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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.