A more defensively resolute display formed the backbone of a second clean sheet in a week and enabled Chris Lucketti to avoid defeat in his maiden game as Bury manager against relegation rivals Northampton Town at Sixfields. Harry Bunn’s absence through injury meant an enforced change to the starting XI and the more conservative Callum Reilly had plenty to do in the first period; a costly error in possession almost let through the evergreen Marc Richards in an advanced area; the veteran striker was in the thick of it once more and should’ve done much better in the six-yard area from a whipped cross by Brendan Moloney but conspired to shoot straight at Leo Fasan.
Matt Crooks, in unfamiliar territory on the left flank, got into good positions all game and showed some quick feet and at times bamboozled Phil Edwards with his dribbling ability and his cutback was eventually stopped on the line by Eoghan O’Connell. Similarly, Matt Grimes’ set pieces always looked a threat and former Shaker Leon Barnett would’ve been disappointed not to hit the target with a towering header from his teammate’s corner.
Michael Smith bemoaned the number of missed opportunities the side that started the day at the foot of the table had but didn’t convert when they eventually gained a foothold in the encounter. As usual, he was the most guilty of spurning clear cut openings, although having had a second look at his looping header over Matt Ingram, I’m not sure there was much more he could’ve done from that position and if he had volleyed the ball, the odds would’ve been slimmer of a goal.
Rohan Ince continued his recent improvement with a box-to-box role befitting his attributes. He was the lynchpin in Bury’s midfield and quick one-twos enabled him to get in behind his opponents’ defence on two occasions. The former of these was the more presentable and an extra touch could’ve been taken to gain greater control of the ball. Nevertheless, he has played himself back into contention for a place beside Stephen Dawson once he returns from injury in the next few weeks.
The game wasn’t a dour affair by any means but wouldn’t have been the result Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink in particular was after; the Cobblers have failed to score in the entire month of November and what they would’ve previously thought was an eminently winnable fixture was made tougher by Lucketti’s appointment and the first signs of his hand at work in defensive organisation. A two-week break has now started between Saturday’s fixture and the next league match for either side and there should be some key players back once another ball in the third tier is kicked. For Lucketti, it represents a lengthy period in which to instil his philosophy into the squad and also to progress into the latter stages of the EFL Trophy away at Walsall. How he handles that tie could give us an inkling into his plans for the busy winter schedule subsequent to that match.
A wave of cautious optimism has greeted new manager Chris Lucketti’s appointment and the club legend will be in thick of it from the get-go tomorrow in a must-win clash away to Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink’s similarly struggling Northampton Town at Sixfields.
The Cobblers changed managers on the last day of August after losing each of their first four league games and Justin Edinburgh suffered the ignominy of being the first chief to be bombed out from the top 92 teams in the country, thus completing an annus horriblis for the former Gillingham boss. The legendary Dutch striker was able to temporarily change their fortunes upon his arrival but they have struggled for consistency since the initial bounce; the 6-0 October roasting by Bristol Rovers in front of a shell-shocked home crowd has been the nadir of a campaign that ought, on paper at least, have seen them higher based on the calibre of player signed in the summer and some of the talent already present at the end of 2016/2017.
The hosts are shorn of several key individuals for the weekend, the talismanic John-Joe O’Toole being the most notable absentee. They are also sweating on the fitness of centre-back Aaron Pierre and Saturday might just come too soon for him to feature in the squad. The most likely candidate to be in his place is a certain Leon Barnett. The former Shaker has largely had to be content to be on the bench this season but will be tasked with preventing knockdowns by Michael Smith to the attacking midfield trio behind the target man, as well as covering for the runs of Brendan Moloney; the right-back likes to get beyond his partner up the flank on the overlap and offer an outlet for crosses into the lone striker.
Ash Taylor will be uncomfortable in the left-sided of the two; he has a tendency to avoid using his weaker foot wherever possible. However, he can still be an extremely tough customer in the air and in both boxes to boot. Defensively, he will have his hands full trying to shackle Smith whilst being mindful of the direct style of Mihai Dobre in between him and skipper David Buchanan. The second former Gigg Lane resident likely to be in the first XI has not had an easy time of it but you can always rely on him giving everything to the cause. His good balance and jumping reach make up for his relative lack of stature and pace.
Manchester United loanee Regan Poole is highly regarded at Old Trafford as one for the future. Still only 19, he has carved out a niche for himself in front of the back four, offering high energy and a penchant for being able to keep possession in tight areas and still play positive balls forward to the rest of the midfield. The talented Matt Grimes has stuttered since his big-money transfer several years ago from Exeter City to the bright lights of the top tier and hasn’t been at his best in 2017/2018 either. On his day, he is extremely adept striking the ball with either foot and has the vision to match his range of passing.
Anchor man Matt Crooks has found himself in uncharted waters out on the left as of late. He is aggressive in the tackle and fancies his chances from long range but he will not behave as a conventional winger. I’d expect him to tuck inside in all three phases to offer support to Grimes and Lewis McGugan. The classy ex-Nottingham Forest playmaker is renowned for his direct free-kicks in times past but those duties normally fall elsewhere. He will need to get close to lone frontman Chris Long to ensure he isn’t completely outnumbered in attacking situations.
On the other wing, Billy Waters is another square peg forced into a round hole. He has the requisite pace to unsettle most outfits in League One but again, his playstyle is more like a forward than someone who will take on his man and deliver in crosses from the byline. Long is decent on the end of floated deliveries and he will be keen to add to his meagre total of three goals (which makes him joint top scorer along with Crooks). Borrowed from Burnley, he works hard for the Cobblers and is no slouch with his movement.
Harry Bunn’s hamstring problem aside, I can’t see Lucketti reinventing the wheel with selection or shape. There is little doubt in my mind that he will have watched back the win over table-topping Shrewsbury Town and, taking into consideration his limited time with the group since his confirmation on Wednesday evening, will largely carry on where caretaker Ryan Lowe left off for his maiden game. Greg Leigh and Waters might pass each other like ships in the night and someone between the pair of Rohan Ince and Eoghan O’Connell will need to cut off the space on Bury’s left.
As for a prediction, I think it will be 2-0 to the visitors. Northampton have had ‘nil’ next to their name in greater than half of their league matches thus far and the formation adopted by Lowe on Tuesday brought both greater solidity and crucially, advanced support for the goal-shy Smith. Both managers have their work cut out to revive their charges’ woeful campaigns but on this occasion, I can see Lucketti’s strategy coming out on top and earning him the victory that might just see the Shakers escape the bottom four on his first attempt.
If you need a reminder of the Buryball ‘rules’, look here.
When you consider that I’m the researcher for the Shakers on this year’s version of Football Manager, that should mean I have the inside track on all the players’ strengths and weaknesses and consequently, an easier time of it, right? Well…
There’s a real divide in how Bury start life on FM18. On the one hand, you are blessed with one of the best squads in League One with some promising youngsters coming through the U18s and the minimum (non-negotiable) expectation set by the board accurately reflects this – nothing less than participation in the play-offs will do. On the other, the club are in massive debt, which needs servicing and has a tendency to eat away at any gate receipts and transfer fees received. Additionally, the backroom staff are of a poor calibre even by the division’s standards, so, with the summer transfer window disabled, my first act was to negotiate severance deals with the vast majority of them and with the replacements, instill a more collegiate approach to the running of the first team, as is one of the guiding principles of the ‘Moneyball’ mantra.
A victim of horrible mistreatment at Chelsea, Eva Carneiro will find a much friendlier environment down at Gigg…
Somehow still a ubiquitous figure in the long odds section of ‘next permanent manager’ in the top two tiers, Curbs decided to go upstairs and help me out instead…
Using the real fixtures allowed me to pit my wits against Lee Clark’s spectacularly poor start… but even he managed to win on opening day against Walsall whereas I conspired to draw 2-2. I did however manage to prevent a hiding by Wigan Athletic in the second league game after the customary first round exit at the hands of Fleetwood Town in the EFL Cup. Just as I thought things started to improve in the league (even scoring against Rochdale!), my side hit the buffers in early September. Uwe Rösler and the Cod Army inflicted another painful defeat in just a month to leave me questioning whether my 4-2-3-1 formation with plenty of individual and team instructions was really the way forward.
I simplified things to a large degree and only retained certain tasks for the more creative attacking trio in behind Jermaine Beckford… before he got injured. It didn’t provide spectacular results from the get-go but did reach a high point with a 5-0 thwacking of MK Dons, trequartista Jay O’Shea being the chief architect in their downfall with a hat-trick, which he completed in the space of 12 minutes. What followed was a gloriously long unbeaten run in the third tier, the status of which was salvaged three games on the spin in the gruelling early winter period with consecutive score draws.
Finances by this stage made for very grim reading and even a cash injection totalling north of £500k by the board in October barely put a dent in the numbers also blazing a neon red. The vultures were circling several of my better performers and one or two who hadn’t received quite the playing time they were expecting. Winger Chris Humphrey, in line with the maxim about selling players past their peak if reasonable offers come in, was dispatched back across the border to Dundee almost as soon as the window reopened. It was no loss to the roster as Danny Mayor was just coming back from the long lay-off he starts the matchsave with and similarly, Mihai Dobre and Josh Laurent’s loans were cut short at their requests. I did however extend Alex Whitmore’s deal as you can’t totally rely on Nathan Cameron’s glass knees as I needed his cover for the third round of the FA Cup. Yes, you read that correctly…
A grudge match against Neil Warnock’s Cardiff awaited and it looked like another limp cup defeat. Deep into injury time, Beckford had other ideas and raised my hopes for a flicker of a second, cutting the deficit in half. Amazingly, a penalty was then given and with the last kick of the tie, sent Neil Etheridge the wrong way to secure a replay. In front of a disappointingly low crowd, my charges were taken to extra time by the Bluebirds but they were ultimately culled by Harry Bunn’s characteristic trait of cutting inside from the left and hitting a shot into the far corner. By this stage, Callum Styles was shooting himself into prominence, particularly in tricky away games where an outlet was needed to supply the front three who would be otherwise cut off. So you know what’s coming next…
Obviously, I was in not much of a position to say ‘no’ and the rules of ‘Buryball’ would’ve forbidden it as it exceeded his value… but there were more than 20 clubs chasing his signature, so it would’ve been prudent to negotiate a higher initial fee and my protests fell on Stewart Day’s ample but deaf ears. Luckily, the chairman saw fit to at least include a 40% profit on Styles’ next transfer clause but realistically, his replacement would have to come from within for the time being.
The fourth round tie was not the money-spinning affair the club yearned for as it was at home to Burnley. Three days prior, Bury had bowed out of the EFL Trophy in the regional quarter-final stage (bloody Fleetwood!) and a repeat of the 1985/1986 jaunt to the fifth round of the much more famous competition sadly didn’t materialise.
In a case of art imitating life, runaway leaders Shrewsbury Town were decimating all-comers. The 24-game unbeaten my side had enjoyed came to an end just before my in-game 32nd birthday at the hands of Blackburn Rovers but even before that, the gap was sizeable between them and the chasing pack. In words I didn’t think I’d ever type, Andrew Tutte’s all-round brilliance in the engine room was the platform to mount a challenge to the side in blue and amber. Zeli Ismail had also returned from his loan spell at Walsall and in Mayor’s second prolonged absence of 2017/2018, he made the right-wing his own.
A decidely mediocre March had looked to scupper any automatic promotion credentials but the Shakers rallied for the run-in, even beating the Shrews during injury time through Nicky Ajose in their own backyard. The final game of the season pitted Town against MK Dons who were lying in third and were still within a shout of stealing second spot but not the title itself. My task a point ahead of them was simply to match their result and also hope against hope that they could do me a favour and triumph in the process. As it was, they drew and AFC Wimbledon were comfortably beaten, meaning Bury fell short of the crown but with a record points total and Championship football awaiting in 2017/2018. Day had fulfilled his ambition for the club in the final year he had originally set of competing in the second tier… but he wasn’t about to grant me the funds to make life there anything but brief…
The final table in all its glory. Second tier football awaits for the first time in nearly two decades… #buryareback
Just about beating expectations…
David Flitcroft, eat your heart out!
Bury’s Best XI 2017/2018
League One Team of the Season 2017/2018 – three Bury players!
Yes, Andrew Tutte was Player of the Season… for the entire league!
League One results 2017/2018 Part 1
League One results 2017/2018 Part 2
Cup results 2017/2018
Can the Shakers survive as an indebted small fish in the second tier’s big pond? Part 2 will follow soon. In the meantime, if you have comments or ideas of how to improve Buryball, let me know!
A no-nonsense centre-back in his playing days, he is remembered extremely fondly wherever he played (with the possible exception of his one-game appearance at Rochdale when he was just starting out!) and was at Gigg Lane for six years after being brought in by Mike Walsh. I started attending matches not long after his arrival and he almost immediately became a crowd favourite and someone whose signature I always sought during pre-match warm-up routines as a boy. His eventual partnership with Paul Butler was the bedrock on which the astonishing second successive promotion was won in 1996/1997 and for many observers, it will be difficult for any duo or trio in white shirts to ever emulate just how effective they were as a unit.
How relevant his time on the pitch will be in his first stint as the main man in the dugout is anyone’s guess but he will able to call upon several years of experience coaching in the third tier at both Glanford Park and Fleetwood Town and his rapport with Graham Alexander, which started when they were both in the dressing room at Preston North End, was obvious to see. He also briefly played at the highest level for Sheffield United and nobly avoided a horrible conflict of interest when on loan at Southampton in his twilight years by refusing to feature for the Saints in a contest between the two sides that could’ve seen the Hampshire outfit relegated had they not won. In a coincidental twist of fate, he left his last club Huddersfield Town after a certain Lee Clark had frozen him out for an entire season…
Being a leader of men from an early stage normally translates well into coaching. By the time he retired, he had already obtained his UEFA ‘A’ Licence but was ultimately unsuccessful in a swifter return to south Lancashire than proved to be the case as the reins for the U18s were handed to Richie Barker instead. His long-held desire has been to take the step up and for a second time, he missed out for a vacancy when Clark was appointed.
He doesn’t really have a managerial history on which you can draw certain conclusions about his tactical philosophy, playing style or how much he emphasises youth (although you could argue that even by applying for an underage group position seven years ago displays at some awareness of its importance to Bury’s ‘financial ‘model’). He had a two-match caretaker spell for the Cod Army in 2016 when Alexander was fired, winning one and losing one.
All that really matters in the very short-term is reversing the downward spiral for which the blame lies squarely on Clark and chairman Stewart Day’s shoulders. The latter has, with Lucketti’s appointment, tried to redress the balance wrought by his own mistakes. He must now allow the third permanent manager appointed during his tenure to get on with the task at hand.
At last, it appears that more than lip service has been given to a longer-term vision (at least where Lucketti is concerned). He will be able to dine out on the fans’ backing for longer than almost anyone else could at the helm. It is in some ways a brave move by the board and they should be applauded for that and I don’t perceive it as a massive gamble. Whilst you’d expect him (hopefully with the addition of some scouts) to identify several targets to rectify Bury’s woes, he also needs to be mindful that the churn of the past four years must now end. The club cannot afford for it to continue and it is disenfranchising for the individuals involved and the fanbase at large.
If his players can eventually exemplify on the pitch what he did on the hallowed turf for every side he featured in, most of the gap that has begun to widen between the ‘business’ and the supporters will be bridged. With the current talent at his disposal, a mid-table finish is not outside the realm of possibility. Healthy skeptics (like me) and optimists alike must now unite behind a true club legend because the sailing will not be smooth… but it can be a success. Time will tell.
(The caption is a dig at Neil Warnock in his second season in charge of Bury after being relegated in the first and is a paraphrase from a fanzine of the day!)
Ah, that was a typical Bury result if such a thing truly exists. Six league games without victory and after two abhorrent performances at Gigg Lane within days of each other… and to paraphase a certain 90s comedy film, just when you thought it couldn’t get worse… they totally redeemed themselves! The usual notes of caution apply – the 1-0 win over table-topping Shrewsbury Town last night is still only worth three points, they’re still bottom, it’s next to meaningless if not followed up by at least avoiding defeat at Northampton Town on Saturday… but it does feel like it could be the basis for a turnaround in fortunes, especially given the opposition and the tenacity on display. Caretaker manager Ryan Lowe had been demanding a vast improvement from his talented squad and finally received it.
His opposite number Paul Hurst did however slightly increase Lowe’s chances of gaining something out of the encounter by surprisingly changing shape before kick-off. The ever-present Alex Rodman ‘ruled himself out’ of contention and the level of protection he offers the left-back whilst Junior Brown is still sidelined cannot be underestimated; in his place was Stefan Payne whom, whilst hardworking, has a tendency to drift towards the centre. Carlton Morris and Louis Dodds’ inclusions altered the tactics even further and to the Shropshire outfit’s detriment. That said, he shouldn’t be too downbeat about only their second loss in League One; they did have a few chances to avert that outcome but it just wasn’t their day and I’m sure they will rally when their roster is restored to full strength. I was particularly impressed by Ben Godfrey at the base of their midfield. His recovery runs helped prevent the scoreline from being more one-sided than the reality of the contest.
The win was built on two very solid-looking duos: Stand-in captain Nathan Cameron and Eoghan O’Connell at centre-back in a flat four with Josh Laurent and Rohan Ince offering a defensive midfield shield in front of them. The latter two in particular have come in for heavy criticism this season but they can be more than satisfied with their night’s work, nullifying some dangerous attacks through the middle from Dodds and Jon Nolan. Cameron appeared back to his best, covering gaps in between Phil Edwards and his partner and his positioning is what sets him apart from most in the third tier; his persistent knee problems have impacted on his speed a tad but his reading of the game remains as sharp as ever.
Obviously, there was a slice of fortune in avoiding being a goal down to a stonewall penalty. Leo Fasan’s uncharacteristic decision to rush from his line to tackle Morris was ill-judged and he left the referee with little choice but to award the spot-kick to Town. Shaun Whalley slammed his effort onto the post with the ‘keeper well-beaten and Payne’s instinctive rebound whilst off-balance meant he could only guide it wide with a gaping hole before him. The Italian custodian more than made up for his error of judgement by saving smartly twice in quick succession in the second half to earn the social media man-of-the-match reward in a (for once) crowded field.
The move for Greg Leigh’s winner has to be one of the best team goals I’ve ever seen for the Shakers. It’s crucial to note that it was started by Cameron’s timely block and the type of calmness on the ball to feed the left-back from O’Connell I could easily grow accustomed to. What I’ve noticed recently about the current candidate for the player of the season is that not only is he technically very good on the dribble, he’s adept at drifting into the half-space with it as well. His slaloming run and the expertly weighted passing exchanges with Jay O’Shea and Michael Smith was capped off by a cool finish beyond the otherwise excellent Dean Henderson. It makes me wonder if his future could be the same as his past: he was a winger in Manchester City’s academy after being converted from a striker. If affordable, it’s key that the club offer him an extension on his deal or they risk him leaving for a set amount of compensation in the summer.
Harry Bunn had easily his best outing in the white and royal blue. He has always been best used as an inside forward and the change of shape by Lowe afforded him the numbers further back to express himself more before he succumbed to injury. The triumvirate of Bunn (or his replacement Chris Maguire), Jay O’Shea and Mihai Dobre is certainly an exciting one with a good balance of attributes: creativity, tendency to use their weaker foot and pace. Hopefully, the same setup is utilised at the weekend by the new man in the dugout…
Tonight sees bottom versus top of League One meet each other at Gigg Lane and it’s reasonable to suggest that most pundits would’ve had these sides’ positions reversed if you were to tell them that this would be the current state of affairs. The reality is that there are 27 points separating them after just 18 games, which is quite frankly astonishing (and depressing from a Shakers perspective). Football isn’t played on paper and in my preview of Salop’s campaign, I feared that they might be involved in another relegation scrap and would struggle for goals. Not a bit of it. Whilst not the prolific side at this moment in time, their success has been built on Paul Hurst’s astute management and severely restricting the number of chances their opponents create and subsequently hitting them on the counter.
Ryan Lowe is a familiar name to Shrews fans, having spent five years in Shropshire at the turn of the century and whilst he didn’t hit the heights he would do later in his playing career, he is still well-regarded. That said, there will be little sympathy shown for his travails in caretaker charge and his fortunes are unlikely to change come the final whistle. Openly questioning some of the players’ desire once more after the second 3-0 home defeat in a week, he knows his time in charge is probably coming to a close in a match no-one expects him to win.
When he changed the shape to a more solid-looking back four, it seemed to have the desired effect of at least keeping the scoreline from being more embarrassing. Neil Danns is almost certain to miss this battle and the weakest area of the squad remains in central midfield. Rohan Ince could be restored to the starting XI in his absence and his physicality will be vital in preventing the defence from being overloaded when Shrewsbury go on the attack. Callum Reilly and Andrew Tutte looked all at sea against Rovers but few alternatives exist to come in for them who are suited to their roles.
Chris Maguire had a modicum of impact from the substitutes’ bench and his intelligence will need to be at its most potent if he is to do damage to the bulwark in orange. He will need to make runs wide to prevent the lineup from becoming too narrow and be in good areas to receive the ball from Michael Smith’s knockdowns.
Hurst really has his side who, on the face of it, lack ‘names’ playing to their strengths and as units throughout the ranks. Dean Henderson, on loan from Manchester United, has been hugely impressive between the sticks, filling his teammates with confidence every time he comes for crosses and initiating the turnover with his ability to throw long and accurately. Abu Ogogo will be serving the first of a three-game suspension, so Mat Sadler will be entrusted with the armband and his organisational skills are key in a conservative backline. Aristote Nsiala is a colossal figure alongside him and often displays controlled aggression to either win the ball back or shepherd the man he’s marking away from dangerous situations.
Junior Brown’s season-ending injury hasn’t been the massive blow it could’ve been. Omar Beckles has a completely different playstyle but has slotted in to a role on the flank despite almost always playing in the centre up until this point for his previous clubs. On the right, Joe Riley is a steady presence and offers ample support for Shaun Whalley. Youngster Ben Godfrey has made the most of his gametime whilst at the New Meadow and has become a vital component at the base of the midfield, frequently (and successfully) recycling possession to his more advanced teammates and just sitting in front of the back four at all times.
Bryn Morris is a likely candidate to come in for Ogogo and he will assist Godfrey on the occasions they will be on the back foot; his good range of passing will feed the agile Alex Rodman; both he and Shaun Whalley get up to support Stefan Payne with their quickness and flair on the ball. The latter remains one of the fastest in the third tier at the age of 30 and he will be keen to add to his five assists in 2017/2018 with his whipped crossing for the frontman.
Payne likes to drop off from his marker to create space for the wingers and the late runs from midfield (Jon Nolan being the most prominent of those). His bustle rarely gives the other team a moment of peace and he has seven goals to his name in just over 800 minutes in League One. Not many sides play a striker so isolated tactically and yet they make sure he is well-supported when required.
As for a prediction, I fear it will be a third straight 3-0 defeat. Town are strongest in midfield and in the last 10 minutes of matches; many of their points have been picked up in the dying embers and together, these two things are Bury’s greatest weaknesses. A roster bereft of personal belief in themselves and from the stands is not conducive to turning things around and I expect Hurst to take full advantage and enhance his own managerial stock in the process.
Despite recent abysmal ‘form’, it felt good to be back at Gigg Lane for the first time in several years. It’s the only thing I miss about not living up north anymore…
The first 12 minutes were reasonably encouraging for the hosts and the only period the game in which they can claim to have been better than Blackburn Rovers with any validity. The bustle of Neil Danns (who later went off injured) was ill-received by Richard Smallwood and Peter Whittingham and the Shakers found some joy on the flanks; Chris Humphrey drew a good, low stop from visiting goalkeeper David Raya and Greg Leigh screwed narrowly wide with the custodian sprawling across the face of his goal. It was whilst they were in the ascendancy that I felt Bury had a chance of getting something from the match if they could only notch first. That quickly all changed…
Marcus Antonsson, deployed narrowly on the left of an attacking trio behind Joe Nuttall (the latter of whom was making his first league start for the central Lancashire outfit), crushed any fleeting confidence the home supporters and most of the players had in clinical fashion. A long punt forward wasn’t effectively dealt with by Tom Aldred; Nuttall was able to shield the ball well and lay it off to Bradley Dack and his toe managed to take it away from the retreating Andrew Tutte. His delicious diagonal through pass in behind exposed Aldred and Phil Edwards’ slowness on the turn and he finished smartly over Leo Fasan, who had probably anticipated a low shot at his near post.
Dack was, as ever, a huge thorn in Bury’s wounded side and once again turned provider for Tony Mowbray’s charges before the half-time whistle sounded. Under no pressure from Leigh or anyone else in a white shirt, he was able to curl in a wicked ball from the right the right flank to the unmarked Antonsson, who gave Fasan no chance with a powerful header, bouncing off the underside of the bar for his second. To give someone of his talent free rein in the six yard box was just criminal and it was Edwards’ task to stick with him.
Speaking of Edwards, I thought he was abject all game long. Granted, being bizarrely persisted with by caretaker manager Ryan Lowe in a central role is certainly not playing to his strengths but the stand-in skipper has looked utterly lacklustre in that position and things didn’t improve much when the back five became a four. Otherwise decent balls were played to him on the overlap but he just doesn’t possess the requisite speed for anything other than a more conservative task and it continued to be an area Antonsson and Derrick Williams had by the far the upper hand in.
Equally as terrible was Tom Aldred. At times, the hosts were playing a fairly high line, which made no sense purely because of how slow two of the three centre backs are, especially on the turn. With his back to his own goal and the ball in the air, the former Blackpool captain looks reasonably competent. In any other defensive context, I’m immediately worried as he looks bereft of confidence when things aren’t going completely his way. If asked to play deeper and in a two with someone quicker alongside him, it could work. As things stand, I wouldn’t be continually putting him in the XI, even with Nathan Cameron on the sidelines once more.
There were two players who could their heads up high after that performance: one of them was Eoghan O’Connell. I’d heard mixed things about him previously from those fans (un)lucky enough to attend week in, week out but I was amazed by how assured he looked. He looked every inch the ‘ball-playing defender’ he was presented as upon signing in the summer; when you take into consideration the lack of movement ahead of him, the quality of opposition and the generally riskier passes that someone with his ability would make, that I only counted one misplaced all game was astonishing. He had the promising Nuttall well-shackled and had no culpability in any of the three goals conceded. His calmness in possession was in stark contrast to most of his teammates and whilst he isn’t rapid off the ball either, I’d like to see how he could perform in a two with Cameron or perhaps Saul Shotton for company if the fan favourite continues to be out for the foreseeable future.
Dack made sure the points headed back to Ewood Park with a typical run and long-range effort from midfield into Fasan’s far corner. He easily held off the anonymous attentions of Callum Reilly to send the hordes of away fans into raptures. He epitomised everything absent for the home team in midfield at present – a certain swagger, strength, determination and creativity. The Shakers didn’t really look like conjuring much in central areas for scoring opportunities all game and Harry Bunn’s scuffed effort when free in the penalty area rather summed proceedings up.
Greg Leigh can also be happy yet again with his efforts. Whilst his crossing doesn’t show much in the way of improvement, his effort, endeavour and no shortage of skill help massively in retaining the affections of an increasingly depressed and angry fanbase. He gave Nyambe cause for concern throughout and his forays forward weren’t as costly (in isolation) as previous matches. He and O’Connell would be the only two from those who started on Saturday who I would guarantee to be in the XI for tomorrow evening were I in charge of selection (in contrast to some, I don’t think Fasan generally does anything wrong in particular but his presence doesn’t inspire confidence).
Nicky Ajose was on the periphery for much of the match but in his defence, I don’t think he was at fault for the most part. It must be utterly disheartening to witness two of the three centre backs (and even Andrew Tutte at times) just pump it long when they know he’s unlikely to win many aerial battles. His game is based primarily on receiving and dribbling in the channels and taking shots from angles. At least four or five times in the second half when the shape had changed and Rovers were happy to sit back, there were openings for him if he received the right pass. He never did. The closest he came was when substitute Chris Maguire angled in a cross from the right but he just failed to connect. He needs that sort of service much more often.
Yet again, Lowe intimated in his post-match interview that some of the players he selected didn’t make the most of their selections and it’s hard to disagree; I’ve already mentioned Aldred and Edwards ad nauseam, neither Tutte nor Reilly laid a glove on Smallwood or Whittingham (and neither were at their best) in the engine room and Bunn was not in the game at all. Contrast their performances to the U18s, through to the third round of the FA Youth Cup after another impressive display and you start to wonder whether more changes will occur for tomorrow’s crucial game at home to Shrewsbury Town regardless of who is in the hotseat. With every passing match, things look to be getting worse and they are now five points from safety. Three weeks have elapsed since Lee Clark was relieved of his duties and if anything, the atmosphere is even bleaker. Blackburn, whilst far from spectacular, didn’t need to break too much of a sweat to run out comfortable winners… that’s when you know you’re in trouble.
Tomorrow’s League One match between rock bottom Bury and an under-performing Blackburn Rovers at Gigg Lane is the first such meeting in 37 years, a longer period of time than either I or my brother, a Rovers fan, have been alive and we will both be there to witness that moment. It also represents a rare ‘home’ match for me – to put it into context, on the last occasion I was there, a certain Leon Clarke adorned the pitch… for Coventry City!
I never envisaged the two sides meeting in the same division, especially not growing up. Even at the Shakers’ modern zenith between 1997 and 1999, the closest they came to competing with their Lancashire neighbours was when there was a slither of hope for Bury to survive relegation from the second tier on the final day… but that wasn’t to be and had a similar fate fell on the visitors tomorrow under the ‘leadership’ of Brian Kidd. In many ways, it is ‘just’ another match but it is one I am relishing despite morale amongst supporters (and seemingly the players, too) plumbing new depths. It might not happen again for another 37 if fortunes don’t improve in the near future for the hosts.
At the time of writing, Ryan Lowe is still in caretaker charge. His hand was severely weakened by the FA Cup capitulation to Woking on Tuesday and he cannot escape the blame entirely for it. The local paper’s interview with chairman Stewart Day hinted that a new man could be in post for Saturday but I think at this stage, that’s doubtful. The anger is still palpable and the very least that is required by around 16:55 tomorrow is a sense that the side fought for every ball possible. Even the form at home has been dreadful for a year and a solution is required urgently to rectify that.
In his damning post-match interview in midweek, Lowe was asked if he was considering a change in shape that could be a closer match for his attacking philosophy – part of the question mentioned ‘4-4-2’ and he shot back unprompted with ‘4-2-3-1′, so there’s every possibility that the five-man defence could be ditched. Not a single player who featured in Tuesday’s shambles emerged with any credit to their name whatsoever, so I would anticipate several changes being made to personnel.
Target man Michael Smith had yet another torrid time in front of goal, fluffing several chances once again. With him in the side, it’s harder to play a quicker tempo and one of the hallmarks of recent displays is a ponderously slow build-up when on the attack, even when numbers have been in the Shakers’ favour.
The main defensive issue has simply been not performing as a unit. The away side possess several players who like to make late, supporting runs in the final third, so the organisation of his compatriots by stand-in captain Phil Edwards needs to be much improved. Both teams are likely to play narrowly (full-backs excepted), so the middle of the park will be congested. For once, there is probably more bite in midfield in Bury’s but don’t let that fool you into thinking they’ll have an easy time of it. The synchronicity between Callum Reilly and Neil Danns needs to be spot on if the men in black and red aren’t going to be completely dominant in possession. They will also need to help out more when there’s a turnover in deep areas, especially given Tom Aldred and Edwards’ lack of speed.
Chris Humphrey could be restored to the lineup to give nominal width in the outside space. Whether his crosses will still be aimed at Smith or the more diminutive figure of Nicky Ajose remains to be seen. Two players who have certainly not lived up to their billing are Jay O’Shea and Chris Maguire. On their day, they are amongst the best in the league but seldom has that been true in the white and royal blue. A triumvirate with Ajose on paper looks both threatening and dynamic, which would be a signal of Lowe’s intent to win the match rather than simply limit the damage Blackburn can inflict.
David Raya likes to throw the ball long to the marauding full-backs Derrick Williams and Paul Caddis (the latter of whom stated today that he ‘enjoyed’ his stint in the southern part of Lancashire last season). Neither of them are especially quick but are surprisingly good in the air and are adept at putting in accurate balls into the box. Captain Charlie Mulgrew has had plenty of joy from direct free-kicks this campaign, so Bury have to be watchful of conceding silly fouls in front of their own penalty area. He is also very comfortable with the ball at his feet in open play and has the ability to orchestrate attacks with his accurate long passing. Paul Downing, on loan from division rivals MK Dons, is very combative in the air.
Richard Smallwood will sit not too far ahead of the defensive line and he will seek to intercept any through balls to Ajose with his excellent positioning. He isn’t the speediest in a foot race but that’s not necessary in his role if more often than not, you have the intelligence to be in the correct place. He is aggressive in the tackle (sometimes a touch too ferocious) but his steel allows individuals such as Peter Whittingham to play expansively with fewer worries about having to devote too much time to assisting in the transitional phase. The 33 year-old playmaker is a class above and his excellent all-round creativity has helped massively in keeping Rovers on the front foot.
Marcus Antonsson has divided his duties between playing as a striker and a more supportive role on the left of an attacking midfield three. Each of his strikes in the league have come at the far post, so he represents another huge threat if allowed to drift into the danger zone unchecked. Bradley Dack has found his niche at Ewood Park, recapturing the form that saw him crowned Player of the Season in 2015/2016 for Gillingham. His talents have never been in question, just his attitude… but he seems to have put that perception to bed. His movement off the ball will cause plenty of anxiety and he can be deadly on it, too.
Elliott Bennett needs little introduction. He was part of the oh-so-nearly side from 2008/2009, where his wing play, work rate and chance creation made him a firm favourite whilst on a season-long loan. His career hit the buffers whilst at Norwich City (owing to persistent injuries) but he has largely remained free from spells on the treatment table in the blue and white of Blackburn. If he can find a yard of space in behind Greg Leigh, don’t bet against him adding to his assists tally.
There has been growing clamour from the Rovers faithful to see Joe Nuttall start a league match. The youngster has been hugely impressive in the Premier League 2 (a reminder that the underage sections of the club remain probably their most impressive part of the setup) since making his way south from Aberdeen, scoring 10 goals in just eight outings. Mowbray has granted their wish and he has netted in the last several senior games. The temptation must be there for him to be named from the outset against a defence that might cope better with the experienced, slower Danny Graham. His stock is continuing to rise and I’d be gobsmacked if he didn’t feature tomorrow.
As for a prediction, I’m going to suggest that a modicum of pride is restored in terms of the performance but not the scoreline for the hosts with a 3-1 defeat. The opposing team’s quality shines throughout the ranks and it’s difficult to envisage most of them being shackled or having off-days. The home players must show that their ineptitude in midweek was a nadir that won’t be repeated. The challenge tomorrow is steep and things won’t get any easier in the short-term. Points need to be ground out from somewhere but I sadly can’t see that occurring when I’m there in person.
First of all, it would be totally remiss of me not to congratulate the superb showing by a Woking side who I knew would be up for the fight, just as they had ably demonstrated in the first meeting. Yes, their task was made easier for them by a Bury outfit who turned in perhaps the worst cup ‘performance’ at Gigg Lane for decades. Take nothing away from them though. Inih Effiong once again had the opposing centre backs all over the place, Regan Charles-Cook and Joe Ward found space time and time again in behind the wing-backs with incisive, counter-attacking football. There was even time near the death for substitute Jamie Philpot to repeat his goalscoring exploits from the original encounter in Surrey. They defended as a team, passed the ball in midfield with purpose and gave a harsh lesson in finishing to Michael Smith in particular. The target man hit the woodwork twice and was left to curse his misfortune. Peterborough or Tranmere Rovers await the Cards and based on their two displays against the Shakers, you wouldn’t bet against them progressing to the third round.
Turning the focus back inwards, I have stated before on these pages that the supporters have been extremely patient. The ‘line’ where despondency turns to vitriol was crossed last night and justifiably so. Whilst I don’t condone booing or abuse hurled players’ way, the frustration has been building for months and the meek surrender yet again in the first round of the FA Cup was the catalyst for cries of “you’re not fit to wear the shirt” and “you’re only here for the money”, the latter of which is unprecedented at any Bury game. I have been an advocate in spite of the weight of evidence against most of the individuals’ talents to date. The time has now come for them to repay the faith shown in them by Ryan Lowe (and the previous incumbent) in bringing them to the club. Many of those in question were signed in the close season with well-earned reputations and they are currently letting the supporters down. The women’s side and the U18s would have turned in better displays and that’s not being disparaging to either group as they are excelling in their respective leagues.
Lowe himself cannot completely escape criticism, however. Whilst he is correct to say there’s only so much he can do in terms of tactics, team selection and shape, I don’t think that a 3-5-2 with Phil Edwards at right wing-back plays to his strengths at all. Additionally, the continued selection of Smith and drafting in Nathan Cameron were both costly mistakes. The passing (when it did reach another white shirt) was ponderous and predictable, which almost always allowed Anthony Limbrick’s charges to get back in numbers into their set positions. ‘Passion’ and ‘pride’ are arbitrary, overrated qualities in footballers but on the other hand, a modicum of both are required at this moment in time from the men on the pitch as it’s likely they have just cost the caretaker his shot at becoming permanent manager.
Where do they go from here? The scenario that seems likeliest to me now, particularly after chairman Stewart Day’s statement this morning, is that the recruitment process for a new manager is expedited and I would expect that new person to be in post after the Shrewsbury Town game. They will find a playing squad whose abilities are being called into serious question from within and without, out of both major cups yet again at the first hurdle and doubtlessly still bottom or very close to it in League One. The portents are unfavourable and the challenge seems increasingly arduous but not yet insurmountable. For all the anger I and many other people share at the time of writing, things can still be turned around. The next appointment is crucial to perhaps even the survival of the club and I fear the disruptive churn seen for the past four years will continue regardless of their identity.
Caretaker player-manager Ryan Lowe swatted aside the notion that tonight’s FA Cup replay against fifth tier Woking was ‘an unwanted fixture’, doubtlessly in the knowledge that advancement into the second round at home to Peterborough United or Tranmere Rovers represents an eminently winnable tie and passage to a potentially lucrative, high-profile encounter in the third.
Several players staked their claim in Saturday’s ultimately disappointing 1-1 draw away at Gillingham to be considered from the start, particularly in midfield areas where no quarter will be given by their opponents, just as they demonstrated in the original match. Neil Danns is almost certain to be involved once more and will be looking to ingratiate himself with the home crowd by delivering another stirring performance. Rohan Ince’s presence should add more combativeness to the middle of the pitch, an area often overrun by the Cards last time out.
Nicky Ajose’s horizontal movement should give the men in yellow much more to think about and he is more apt to shoot from distance than most other forwards for the Shakers. Support from Jay O’Shea will be crucial in maintaining an attacking rhythm.
Anthony Limbrick’s charges have only had the one match (to their hosts’ three) since the game in Surrey, which was a hard-fought but dour 0-0 draw at FC Halifax Town. Kane Ferdinand is back from the suspension that kept him out of the original fixture and he will be the lynchpin in midfield. The temptation for them would be to sit deep and hit their League One opponents on the break but I have a feeling there’ll be a little more nuance to their strategy than that and at times, they will be looking to be on the front foot themselves.
As for a prediction, I’m going to go with a 2-1 win for Bury… after extra time. Under Lowe, there has been a steady improvement in the general performance levels but there is still a weakness late on in games, particularly from set pieces, that Woking could exploit. They have the physicality to make it another uncomfortable one and Inih Effiong will still be relishing getting in amongst the centre backs. Victory is vital for the 39 year-old’s standing with the board and it is equally so for the club as a whole; a truly abject record in the oldest domestic cup competition in my lifetime needs addressing this season and, just like in the last campaign, the opportunity is there. On this occasion, they simply have to grab it.
Analysing The Shakers, League One & Two, and Local English & Welsh Football