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.
Tony Mowbray’s charges have not quite had things all their own way. I, along with many other would-be pundits, predicted a promotion challenge for the 1994/1995 Premier League champions to return to the second tier at the first time of asking. It would be an exaggeration to suggest that the door is even ajar at that prospect but the consistency of results required to be in the mix has not been there besides a four-match spell in August and September after recovering from losing their first two in encounters they were heavy favourites for. They haven’t won away on the road in any competition since that winning streak and the former Celtic manager is keen to guard against any complacency from his own players and a potential backlash from Bury.
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.