I don’t enjoy stating the obvious on this blog. Pound for pound, performance for performance, expectations versus reality… even if Bury win their remaining two fixtures, they will fall short of even 40 points in the third tier, setting a new, unwanted record in the era of three for a victory and confirm it as the worst season on the pitch in practically every Shakers fan’s memory. Granted, the displays against Doncaster Rovers and promotion-chasing Shrewsbury Town prior to this piece offer a small crumb of comfort but it will take a bevy more in 2018/2019 to persuade people that a similar fate doesn’t lie in wait for the Lancashire outfit in League Two.
Almost inevitably, the churn will be larger than any during the previous summers during chairman Stewart Day’s reign. On this occasion, it will be (in part, at least) unavoidable. He has already gone on record to suggest that some of the roster contracted beyond the end of this June will be moved on, even though the playing budget won’t substantially decrease (for better or worse). This echoes interim manager Ryan Lowe’s comments in several recent interviews; he couldn’t hide his contempt for several of the senior pros on the roster publicly whilst absolving himself of any responsibility for his part in demotion with a whimper.
Even to the biggest admirer of the Liverpudlian, that ought to sound off some alarm bells. He can only be at worst partially to blame for the howling shambles this long, depressing season has wrought. However, it is in my mind utterly counter-productive to air grievances publicly whilst still hoping to be at the helm when the dust has completely settled.
As much as the ire from Lowe and most supporters towards the players is understandable, it doesn’t augur well in the case of the former. Prospective talents, their agents and the clubs they’re currently contracted to will be watching closely to see if the initial discussions about a plan for next season are still spearheaded by the playing legend. His record in charge makes for sombre reading and his comments will make it that much harder for others to trust in his leadership whilst under his management; it would also be foolish to forget he was still first team coach under both Lee Clark and Chris Lucketti’s spells and remains the only person to still be involved with the setup from 10 months ago.
It’s never fully safe to assume anything in life, especially where Bury are concerned. The prevailing winds all point to Lowe still being the main man as an immediate return to League One is sought; he will retain my support but the reservations I hold are unlikely to dissipate anytime soon and will not be overturned by one or two results but by actions, relating to conduct on the field (i.e. selection, tactics and strategy) and off it (when providing his thoughts to the press).
Informal negotiations have already occurred in both directions and as I mentioned at the top of the article, changes are likely to be wholesale. Below is a list of players whose current deals expire in two months’ time, along with brief reviews and comments about their performances where applicable and the likelihood of them remaining:
It’s hard to envisage any of the loan players still being present in the quagmire that is fourth tier football:
- Connor Ripley has acquitted himself well in successive loan spells in Greater Manchester.
- Josh Laurent hasn’t had the best of times at Gigg Lane and as the ‘sixth’ loanee, has often found himself out of the matchday squad as of late.
- George Miller should secure himself another loan deal in a higher echelon, having proved once again that he carve out a goalscoring niche for himself whilst being devoid of competent service.
- Rohan Ince has flattered to deceive (at best) in a white and royal blue shirt. His contract with parent club Brighton & Hove Albion also expires in the summer and I wouldn’t be altogether surprised to see him in another League Two team’s colours next year but on a permanent basis.
- James Hanson has not plugged the gap left by the (at the time) welcomed departure of Michael Smith to Rotherham; the latter has since shone whilst the former must rank as one of the poorest half-season deals the club have ever made. Ponderous and slow, whilst he did help bring fellow loanee Miller into the play more often, his goalless record speaks for itself.
- Peter Clarke always gives his maximum effort. What he doesn’t have is any pace and he’s looked even slower on the turn than when he previously graced the BL9 pitch. He might have another season left in his legs but it remains to be seen if that will be with near neighbours Oldham, particularly if they also suffer the drop.
- There are better, younger options out there than Chris Humphrey, who is still on the treatment table after aggravating an existing problem at fifth tier Barrow. His brief cameos have not yielded the desired results and it’s difficult to see his deal being extended.
- Rob Harker is an interesting case. Even before his first year as a scholar commenced, he was being intensely scouted by much larger teams with Category 1 Academies. He was making the bench of the first team during 2016/2017 on merit until an off-the-field injury hampered his progress significantly. It took him a long time to regain his confidence but he has found his feet once more, racking up the goals for the U18s. His name has been absent from recent teamsheets and it turns out he has been on trial for Burnley U23s. The most likely scenario now is that if he has impressed, he is offered pro terms by Bury but moves to Turf Moor, maximising the compensation involved. It would still be an extremely minor outlay for the Clarets, especially in an impressive campaign where Europa League football is all but assured.
- Joe Murphy has been beavering away at gaining coaching badges during his lay-offs from first team custodianship. Presuming Lowe stays, I think he’ll have his playing contract extended for another year with the understanding that he’s unlikely to be #1, given his injury record, age (albeit a generally less important factor for goalkeeepers) and the emphasis on bringing the likes of Scott Maloney and Mark Edwards-Williams through the ranks.
- Craig Jones is another whose effort cannot be questioned but his injury record, if it were blotting paper, would be fully covered in ink. At 31 and in his preferred role, there are almost certainly more reliable options to be perusing and pursuing. More pointedly, the club cannot afford to hold onto individuals like him, especially if it truly is going to be a smaller squad next season…
- With Greg Leigh, a conundrum exists. His form dipped considerably during and around Lucketti’s tenure, his defensive positioning is suspect at best, as is his ability to prevent crosses from coming into the box in the first instance. All that said, other than that trough, he’s been one of the leading lights of a dismal couple of years and, with some work on his end product, he could attract sides from further up the ziggurat. At 23 on the date of his contract expiring, it would be financial suicide for the board not to offer him at least equal terms. I can foresee a clutch of third tier sides entering into negotiations for his services.
- Andrew Tutte‘s story, characteristics and friendship with Lowe are all very similar to Jones. The central midfielder is in his peak years but even the most cursory glance at his recent history indicates that he hasn’t had the best time of things. Were I in charge, he’d be gone along with Jones, simply for the harsh reality that the club needs to reliably call upon players fit to feature and the loyalty shown to both has already dragged on for at least a year too many.
- The decision by Clark to farm out Zeli Ismail to divisional rivals Walsall was met with considerable outrage by a large tranche of supporters, particularly as it came at a time when the likes of Danny Mayor and Jay O’Shea were on the long-term injury list and the team was crying out for width. His return from the Midlands has not been an auspicious success and he has been hauled off in almost every match since, most infamously before half-time a little over a week ago at home to fellow strugglers Northampton Town. His attitude has been repeatedly questioned and regardless of his reasonably reliable ability to beat a man, I believe Lowe will dispense with him at the first opportunity.
- Neil Danns has had a remarkable turnaround since August. Initially not even receiving a squad number from Clark, he has slowly clawed his way back from the abyss into being the shoe-in for Player of the Season (although given there’s been no announcement for that event, it’s unlikely one will be held). A bit like Tom Soares before him, he has at times single-handedly carried the midfield. Even at 35, his mobility doesn’t seem to be declining and should he choose to stay, he could have another big say in how the Shakers fare.
Of the above, you’re looking at probably between three and four remaining in 2018/2019, not including Lowe himself.
Now, we come to those whose deals currently expire next year:
- Callum Reilly underwhelmed in most of his appearances but the opposite has been the case at Gillingham, impressing Steve Lovell and the Kent club’s fans with a series of all-action displays. He has enjoyed his stint down south and whilst the wheels have come off their season with survival assured weeks ago, there is continued talk of him making the switch permanent. With a year left on his deal, it will probably be a case of mutual termination as he is already 24, should that option be pursued.
- Tom Aldred has also been spoken about positively whilst away from the club since the last transfer window. He has been a key part in the Steelmen’s Scottish Cup run and he could be named in the XI that face giants Celtic in the final. As such, I anticipate a similar outcome to Reilly and it’s difficult to feel sad if that does transpire to be the case. I was expecting much more from him.
- I don’t think any of the six first year scholars will leave unless a substantial bid comes in for them. Neither Mark Edwards-Williams nor Scott Maloney have yet had first team minutes but the latter has been on the bench frequently in 2017/2018 and seems to have the nod over Edwards-Williams and Calum Erskine (another first year goalkeeper yet to receive a senior squad number) in the pecking order. I think he’ll be third choice in the next campaign.
- Defensive midfielder Cameron Hill will probably be restricted to EFL Trophy games once more and must use this time to impress the management staff if he is to force his way into the reckoning.
- Joe Adams has been called up to Wales U19s several times this season; the winger can use both feet and be deployed on either flank. His display in the Lancashire Cup final success and his recent appearances on the bench augur well for him next season and I suspect that he will be a fully-fledged member of the first team squad.
- Saul Shotton has gone further than any of the above, starting the last two games “on merit”, according to Lowe. Putting to one side a perhaps understandably sketchy opening quarter of an hour against Doncaster Rovers (making his full league debut), he has looked a cut above the low bar set for him by most of the other much more seasoned centre backs on the books. More telling is his knack of picking a pass, a criminally underrated attribute at any level. With careful guidance, he could feature heavily next season, should he not be plucked by suitors.
- Callum Hulme is another youngster highly thought of by the U18s’ management and was a key component in the FA Youth Cup run to the fifth round, the best showing for over half a century. It isn’t just his hairstyle that he models on Gareth Bale either, coming in from the left (or right) flank or behind the striker, he is adept with dead balls and I look forward to seeing his appearance on the first team stage during 2018/2019.
- Chris Maguire is probably the first name on most fans’ minds when considering the disappointments of the season. He has looked lethargic at best, completely disinterested at worst. It’s hard to know for sure the reason(s) behind that perception but he has fallen well short of even the most conservative of hopes. His continued exclusion from the matchday squad despite being fit and the squad somewhat lacking in available forwards conveys everything you need to know about the present context. If Lowe somehow isn’t in charge, the situation isn’t irredeemable but I suspect he’s looking for the exit door regardless.
- Jermaine Beckford‘s season-ending injury in October unfortunately had a far larger impact than I would’ve liked to have believed. Still the leading scorer, he will undoubtedly have many other clubs to talk to once he’s back in training. Additionally, would he really want to play in League Two? I’m pretty certain the answer is ‘no’.
- Danny Mayor is sadly also in the ‘Tutte & Jones School of Kept-Too-Long’. His injury record is abysmal and he just hasn’t improved as a footballer since being crowned League Two Player of the Season back in 2014/2015. Too predictable on the ball and nowhere near productive enough to warrant remaining in situ. Whether Lowe will concur with my assessment is another matter.
- Phil Edwards is the scapegoat for everything that has gone wrong defensively. All too often, he has been bafflingly deployed by successive managers as the left-sided centre-back of a trio or even worse, at left (wing) back when he always checks onto his right side before dealing with the ball. His lack of pace and aerial ability have been shown up all too often and there are younger, hungrier options who still have plenty of experience, even in his preferred right-sided berth.
- Chris Sang is highly thought of by Lowe but there has yet to be any demonstrable evidence as to why this is the case, albeit with very limited gametime to impress. I think he’ll stay at the club but might be offered another loan spell in the higher divisions of non-league, like he experienced with Southport.
- Joe Skarz‘ campaign has been restricted to a handful of outings. He doesn’t have a previous record of long-term injury and that might be his saving grace. When fit, he still could offer a lot as a more defensive-minded alternative to Leigh.
- Callum Styles is a bright light in a very dim year. Seemingly cut out of contention by both Clark and Lucketti, he has enjoyed a renaissance under Lowe and was the spearhead of the FA Youth Cup side. With the right level of steel around him, he should prove to be a very irritating thorn for opponents next year… if the playmaker can be persuaded to stay.
- Wai-Tsun Dai will probably receive more minutes next season. In and out of the first team scene, he has had to knuckle down from all of the attention he received from his native Hong Kong last summer. His short passing, running ability and willingness to perform several different roles could be an important asset if the numbers are reduced down.
- Jay O’Shea is another who was much-vaunted but it hasn’t quite come off for him. Injured during the opening game, it took him months to feature again and by then, it was in a perennially losing team. Has started to look more effective with Styles alongside him and proved on Saturday that he hasn’t lost his finishing touch. I’d like him to be kept but again, I’m certain he’ll have offers Bury can’t (and shouldn’t) match.
- Nathan Cameron is fondly regarded… but is once more, out of contention through injury. Already restricted to one match per week when fit, his presence is sorely missed in the backline and I’m not even certain he has a long-term future playing professional, which is profoundly sad. I’d love to be proven wrong but this might now be the ideal juncture to thank him for the five years he has given to Bury.
- Scott Burgess doesn’t have a squad number as he’s been quietly impressing on a season-long loan at National League champions Macclesfield Town, improving as the campaign has gone on. The two sides will meet in 2018/2019 and the experience of frequently being in a winning team will have done him a world of good. I think he’ll be back in the white and royal blue.
Of the above, you’re looking at probably between nine and 11 remaining in 2018/2019, excluding Scott Burgess.
- Adam Thompson was a victim of one of Clark’s many insipid decisions. No sooner had he arrived on a three-year deal after being so impressive for Southend United, he was carted off to Bradford City. He returned early from his loan spell at the end of January, going from struggling to hold down a starting berth in a side performing well below expectations to the same predicament back west of the Pennines. Has looked ordinary at best in the three months since and unless another outfit come in for him with two years left on his contract, the Northern Ireland international should be allowed to regain his confidence and form for the Shakers.
- Eoghan O’Connell highly impressed me when I saw him in person against Blackburn Rovers, despite the scoreline. He barely misplaced a pass and looked assured against very dangerous opponents. His conduct has been called into question though, having been sent off twice at crucial moments. No senior defender across the line has looked good this campaign and I suspect he has time on his side (not just his age but a chance to redeem himself). By the same token, that might prove to be elsewhere in England or Scotland.
- Oh, Stephen Dawson. A tale of woe if ever there was one. His return to Gigg Lane was hailed, only for him to needlessly injure himself in the second match of the season. Some eyebrows were raised at the length of his contract even when the mood was buoyant. Ever since he returned, he has looked decidedly off the pace. One can only hope that an injury-free close season has the desired effect. Any other outcome would appear as yet another expensive mistake.
- Youngster Ryan Cooney has featured prominently since Lowe took over. Hitherto a playmaker, he has since made the right (wing) back slot his own. He still has a lot to learn and has sometimes looked second best against more wily opponents but his efforts haven’t gone unnoticed by the fans or the club, being rewarded with his first professional contract and an extended run in the first XI. Whether he will retain that spot is open for debate but he will be there or thereabouts.
- Harry Bunn belongs firmly in the Maguire category of promised lots, delivered next to nothing. Has on occasion looked to have a rapport with Miller and the bulk of his goals have come in a withdrawn striker role, rather than being deployed on the left or as part of an attacking midfield trio. The club’s record signing might attract attention elsewhere but given that the board are unlikely to sanction a move without recouping at least a nominal fee, I can’t see him leaving just yet. Time will tell…
Of the above, you’re looking at probably three out of five remaining in 2018/2019. That would leave a total of roughly 15 to 18 players (plus Wealth Da Silva, should he be offered pro terms), most of whom would be in the ‘young and inexperienced’ bracket with one or two notable exceptions. The best possible scenario is that the nucleus is added to without too many incoming signings to disrupt the group and few, if any, of the brighter talents leave. The consensus is that the players coming through the ranks are now of a sufficient calibre to reliably cut it in senior, professional football.
The smart money is on Lowe remaining in post but he has a number of balls to juggle to achieve even a modicum of success in 2018/2019: offloading those he has deemed to lack the desire to be at the club, retaining those who have their careers ahead of them, learning to accept responsibility when things go wrong under his watch and not allowing the size of the squad to balloon ever again. The auspices are extremely mixed and I will not hold my breath that he can bring back a winning mentality. If he is still here in August, he needs to be fully backed by the board, players and fans alike. Short-termism will not win the day.