Events at Gigg Lane have been little better and the problems are similar to their neighbours on the pitch but have been felt much more acutely in midfield, which was plain for all to witness during the sorry display last time out against Bristol Rovers. With the days available to Clark to make a move in the transfer window ticking down, no ‘replacement’ for Stephen Dawson has yet been obtained, nor a strategy to ameliorate his loss to the team.
Akin to Clark at the moment, the lineup Hill will employ is anyone’s guess. What is likely however is that Callum Camps will be entirely absent from the matchday squad. The injury he sustained in the first half against Shrewsbury precluded him from both the cup fixture and being part of the Northern Ireland national team squad for their forthcoming qualifiers for Russia 2018.
Brendan Moore, a summer signing from Torquay United, could continue to deputise in goal should Josh Lillis not make it. His time deputising for the more experienced custodian has garnered mixed reviews from Dale fans to date but he had a big say in keeping them in the game against the Shropshire side and keeping the scoreline respectable against more vaunted opposition at the bet365 Stadium as his shot-stopping ability was sternly tested all night long.
In front of him, the pairing of Jim McNulty and Harrison McGahey have not started the campaign well. The former Shaker has been so poor that the contract extension he signed in May has been called into serious question already in some quarters. McGahey has fared little better, often looking hesitant. They have not been aided by Kgosi Ntlhe on the left flank, so expect to see the attacking stylings of Joe Bunney in his place, subject to fitness. Only Joe Rafferty has emerged with some credit thus far and he will have his credentials under the microscope more than most of the teamlines if he is pitted against Harry Bunn.
In midfield, the aforementioned Keane has already been suspended once this season and is prone to making rash challenges on the counter. His inclusion in the lineup is another bone of contention in the nascent campaign but if he maintains his discipline, he can be an excellent shield in front of a decidedly infirm back four. Shorn of Camps, Ollie Rathbone or Andy Cannon will be part of the more attack-minded element in the middle of the park with Jamie Allen. Their runs will be crucial in linking the threatening trio in attack with the rest of the side and all of them are more than capable of dictating the tempo of the encounter and keeping Bury on the back foot.
The permanent capture of Done gives them both excellent verticality and width. He should seek to exploit any uncertainty and unfamiliarity in the Shakers’ backline and keep the unit deeper than Clark would like them to be. Henderson is excellent at laying on chances for his teammates and profiting from them himself and is sure to keep the centre backs occupied. Davies is a canny striker and will seek to make the most of any crosses the full backs or Done manage to make.
At this stage, it’s a crapshoot as to who will partner Tom Aldred in the heart of defence; Alex Whitmore’s reputation wasn’t damaged last time out but he could still be the victim of Adam Thompson being restored to the lineup or Alex Bruce shifting into his favoured role. Phil Edwards will make his debut at right back; a more physical, conservative player than the (yet again) injured Craig Jones, keeping Done at bay will require his concentration to be at its peak throughout.
Bruce could of course still be chosen in a defensive midfield position to more directly combat the attacking posture of Rochdale’s 4-3-3. Sticking close to Callum Reilly in possession will be vital to avoid any further chasms opening up in the middle. Bunn and a possibly fit again Chris Maguire might need to be involved in more phases of play than they would normally like to prevent Bury from being penned in and outnumbered in the engine room. The former Oxford forward could find a lot of joy attacking down the right if he can catch Bunney upfield and out of position or by getting in between Ntlhe and McNulty, the latter of whom has a tendency to cover a wide area on the left of his defence.
Nicky Ajose must also be much more prominent in the match and take heart from opening his account during his third loan spell at the club last weekend. That will require support from Reilly and the ‘wide’ midfielders who will act more as inside forwards if they are afforded the space by Dale. Jermaine Beckford is also in dire need of reinforcements when the ball is won back in favourable areas. He should get more change out of McGahey than he did against Tom Lockyer.
As for a prediction, you might have read my piece over on AFC Rochdale.com, which as well as giving you more of an insight into my history as a Bury fan, also states that the home side will run out 3-1 victors. The thing you always have to remember about a side under Keith Hill is that he always seems to set them up very well against the Shakers and they rarely concede, let alone lose, regardless of their run of form prior to the derby. The absence of Camps and Stephen Dawson from the game puts a different complexion on the battle in midfield and it could come down to which defence cracks first… and both haven’t exactly been bulwarks thus far. The extra movement and overall balance in midfield the hosts will have on the field will in my view swing things in their favour. It’s up to Clark to prove me wrong and end a wretched third tier record against the team seven miles down the road.