Month: January 2019

What Does Success on the Pitch Now Look Like for Bury This Season? Fans Have Their Say

You might recall my prediction at the start of 2018/2019, which now looks rather modest: it was simply a desire that the minimum target be for Bury to win more league games than they lost, even if the margin was only one. Barring a complete collapse, they’re likely to do much better than that. Fans’ expectations at the club have, on the whole, risen in the last decade, thanks in no small part in my opinion to former manager Alan Knill, now assistant to Chris Wilder at Sheffield United in a role reversal of their time at Gigg Lane.

Knill was by no means perfect, but what he did manage to achieve during his interviews was a perceptible shift in the collective mentality in BL9, which has barring one miserable season (no, not 2017/2018 – 2012/2013!), stayed around long after he departed eastwards for Scunthorpe United. It wasn’t ‘little Bury’ anymore, and rarely has been since. There’s a difference between knowing the limits of what can be achieved, and seeking to expand those confines even by just a little bit.

Few supporters, myself included, truly knew what this season would bring. There’s been tumult off it, but it hasn’t disrupted the harmony on it. The players and indeed the staff seem as one, especially since Steve Dale took over shortly before Christmas. That doesn’t mean the current state of affairs will continue in perpetuity, but I thought that now was a timely moment to reflect on what it’s been like for the past few months, and still might be up until May and maybe beyond, but in the words of others:

It’s a question I also put to members of gigglane.com, the largest unofficial message board dedicated to the Shakers. The standard of responses were very high, and can be generally categorised into the following groupings:

  • Winning the ‘right way’, i.e. entertaining hugely whilst doing so, and rarely (if ever) resorting to a win-at-all-costs mentality
  • Restored/rekindled affection and love for the club, and a sharp contrast to last season
  • Ryan Lowe – his honesty and selflessness during interviews is a marked departure from previous incumbents
  • High satisfaction with how things have gone already, even if results taper off…
  • … which contrasts with more than a minority stating that ‘anything less than finishing in the top three would be a disappointment’
  • A pleasure to go to matches

I’ve included Barry Howarth’s comments verbatim, as I think he sums it up quite brilliantly, and always writes well:

“There are too many factors to take into account in predicting success or even defining what success is for a club like Bury. Unlimited finance is probably the one guarantee of success and even that isn’t particularly reliable.

However, there is one aspect of the management of the club that deserves some scrutiny and that is the management style of Ryan Lowe and its impact on the pitch.

Ryan isn’t a proven manager or even one that has had a qualified training background to the highest level. He has had little experience in management, his earlier spell care taking wasn’t exactly a wild success. However, there was one early indicator of his impact when we were left manager-less after Knill left us short of the line. There is no doubt that Lowe played a key part in driving the team to promotion – arguably after we we heading out of the race before Knill left. He did have some other strong characters and experience around but I would argue that it was Lowe’s natural positivity and emotional intelligence that made the difference.

Given last season’s debacle and the increasing creakiness of Day’s tenure, it has been a total revelation to see the way the team has performed and dealt with injury setbacks as well as off the field distractions. I can’t believe it is down to Lowe’s tactical genius, his managerial experience or his skills. Great leaders are defined by their behaviours and not by their skills.

Lowe presents as someone who is what you see – he is authentic. He is modest and open about his background and achievements, never pretends that he is what he isn’t (looking at you Clarkey!) and always always puts his players, his team first and foremost. Without wishing to sound over analytical, people have a choice in how to respond to events. They can be reactive (like this messageboard is sometimes when we lose!) in that we moan about mistakes, we get angry about losses or we slag off people who don’t seem to be up for the job.

In his first spell, Lowe did that when the team lost – “that’s not my team out there” – and you can only imagine the impact on the players. I called him out for it at the time but, being charitable to him, it was out of character and I believe heavily influenced by Clarke’s tenure which was all about blaming the players for what he, as manager, was entirely responsible for.

This year we have seen Lowe with his constant grin, his cheeky chappie attitude not ‘reacting’ to events and setbacks but choosing to be proactive in pretty much all the situations. This removes pressure from his players, gives them a confidence boost and creates an overall happy and supportive environment. This is immediately obvious on the pitch where we are playing with a freedom and positivity which I honestly can’t remember over such a sustained period since – errr  . . . .

Football at this level has always been more about making the most of what you have. Teamwork is the single most effective indicator of that and anyone who can create teams who have self belief, are happy, work for each other and create a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts is a good manager in my book.

For me, success on the pitch this season is not about promotion, play offs or even (god forbid) relegation but about demonstrating our values, our togetherness, our teamwork and building a Bury brand in the image of the manager. We can always bring in skills but attitude and behaviour is in short supply in the managerial pool.

Dale should do all he can to keep Lowe.”

It was inevitable that some would factor in the (cautious) optimism surrounding Bury since Dale became the chairman. Most supporters have seen false dawns come and go, and successful times become relatively short-lived. What can be agreed upon though, is that the current squad and brand of football is the best anyone has seen for decades… it’s now just a small matter of ‘getting to where we want to get to’, in Lowe’s own words. It’s sure to be quite the conclusion to 2018/2019!

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The Goals Keep Flowing in a Far From ‘Dry’ Month

For my reviews of AugustSeptemberOctoberNovember, and December, click their respective links.

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Tight at the top

After the conclusion of Tuesday night’s matches, things couldn’t be tighter in the standings immediately below pacesetters Lincoln City. The 1-1 draw between Forest Green Rovers and Mansfield Town has ensured the former didn’t take full advantage of their game in hand on Bury by drawing level on points with their rivals, and in the latter’s case, it kept them within striking distance.

Milton Keynes Dons halted a truly insipid 2019 thus far by turning in an ugly 2-1 win over Oldham Athletic. Paul Tisdale won’t care a jot that the performance in the last 30 minutes left a lot to be desired, and they still have a game in hand on the four teams above them (away to Newport County in February).

Carlisle United continue to confound critics, and are the division’s form team over the last six, gaining 15 points from a possible 18. Recently installed manager Steven Pressley has been able to keep the momentum the Cumbrians had enjoyed under John Sheridan, and has added to their creative options in the past couple of days, bringing a little more depth to the squad.

In other words, it’s going to be a fiercely competitive conclusion to the campaign. When there are 10 matches remaining, I’ll revisit the standings, assess the top seven’s strengths and weaknesses, and try to predict the unpredictable…

Goals, goals, goals!

Just like two months ago, the Shakers have once more racked up the goals, adding another 22 to their tally for the season. Now standing at 80, they are behind only Manchester City with their total across the top 92 clubs in English football. Manager Ryan Lowe promised entertaining, attacking football under his stewardship, and whilst it arguably (and completely understandably) took a little while for things to come to fruition, his side have consistently delivered on that front beyond all reasonable expectations, and have now acquired the label of being ‘League Two’s Entertainers’, a phrase that evokes memories of Kevin Keegan’s Newcastle United from the mid-90s. Ultimately, his sides fell just short of wrestling the Premier League title away from Manchester United, and have come to be associated more as glorious failures. Fans and staff at Bury alike must be hoping that in a sense, the current crop can go one better and achieve promotion.

One of the most pleasing aspects of the glut has been that no single player has been relied upon for either creating the opportunities or finishing them off. The likes of Nicky Maynard, Jay O’Shea, and Dom Telford are now all on a dozen or more for the campaign, and could be set to be joined on double figures by Danny Mayor (9) and Byron Moore (8) before too long. I can’t recall any previous season where so many individuals have had such numbers in the white and royal blue. The wing-backs have been crucial in working the space to put crosses into the area, but again, the methods have been similarly numerous; 10 have come from outside the box in the league, and 14 have been scored with the left foot, which is a particularly interesting statistic, given that only two of the regular starting outfielders complete most of their actions using that one.

Another aspect to consider is the general difficulty of the opponents faced during January; the EFL Trophy matches pitted third tier outfits against the Shakers, and a three-match sequence in the league could barely have looked more challenging – MK Dons (home), Forest Green (away), and leaders Lincoln  (home). Taking all of that into account, to rack up nine goals in the two cup games, and the same return against three of the best four teams in League Two is nothing short of remarkable. It should also be noted that in the cases of MK Dons and the Imps, no other side has put that many goals in a single game against them in the league – four and three respectively, ably demonstrating Bury’s ability to compete against the cream of the crop, and do serious damage to their hitherto tight defences in the process.

Once more, Ben Mayhew’s xG timelines demonstrate the different ways Bury have remained unbeaten in January:

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‘Not the best without the ball’ – can it be fixed?

All that said, it would be remiss to overlook the fact that 13 goals were also conceded in the seven fixtures. Certainly, the quality of the opponents are a mitigating factor, but it’s hard to assuage the strong perception that a decent number of them were on the softer side. Lincoln boss Danny Cowley rightly stated that without the ball, there’s plenty of scope to hurt Bury, and it’s not hard to see why.

In a typical attack that originates from playing out from the back, the ball is then normally given short to one of the wing-backs or Neil Danns as the nominally more defensive-minded of the central midfield pairing.

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It doesn’t matter whether it’s one of the wing-backs or Danns on the ball, there are always at least six players higher up the pitch! The wider centre back on the opposite flank often pushes up well past the halfway line, especially if Bury need a goal to turn the game in their favour

Obviously, in a strategy geared for attack, it has many inherent advantages, especially if by always having a reliable out-ball, you can escape the high press many of their recent opponents have sought to deploy. Movement off the ball is still the most important aspect of the tactic (and probably in the sport as a whole), and when you have the likes of Mayor and O’Shea in midfield areas, the unexpected can often occur that aids greatly in penetrating even a deep backline.

One of the most joyous things for me about football is that there’s no such thing as a perfect tactic or strategy; as a result, new innovations come into being, become more widespread, and are in turn superseded by something else altogether. It doesn’t take the most analytical of scouts to understand that there are two key weaknesses in Lowe’s current implementation: firstly, they can be countered upon fairly easily. The lack of numbers in defence and the preference for silk over steel in central midfield both mean that the ball can be distributed at pace from both open play and dead ball situations consistently almost as soon as it’s won back by the opposition.

Bury often look panicky at these times, not principally in my opinion because any one player is not up to the task, but because the onus is firmly on selecting attack-minded individuals, who then have a lot of ground to cover to get back to their own goal to recover possession. Additionally, the most selected XI give up at least two inches in height to the vast majority of other teams in the league, which doesn’t just manifest itself from set plays, but also from long, raking balls hit down the channels, where they are often found wanting in winning either the first or second challenge.

I don’t see an easy fix in the short-term. In the close season, and regardless of which division they find themselves in for the 2019/2020 campaign, I’d like to see a tweaking of it. There’s every chance that change might come in the form of Mayor’s departure, which, if it did happen, might mean sacrificing the free role he had ahead of Danns and O’Shea, and shifting it back behind them to act as a counterbalance to possible strategies thought up by other managers, and a calming influence to what has actually been a good backline this season.

Chris Stokes, and the loan signing of Scott Wharton

It has been the former Coventry City’s ‘turn’ to receive criticism from some quarters in recent weeks. On the one hand, it’s inescapable that he had a big part in all three of Tisdale’s charges’ strikes on my annual visit, including an own goal. However, he then followed up that woeful outing with a man-of-the-match display at The New Lawn, repaying the faith Lowe has in him and the rest of the regular starters; the boss has already demonstrated through both rhetoric and action that he won’t discard someone on the basis of one or two below-par performances in quick succession.

Unfortunately, he was again second-best in last week’s outings, and was substituted in both instances. The loan capture of Scott Wharton, who had donned the red, black, and white of promotion rivals Lincoln for the equivalent of a full year, puts added pressure on his position. The Blackburn Rovers centre back is more of a specialist left-sided centre back than Stokes is, which isn’t a huge surprise, given that the latter only played 680 minutes in that role in the three seasons prior to joining Bury.

Although an inch shorter than his new and more experienced teammate, Wharton is much more dominant in the air, and at the very least Stokes’ equivalent with the ball at his feet. The percentages for successful passes aren’t as kind during his previous loan spell away from Ewood Park, but that can at least be partly explained by a vastly different style the Cowley brothers have devised, which has brought them no small degree of success.

It’s been said on several occasions that Tony Mowbray and his backroom staff were unhappy at the number of minutes Wharton was afforded at Sincil Bank in the first half of 2018/2019. How much that’s likely to change is up for debate right now. At the very worst, he’ll be a more than capable option for Lowe to bring on during matches. At best, he’ll usurp Stokes in the final stretch of games, but I have the feeling both of them will be required to do their part before the season is over. Stokes has had to adapt to two different roles that are largely unfamiliar to him during this term, both of which have at times served to accentuate his weaknesses rather than his strengths. It’s important for supporters to keep that in mind when assessing him, or any other player instructed to perform a certain role/position. The ceaseless attacking nature will only further magnify mistakes the few defensive-minded individuals make, and they’re put into one-on-one situations far more frequently than most of their equivalents in other sides can expect to be.

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It was always going to be a tough ask to dislodge Michael Bostwick and Jason Shackell at Lincoln, the best central defensive pairing in League Two in my opinion; the addition of Cian Bolger on a permanent deal meant it made sense for Scott Wharton to seek pastures new to get more time on the pitch; at worst for Bury, he’ll be the first sub on for any of the centre back trio

Eoghan O’Connell

One of the standout performers away from the headliners higher up the pitch has been the ball-playing Irish centre back, who has been utilised exclusively as a defensive midfielder in January’s games, particularly when Bury have been chasing a result. Although he lacks the speed and mobility of even the 36 year-old Danns, his penchant for pinging 40 to 50 forward passes to their intended target has helped no end in regaining control in this kind of scenario.

Against Accrington, he ran the show; as a sub in the extraordinary fightback against MK Dons, he didn’t misplace a single pass, and laid on an assist for Telford to halve the arrears. Consistent displays in the other games saw him chosen ahead of the captain for the Lincoln clash, and was arguably one of the better performers in that match, and also saw a curling effort disallowed for no immediately discernible reason.

As ever, it’s ensuring that the immense promise he has (he’s still only 23) is harnessed properly, and his displays of late have left me wondering what his best position in future is. He probably doesn’t have the requisite raw pace to play in a two-man central defence, especially if that rearguard isn’t well-protected. In a three-man setup, this is best hidden by being the central component, where his aerial prowess is also most needed… but it would also mean shifting Adam Thompson into a wider space, which would both be unfair and unwise. With Wharton signing, it all but confirms my suspicion that he’ll mostly be played ahead of the defensive line, at least for the remainder of the current season.

Comeback wins (and draw!)

Equally as important as the remaining unbeaten in January has been finding another way to win. Coming from behind to triumph is often said to exemplify a certain togetherness in the group (and in the stands). Statistically, it tends to be rare for obvious reasons. Much rarer still is the ability to do it for three matches in a row against quality opposition. A Shakers outfit missing a few of their more high profile names in the first half at Accrington Stanley roared back from 2-0 down to win by two clear goals in the second period to progress in the EFL Trophy.

Even more inexplicably, they were 3-1 down at home to MK Dons with 18 minutes left of normal time, yet still somehow conspired to overturn that deficit in one of the most stirring, exciting games seen in BL9 for decades. Just as brilliantly in some ways, they then travelled to Nailsworth for the very first time, and although they were distinctly second best in spells of the game to an excellent footballing side in Forest Green, but just had that clinical edge that can make all the difference in tightly contested affairs.

One way of framing the six-goal thriller on Sky Sports last Saturday would be to say that at no point during the encounter were Lincoln behind, and that augurs well for the Imps. I can certainly go along with that train of thought, and to score three at Gigg Lane, even with the leakiest defence in the top seven, is unlikely to be repeated this season, with only the two pre-season favourites having achieved that at the time of writing. Avoiding defeat in that game was crucial for both sides, and has only solidified in my mind my belief that the visitors will taste title glory in May, but also that Bury are now in a position to give anyone in the division more than a bloody nose. Even the away form, which had previously been like a weight chained to their automatic promotion hopes, has picked up of late.

The bond between the squad and the supporters hasn’t been as strong as it is now for quite some time, and probably not since the last successful bid to escape the fourth tier. Yes, performances and stirring wins from losing positions help, but simply seeing that they all care is usually enough to maintain that connection. Lowe will be keen to find a formula that keeps the need for comebacks to a minimum, but the work that has gone on behind the scenes to turn things around to this point is nothing short of astonishing.

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It’s unsurprising to see Lowe’s name mentioned so often in relation to the vacant Luton Town post; thankfully, it doesn’t seem to have amounted to anything for the time being, and there’s doubtlessly a line of reasoning to suggest that he’s yet to achieve anything concrete as a manager; 18 months or so from now is a different matter entirely…

One game from Wembley

As well as going better in the league than most would’ve anticipated, the Shakers are also on an actual cup run. Admittedly, it’s not in the FA Cup, which will have to wait for another year, but they are now at their furthest point ever in the much-maligned EFL Trophy, having overcome three League One sides and a full-strength Mansfield away from home in the process. The excellent victory at The Wham Stadium was followed up by an impressive 5-2 demolition of Oxford United at a snowy Gigg Lane. All that stands between them and a first appearance at the ‘new’ Wembley, and the first to a stadium bearing that name in 24 years, are high-flying Portsmouth.

Should the Shakers progress, then it’s almost certain that their crowd will be dwarfed by the contingent Sunderland or Bristol Rovers would bring to London. The reason I mention that is because Shaun Harvey, Chief Executive of the EFL, is incredibly keen for the final to be very well-attended, not just in and of itself, but because it will help to skew the figures/receptiveness of followers of all EFL sides in the competition, and make it appear as though there’s more of an appetite for the current format to continue. Black Cats fans have demonstrated a greater than anticipated enthusiasm for the tournament, so it isn’t especially surprising to read that many opposed to the bungled nature of the tertiary cup want the game to be played between Bury and The Gas.

Callum Hulme

Encouragingly, a timely announcement was made last Saturday morning of pro terms being agreed and signed by the distinctive-looking playmaker, who has featured on the odd occasion this season in the EFL Trophy, and who started against Leicester City U23s. Lowe has been a big admirer of his from the time he came back to Bury for a third spell, and took the ex-Manchester City youngster under his wing during development games. Having plied his trade with the Blues as a left-sided (but right-footed) wing-back/winger, he’s now someone who takes the initiative in the centre of the park, always looking to dictate the tempo regardless of how high up or far back in midfield he’s positioned. Skillful on the ball, the variety in his passing could see him progress far beyond the confines of Gigg Lane at some point in his future, and his long-range shooting ability makes him most similar in playstyle to O’Shea from the senior squad. The rapport he has with Joe Adams might be something to look out for in 2019/2020.

One more in?

At the time of writing, Sporting Director Lee Dykes has talked about the possibility of adding one further face to the ranks, with perhaps several fringe players joining Scott Burgess on temporary spells away from south Lancashire before the transfer window closes on Thursday.

Burgess’ departure only adds further scrutiny to the area that’s been lacking for a while now – central midfield. It seems very unlikely at this juncture that Callum Styles will rejoin for the remainder of the season, and with Stephen Dawson injured and perhaps unwanted, there really isn’t anyone else that has much first team experience of playing there; O’Connell is now the first alternative to Danns or O’Shea, with Hulme an unlikely second to him. Ryan Cooney can operate in a number of different roles, but seems to be mostly selected at wing-back now.

All of that means a new signing is a distinct possibility, and the likelihood is it would come in the form of a loan. In an ideal world, it would be someone with decent aerial reach, and able to cover a lot of ground. The winter transfer window rarely hands clubs ‘ideals’ when the clock is ticking, and Lowe has recently gone on record to state that if no business can be concluded regarding incomings, he’d still be more than satisfied with the group he already has.

 

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So close… can Bury upset Shaun Harvey and make it to the final at Wembley?

February’s fixtures 

It is around this time of the season that thoughts turn to the final third of league matches, with certain games that appear ‘easier’ on paper proving to be anything but. First up is another home match, this time against Gabriele Cioffi’s Crawley Town. In the reverse tie in Essex, the Shakers conspired to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, but the Red Devils were under Harry Kewell’s management. Since then, the Italian has lost twice the number of games that he’s won. Inconsistency has been the most charitable word to describe their form, but they did break their long winless run on the road last time out at the expense of Swindon Town. Their roster looks a little threadbare at the moment, but in Ollie Palmer, they have someone more than capable of firing them to a comfortable mid-table finish, and he’s already had success against the Shakers this season.

Just before Morecambe away is the small matter of the Fifth Round of the FA Youth Cup, pitting Ryan Kidd’s U18s against Preston North End’s. The two sides have met on three occasions during 2018/2019, with each game ending in a draw. The only difference between them was a penalty shootout victory for Bury in the second of those games (in the Youth Alliance Cup). For the senior side, even with the Shrimps’ form yielding no wins this side of Christmas, they cannot take three points as a given at The Globe Arena. Jim Bentley’s men showed plenty of fight and no shortage of endeavour, and he’ll be calling for those qualities in abundance to avoid relegation once more.

Exeter City have very quietly come back into the play-off reckoning, chiefly at the expense of faltering Colchester United. Jayden Stockley’s sale to the Lillywhites hasn’t yet torpedoed their prospects, but it has hampered their ability to finish chances, with only three strikes thus far in 2019. Avoiding defeat is a must, and opportunities might be a bit more of a premium for the likes of Maynard and O’Shea against a solid-looking defence.

The final league game of the shortest month of the year is the return fixture against Oldham. The Latics remain the only side to have beaten Bury by more than one goal in any competition during 2018/2019, but as ever at Boundary Park these days, it’s hard to know what’s going to happen when they meet again. Under caretaker Pete Wild, they have been at times superb and other times shambolic, with talisman Jose Baxter publicly criticising some of his teammates in the wake of their controversial late defeat to Doncaster Rovers in the FA Cup. Their involvement deep in that tournament does mean they have games in hand over the teams around them, and a late charge for the top seven isn’t out of the question if Wild or his eventual permanent replacement (possibly Paul Scholes) can unify what at times seems like quite a disparate dressing room. Having been humiliated in the first half before Christmas, some of Lowe’s players will now know what’s required of them, especially by fans that want that little bit extra on derby days.

Sky’s cameras will return for the EFL Trophy semi-final match with Pompey. It should be noted that between now and then, the south coast side will have to play at least six games compared to Bury’s four. Still in the hunt for promotion themselves and with a place in the fifth round of the FA Cup at stake, it’s hard to know from the outside how much focus Kenny Jackett will give the televised fixture on the 26th. Whilst it does represent another chance to then play at Wembley, they’re in the middle of a five-team dogfight for two automatic places to the Championship. Lowe’s top priority is understandably also the league, but he too covets the opportunity to lead a side out at the famous stadium. Time will tell if it’s the only chance he’ll get this season…

 

Imps As One – An Interview with Gary Hutchinson

Before the big game tomorrow, I did a second Q&A for The Stacey West Blog, writer Gary Hutchinson’s creation. In turn, he kindly did one for me about Lincoln City, and how he thinks things will pan out under the floodlights and the cameras…

1. How did you come to support Lincoln City, and who took you to your first game?

I believe it is probably hereditary. My Grandad was a fan in the fifties, my Dad followed him there in the seventies, and I came along and picked up the baton in the late eighties. It was written in the stars, the day before I was born the Imps had a referee called Hutchinson! My first game was with my Dad as ‘punishment’ for swearing. It was October 1987, and the day before, he’d wanted to take me to watch Nottingham Forest and Manchester United. We’d been rained off, but he was adamant he wanted me to follow a decent side; Lincoln had been relegated to Division Four as it was known at the time, and were later relegated out of the league, the first club to suffer that fate. The next day (a Sunday) we played Hartlepool, I got caught swearing by Mum, and Dad was told he had to take me with him to the game. We lost 4-1 in front of just over 2,000 people and I’ve been going ever since.

2. What do you think about the rise in the last few years of data analysis in football, particularly in light of the Marcelo Bielsa furore? I’m sure the Cowley brothers are equally as meticulous…

I won’t go into too much about Danny Cowley’s preparation, but I’ve been lucky enough to sit on his video analysis, and I’ve been honoured to receive calls from him from time to time just to shoot the breeze. The whole spying thing is ridiculous in my opinion. Talk of a points deduction is wrong, it’s just other clubs being sour. I dare bet the ones who have signed the petition are the ones whose managers have been exposed as working far less meticulously. The game is completely different these days and preparation is key. It takes a lot of work and fans don’t like to see money spent on tracksuits behind the scenes, they like players who wear the shirt. If you get the first bit right these days, then the players will follow. We do well, our recruitment has been very good of late and that’s down to the level of analysis Danny and Nicky do on every player they sign.

3. Speaking of them, how far do you think they go can in the game, and for how much of that journey can they realistically take Lincoln on?

For us, the ceiling is the Championship for one sorry season. We’d be like Burton Albion or Yeovil Town, climbing beyond our means to a level we struggle to compete in. The key is then using that to become a stable League One club, if there is such a thing. As for Danny and Nicky, I firmly believe they can manage in the Premier League. There’s been lots of comparisons drawn with Eddie Howe, but people forget he was backed by a lot of money in his climb. They’re learning all the time and they adapt to situations well, so why not manage in the top flight?

4. There has been some talk in recent days of the Imps having ‘plastic’ fans, having seen attendances dramatically increase since they took over. Is it justified, or just a natural by-product of the new-found enthusiasm in and around the city for the team?

I hate that term. How can a League Two club have ‘plastic’ fans? Are they sat at home watching the games on TV? No. They’re paying money to watch their local club. Of course, we’ve got new and returning fans, we’ve been on an incredible journey and people have become aware of the club within the city. The term ‘plastic’ is just jealousy from other clubs who either can’t attract that fanbase when they’re doing well, or aren’t doing well enough to attract their own hardcore.

5. Who would you say fans regard as the side most likely to challenge Lincoln for the title in the final third of the campaign?

Honestly, Mansfield Town. A little bit of sick rose in my mouth when I said that, but they’re the side I think can do it. They need to though, £10k a week on Tyler Walker and Jorge Grant alone is abhorrent at this level. They’re almost as bad as Forest Green Rovers, throwing money at a situation when their ground and infrastructure is not suited to the higher level. I’d like to think Bury and Milton Keynes Dons will join us automatically, if we are able to sustain our own challenge. Nothing is set in stone, but I’ve not seen a Danny Cowley side collapse yet.

6. How much of a success in your opinion has John Akinde been in his first season in the red, white, and black?

That depends on how we term ‘success’. Has he scored as many goals as we’d like? No. He creates chances and then misses them. I think he’s got fewer from open play than Harry Anderson and in one game. Danny Rowe hit 50% of Akinde’s total. taking out penalties. However, he’s a great centre forward, he earned us the 2-2 draw at Swindon with nine men by holding up the ball, fighting for every scrap. He’s got all the qualities of a top centre forward except that clinical edge. Mind you, we’ve had 18 different outfield players, so when everyone scores a couple, you don’t need one man bagging 20.

7. What will the re-signing of Danny Rowe on loan bring to the squad from a tactical point of view?

I thought he’d bring cover out wide, but it seems he’s going to sit behind big John and look to get beyond when he can. Rowe has got pace to burn, he’s eager and sharp, too. Danny loves him, he signed him last season and he chased him before he left Macclesfield Town. When Danny spots a player, he likes he won’t leave him alone, he knows the characters he wants. I suspect in the summer we may be preparing a bid and if we do, we’ll be signing a top player.

8. How do you see Saturday’s match going?

I can see it being a game where neither side come away happy or disappointed. I’d love it to be 1-1, have Ryan Lowe calling us all the names under the sun like Darren Way did, but secretly thinking we’re the real deal. Look, we’re not always pretty. We play nice football, the two goals at Yeovil proved that, but we also know how to manage games, slow down play when it need to be done and how to frustrate an opponent. We’re not as bad as Wycombe Wanderers last season, but we’re far more street smart than the likes of Forest Green. I hate Forest Green.

From the Hornets’ Nest to Fortress Gigg: An Interview with Adam Thompson

In the first of a new series chatting to players and staff at the club, ever-present and highly regarded centre back Adam Thompson kindly took the time out of a hectic run of matches over the Christmas and New Year period to talk to me about his playing career to date, answering openly and honestly about the lows, as well as the many highs he’s experienced thus far.

What was your experience like in Watford’s academy, having signed for them at the age of 11?

It was brilliant. I went there after getting released from Tottenham Hotspur at the age of 11, and with my family being massive Spurs fans, it hit us all hard. I wanted to give up football after that, so when Watford signed me, it was a big confidence boost, and they really helped me as a player over the years. My academy coach was Mark Warburton, and he stayed with my age group all the way up until under 18s. He is now a very respected manager, so he helped me massively and taught me a lot. Also the fact that when I was 17, I was playing first team football was amazing. The financial constraints of the club at that time meant that there were a lot of opportunities for academy lads to come through. That changed a bit when they got taken over, so that was when I had to move on.

Who were your biggest influences in football growing up, besides Warburton?

My mum and dad were massive. When I got released from Spurs, my dad helped me get fitter, quicker, and stronger. I was 11, and I was racing my dad at road running, doing fitness and skill sessions over the park, swimming 60 lengths every week, and he paid for a speed coach for me as well. Also, my mum  taking me to training an hour away four days a week with my little brother in the car doing his homework and having dinner! They both helped me massively and without that, I wouldn’t have signed for Watford.  Football wise, I think Warburton was the biggest up until 18. After that, Uwe Rösler at Brentford was good for me. Then Phil Brown at Southend with Graham Coughlan as assistant was when I really grew into a man and a real defender I’d say. I really learned a lot about men’s football there.

You were a key part of the Northern Ireland U19s’ run to the Milk Cup (as it was then known) final in 2010. How important was that experience for you?

Yeah, it was an unreal experience. I played there a couple of years earlier with Watford, and that was the first time I experienced real crowds and atmosphere in stadiums. But then to be playing for the home country in their own national tournament, it was a different level. We were paraded through the streets and treated as kings. It was one of the best experiences in my career. The fact we did well obviously helped, as well as me scoring in front of a lot of our own fans. The whole thing prepared me for playing in front of crowds, and playing with pressure. It was very important for my development in that sense.

Did you ever envisage in your wildest dreams earning your first senior cap just a year later?

Not at all. Just the fact that I got called up to the first team was an honour. I would never have thought that I would actually play a part though. It was the Carling Nations Cup tournament, which involved Scotland, Wales, Republic of Ireland, and us. For the first game, I was on the bench, and that was good enough for me. My family all came to watch, realistically knowing that the chances of me playing were slim, but they come to every match (home and away) that I play. The way the match went helped I think, we were losing 3-0 and the game was over, so he brought me on. To play against premiership players in a stadium like the Aviva was just unreal, and such a massive achievement for me and my family. The next game I actually started, but got sent off at 3-0 down, so I won’t go into too much detail about that one! At the time, I think most footballers will agree, when you’re that young, you don’t really grasp what’s happening, or how big of an achievement things like that are. That helps with not getting too nervous before games, but it also means that you don’t realise how good of a situation you’re in, and maybe don’t make the most of it all. But those two caps still remain my only ones for the senior setup, so it was massive for me and my family.

You made your senior club debut for the Hornets in August 2010, going on to play a further 10 times that season. Do you think if Malky Mackay had stayed in charge rather than depart for Cardiff City, you’d have been afforded more gametime than Sean Dyche was willing to give you, or were there other factors at play?

Yeah, I think I would have stayed and played some part in the season under Malky, but I was too young and naive as a defender to have played a major part, so going to Brentford on loan and getting 25 or so games in league One at that point in my career was another massive part of my career. If Malky had stayed and played me here and there, of course I would have been happy, but looking back now, for my development, it probably worked out better that way. Dyche took over and went for more experience across the back four, which, if you look at his managerial career, has worked really well for him and his teams, so there were no arguments with the decision, really.

In hindsight, how beneficial was your loan spell at Wycombe Wanderers, having accrued plenty of games under your belt in the tier above for Brentford in 2011/2012?

Wycombe wasn’t a good experience at all. I went there hoping to play lots of games and played two out of four, not playing well at all, and then the manager got sacked, so I got sent back to Watford. It was just one of those loans that didn’t work out, so I didn’t really gain a lot from it. At that stage though, I was just eager to play games, and I knew I wouldn’t play at Vicarage Road, so maybe I rushed a couple of loans that season, the Wycombe and Barnet ones, just because I was desperate to play. I ended up playing a single match for Barnet and then dislocating my shoulder as well, so it wasn’t a great season, all in all!

What were the key factors in you making your switch to Southend United permanent in 2014?

The whole feel about the club at the time. It was local to me so I could still live at home, and the team togetherness was unbelievable. We were all best mates, playing football together… and that makes it so much more enjoyable. Watford was starting to lose that feel, as there were a lot of players from overseas being signed, so there were language barriers there. As a consequence, when I went to Southend on loan, it was a breath of fresh air. I knew my time at Watford was up. The standard of player they were starting to bring in was way above what we’d seen before, and they were taking the Championship by storm.

I knew I didn’t stand a chance there any more, so I went on loan to Southend, and Phil Brown wanted to make it permanent in the January of that season. With no disrespect at all, the team had that lower league feel to it, which was so refreshing for me personally. Everybody was down to earth, nobody was above their station and was aware where they were, and we all worked hard for each other because we liked each other off the pitch.

Again, I was in and out of the team, but when you enjoy the environment you work in, I think it makes it a lot easier to handle. It was also a team on the up; we were looking like we were making play-offs that season, so I thought we would be in the league above any time soon (which then happened the season after).

As you mentioned, Southend got promoted in one of the most dramatic play-off finals in recent years against the Chairboys. Although you weren’t involved in the game itself, does it still rank as the best time you’ve had in your domestic career to date?

I think it has to be the best moment of my career. I dislocated my shoulder late in the season that year, so couldn’t play, but I was still there on the bench with the lads, and the emotions were the most I’ve ever felt in football. I still see it on Sky Sports every now and then and still get goosebumps. It’s the only time in football I’ve cried I think. It was just the way we did it on that day, the group of lads we achieved it with, how hard we’d worked and the challenges we’d faces that season. Everything about it really made it special. If I didn’t play much that season, then maybe I wouldn’t have felt part of it, but I played around 30 games, so it was a very proud moment for me and my family as well. We have a similar group here at Bury this season, so that’s my driving force for us trying to do well this year, because I know how special it is with a good group of lads.

What was it like playing alongside Anton Ferdinand when he joined the Shrimpers in the summer transfer window of 2016? You seemed to forge a very solid partnership with him during the following campaign.

It was great for me to learn off of someone in my position who has played in the Premier League for most of their career. He taught me a lot and helped me on and off the pitch. He was a real leader and demanded a lot from everyone, not just the players, but the staff, the cooks, the groundsmen, everybody involved. We had a close relationship off the pitch, which helped as well. I’ve been lucky with the fact that I’ve had some really good defenders to learn off in my time. Adam Barrett and Luke Prosser at Southend were massive for me as well. We had players that were willing to teach and help you progress, even though you were competition in the same position as them. In football, that is rare these days. Anton and I did really well together statistically, I think.

I recall that we were in the bottom four in November of that campaign, and we ended up missing out on play-offs because of a last-minute goal from Millwall against Bristol rovers, which meant we missed out by 1 point. We went 17 games unbeaten, so it was a great time for us as a team, and as a defence.

What made you decide to sign for Bury, having been exclusively at south-eastern clubs previously?

It was a big decision for me. I’ve always been down south close to home, and I’m very close with my family, so it was a tough decision. The way Bury were talking though, it was so nice to hear how much they rated me, and their long-term plan was hard to ignore, especially when I saw them make a new signing every day at the time. And they were good signings, in my opinion. I honestly thought that with the squad being assembled, we would have a real chance of getting promoted, and that is the only thing I wanted, to go up another level and play in the Championship. Southend were so close to the play-offs that season, but with a season such as that, it inevitably brings interest in players, and you hear things about some of the group possibly leaving. I just felt at the time, we wouldn’t be able to better that season that we just had, as much as I wanted us to.

They offered me a three-year deal, and Bury did as well. I know people talk about the money that was being thrown around (at Gigg Lane) last year, but the offers weren’t too dissimilar. It was literally a case of who I felt had a better chance of getting me to that next step in my career. Obviously the rest is history, and it goes down as a bad decision (as far as last season was concerned), but I learned so much about a lot of different things last year. It definitely made me stronger, as it did with most of the squad I think.

I don’t want to dwell too much on 2017/2018 in general, but are you able to shed any light on the experience of being signed and let go on loan to Bradford City in the same transfer window?

The transfer window had opened and Bradford had tried to sign me on a permanent that summer, so I knew they were still interested. I went into Lee Clark’s office on the Friday after the Rochdale lineup and matchday squad were announced, and asked him “do you want me to be here?”. He said he wanted me to stay and fight for my place, so I said to him that I was more than prepared to stay, work hard, and fight for my place. On the Saturday, we drew 0-0 at Spotland. On the Sunday, I got a call from my agent saying that the manager had just rung him and said that I could leave on a loan deal or on a permanent deal.

At any point whilst on loan at the Bantams, or even when the deal was cut short, did you a) expect to still be a Bury player this season and b) expect to be the only Shaker at the time of writing to have played in every single game during 2018/2019?

In short, no. As soon as I got out of Bury, it was such a good feeling to be out of the atmosphere around the training ground and away from everything going on. At that point, I was hoping that I’d do well enough at Bradford so that they would sign me permanently. Mentally, I was done at the Shakers. Obviously though, it didn’t work out like that. The two centre backs that were playing when I signed on loan at were both playing very well, and although I’d gone there to play, in everybody’s mind (at the club), there was no way that the manager could drop them. Bradford were in third or fourth for most of my time there, so it was a great dressing room to be in, and Stuart McCall was a fantastic manager to work under… but I wasn’t playing, and that added to the frustration that summed up that season for myself, really.

When Ryan Lowe got the job (as caretaker), he rang me straight away, and asked if I was interested in going back. I knew the dire situation the club was in on the field, and I had a choice whether to accept (and have a relegation on my CV that I had little to do with), or stay at Bradford, hope to play more and possibly get a promotion on it. Ultimately, I decided that I just wanted to play, so I came back. I would never have expected to have played in every single match this season if you would have asked me then, but as clichéd as it is, that’s football, and how much it all can change in so little time. I worked very hard in the off-season, and came back very fit and strong because I wanted to prove a point to everybody. The club, the staff, the players, the fans. Myself, maybe.

How have Ryan Lowe and the rest of the coaching staff lifted the very negative atmosphere that seemed to surround the club last season? I don’t think too many fans or pundits expected Bury to be in or around the top three at the turn of the year.

I definitely didn’t expect it as well if I’m honest. Don’t get me wrong, I knew we had the players, but we had the players last year as well! With how bad it was last year, I didn’t know how it was going to change, but the gaffer brought in players who epitomise him and the way he likes the game to be played. Hard working, honest professionals. We had a lot of quality last year, but maybe not so much of those characteristics. That sort of work ethic rubs off on people, and it became a given throughout the squad. I know every team works hard in pre-season, but we really did work very hard. There was a team togetherness that started brewing as well, which was alien to most of us that had been there the previous season.The gaffer, Rob Kelly and Steven Schumacher just brought a feel good factor back. Training was both high tempo and demanding, and we loved that. I think all of those things mixed together have held us in good stead until now. It means that even when things aren’t going well, we stick together and get through it together. That is absolutely priceless, especially lower down the leagues. That camaraderie and togetherness is what I put most of our promotion at Southend down to a few seasons back. We are all mates off the pitch, and we want to help each other. I think that is the main difference from last year for me. Obviously, we are playing a lot better as well, and that comes with the standard of training and confidence around the dressing room.

How did it feel being given the captain’s armband in the recent Boxing Day clash with Mansfield Town?

It was a very proud moment for me and my family. It was the first time I’ve been captain in a league game I think, so it was a great feeling and achievement for me personally. I appreciate the gaffer’s trust in me, and that he feels that I am a type of character that he can give the armband. We have a lot of leaders on the pitch anyway, so it doesn’t matter who is wearing the armband too much, but it was still nice.

In the last few years, many sides in the English leagues have reverted to a three/five-man defence, with the emphasis now firmly on playing out from the back in the vast majority of cases. What’s it been like for you adapting to that?

It’s been a good learning curve for me. I haven’t played that system a lot throughout my career, so I’ve had to learn (on the job) a lot, but it’s been enjoyable. I’ve played every one of the three slots across the back three this season, and they’re all slightly different, but most of the time I’ve been the central one, and I enjoy it. I like to organise from the back, and in that position you can see everything happening and do a bit more organising. With the way we play, it’s been enjoyable to get on the ball as much as I have been as well. I think the key factor is that all of our defenders are very mobile, so if they are called upon to be one of the wider ones of the trio, they can deal with one-on-one situations, and being in a right or left-back position sometimes. I think it can cause problems when maybe you have defenders that aren’t that mobile, and are getting pulled out of position a lot and struggling, but thanks to the recruitment, we don’t have that problem.

How important do you think it’s been to know week in, week out, that you’re going to be lining up alongside Chris Stokes and Will Aimson?

I think consistency is massive in any team, but especially with the defence. You get to know each others’ strengths and weaknesses, and tailor your game with those in mind, and take up different positions for different scenarios, knowing what your defensive partners will do. They’ve both been brilliant this year, and I think a lot of the work they do goes unnoticed. With the system we play and the way we play it, there’s so much emphasis on those two for it to really work, in and out of possession. For me, they have been key and a pleasure to play with, not forgetting Eoghan O’Connell when he’s come in as well!

What would be your ultimate personal goal for the rest of your playing career?

My goal has always been to play as high as I possibly can. I’ve played in league One for the majority of my career, and felt comfortable there, so I’d love to play in the Championship one day. The immediate goal is obviously to get promotion and get back to the third tier. Just as long as I’m playing, and enjoying my football, I think that’s a big thing for me right now, especially after last year’s experience. I’m still fairly young for a centre back, so still have a hell of a lot to learn, but I work hard every day in training to try to be the best that I can be, and we will see where that takes me. I’d also like to try and break my way into the Northern Ireland squad again, but I think I need to be playing at a higher level to be considered for them.

Bury 4-3 Milton Keynes Dons: Review, And Some Words of Cautious Optimism

Football. Bloody hell.

As regular readers will know, I don’t get up to south Lancashire very often. Indeed, my ‘annual pilgrimage’ normally has to suffice, as well as a handful of away trips local to my current place of abode. This can sometimes make me feel a little disconnected from the rest of the Bury fanbase, but Saturday’s match against promotion rivals Milton Keynes Dons went quite some distance to rectifying that.

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Making my way to the stadium through some back roads unfamiliar even to me as someone who used to frequent the town once a fortnight for longer than 10 years, I got the sense that it’s on the cusp of slowly transforming, much the football club, from the old to the new, exemplified above by the repurposed mill on Wellington Street

I forwent the opportunity to explore the town centre in order to meet up at the Social Club with people more recognisable to me by their online handles on Twitter or the message board than their real names, and I could belatedly give depth to them in the flesh. My friend Andy Ashworth, someone who gave me no small amount of support during my non-football related depression last season, introduced me to fellow imbibers in the bustling sports bar (given a new lease of life under Steve Dale) as the person behind this blog, and the reactions were truly heartwarming. His father Cliff joined us a little later on, and upon making my acquaintance took my hand and shook it, praising my work. I must confess that it meant a little more coming from a man who’s undoubtedly experienced many things, and been witness to almost all of the highs and many lows in the club’s modern history.

Why am I mentioning this, you might ask? For various reasons, going to matches has been quite a solitary affair for me. Sometimes, I’ll travel with my dad-in-law, but as a lapsed (and priced out) Arsenal fan, his interest is more in the quality of the fare on show, rather than the day-to-day machinations of the Shakers, so mentioning the strengths and weaknesses of players or the ‘heavy metal’ system Ryan Lowe has employed in 2018/2019 that he doesn’t see in some form week in, week out, can be a little lost in translation.

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I took my seat in the South Stand, not far from where I used to hold a season ticket with my mum all the way through the Icarus-esque rise and fall during the mid-90s to mid-00s, and even before kick off, the atmosphere was much more vocal than I’d become accustomed to throughout much of that period at Gigg Lane.

A cursory glance at the visitors’ teamsheet made it clear that Paul Tisdale wasn’t going to acquiesce to my preview, choosing to draft in Peter Pawlett behind the deadly duo of Chuks Aneke and Kieran Agard, instead of shoehorning him or one of the other forwards into the nominally left-sided role vacated by the (temporary) absence of Rhys Healey. Further back, he strangely opted for Joe Walsh over the recently impressive Mathieu Baudry, choosing to deploy the former in his first game for two months as the right-sided centre back, despite being predominantly left-footed.

The early minutes saw MK largely sit back and invite their hosts onto them in the hopes of using the pace of Agard on the counter. As early as the sixth minute, this strategy had to be tweaked a bit because of a hamstring injury to George Williams down the right flank. His replacement Conor McGrandles has taken on that position reasonably frequently during the current campaign, but I’d argue that forced substitution changed the tactical complexion of the encounter just as much as any subsequent to that. Good in the air as he was, he was largely penned in to his own half by the attacking proclivities of Callum McFadzean and Danny Mayor.

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Bury’s shape in this picture gives you as good an indication as any of how Lowe sets the stall out – Will Aimson’s foot, which is just visible on the very left, shows how wide he roves to cover for Nicky Adams; normally, there are at least six outfielders ahead of the ball

Even so, the rest of the pitch had an open feel to it from the off, with Pawlett enjoying no shortage of room in which to manoeuver. Under a small amount of pressure from Agard, Chris Stokes made what turned out to be the first of several costly errors during the game, lumping the ball with his weaker out for the needless concession of a corner. A well-worked routine saw the returning Jordan Moore-Taylor climb highest of all to dispatch Jordan Houghton’s cross, drawing first blood for the Dons.

The goal only seemed to encourage an even more attack-minded approach for Bury, and it seemed as though they’d get their reward for beginning to pepper Lee Nicholls’ net when Jay O’Shea dusted himself down after Houghton’s clumsy challenge to take the penalty; although it was struck well, his opponent pulled off a superb save to ensure his side’s lead was preserved. Momentum was still mainly with the home side and by this point, the majority of the build-up play was squarely focused down the left flank. From another patient move to work the ball into the area, the Irish playmaker bravely stepped up to make amends just after the half-hour mark when captain Neil Danns went down a little dubiously adjacent to Walsh, who certainly had some justification for his protests when reviewing the highlights. Nevertheless, the spot kick was calmly guided into the far corner, and the Shakers were level… for all of three minutes.

Once more, the inability to defend from set pieces proved to be the BL9 outfit’s undoing. A throw-in was played to Agard, and his hold-up play invited Stokes to foul him, giving away another cheap chance for the side in red and gold to profit from… which they duly obliged. Dean Lewington, having much more success than his compatriot McGrandles, turned his hand (or, rather, foot) to expertly angling a tap back from Houghton into Joe Murphy’s far corner, which the latter could do little about, seeing the ball too late as it flew past the two-man wall.

After half-time, things became more desperate for Lowe. Lewington was allowed too much space to pick out a wicked cross by Nicky Adams, and with Agard waiting on the six-yard line to nod home, Stokes did the job for him. In his defence, he had to get something on it, as the striker was queued up right behind him. Facing towards your own goal with the pace of the ball as it was, it’s very difficult to steer it away from danger with your head. A dejected looking Stokes was summarily substituted, and he must be fearing for his starting place if Lowe was basing his judgement on that match alone.

Now 3-1 down, Lowe rolled the dice. On came the divisive Eoghan O’Connell for Danns, whose job was twofold: a) to sit a bit further back than his teammate had to deprive Pawlett of the ball, and b) when possession was regained, to pick out a white shirt with greater urgency than had hitherto been the case. Byron Moore’s introduction at the same time ensured the balance in defence wasn’t altered, with McFadzean, who has experience of centre back at former side Guiseley, tucking inside to accommodate the probing forays forward of Moore.

The effect wasn’t immediate, and it took a couple of timely interventions by Adam Thompson to keep the gap in the scoreline surmountable. Once that danger had ceased and an hour had elapsed, it was almost all Bury from then on. Pawlett’s withdrawal for Lawson D’Ath had no obvious positive effect on proceedings, and perhaps diminished the influence they had in midfield areas.

In a sign of what was to come, the uncontrollable Mayor flashed a presentable effort just wide. With less than 20 minutes remaining, the home support, which hadn’t given up hope of salvaging something from the game by any means, were able to cheer Dom Telford’s crucial strike to halve the deficit. Fed by O’Connell, the diminutive striker still had a lot to do, but his change of pace left Walsh unable to catch him as he drove towards the goal, angling a left-footed shot into the far corner. O’Connell, for his part, didn’t misplace a single one of his 26 passes after coming on.

The increasing hope in the stands was visibly translating itself onto the field, with goalscorer Telford calling for more noise. O’Connell strode forward, and tried to replicate his spectacular curling effort against Stevenage, but the flight of the ball was a touch too high. Then, it was Mayor’s turn to conjure up something special. Teed up by Moore’s backheel after a charge to the edge of the penalty area, the inside forward cut inside and took his shot a little earlier than is his custom, which went through the legs of Nicholls. It would be harsh to place much blame on the custodian for it, as he had little opportunity to anticipate the direction of the effort. 3-3, and already a classic.

It was at this point that Andy asked me whether I’d take the point as it stood, which I stated I would. Although I hadn’t seen the best of Agard or an off-colour Chuks Aneke, you write off MK Dons at your peril, even in an encounter they had largely been second best in on the overall balance of play. Osman Sow was called upon to add more physicality to their forward line in the dying minutes, with the defence now hitting it longer to stem the pressure they were under.

However, it was former Don Nicky Maynard who had the final say. Another quick ball into the area from O’Connell found its intended target, but the marksman could only conspire to somehow to poke wide when unmarked. It felt like that was the chance to fire Bury into what had appeared to be an unlikely lead, but thankfully, that wasn’t the case. The presence of Gold Omotayo, on for Telford, was actually quite an important moment, as it offered a prominent outlet in both boxes, esepcially from any late corners. As it was, he had an understated role in the winner. Goal side of McGrandles, the Swiss target man blocked off the wing-back’s means of getting anything on Adams’ cross-cum-shot, all while his shirt was being firmly held. The direction of the ball was definitely changed slightly but vitally by Maynard. Cue bedlam.

As I stated above, Gigg Lane is not known for generally having a vibrant atmosphere, although some sections of home supporters do do their best. The scenes I witnessed and was very much a part of after Maynard’s winner are some of the most joyous I’ve seen in my entire life, only matched by the sound of the full-time whistle.

None of the highlight packages, my video above, or even the best efforts of the commentary team on the iFollow stream, can do either moment justice. It’s the sort of experience you have rarely, particularly as a Shaker, and I’ve only a handful of occasions in my lifetime that even come close at the ground:

  • Tony Rigby’s amazing play-off semi-final winner against Preston North End in 1995
  • Being one of the fans on the pitch at the end of the 1995/1996 season, awaiting news of whether Bury had stolen the third and final promotion spot
  • The title win in 1997 against at a sold-out ground
  • The 2-1 derby win over rivals Bolton Wanderers in 1999
  • Jon Newby’s injury time winner against league leaders Millwall in 2001… and sharp exit from the wrath of angry visiting fans!

You’ll notice that most of those are 20 or so years ago. Whilst that is partly down to my relocation, it’s also true to say that more of the recent glorious memories supporters have had have come away from home, including both of the promotions in the last decade. Gigg Lane really was rocking.

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Football. Bloody hell.

Whilst Tisdale’s men had not been at their swaggering or imperious best, they had still more than demonstrated that they are automatic promotion bedfellows for good reason, being 3-1 up (without being at the top of their game) for a lengthy spell. They have the means if necessary to recruit in the remainder of the transfer window, and will surely be targeting Healey for a return. On Saturday’s evidence, they could’ve done with a bit more cutting edge from open play, but I’m sure they’ll be fine regardless of the outcome of that potential re-signing.

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I wrote an article last month, cautiously welcoming chairman Steve Dale’s takeover, as well as offering some ways to get stakeholders back onside. Fans have suffered over the years from the club’s poor financial reputation in more ways than one, as well as false dawns and promises of others, no matter how benevolent their intentions were. A fans’ forum was held on Friday night, clips of which will no doubt be published by the club later this week. I wasn’t there, but I’m told he, new director Matt McCarthy and CEO Karl Evans were actively encouraging the participation of the supporters during it.

Plenty of words have been said about reconnecting the club to its community, even in the month Dale has been in situ. Thankfully, they have already been proven by actions, including a succinct note on the official website and the chairman’s presence at yesterday’s women’s cup match. The club is much more than the senior men’s team, and even though they are still small steps, to have that recognised so early on will go a long way to making good on that promise, and it’s coupled with a perception that everyone’s now pulling in the same direction. Tough obstacles (both on and off the pitch) still lie in wait, and even if Lowe fails to achieve the target he’s privately set himself and his group of players, it feels good to be an active participant in all facets of Bury Football Club again.

Bury vs Milton Keynes Dons: Preview

Tomorrow, I’ll be making the trip north for what currently amounts to an annual pilgrimage to Gigg Lane to watch Bury take on Milton Keynes Dons, with both sides currently occupying spots in the automatic promotion places a little way back from leaders Lincoln City. Paul Tisdale’s charges have a two-game and single point advantage over their hosts. However, on recent form, it’s by no means a given that they’ll make full use of those fixtures.

Ryan Lowe will be looking to build on a fruitful January, with his side having played twice since the Buckinghamshire outfit were in action, and won all three clashes in the month thus far. He is likely to revert to the XI that started the 1-0 away triumph over Yeovil Town, with only Caolan Lavery a possible absentee after a knock to his thigh on Tuesday night.

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The best candidate to take the Sheffield United loanee’s place is Dom Telford, fresh from scoring an impressive brace in the stirring comeback victory over Accrington Stanley to become this season’s current top goalscorer in the EFL Trophy. His interchanges with Nicky Maynard showed a good understanding between the two forwards, and the direct running in from the right half-space of ‘Mr. Checkatrade’ is bound to make Baily Cargill ponder just how much he’ll step out of the visitors’ three-man defence to cover for captain Dean Lewington’s dashes forward.

Further back, much will depend on how often Tisdale instructs his three strikers to press the Shakers’ backline when the latter are in possession. We have already seen marked success for opposition sides in employing this tactic, and it might mean Danny Mayor will have to start from deeper on the field than he’d like to, in order to disrupt that plan.

Similarly, Neil Danns will have to be vigilant when considering the movement of languid dangerman Chuks Aneke, as he has a tendency to drop off from the spearhead of attack to either receive the ball himself or find pockets of space to anticipate a knockdown or loose pass coming his way.

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Though the Dons had hitherto stuttered in the league, a ruthless display in their 6-0 pasting of Cambridge United has renewed their fans’ confidence, even now that Rhys Healey has departed to Cardiff City (for the time being). Tisdale’s recent comments in the media suggest little movement in the transfer window, although he does remain hopeful of re-singing the Welsh frontman once a couple of weeks have passed, and his parent club have assessed him fully in training.

Like Bury, MK build from the back. The vast majority of custodian Lee Nicholls’ passes are short to his back three, and his general distribution is accurate enough to be a good fit for that style of play. His height allows him to confidently claim crosses and corners, and in spite of conceding six goals in the last four, he and his teammates can still boast the joint tightest defence in the division.

The 11-day gap between games should be sufficient for Jordan Moore-Taylor to be fit enough to be restored to the lineup, which might mean George Williams is deployed back out on the right flank in place of Conor McGrandles. One of the shorter centre backs in the league, he nevertheless wins more than his fair share of aerial duels, and his strong left foot gives the defensive trio good balance, with both him and Cargill able to shift over slightly to their favoured side to see off threats. The latter is highly suspectible on the ground when faced with a direct threat, barely winning a fifth of his duels, hence why Lowe will surely opt for Telford over Byron Moore. That said, he’s still a very promising player, and he assists Lewington greatly down the flank, offering an outlet to put in crosses to the far post.

Mathieu Baudry, an experienced summer signing from Doncaster Rovers, has had to bide his time to get back into the reckoning, not helped by being sent off seven minutes into his debut against Crewe Alexandra, and a subsequent lengthy spell on the sidelines. He’s looked impressive on scant evidence so far, reading the play well with some timely interceptions… but never being too far from a rash challenge. He’s almost certain to have Mayor cut inside and across him first, so that could be something to watch for.

The aforementioned Lewington is the club stalwart, and it doesn’t seem as though he’s going to be under too much pressure from Mitch Hancox for his jersey anytime soon. The 34 year-old remains an important component of the team, and has contributed six assists from wing-back. Defensively, he’s much more apt to lose the ball in enemy territory, which could be used as an opportunity to counter. He’ll lap up any punts from Will Aimson down his channel, and is sure to have the beating of Telford off the floor at least.

George Williams’ versatility is one of his greatest assets, being able to perform admirably anywhere down the right side of defence in any configuration. He will rove up the flank and give Callum McFadzean little respite, and a lot could ride on how their clash plays out.

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Robbie Simpson probably won’t start tomorrow, but offers a different kind of threat to the likely front three for MK – he will battle for space, and pounce on any second balls

In midfield, Jordan Houghton offers perhaps the best pivot in League Two, tasked with recovering and recycling the ball to either Alex Gilbey or the on-rushing wing-backs. He has had cameos at centre back in recent weeks as well, underlying Tisdale’s unwavering faith in his ability to thwart his adversaries and be a platform to take a stranglehold on the tempo. Gilbey’s tireless running and work rate make him the ideal person for a shuttling role between the lines of midfield and attack, and he is apt to shoot from range if other, more penetrative options are limited. He can occasionally try to be a little too cute with his through balls, but once more, he cannot be allowed the freedom that the Shakers often seem to afford playmakers to face away from his own goal to pick out teammates.

Healey’s (temporary) absence could be the opportunity for Osman Sow to worm his way back into prominence, having had to be content with sporadic appearances from the bench during 2018/2019. Milton Keynes’ front three will doubtlessly be fluid in their movement, but he will normally be in the middle of them, the combination of strength and speed being a very effective weapon when he’s on song. He only needed a single chance in his last outing to underline his qualities, peeling off his marker at the near post to stroke home.

Kieran Agard has not always had the goals tally to compare to his xG, but not that’s something that can be thrown at him this term, having racked up 13 already. He could start as the left prong in attack, even if it’s not a position he’s accustomed to. He can be prone to being caught offside, which is often a consequence of playing on the shoulder of the last defender, full in the knowledge that he’d often win a foot race with them.

However, Aneke is perhaps the biggest danger of all. He will have the upper hand in most air wars with Adam Thompson or Chris Stokes, but he is most skillful in shaking off detection in the area, like any truly predatory striker. He averages more than four shots per game, nearly of which find their mark. As I said before, he’ll often come deep to receive the ball, and then dribble towards goal with it in a positive manner. Far from the speediest individual, he’s still very difficult to prise the ball from. Like Agard, he also has 13 to his name, making the duo the most potent across the fourth tier. His attitude has been previously called into question several times, but he seems happy to see out the season in white, gold, and red (his contract expires this June).

As for a prediction, I’m going to go with a 1-1 draw. Both managers are canny operators from a tactical perspective, although Tisdale is more inclined to shuffle the pack if things aren’t going his way. It’s hard to foresee either side’s attack being completely shut out, and a more entertaining game is on the cards than the first encounter served up back in August.

 

 

Away in a Danger: Festive Form on the Road Cripples Automatic Promotion Pretensions

For my reviews of August, September, October, and November, click their respective links.

My individual assessment of every player’s performances in the first half of the league season (up to Boxing Day) can be found here.

December 2018

My Kingdom for an Away Win

November’s sparkling displays (and results) were always going to be difficult to match, especially over the busy Christmas period when rotation is a necessary part of compensating for the lack of training days afforded to players. Even before the festivities truly took hold, the Shakers were offering woeful resistance on the road, best exemplified by being 3-0 down to local rivals Oldham Athletic during a frankly unacceptable first half display at Boundary Park. One-time loanee Chris O’Grady had the freedom of the 18 yard-box time and again to complete an unlikely hat-trick during the encounter, and a similar amount of slack was given to Gevaro Nepomuceno down the Latics’ right flank.

Doubtlessly blasted by Ryan Lowe during the interval, he rang the changes for the second half in an attempt to salvage something from the affair, Caolan Lavery netting a brace in the early going to swing momentum firmly in the visitors’ favour, only to evaporate just as quickly when the controversial fourth was somehow allowed to stand. Whilst he was right to insist Oldham is ‘just another game’, he cannot escape the club’s utterly abysmal record in local derbies over the past three or four years, and even intimated that some of the players didn’t quite grasp the importance the fans place on them…

The triumph in the EFL Trophy away to Mansfield Town (more on that below) with a much-changed outfit might have given the manager a sufficient basis for believing that the same might suffice for the Boxing Day clash; instead, David Flitcroft’s men were dominant, extremely solid at the back and creating plenty of opportunities when surging forward. Conrad Logan was barely troubled, with Jay O’Shea’s injury time penalty being scant consolation for another fruitless away trip.

If some fans thought things would get easier when visiting bottom side Notts County, they were in for a surprise. Danny Mayor had been absent from the squad in the previous two games, and his presence in the XI had been sorely missed. That said, he didn’t appear fully fit in a game I made a special effort to attend in person; Neal Ardley’s rallying cry the day prior on the Magpies’ official website seemed to do the trick, and it was extremely difficult at times to determine which team was in the play-offs before kick-off. Jon Stead’s awful miss from the spot kick turned out to be Bury’s salvation, and a clean sheet was somehow achieved, which owed nothing whatsoever to the defensive performance on display.

A solitary point away from the comforts of ‘Fortress Gigg’ in any month from now until the end of the campaign is simply not good enough if the aim is to be promoted back to the third tier at the first time of asking. There was a common theme throughout all three of the ties mentioned above; the opposition strikers pressed their adversaries’ backline from the off, being fully cognizant that they will play out from the back. It had the desired effect each time, with the wider centre backs in particular looking really shaky, and more frequently than ever hitting balls down the channels that did the likes of Nicky Maynard and the other strikers no favours at all.

The best way to counter a high press is for the central midfielders to be brave in their movement off the ball, and for quick transitions in the phases of play to take place once the first line of the opposition has been bypassed. This is obviously easier said than done, and I have severe doubts as to whether the personnel is in place to do that at the time of the writing – put simply, the passing out from the back has to be more accurate, and at least one of Jay O’Shea and Neil Danns/Callum Styles has to be in a good position to receive the pass and turn with it to break that stranglehold. Lowe’s overall tactical approach is unlikely to change much, so something else must for his side to extinguish the away day blues.

Even the home performances have tailed off somewhat – Joe Murphy did well to save from Exeter City’s dangerous target man Jayden Stockley from the spot, and the Grecians were a threat in the second period. In similar fashion, the division’s top scorer James Norwood had a nightmare in front of goal for Tranmere Rovers, somehow conspiring to miss several sitters from very close range. Put another way, not all of the emphasis can be placed on gaining results from home – there’s almost certain to be some tapering off.

 

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Cups: A Mixed Bag

There was certainly no disgrace in bowing out of the FA Cup 2nd Round to Luton Town, given how the Hatters have been faring in League One. The BL9 outfit did have the upper hand in the first quarter of an hour, and Danns was especially guilty of squandering a clear-cut chance to really put the pressure on their opponents. A single goal on the counter from a low cross sealed their victory, but Nathan Jones was generous in his praise of Bury, and steadfast in his belief that they’ll be in the top three at the end of the campaign.

The squad regrouped and got over that disappointment mere days later, keeping most of the Stags’ big guns quiet to book passage through to the third round/Northern quarter-final stage, this time away at Accrington Stanley. As the season wears on, remaining in that competition slowly begins to take on more importance, and Lowe’s approach to the game at the Wham Stadium in terms of team selection will be most interesting. Still, for the Shakers still to be in any cup competition this side of the New Year is highly unusual!
Rob Kelly’s Departure

How much do supporters read into the poor form since the assistant manager left to join up once more with Uwe Rösler, this time at Swedish Europa League participants Malmö FF? The mileage seems to vary quite wildly, with some believing the move just before Christmas has had, and will have, very little impact… to those who maintain the relative success gained thus far was chiefly thanks to him. In truth, it’s very difficult to determine from the outside looking in the level of influence Kelly wielded on the training pitches and in the dressing room. Lowe has stated he’s not in a rush to install a new right-hand man, and he still has the likes of Steven Schumacher and Brian Jensen to call on for help. I suspect an appointment won’t be made until after the transfer window has closed, given that the plurality of his attention away from games will be on working with Sporting Director Lee Dykes to persuade prospective signings to join the club.

 

Transfer Window Opens

Lowe has been adamant on the reopening of the window that neither Danny Mayor, nor any member of his ‘core group of players’ will be sold this month. Personally, I wouldn’t place too much stock in that. Bury are always going to be a selling club, and the losses on salaries being made on a weekly basis will force new chairman Steve Dale’s hand sooner rather than later.

Loanees Mathew Hudson and Jamie Barjonas have returned to parent clubs Preston North End and Glasgow Rangers respectively, whilst negotiations with Barnsley continue to extend Styles’ deal until the end of the season. Without the latter, central midfield will be an even lighter area in more ways than one. David Vaughan demonstrated on the 29th of December the possible importance of having someone capable of sitting deep in midfield who can both dictate the tempo and put his foot in. Whilst Cameron Hill does that fit that profile from the U18s, Lowe’s track record to date, coupled with a general reluctance to deploy a defensive midfielder of any kind, make his elevation to first team consideration unlikely in the short-term.

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Whilst most supporters fear losing Danny Mayor the most, I’d argue that Jay O’Shea has had nearly the same influence on the season so far, racking up nine goals to be joint top scorer with Nicky Maynard

The left side of defence is another area for concern. As well as Callum McFadzean’s done, there’s little direct pressure on his place in the XI, with Chris Stokes found badly wanting when deployed there, and the latter’s lack of speed can make the gap between the duo very wide indeed when Bury are hit on the break. There’s a more general lack of pace across the backline, but it’s felt most acutely in those situations.

Lowe might also move to bring in another goalkeeper on loan if he doesn’t feel Scott Moloney is in a position to suitably deputise for Murphy just yet, although whoever that turns out to be if it transpires will probably only be used in the EFL Trophy.

 

January’s (Remaining) Opponents

By the time this article is published, the home fixture with Crewe Alexandra will already have been played.

The next match is away once again, this time to Darren Way’s Yeovil Town. The Glovers have been insipid since September, and fans have turned on both the manager and club; the decision to award Way an extension on his contract until 2021 was met with disbelief and derision, and they sit only a few points above the relegation zone. Still, their lowly position cannot be taken for granted.

The encounter in the EFL Trophy with Accy sandwiches that game and the ominous visit of Milton Keynes Dons to Gigg Lane. Paul Tisdale’s men are certain to give the home side’s oft-hesitant back three a stern examination, especially if they can retain the services of their attacking triumvirate by the 12th of January.

A week later, the Shakers visit Forest Green Rovers for the first time in their history. Even without Christian Doidge since August after his loan-to-buy move to Bolton Wanderers, they’re still very much in the play-off reckoning with money to spend, and will surely make a move for a replacement in some shape or form before the 19th with some of the funds they gained from that deal. The Gloucestershire outfit have a style that’s easy on the eye, and perhaps only lack a ruthless finisher from being included in discussions about possible automatic promotion candidates.

Lastly, the Shakers will entertain league leaders Lincoln City. Much has been written about their collective ability to grind out wins from games they haven’t appeared to be superior to their opponents during, as was the case in the early stages of the campaign at Sincil Bank. Avoiding defeat against both the current top two will go a long way to proving that Bury can compete with the very best the fourth tier has to offer.