Chairman Stewart Day has handed caretaker player-manager Ryan Lowe at least three matches to stake his claim for the permanent gig at Bury in a volte-face from his initial desire to have someone in place before the trip to Gillingham in little over a week from now. The club legend doesn’t enjoy the overwhelming support of the fans at this nascent point in his coaching career to still be leading the charge onwards and upwards in league and two cup competitions… but advances into the second stages of the latter, coupled with a win against relegation rivals in Kent would certainly give everyone involved plenty of food for thought. The 39 year-old veteran striker has been on record in public previously about his desire to manage at Gigg Lane at some point in the future but probably never envisaged his chance coming quite so early and in such a vital fixture.
Similarly inexperienced Cards boss Anthony Limbrick will be looking for a scalp in the famous tournament and must somehow shun the poor form his side have displayed in the fifth tier of late, having lost the last three on the bounce whilst picking up injuries at an alarming rate. They are still well-placed in an amazingly tight league and will be hoping to use a positive result at Kingfield Road to return to the blistering excellent spells they enjoyed in the opening months of the campaign.
The stated aim of a top-half finish looks achievable and considering they only survived demotion on the last day of 2016/2017 (much like their visitors), it is testament to the work Limbrick and his tight-knit coaching staff have done.
Not a single player in the first team squad is 30 or over and the youthful exuberance starts from goalkeeper Nathan Baxter, one of a bus full of individuals on the books at Chelsea currently out on loan. Just 18, he actually now has nearly 40 senior matches under his belt, having spent the first half of 2017 at Solihull Moors. He prefers kicking the ball long over distributing it short with feet or hands and if he has a weakness, it is at his near post; all three of Guiseley’s goals last weekend came in this fashion. Even so, to be trusted as the number one custodian at this juncture in his career reflects extremely well on him and he is not to be taken lightly.
Matt Young is steady in his support of Joe Ward but is unlikely to press highly up the pitch unless Woking need to turn around a deficit. The backline as a whole tend to sit fairly deep both in and out of possession with the possible exception of Jordan Wynter, who, much like his counterpart Greg Leigh, is probably more at home from a more advanced starting position and roving up and down the flank. There will be more onus on him to supply balls for the front two than Young. Captain Richard Orlu will easily be the most senior in the predicted XI, filling in for the absence of Josh Staunton and seeking to cut out the recent spate of individual defensive errors that have been the hallmark of their displays. Together with partner Nathan Ralph, they must look to organise their teammates from set pieces as they look particularly vulnerable at the moment whenever there is an aerial battle in their own area.
Joey Jones will be the pivot between defence and midfield and, depending on the shape and who he comes up against, he might have to dedicate more of his time to holding fort just beyond the back four and longer passes forward than being able to join in with any attacks himself. The outside left channel has been decimated by injury; Fabio Saraiva could be handed a rare start ahead of Jason Banton, who remains one of the many doubts to be fit in time. He will need to come infield as often as he waits for the overlapping runs of Wynter to help retain possession as much as possible.
On the right, Ward will cut inside to nominally support his colleagues and he definitely presents a threat to the Shakers’ backline. His slightly arrogant style of play and direct running will harass the centre backs and he could find a lot of joy in the half-space, either on his own or by crossing at the byline. Regan Charles-Cook, brother of ex-Bury custodian Reice, is on loan from Charlton Athletic and their supporters are desperate to see that arrangement extended until May. His late appearances in the area mopping up second balls have yielded a handsome return of goals and he too must be tracked closely.
With the ball, I expect to see Jamie Philpot almost up with Inih Effiong. The latter has often cut an isolated figure when deployed as the lone striker and it will be imperative for Limbrick to keep Woking on the attack throughout the match. The Millwall loanee will be looking to feed off Effiong’s pace and power to add to his modest tally. The mobile target man wants a run of games in the side and the full to bursting physio’s room should allow him just that; his physicality is a boon for the Surrey outfit and he must regain some semblance of confidence in front of goal to fully harness it.
The long journey south will allow Lowe time to ruminate on just how to set his stall out in a fashion that both puts his own stamp on the role and sufficiently departs from the counterproductive conservatism of Lee Clark. He will take a cursory glance at the treatment table and note that the long-term absentees are slowly dwindling in number; Stephen Dawson expects to be back in around a month or so, way ahead of the original schedule. Craig Jones is ridiculously injury-prone but should re-emerge around the New Year. Nathan Cameron is still a few weeks away and as he can no longer train to any great extent, his consistent availability cannot be banked on. Tsun Dai is currently on crutches (probably from falling over laughing at recent midfield displays by his more experienced peers).
Eoghan O’Connell’s suspension, coupled with Lowe’s thirst for a more positive mentality, mean Bury will almost certainly line up with a flat back four. The main quandaries are who will partner stand-in captain Tom Aldred at centre back and who will feature up front. The rest of the defence pick themselves at the moment and Saul Shotton, on a high from the excellent U18s performance in their own version of the FA Cup on Wednesday night, could start.
Callum Reilly should retain his place in midfield and almost certainly, close friend of the caretaker Andrew Tutte will come in to give the engine room a little more bite and thrust. The lack of available out-and-out strikers might mean that Chris Maguire leads the line with Jermaine Beckford a major doubt and Michael Smith uncertain. Behind him might be an attacking midfield trio; a straight fight between Harry Bunn and a returning Danny Mayor on the left, Jay O’Shea’s creativity in the middle and Chris Humphrey on the right, given his greater capacity for tracking back and closing the space between Phil Edwards and himself. The fit but previously persona non grata Nicky Ajose might be back in the fold, so the bench will be a big talking point if yet again he doesn’t at least make it given the paucity of options.
As for a prediction, I think there’ll be plenty of goals in a 4-2 away win. It will take time for a shell-shocked defence to adapt to their new instructions and both sides have looked really weak from dead balls this season. Woking certainly have it within them to give Lowe a real scare and a closely fought but paradoxically open encounter is in the offing. Nothing is guaranteed: a look back at Bury’s woeful record in the FA Cup, on the road in 2017 and against non-league opposition are all testament to that but with a new person (temporarily at least) in charge, they shouldn’t have much bearing on the outcome.