Record Last Season + Quick Summary:
League One - 24th (relegated); W 8 / D 12 / L 26 / F 41 / A 71 / Pts 36
A total shambles from start to finish. Lee Clark was the main (but not only) reason behind the toxic atmosphere really taking hold at Gigg Lane. For better or worse, he’d been extremely well-backed by chairman Stewart Day in the summer of 2017, assembling the sort of squad that has some parallels to the one formed at Peterborough United this year. Unfortunately, his man management skills and tactical acumen proved to be as large as the full stop at the end of this sentence. It is true that he (and his successors) wasn’t helped by injuries to key players. Stephen Dawson and Jay O’Shea were ruled out for months within the first week of the nascent campaign. In October, top goalscorer Jermaine Beckford was ruled out for the rest of the season, and he won’t even be in contention until next month!
Clark failed to marry the available talent in his roster to a system that would yield consistent results, and impressive performances against Oxford United and Bradford City at home were the anomalies instead of commonplace. I advocated his removal before the transfer window had even closed, not because of the woeful results, but because his recruitment policy and public comments, throwing youth players under the bus, were bringing the club into disrepute. Ryan Lowe was placed in caretaker charge for a month, presiding over the worst FA Cup performance any Shakers fan still alive has ever witnessed, which is unfortunately not hyperbole.
Scunthorpe United’s assistant manager (and BL9 legend) Chris Lucketti returned to the club in his first crack in his own right. However, his dour demeanour and insipid answer to a question about his tactical philosophy I put to him on radio immediately set alarm bells ringing in my head. Too many seasoned pros had really poor body language by this stage, and the last thing they needed was a combination of a light and uninspiring touch. He only lasted nine league games in charge, yielding a single point. Even by Christmas when he was put out of his misery, relegation felt inevitable.
Once more, Day turned to Lowe, appointing him on an interim basis until the end of 2017/2018. He halted a long sequence of gutless defeats at the expense of the Yellows yet again, which heralded the ‘best’ spell the south Lancashire outfit had, which most definitely is a relative term. Pretensions of a great escape from the mire were firmly put to bed after surrendering a two-goal lead to rivals Oldham Athletic at home. Seven more losses on the spin all but confirmed a return, after only three years away, from the basement division, prompting Day to write an open letter to fans, admonishing the players, whilst effectively absolving Lowe from any responsibility.
Top Goalscorer: Jermaine Beckford (8 goals in 15 starts/1,285 minutes)
Top Creator: Harry Bunn (4 assists in 28 starts/2,470 minutes)
Manager/Head Coach: Ryan Lowe; the Liverpudlian grew up in the red side of the city’s youth ranks alongside the likes of Jamie Carragher and Steven Gerrard, before an injury slowed his development. He went on to play for local sides, before being snapped up by Shrewsbury Town whilst plying his trade for Burscough. Though never prolific for Salop, he was highly regarded during his five-year spell, and he often played as a wide forward, as well as through the middle.
He rose to prominence during his initial stint with now-defunct Chester City, scoring twice in an FA Cup encounter against Nottingham Forest. By 2006/2007, he was at Gresty Road in League One for his first time with Crewe Alexandra, faring reasonably well initially, but he fell out of favour during the second term, finding a himself back at the Deva Stadium, where was a massive thorn in Bury’s side whenever he came up against them. His 16 goals weren’t enough to save The Seals from falling out of the league, and he signed for the Shakers upon the expiry of his contract.
His most fruitful period in front of goal coincided with his time in the white and royal blue, proving an excellent fit for Alan Knill’s attacking 4-4-2. In 2010/2011, he set a new club record, scoring in nine consecutive games (even if one goal in that sequence was dubious in the extreme). He weighed in with an eye-watering 27 in League Two, which secured second place for both player and club in the respective goal and overall table. His winner against eventual champions Chesterfield will mean he’ll always be regarded as a legend, no matter how his managerial spell pans out.
His exploits didn’t cease after promotion, and he made the move to Sheffield Wednesday, adding eight to his tally of four, the latter total being accrued in just the first five games of the new season. No longer assured of being the first name on the teamsheet at The Owls, he transferred to Milton Keynes Dons, where he amassed 11 in 42 appearances. In a repeat of his time at Chester, he was prolific once again, this time in the colours of Tranmere Rovers, but couldn’t prevent their demotion.
For a second time, he was back at Bury. Even at 36, his high level of football intelligence and fitness helped the Shakers gain promotion back to third tier. He was subsequently loaned back to The Railwaymen, making that permanent in the summer of 2016, once it became clear that he was unwanted by David Flitcroft. He formed an effective partnership with Chris Dagnall, but it wasn’t long before he once more made the journey north, this time helping out as a first time coach in addition to his playing duties. His aspiration to be manager one day has now come sooner than he’d have anticipated, and must prove to supporters that his role under both Clark and Lucketti can be abrogated and he can instil a new culture at Carrington, having been a key member of their respective backrooms. He also has to win over certain sections of fans, who don’t believe he showed enough in his interim spell to suggest he has the right tools to do the job on a permanent basis.
Ins: Will Aimson (Blackpool), Chris Stokes (Coventry City), Chris Dagnall (Crewe Alexandra), Byron Moore (Bristol Rovers), Gold Omotayo (Whitehawk), Tom Miller (Carlisle United), Nicky Adams (Carlisle United), Dom Telford (Stoke City U23s), Mathew Hudson (Preston North End on loan) & Jordan Archer (Chester).
Outs: Craig Jones (free agent), Chris Humphrey (free agent), Nathan Cameron (free agent), Zeli Ismail (Walsall), Greg Leigh (NAC Breda), Andrew Tutte (Morecambe), Callum Reilly (Gillingham) & Chris Maguire (Sunderland).
Predicted First XI & Shape:
Tactics: In theory, Lowe wants to play an attacking style that excites the fans. During pre-season, he has largely stuck to a conservative 5-3-2 – conservative in the sense that neither of the likely wing-backs in his first XI have all of the attributes to perform the role as anything other than stop-gaps.
Mathew Hudson will battle it out with Joe Murphy between the sticks. The latter has been plagued by injuries at Bury, and might not have the requisite fitness to play Saturday-Tuesday-Saturday. Additionally, Hudson would not have been sent out on loan by Alex Neil at Preston North End without some assurances being made over gametime. The 20 year-old has a distinct agility advantage over his rival for the gloves, which could be a key area if, as expected, most teams favour a direct style.
Ahead of the ‘winner’ is likely to be a three-man defence. One of these will be tasked with being the stopper, whilst the other two step up in turn to head off an attacker down their side, in lieu of a holding midfielder in front of them. Will Aimson, a signing from Blackpool, should be the middle ‘component’ of the trio. Short for a centre back, he’s saved by his jumping reach, and his tenacity in the tackle. On his right will be Adam Thompson, who’ll be itching to kickstart his career once more. Capable on the ball and tireless, he needs a sustained run in the side to restore supporters’ faith in his ability.
The leftmost of the three will be the designated ball-player. Eoghan O’Connell had an erratic time in 2017/2018. I saw him win almost every challenge and only misplace one pass against a supremely well-drilled Blackburn Rovers side last November, but he had his fair share of nightmare displays, too. For me, it partly comes down to being amongst a rarely changing, consistent defensive unit. There’s definitely a good player in there. If his form does dip, his place will be under threat from 17 year-old Saul Shotton, who has shown despite his age, that he can compete physically.
Chris Stokes arrives from Coventry City with glowing reviews… but only as an ordinary left-back. In a recent interview, the player himself stated that he’s a bit of a throwback, in the sense that he always considers his primary function to be to defend first and foremost, and only then get forward in support of his teammates. He doesn’t have the speed to bomb up the wing, but is a decent crosser of the ball. He’s also on the taller side for someone who favours being played out wide, and he, like Joe Skarz, can fill in as the left-sided centre back.
Tom Miller is one of two arrivals from Director of Sport Lee Dykes’ old haunt. In a roster that now ‘boasts’ four right (wing) backs, he’ll probably get the nod in most fixtures. Quicker than Stokes, as well as being decent from a long throw, his positioning is inversely more susceptible than his compatriot. He will be vying for the shirt with Ryan Cooney, a playmaker in the U18s who has been shoehorned into a more defensive, wider role, and Dougie Nyaupembe, who offers more pace and a high work rate, but is very limited in terms of his exposure to the senior setup. The fourth option is Phil Edwards, but I cannot see him remaining at the club.
In midfield, there’s an immediate problem. There are precisely zero players who can be reliably called upon to sit in front of the defence, win the ball back and recycle possession. Of course, not every team needs someone to perform that role, but it does appear to be an oversight. Rumours persist that Stephen Dawson, nearing 33 and into the second of his inexplicable three-year contract, will depart for pastures new. Either way, on the evidence of pre-season, he’s overweight and largely off the pace. He’s very aggressive in the tackle (which is why he got injured last term in the first place), and the areas he tends to win the ball back are in the second or final thirds of the pitch.
There is then an argument that his place is most under threat from Callum Styles, and it’s one I buy into, even though they’re completely different players. It might turn out that the young playmaker adopts a deeper role. Diminutive in size, he’s added some more muscle to his frame in the summer months, which will help him combat the more physical opponents he’ll doubtless face in League Two. In a settled side, he should flourish, spraying balls left and right, as well as playing in the strikers with quick one-twos and through balls.
Captain Neil Danns successfully completed a mental Damascene Conversion in the minds of many fans last season, coming good on his determined words to break back into contention, and would’ve won the club’s Player of the Season award, had it not been scrapped out of embarrassment. He enjoys shooting from long range and being in the thick of it, especially in advanced areas of the pitch. Scott Burgess, on the back of winning the National League with Macclesfield Town, is not in Lowe’s favour, so it remains to be seen whether he’ll feature. Wai-Tsun Dai could be next in line, but his best role, which isn’t immediately apparent, is coming in from the right flank.
The nominal third member of the midfield might actually operate in the left half-space. Nicky Adams, back at Gigg Lane once more, now tends to play on that side, crossing with his right foot and lurking at the far post for a loose ball, when it’s tossed in from the opposite wing. He’ll be Lowe’s go-to man for set pieces, should he be able to successfully shake off any lingering injury concerns. Danny Mayor has had a full pre-season programme, which isn’t usual for him. Everyone knows what he’s capable of, which is a double-edged sword. He’s an excellent finisher when given the chance, but hasn’t improved as a footballer in the past three years, doubtlessly hampered by persistent spells on the sidelines.
Up front, despite my misgivings (more on those next week), it’s likely to be two strikers. Chris Dagnall needs someone else alongside him to get the best out of his supporting role. His positioning is good, and that’s a plus point to possess when you put yourself about as much as he does. With Jermaine Beckford still out, the other spot is very much up for grabs. Chris Sang, like Dagnall, is more of a support striker, and is the likeliest of the other four available to head out on loan.
Dom Telford has been signed from Stoke City U23s, and impressed the fans of Bristol Rovers more than he did their manager, Darrell Clarke, during his loan spell at the Memorial Stadium. Left-footed, he comes alive in the area, and by making bursting runs on the dribble into space. Jordan Archer probably won’t immediately start, but could have a part to play from the bench. That leaves Gold Omotayo. The Swiss target man with the memorable name is desperate and hungry to prove his credentials in the EFL with Bury, and even a cursory glance at his physique will tell you that he’s a real threat. Blessed with a decent first touch and change of pace, if Lowe can remain patient and the chances fall for him consistently, he could be a good punt to be top goalscorer in the league, which would immediately draw comparisons with Mo Eisa.
Predicted ‘Area’ of Finish: Play-off chasers; on paper, there are some compelling reasons to place Bury in the ‘top’ group in my predictions: the imminent return of Jermaine Beckford, the likes of Harry Bunn and Jay O’Shea (neither of whom I’ve even mentioned up until now), some promising youngsters and the tenacity and passion of Neil Danns.
However, there are plenty of unknowns, even as the season draws ever closer that other managers have already been able to answer.
- What’s Lowe’s best XI, all things being equal?
- What’s the best formation and style of play to adopt?
- When the going gets tough, will he still make good on his commitment to using academy players?
- Why he has reneged on reducing the bloated nature of the squad, which is still the largest in League Two?
- If at least one of Omotayo, Telford and Archer come good, can he really justify replacing them with an injury-prone Beckford?
- Who is going to win the ball in defensive midfield areas, to relieve pressure on the defence, start attacks and keep possession?
Some of the above, he might not have the immediate answer for. And that might not matter. That last question though will be crucial in him, in my opinion, retaining his job. Much as Day is loath to dispensing with yet another manager’s services, especially one with the legend status that Lowe has, sooner or later, he’ll realise that he needs to employ someone with the tactical acumen, if the current incumbent falls short in that regard. I’ve seen some predictions from people whose opinions I respect put Bury as far down as 20th, and in one sense, it’s hard to disagree, as so much is up in the air. If things aren’t going to plan, there will be time for someone else to turn things around, with the personnel at their disposal. Long-suffering supporters can probably expect another slow start to a season, even if he can get a winning formula together.
The minimum expectation should be that the Shakers win more league games than they lose in 2018/2019. The ‘back to basics’ approach instilled by Day might actually be beneficial, as the ranks have been swelled by individuals who at the very worst, see Bury as their way up to bigger and better things, rather than the opposite, as was what came to characterise the previous campaign. Ambitions might be more muted, but in the right hands, a tilt at the top seven is not impossible.