EFL Trophy, and competing against third tier sides
Let’s begin with a negative – losing last night at home to Portsmouth 3-0 in the semi-final, with a place at Wembley the prize on offer. I made a brief radio appearance (10 minutes or so into the clip), full in the knowledge from reading local news sources that Pompey boss Kenny Jackett would break with the pattern he’d established in previous rounds of the competition, and name what was essentially the visitors’ strongest available lineup, and was even able to leave the likes of Jamal Lowe on the subs’ bench for the first half.
There were some parallels to the FA Cup tie against Luton Town to how the game eventually panned out – the hosts were on top for large expanses of time, didn’t get the crucial opener (not for lack of trying), and a shrewd tactical tweak changed the course of proceedings. Yes, one or two decisions were a little contentious, but Bury didn’t really have an answer to the Hampshire outfit’s higher press, and there’s no shame in that. The scoreline was on the flattering side, but I think Ryan Lowe and his players will have learned a lot from their experiences pitting their wits across two different cups against six League One sides, winning and losing half of them, and more impressively, scoring 13 in the process.
You can also see as a fan particular areas where the current squad could be improved if they gain promotion back at the first time of asking. There’s little reason to suggest at this moment in time that the manager will make big changes in the summer tactically or personnel-wise, and I’m certain that between him and Director of Sport Lee Dykes, they’ll have identified well in advance of the window re-opening a cluster of targets to bring through the doors to augment an already talented group, as well as offering some of the most promising U18s deals (which I’ll get on to later in this post). As soon as the first team’s division is confirmed for 2019/2020, I’ll put together my own ‘wishlist’ of realistic signings, and how they could specifically improve a system that’s unlikely to drastically alter.
The immediate efficacy of Jordan Rossiter
Understandably, there were question marks over his loan capture from giants Glasgow Rangers, owing totally to injury concerns, rather than his undoubted ability. He didn’t start against Crawley Town on a half-frozen pitch, but did make his bow at the opening of the second period, and has barely put a foot wrong since. Captain Neil Danns has had to be largely content watching on from the sidelines during February, and it’s not hard to see why in the two videos below:
In a regular XI where previously seven of the 10 outfielders were unquestionably attack-minded, the addition of Rossiter into the mix probably takes that figure down to a much more conservative six-and-a-half. One of the most basic tenets of being an effective professional footballer is to always seek the ball, even in tight situations. As the clips more than ably demonstrate, he does just that, which can be a decisive factor in breaking the opposition’s high press onto the defensive trio.
He covers the gaps in deep areas, recycles the ball to teammates, plays smart passes that can look deceptively simple, very rarely wastes possession, intercepts with gusto, and despite his injury record, he relishes putting in the tackles. I did have some concerns that the introduction of a player in that role might have slowed down the high-octane style Lowe has employed, but I don’t think that’s been the case at all.
A running total of five games is a small sample size, but his completed passes average stands at 84%, and was as high as 90% at the weekend, attempting 70 in total just by himself. At St. James Park, he seemed omnipresent, breaking up promising Grecian attack after attack on no fewer than 15 occasions, as is abundantly clear above.
Additionally, he’s been named man of the match for the past three games in a row. Not only is that remarkable because of being new to the club and his position, it also makes him stand out even more during a season where the Shakers have been praised far and wide for their attacking endeavour, which has at times not left sufficient room for column inches or credit for the likes of Adam Thompson, Will Aimson, or anyone else tasked primarily with defensive duties. I have seen some criticism of the back three as a whole, some of which is valid, but some of it goes over the top, and pointing to the goals conceded column doesn’t tell the whole story.
After the long-awaited derby day triumph against Paul Scholes’ Oldham Athletic™, he received glowing praise from his temporary boss, with Lowe describing the deal to bring him south of border for six months as:
"The best bit of business I've ever done, or ever likely to!"
A cynic might suggest he’s only had three transfer windows in temporary and subsequently permanent charge to make such a claim, but if you’ve seen (m)any of his interviews, you’d understand he’s usually very reluctant to heap too much adulation onto one player, let alone come out with a statement like that. The addition of ‘ever likely to’ at what is still the very early stages of his managerial career is actually the most telling part of that sentence, and underlines the great value he can bring during his short spell.
He has endeared himself to supporters in such a ridiculously short space of time – the winning combination of maximum effort plus real ability will never not do that, but it’s certainly made me, and plenty of others, believe that he will be the key player from now until the end of 2018/2019.
The versatility of Byron Moore & Callum McFadzean
Has anyone in the current squad played in as many different areas as Byron Moore over the past seven months? I solely regarded him as an out-and-out winger in a four or five-man midfield upon his arrival, but it soon became apparent that Lowe had other plans for the 30 year-old, especially as the usual shape of the side doesn’t even accommodate that position. A cursory glance on Wyscout illustrates he’s played in every outfield role for a decent chunk of time, with the sole exception of centre back!
Up until the Portsmouth match, he had looked quite adept in the left wing-back area, but I’m unsure the combinations down the left with Danny Mayor and Callum McFadzean weren’t a little too cavalier, and at certain intervals, the first two would try to operate in a very small space in that channel. Expecting absolute consistency from any individual in the fourth tier, especially one that has had so many jobs to do, is unrealistic. His wide skillset has meant, however, that his manager has been able to call on a core squad of 20 in the second phase of the season, assisted by an unusually empty treatment room, and very few disciplinary issues of any kind on the field.
Whilst not quite on the same Swiss Army knife level as his teammate, McFadzean, by his admission better going forward than the other way, has been deployed as the left-sided centre back on numerous occasions, usually in an effort to push everyone else even further up the pitch when chasing a game. It seemed to have the right effect last night for most of the first half. However, it did then get exploited by a resurgent Pompey with Jamal Lowe’s introduction, with all three of their goals coming from that area. With Scott Wharton cup-tied and possibly still out with a knock, he was probably preferred to Chris Stokes due to his greater pace, possibly at the cost of a little more experience and solidity.
Nevertheless, both Moore and McFadzean were largely unheralded when they signed in the close season, and yet have turned out to be invaluable to the team, improving as the campaign has unfolded.
Nicky Maynard, the poacher
Unlucky not to add to his tally of 17 goals in all competitions last night, he came up against an inspired Craig MacGillvray between the Portsmouth sticks with an arcing effort that seemed destined to nestle into the bottom far corner. His otherwise fruitful month was characterised by four efforts that could only be labelled as a ‘poacher’s’ – just about getting enough on the ball to poke home against Crawley Town; an inadvertent one-two with Exeter City’s Dean Moxey for a truly scruffy strike; bundling the ball over the line for his first against the Latics, and then capitalising on some woeful defending for his second within the six-yard area.
Even if that was the case, it would still speak volumes about his positioning to peel off his marker, and setting his body correctly in anticipation of a pass or inadvertent opportunity. Ugly goals they might have been of late, but the aesthetics matter not, and he’s certainly demonstrated he’s capable of the spectacular, too.
Another unbeaten month in the league & 12 games left…
Once more, Ben Mayhew’s xG timelines demonstrate the different ways Bury have remained unbeaten in the four league games contested during February:
The table is starting to take shape with just a quarter of the campaign left. Long-time leaders Lincoln City drew 1-1 last night with Exeter City, in a result that probably suits Bury more than a decisive outcome either way. I’m not going to go into much depth here about how I think things will pan out for all the runners and riders – I’ll save that for a separate post a little into March.
The Lancashire outfit will need to bounce back from their disappointment quickly, with three matches in the space of a week, beginning this Saturday with the visit of Macclesfield Town to BL9. Under Sol Campbell, they have risen a place but are still in the relegation zone, taking 20 points from a possible 45 during his tenure. Winless in five, they have nevertheless been very competitive in every game, and have only suffered defeat by a margin of more than once in that period – away at Mansfield Town, which is no disgrace.
That fixture is swiftly followed by a journey down to the Jonny-Rocks Stadium to face Cheltenham Town. On a four-match winning run in Gloucestershire, they have taken vital, maximum points from the teams around them as a consequence. Although they were soundly beaten 4-1 in the reverse fixture, the scoreline was harsh on Mike Duff’s men, who looked especially dangerous down both flanks when floating crosses in to Luke Varney. It’s at this juncture where teams in or around the bottom six often start picking up ‘unexpected’ scalps, and nothing can be taken for granted.
On the 9th of March, the outspoken Dino Maamria will welcome the Shakers to his corner of Hertfordshire. Stevenage are nothing if not wildly inconsistent, and it’s still not out of the question for them to put some form together to trouble the top seven. The obvious qualities Queens Park Rangers loanee Ilias Chair possesses will need to be somehow kept in check; Lincoln didn’t manage to do that, and were very nearly three points worse off for that one failure in a recent clash.
Cambridge United are badly struggling for goals once more, having only notched on a single occasion in their last five outings at the time of writing. A more than respectable January (drubbing by Milton Keynes Dons aside) gave way to a decidedly barren February, and they were extremely fortunate to best Port Vale for their solitary win. That said, Colin Calderwood should look to how his predecessor Joe Dunne disrupted Bury back in November by employing a high press and a mid-block in defence, and emulate that as best as he can to obtain something from the match.
Michael Jolley’s Grimsby Town are on an upward curve since the beginning of December, and like Stevenage, are an outside bet to gatecrash the play-off positions. Admittedly, their January results were poor on the face of it, but most sides would count even one win in four against the top teams as commendable, which came over MK at Blundell Park, despite being a man lighter for more than half the game. Unbeaten in February, they will be a much tougher prospect than they appeared to be back in the nascent part of the season.
Similarly, Swindon Town are experiencing a renaissance of sorts under Richie Wellens, who’s making more out of the technical players at his disposal. If anyone currently lower than ninth is going to be in the reckoning come May, they would be my pick. For the most part, their run-in games are against fellow mid-table sides who will potentially have little to play for by then. Triumphs over MK and Forest Green Rovers in the past month demonstrate that they have the capability in one-off games to compete with the ‘elite’ of the fourth tier, and are the most technically comparable side to Bury in terms of style and mentality. It should be an intriguing game to round off March, and the complexion will be much clearer by the end of it.
FA Youth Cup
There is at least one Bury side still in a cup competition (actually two, but I’ll get to that in the section below!). Ryan Kidd’s youngsters have a mouth-watering clash at Gigg Lane, hosting Liverpool U18s in the quarter-final stage. Should they manage to find a way through one of the best academies in the world, they’ll be on home soil once more to Watford or Leicester City in a single leg, which is the first change in format for 40 years. The two ties have already been played in the ‘other’ half of the draw, and Bury now stand alone as the only Category 3 and lower tier representatives in the competition.
The magnitude of next Wednesday evening’s occasion shouldn’t be underestimated, and I’ll be talking to two people who have kept close tabs on the Reds’ fortunes under new boss Barry Lewtas this season for this blog.
Few will be expecting a shock home win, of course, and as someone who takes a very keen interest in youth football, it’s always tempting to overstate some of the current crop’s potential, even though I try to remain as objective as possible. That said, they are at the late stage for good reason; Callum Hulme and Joe Adams have been offered (and accepted) pro contracts, and I suspect at least four of the other second year scholars will receive similar terms, if that hasn’t taken place already away from the public eye.
Below them, there is now a reliable stream of quality coming through, which is testament to the work Kidd, Mark Litherland, Graham Hastings, and others have put in over the last half-decade. Put another way, there’s good reason Femi Seriki was mentioned unprompted by Lowe before last night’s match, where he suggested that the versatile 15 year-old right-sided forward could be in line for his senior debut before the season is over. There was also a reason why he was on the bench earlier on in the course of the EFL Trophy…
It’s difficult to avoid language that makes the boys sound like commodities to be pinched off the club for a pittance, but such is the pervasiveness of EPPP, it’s an onerous task to do so, and even harder to keep them from the watchful gazes of scouts at teams with larger resources. That’s why it’s important to cherish the current group aiming for glory next week. I expect them to line up in a positive 4-3-3 to try to go beyond the midfield diamond that’s a staple of the Reds’ lineups in 2018/2019. They can’t afford to be boxed in to their own third of the pitch, but should hopefully have a sizeable backing in the stands to aid their cause.
Two women’s sides challenging for trophies
Lying in second place but with only a single promotion spot on offer, Scott Johnson’s senior women’s side face table-toppers Blackpool away this Sunday, having beaten the Seasiders 10 days ago at Carrington. Even a draw would still be advantageous, as they are currently seven points behind with three games in hand. Victories in the other seven fixtures would ensure promotion to the fifth tier of the female pyramid, and whilst that is a tall order, the four other confirmed matches for March are against opposition they’ve already either beaten comfortably, or who are struggling at the other end of NW Division One North. The three leading scorers in the white and royal blue are having their own tussle for supremacy – captain and taliswoman (if it isn’t a word already, I’ve coined it now!) Lucy Golding leads the way with 14 to her name despite playing a deeper role, but Jordon Bailey (13) and Caitlin Clancy (11) are both hot on her heels, having notched match-winning braces in the last two matches.
The reserve side lead the way in their smaller pool, and thanks to some walkovers and clubs withdrawing, they only have one league match left to contest. A win over Stanwix Juniors would ensure them of at least second, but much like the senior outfit, they need top spot for promotion. Colin Platt’s charges would still be reliant on Sunday’s opponents slipping up elsewhere, as their goal difference is vastly inferior to the Carlisle natives. Later on in the month, they have the Lancashire County Plate cup final against higher tier opposition in the form of Nelson on neutral ground in Leyland. If you’re in the area on the morning of the 17th of March, they’d certainly appreciate you coming down to watch them lift some silverware!