It would be exceptionally easy to characterise the eye-catching headline of this post as a knee-jerk reaction to the events of the past couple of days. The first thing I would say to that is much of the content below has been on mind for quite a significant period of time (and some elements of it for four years as will hopefully come clear).
Bury Football Club have a problem. A big one. A problem that cannot be assuaged by any new signing: a complete lack of an identity. When I say ‘identity’, I mean in the sense of an abstract concept that nevertheless, everyone associated with the club, be they on the board, part of the management team, on the reception desks or ‘just’ a supporter, they know exactly what the ethos is, what the short, medium and long-term plan is to ensure Bury survive and thrive and how as stakeholders (as much as I dislike that term), everyone can pull in the same direction whilst still maintaining their own opinions of how to get to whatever the goal is. In this post, I will focus on just the chairman and the manager, otherwise it would be a lot longer!
The goal itself has been repeatedly stated as reaching The Championship ever since chairman Stewart Day set foot through the doors at Gigg Lane. Given the perilous nature of the finances and subsequent, utterly abject relegation to the fourth tier that immediately preceded his intervention in 2013, few supporters would’ve argued with the vision itself, even if 50 months ago, it was even more of a distant dream than it appears at the time of writing this.
The methods employed to reach ‘the promised land’ have been divisive ever since day one and are well-documented on here and elsewhere. The Shakers have seldom been far from the financial brink in my 24 years supporting the club and in truth, many of the decades since its founding in 1885. Different boards in the past drew criticism from sections of the fanbase for either being too conservative or cavalier, with no real balance discernible or ever struck. It seems as though from the outside looking in, the current contingent are erring very much on the latter and to a much greater extent than any previous incumbents, judging from the latest accounts.
Chief amongst the reasons for the current level of debt has been the turnover of first team playing staff. Here, I have inserted a very simple table, which exemplifies the churn since Day was in situ:
2013/2014: Transfers In - 41 / Transfers Out - 34; Total - 75 2014/2015: Transfers In - 26 / Transfers Out - 22; Total - 48 2015/2016: Transfers In - 22 / Transfers Out - 19; Total - 41 2016/2017: Transfers In - 26 / Transfers Out - 23; Total - 49 2017/2018: Transfers In - 25 / Transfers Out - 23; Total - 48
Certainly, you can play devil’s advocate and attempt to rationalise just why the churn has been so astronomically high and between a factor of two and three greater than the nearest other EFL clubs in the same time period.
In the summer of 2013, the then-manager Kevin Blackwell had next to no-one left on the books because of the massive uncertainty regarding the future of the business, so the numbers in were always going to be quite high. A lot of the recruitment was late in the close season and much of it had what felt like a scattergun approach attached to it, which would borne out once he was sacked and eventually replaced by David Flitcroft. The former Shakers midfielder trimmed much of the ‘fat’ that he deemed of not a sufficient standard and things stabilised for a short timeframe.
Flitcroft was heavily backed by Day and with the stated aim of promotion after guiding the BL9 outfit to the comfort blanket of mid-table from the relegation area of mid-table during his tenure, he made several eye-catching signings. Few of the loan deals from the summer worked out as expected and the roster was given a further shot in the arm during the winter months, with an excellent run rallying the side to third place on the final day.
In a higher tier, it was almost inevitable that further additions would be required. With the squad he assembled, Flitcroft and Day had raised expectations of another successful season. The injury to, and poor initial start by on-loan goalkeeper Christian Walton was the catalyst for a series of embarrassing deals, where if the stand-in custodian didn’t perform heroics on their first start, they were quickly dispensed with. A colossal downturn in form during the middle of the campaign precipitated more churn. The slide was eventually arrested.
Discussed previously on my blog. In short, an extremely mixed bag of players drafted in were hampered both by horrendous injuries (which some ascribe to the training methods Flitcroft employed and Carrington as a facility itself) and by the manager’s complete lack of ability to turn things around. He was sacked (with a heavy heart) by Day and his eventual replacement Lee Clark didn’t come to the club until the January transfer window was already closed.
Make no mistake, the manager is culpable as well. There is a maxim within football that a new manager will seek to assert his or her own identity on the club they are in charge of; this is normally demonstrated through the personnel they bring in to the backroom and most obviously, onto the pitch. Clark had a well-earned reputation at SPFL outfit Kilmarnock for a high turnover of players and, diplomatically speaking, he made… full use of both transfer windows at Rugby Park. It was for that phenomenon more than any other factor that I greeted his appointment at Bury with a high degree of scepticism.
That said, I was willing to get behind him to see what he had learned from his previous stints and I even read his ghost-written autobiography to garner a better understanding of the personality behind the fan favourite as a player in the 90s in the stands at Newcastle United. What emerged from the book for me was someone who was still very deeply attached to his roots and also from a managerial point of view, wanted his charges to replicate the sort of shape and attacking strategy Kevin Keegan was renowned for throughout the footballing world.
The first inklings that he would try to duplicate this particular gambit at Gigg Lane were when he was asked once survival was secured how he would ideally set his side out. He promised listeners a high tempo, high-press 4-4-2, with the wingers playing more like inside forwards and the central midfield two being employed as box-to-box to cover the gaps and shuttle the ball between the back and front four.
I looked over the roster he assembled in some detail during July. I believed on the eve of the opening game that it was a goalkeeper (which he himself stated time and time again) and another box-to-box midfielder light; the latter in particular was crucial as it became plain for all to witness that the overarching tactic hinged on Stephen Dawson avoiding injury. The reactive nature of the shapes since have suggested that he didn’t feel as though he had the right type of player in his absence, hence the loan signing of Rohan Ince from Brighton & Hove Albion.
The alarm bells rang for me when I saw a tweet from Sky Sports correspondent Pete O’Rourke suggesting that Adam Thompson was set to sign for Bradford City on loan. This is a player who had only been acquired earlier in the summer on a three-year deal, which was confirmed shortly afterwards. This is someone who is on duty for the senior Northern Ireland national team and is highly regarded, so the overall reaction to this move was extremely negative. The same can be said of Zeli Ismail’s temporary journey down the M6 to another divisional rival in the shape of Walsall.
In a revealing video interview published today, Clark attempted to justify the perceived shambles of deadline day by stating that six players refused to go out on loan and that the power ultimately lies with them, as well as tackling Thompson and Ismail’s departures head-on. It is impossible if you’re not a fly on the wall to verify his claims (especially when you only hear one version of events) but I would say that it’s a situation that he has helped to create and is unlikely to be because they enjoy training and being around the ‘Premier League’ facilities. To have that many players who are not part of your plans at a club like Bury does not augur well for harmony within the squad and an act of contrition from both player(s) and manager might be required if illness, injury and suspensions bite as the months go by.
He has probably regained the majority with his candid press conference but he will only keep them with a vastly improved set of results and performances during September. The ‘honeymoon period’ was almost wiped out overnight with the week’s events and as he says himself, “talk is cheap”.
All of the above has happened under Day’s guise. He has sanctioned a grand total of 261 incoming and outgoing transfers up to and including last night in nine windows. You can put the first year of his stewardship down to naivety and ‘starting’ later than most other clubs after the fallout of the dying embers of 2012/2013 but after that, my sympathy evaporates. As many fans of the club are often figuratively beaten over the head with, Bury are not a well-supported side in terms of attendances and as a business, they are still largely reliant on gate receipts to make up the bulk of the income (I will talk about efforts to start to move the club into more diversified business model in another blogpost).
It is his responsibility downwards to ensure a coherent strategy is adhered to by the club; from the perhaps more mundane matters such as comms through the official website and social media, the annual saga with the kits releasing the last of any club in the top four tiers (and only sporadically available online) to how the club are perceived in the wider football and public spheres. The turnover in player is but one important issue; supporters have every right to continue to question his regime as at the moment to me at least, it feels like four years of chrysalis have taken place: Bury Football Club aren’t quite what they once were before his arrival but neither are they yet, in the best sense of the term, a slick operation fit for the challenges ahead in the 21st Century.
The extremely ephemeral nature of the players at the club I love bothers me much more than seeing a different formation frequently or players being ‘out of position’. It is indicative of a deeper uncertainty at the core and until it is addressed, it’s difficult to envisage how fans can be brought back on board and continually invest their time, effort and money without many grumbles or qualms.
You’d be forgiven for believing that there wasn’t a match on tomorrow with all the tumult this week. Graham Alexander’s Scunthorpe United are the visitors to south Lancashire and it must be especially difficult for them to know what to expect from Clark. The Iron are in fine fettle in the league and mercilessly took apart 10-man Plymouth Argyle 4-0 in their last outing in the division.
New loan signing Mihai Dobre will be absent with Romania U21s. Michael Smith, a target man added to the squad after his contract at Portsmouth, is unlikely to play any part just yet. Chris Maguire might make the bench, so even with a (still) bloated squad, a lot of the options pick themselves. Expect Clark to pack the midfield in the face of some swashbuckling, enterprising approach play from the visitors in green and black.
Alexander can boast a side with 20 fit and ready choices raring to go. Lee Novak, signed on deadline day from Charlton Athletic, might get thrust straight into the action and he will be keen to demonstrate just why Clark retains a great fondness for him. Paddy Madden and Kevin van Veen are not exactly poor alternatives and it is tremendously difficult to see a weak link in that XI or on the bench, especially the trio behind the lone striker.
As for a prediction, I have to again plump for a win for the opposition. The more settled visitors are on a high and they have good reason to be. They might find it a touch harder to penetrate the Shakers’ midfield with Ince’s physicality in particular but should still prove to be too much at this moment in time. The lack of creativity and too much respect paid to the opposition by the hosts is another distinct worry, so I’m going for a 2-0 win for the Lincolnshire club.