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