Ryan Lowe’s Bury will travel to the vital clash at the MEMS Priestfield Stadium tomorrow buoyed by their performance in the EFL Trophy on Wednesday to face a Gillingham side utterly revitalised under their own caretaker manager in Steve Lovell. The Kent outfit ran out winners against Reading U23s in a bizarre 12-goal thriller where it is reasonable to say that neither goalkeeper covered themselves in any glory whatsoever.
The Gills will of course field a much-changed XI in the knowledge that a positive result will almost certainly see them leap out of the drop-zone where prior to Lovell’s arrival, they appeared to be doomed to remain. Their start to the season was even worse than the Shakers’ own, taking until mid-September to win a match in the league and playing a style of football colloquially known as Pennockball in ‘honour’ of their much-derided boss at the time. His decision to terminate highly-rated Josh Wright’s contract sat extremely unfavourably with the vast majority of supporters and coupled with the dour, conservative tactics and woeful results, it was little surprise that his services were dispensed with. The then-Director of Football (and my namesake) Peter Taylor took the reins for several weeks but he too was cast aside in what must be one of the few instances of a caretaker getting sacked!
Thankfully for the fans, Lovell has masterminded a turnaround in form, winning four of his six matches in charge and is only interested in taking over on a permanent basis. Chairman Paul Scally appears to have dithered in offering him the role on those terms but he would be foolish to look elsewhere. With a squad that is fairly limited on paper, he has crafted a team that has become much harder to beat but one that also plays to the individual strengths found within and a greater sense of freedom.
The lack of available, experienced centre backs could mean that Lovell favours a four-man defence. Gabriel Zakuani is away on international duty with DR Congo where a slither of a chance remains for them to qualify for next year’s World Cup. Ben Nugent and the talented Alex Lacey are a couple of weeks away from returning to first team action.
Tomáš Holý has certainly proven his credentials as the number one choice between the sticks in recent games but he has a tendency to rush out of his goal to act as the last defender and it will hopefully be something that Lowe looks to target. Connor Oglivie will be asked to tuck in at left-sided centre back to partner Max Ehmer but has limited gametime performing this role as a two and they might miss his crossing ability as a result. Luke O’Neill is more at home bombing up and down the right flank but the scarcity of options in defence, coupled with the form of one-time Bury loanee Sean Clare on that side, might mean he starts at left-back. He will provide most of the width on that channel but will almost always take a moment to work the ball onto his favoured foot. Clare has been a revelation on the right and arguably Gills’ most reliable creative outlet, so his contest with Greg Leigh should be an interesting and keenly fought one.
There’s a slid look to the midfield three behind captain and dead-ball specialist Lee Martin. Mark Byrne is the most cautious-minded of the trio and will act as a screen to the centre backs when possession is turned over high up the pitch. He will also mop up high balls all afternoon long and manages to stay on his feet when making crunching tackles more often than not and both his speed and agility help him cover ground in the middle quickly. Jake Hessenthaler is an all-round midfielder without a particular specialism, so he will keep things ticking over and go wherever he’s needed the most within the context of the match. Scott Wagstaff is a player I like as his work rate is equalled by his effectiveness both aerially and where he positions himself. He will aid Clare and Elliott List whenever possible to create overloads down the visitors’ generally weaker left channel.
Martin will get forward to join the front two of List (who badly needs a goal) and Tom Eaves, who has been one of the more consistent performers over the course of the campaign for the Gills. The attacking midfielder is quite aggressive when challenging for possession but he will be a good target to aim for from crosses if the more natural choice of the leading goalscorer with six is crowded out. Eaves’ abilities are obvious and he will be tough to deal with regardless of who lines up against him. His normal strike partner Conor Wilkinson might only be available from the bench and so some of the onus will fall on List, who has been impressive with little to show for it thus far after perhaps being surprisingly retained by Pennock in the summer. He’s blessed with plenty of pace but he has been at pains to stress that he has more to him than just that and he will doubtlessly get opportunities to prove as such.
Lowe has two unexpected dilemmas in terms of formation and team selection: does he look for symmetry with the likely shape Lovell will put out, relying on the more established names to prove their worth or does he take inspiration from the quality display in midweek where the midfield three looked like a coherent unit and Nicky Ajose, in from the frozen wasteland, gave easily his best performance yet in his third loan spell? In true Bury fashion, I think he’ll go for a mish-mash.
Joe Murphy is out until at least Christmas with… something, so Leo Fasan will continue deputising. Leigh effectively picks himself at the moment as Joe Skarz is not ready to return to action. Nathan Cameron is more likely to be risked against relegation rivals than in the FA Cup replay on Tuesday against Woking and I anticipate that he will partner Eoghan O’Connell, who shackled Saido Berahino so well as to make him anonymous whilst also wearing the captain’s armband for the evening. On the right is a three-way fight between Phil Edwards, Jordan Williams (who certainly did much better than on Sunday) and Craig Jones, back from his latest stint on the treatment table. Again, I can see the latter being sent out to battle for potential passage to a home tie in the second round and Lowe might prefer Edwards’ conservatism given some of the other individuals likely to feature.
Rohan Ince was one of a cohort of players who appeared much more like the person I thought Bury were getting when he signed on loan and will need to keep Martin’s runs firmly in check. Callum Reilly seemed to enjoy the greater freedom the double screening of Ince and Neil Danns afforded him but he will have more defensive responsibility, especially if the Lancashire outfit are outnumbered in the middle as I suspect. Danny Mayor and Jay O’Shea were rested completely in midweek and the latter’s greater consistency over the last month should see him get the nod over Chris Maguire. Both will cut inside to support their teammates deeper in midfield, as well as Ajose and Jermaine Beckford.
It will be difficult for the caretaker manager to ignore the display of the Charlton Athletic loanee and if the greater emphasis on quick passing to feet is replicated, it will play much more to his strengths than Michael Smith’s. He deserves a chance at forging a partnership with Beckford and I’m intrigued to see how they can link up together over a sustained period of time and how Ajose’s runs into the half-space can bring inside forwards like Mayor to prominence.
As for a prediction, I think this is the time when the long, winless run away from home in League One is ended. It will be a struggle to come out on top but the players must believe in their ability to do just that, both for themselves and to preserve Lowe’s status at the helm and strengthen his case for the gig. I’m going for 2-1 to the Shakers in a more open contest than would’ve been the case had Pennock and Lee Clark still been in the dugouts!