Tightening Up… at Both Ends (aka Scott Wharton’s Impact and Easing the Burden on Nicky Maynard)
There can be no question now that the pressure is for the first time this season on Ryan Lowe’s men to ensure that the deserved 3-1 home reverse against Swindon Town last weekend does not come to signify anything more than a defeat in a highly competitive division.
Prior to the encounter, Bury had experienced an uncharacteristic spell of clean sheets, most typified by the emerging importance of Blackburn Rovers loanee Scott Wharton on the left side of the centre back three. The 21 year-old has largely been an assured presence in a previously weaker area of the XI, winning a greater proportion of aerial challenges and being more accurate (and shorter) with his passing than was expected of him under Danny Cowley at likely league champions Lincoln City.
No single shape in football is infallible, and the attacking thrust firmly emphasised by Lowe will almost always ensure the opposition in any given match have opportunities to give tough examinations of Wharton and his partners on the counter. When teams like the Robins push up their wingers to the same level as the nominally lone striker, it can often leave the defence in a three-on-three mini-game of sorts, and they can’t win every single one of those battles, especially when the frequency of those situations is as high as what was witnessed on Saturday.
On the flip side of the general tightening up at the back, at the other end, neither the goals nor quite the free-flowing movement was demonstrated in March; Macclesfield Town aside, the Shakers could only muster three more strikes in the month. You’d perhaps expect it to decrease at least a little as the scramble for points necessitates a more conservative posture from sides they play against, but it can’t have also escaped people’s attention that besides Wharton’s own commendable couple of efforts and a Jay O’Shea penalty, no-one else troubled the score-sheet except Nicky Maynard, who continues to gamely fight for second place in League Two’s top goalscorer charts with Kieran Agard and Tyler Walker of promotion rivals Milton Keynes Dons and Mansfield Town respectively.
Ordinarily, this wouldn’t be that big of a problem. Most clubs are reliant on one or two players to regularly get the goals to help them achieve their aims, but that just hasn’t been the case in 2018/2019, and the onus is really now on others to step up to assist Maynard. Caolan Lavery’s form has taken a nosedive since the derby with Oldham Athletic; Byron Moore might now be needed elsewhere (thanks to Danny Mayor); Dom Telford pulled up in the warm-up before the game at Grimsby Town; lastly, Gold Omotayo’s recent cameos from the bench have unfortunately not done much to inspire confidence.
Mayor’s three game suspension, which I’ll discuss at length further into this article, also means some of the trickery will inevitably be lost from the starting lineup, so more of the chances might need to be created between the striking partnership themselves, which has frequently rotated alongside Maynard.
Ben Mayhew’s xG timelines ably demonstrate a distinct drop-off in the Shakers’ supremacy during a month where the performances were less than sparkling:
Neil Danns’ Gold Cup qualification
Looking away from Gigg Lane for a moment, I thought it was certainly worth mentioning captain Neil Danns’ exploits for Guyana during the international break. A win for the Golden Jaguars over Belize in the final CONCACAF Nations League fixture ensured their participation at this summer’s Gold Cup, the first major tournament in the country’s history. Danns scored one spot kick and missed another, but there was no question that he massively contributed to their success under the guidance of Michael Johnson, the former Birmingham City and Derby County centre-back.
At 36 and with his contract up in the summer, there are inevitably question marks as to whether Danns will go into that tournament still a Bury player, but either way, I’ll be keeping a close eye on the action, which kicks off on the 15th of June. The draw will be held in Los Angeles in nine days’ time.
‘Replacing’ Danny Mayor for three games
Back to matters closer to home. There can be little doubt that at 2-1 down to Swindon, the Shakers still had a decent chance of restoring parity, despite being largely second best throughout the match. That task was made mightily more difficult by an idiotic lashing out by Mayor in response to a very poor challenge (to say the least) by Canice Carroll. No-one, and I include myself in this, is expecting a professional footballer to stay cool 100% of the time, especially when you’re fouled as often as the inside forward is. The stats have him in the top 10 in the fourth tier for fouls suffered, and then of course are the instances where he still gets kicked and nothing is given by the referee, which happens most often to the most dangerous players.
I have seen some people on social media suggest he and others like him should be offered more ‘protection’ by the match official. In practice, how would that actually manifest itself? Are they supposed to identify the ‘danger men’ before the game kicks off, and give the offender a red card regardless? No, there must be objectivity. Anyone that persistently targets and subsequently fouls an individual will eventually be sent off. If it’s a ‘team effort’, then in one sense, it shows just how much of a threat Mayor poses to them, and there has to be an acceptance on some level that that’s how it’s going to be.
The rush of blood to his head was thankfully not defended too strongly by Lowe in the post-match interview, who privately must have been incandescent about the incident. A good manager recognises that there are different personalities within a squad; Mayor is the epitome of an introvert off the field who, once he graces the turf, usually feels confident to express himself with some sublime pieces of skill and to beat his man repeatedly on the dribble.
His self-imposed absence comes at the most crucial juncture of the entire campaign, and provides Lowe with a huge tactical quandary in the next two weeks. There is no obvious candidate to replicate what Mayor brings… because they just don’t exist. That’s not a disparagement of anyone else on the roster, merely a reflection of the current predicament.
As a consequence, I decided to pose the question to fellow supporters on Twitter:
The case for:
The versatile 30 year-old possesses the positional know-how and pace to bypass his marker and cut inside on his stronger right foot. As teams sit ever deeper during the run-in and hit Bury on the break, which Cambridge United are bound to do tomorrow evening (and I don’t blame them), Lowe is going to require someone to reliably carry the ball forward into the final third to both minimise the chances of that occurring, and to try to get in behind resolute backlines.
Moore has already proven to be a capable option in the left channel, and his presence would ensure that the transition to attack can still take place without having to resort to more direct methods, or pushing up others too high. It is the closest role he will receive under the 5-2-1-2 to his most natural place on the wing, and he is highly accurate when crossing the ball, drilling it into the box or shifting onto his right for a deeper far post effort.
The case against:
The aforementioned form of strikers not called Nicky Maynard. Moore, who has a one goal every four games on average during 2018/2019, has been adept up top, operating wider than most forwards would in a conventional pairing. With Telford possibly still out for a little while yet, his services might best be utilised alongside Maynard, rather than being tasked with supplying him.
His instincts are firmly on the attacking end of the spectrum, which is a double-edged sword in a system designed to take the game to the opposition in numbers. Will he really sit back to allow Callum McFadzean to hurtle up the flank on the outside, rather than drift inside? The conclusion I draw is that he’s much better when focused as high up the pitch as possible, and in a side already lacking ball-winners, he is even less defensively-minded than the man he’d be replacing.
The case for:
The skipper’s (temporary) restoration to the XI would ensure a true three-man midfield. Even before Mayor’s dismissal, it was plain to see that Rossiter was doing all the leg-work in the middle, which the more adventurous sides in the final seven games could easily exploit if afforded the opportunity to do so. It would also allow O’Shea to concentrate more on late runs to the edge of the area, and less on having to help out the Glasgow Rangers loanee (or less often, anyway). Danns is by no means a ball-winning midfielder, but you can guarantee his maximum effort to cover as much ground between the two boxes as possible.
It would also give more balance to the midfield, which would go hand in hand with a greater degree of flexibility. There might yet be situations in the three games ahead where Bury need to hold onto a lead, and I’d sooner trust Danns to hold fort than the other candidates discussed in this section.
The case against:
You’d be asking an awful lot of the wing-backs, both to provide the width and the attacking thrust.. McFadzean would more or less have to go it alone down the left flank, with the most attack-minded of the midfielders usually operating closer to Nicky Adams. The vice-captain, for his part, has not enjoyed the best time of it in recent games, but to expect totally consistent displays from individuals who are ultimately plying their trade in the fourth tier is a misguided one.
Would there be enough guile and creativity in the lineup? As much as I love O’Shea, he’s what I’d categorise as a goalscoring attacking midfielder, rather than as a playmaker. As I’ve already mentioned, it’s likely that it will be a case of having to break down two banks of four/five. Without someone to carry the ball from deep and do the unexpected, there’s an air of predictability in the approach play.
The case for:
Regular readers of this blog will know I mention Joe Adams from time-to-time, and for good reason. Rewarded for his displays in the youth side with a pro deal until June 2021 (currently the longest contract of anyone at Bury at the time of writing), he could just be the option few opposition scouts would anticipate playing. Lowe has often spoken with praise for him, whilst understandably being cautious about throwing him at the deep end. Still only 18, the Welsh U19 international is top scorer for Ryan Kidd’s youngsters this season, bagging 13 goals without ever playing in a conventional striker’s role.
He has the pace and the dribbling ability to beat his man and get in behind, but equally as importantly, he is strong with both feet from crossing situations, meaning that as his marker, you don’t know for sure which way he’ll go, and the Shakers could really do with that level of uncertainty in the opposition ranks without Mayor.
The case against:
As much as the manager is an advocate of developing talent, it would constitute a huge risk to thrust him into the starting lineup at his age, and in the situation the club find themselves in. Like Moore, his positivity could easily lead to counterattacks, and there’s also the small matter of whether he’s still injured, having had to drop out of the last Welsh squad he was called up for a fortnight ago. Like Telford, you don’t tend to get estimated return dates from Lowe during interviews, perhaps in an effort to keep his next opponents guessing.
Even if fit, there’s a time to properly ‘blood’ academy graduates, and it differs on a case-by-case basis. He might have a much bigger role next season in what is likely to be a squad reduced in numbers by a smaller playing budget (regardless of division) and the continuing lack of an U23s setup.
The unbeaten run, and ‘negative’ predictions
As the title of this post states, nothing lasts forever, which is especially true in football. The recency effect of less than scintillating displays, coupled with the defeat, has led to the return of negativity, and in greater amounts than I’d have expected. To go 14 matches without leaving a ground pointless is a superb achievement in any league, and the circumstances behind the remarkable turn-around in fortunes under Lowe.
In my preview of the game for Steven Fyfe’s blog for Saturday, I said Bury would lose to Swindon… and so they did. I caught quite a bit of flack for prognosticating ‘doom’, even being asked after the event whether I was happy that my prediction was correct! The answer to that should be blatantly obvious – no. However, I’m not going to do what I see supporters of almost every club do and say they’ll win if I don’t believe it will happen. I knew the threats that Richie Wellens’ outfit had at their disposal, I knew how he’d got them playing a more progressive style of football, and any guess at a result is just that – a guess.
I also play for fun a Predictions Game over on FL2 Blogger, and over the course of the campaign, excluding the rearranged game with Cambridge tomorrow, I have had Bury winning 18, drawing 15, and losing just six of the 39 games, which would leave the Shakers just two points shy of reality. So much for my negative predictions…
The remaining seven fixtures, and the big-game experience in the core squad
Attention now turns to the run-in, with that loss allowing MK to leapfrog Bury into second place. Wins for Mansfield and a white-hot Tranmere Rovers side, themselves with a game in hand on the rest of the pack, has ramped up the stakes for tomorrow evening. It should also be mentioned at this point that I did a bit of research into the ‘big games’ members of the Shakers’ core squad have been in during their careers, and one of the possible advantages of having an older than average dressing room is that there is a wealth of experience of successes (and failures) in promotion tilts through both the automatic and play-off routes, with three-quarters of the 20 used players this calendar year having had at least some memory to fall back on before 2018/2019.
I also decided to poll fans as to how many points they think will be accrued in the remaining seven matches:
The top end of that bracket would be sufficient for a club record points total of 86, beating out 2014/2015’s vintage under a certain David Flitcroft by one. But it won’t be easy to emulate.
Firstly, Colin Calderwood will be hoping for a big reaction of his own from a lacklustre display by the U’s in their own backyard, succumbing to a last-gasp defeat in injury time to top seven hopefuls Colchester United. Their own status in the EFL is still under jeopardy, with Notts County’s big win at the weekend cutting the gap to six points. The visitors have pace on the counter, principally in the guise of Jevani Brown, as well as the tall presence of target man Jabo Ibehre, who, whilst far from prolific this campaign, is exactly the sort of player Bury have struggled to contain.
Carlisle United are in no sort of form, and now find themselves outside the reckoning by three points. Well beaten by Tranmere, they will nevertheless target a win at Brunton Park this coming Saturday. Jamie Devitt is one of the best players in League Two, and you wouldn’t put it past Hallam Hope adding to his considerable goal tally against his former side.
The aforementioned Colchester come to BL9 on the 13th, and will probably be within a victory of the top seven at worst by the time the crunch fixture rolls around. The other U’s are the most puzzling outfit in the league, equally as capable of doling out thrashings as they are at receiving them. They should set their stall out to attack more than most have at Gigg Lane this season, with pace to burn on the wings and one of the best central midfield partnerships in the division – Sammie Szmodics in particular could cause damage.
Rodney Parade is a tough place to travel to, and Bury can expect little benevolence from Newport County on Good Friday. With 11 wins and just three losses at home, Michael Flynn’s charges are also still eyeing a late play-off surge, with two games in hand in which to reduce arrears. Jamille Matt had the beating of Adam Thompson in the reverse fixture, and both Padraig Amond and Ade Azeez are good options to call on if the Jamaican needs more support up top.
Easter Monday will pit the Shakers against probably the only side in their remaining games with ostensibly nothing to play for. Northampton Town have enjoyed some improvement under Keith Curle, but nothing too dramatic to convince observers that they’ll be challenging at the top end in 2019/2020. Nonetheless, they showed their defensive mettle in the earlier stalemate, and have some canny operators in midfield to ensure anything but smooth sailing.
For me, the key aim remains avoiding needing to go to Prenton Park on the penultimate weekend needing a result to seal promotion. Tranmere’s winning streak is no fluke, and whilst I think it’s almost certain that it will be snapped before the last game in April, they still look ominous at the moment, and I see little reason why their performances will taper off. Resolute in goal and at the back, unassailable top scorer James Norwood is backed up by a supporting cast in similar rich veins of form – the likes of Ollie Banks and Connor Jennings must be shut down to get anything from the game.
Port Vale ought to be all but home and dry on final day, but veteran Tom Pope will want to add to his century of goals (and counting) for the Burslem outfit. There is major concern off the pitch, but I don’t think it will prove the distraction some would like to believe on it. Again, Bury really don’t want to go into needing the points to cement a place in the top three…
Double glory for the women’s sides?
Scott Johnson’s side are now firm favourites to win the championship and with it, the only promotion place available. A 13-0 shellacking of Morecambe Reserves yesterday underlined the quality throughout the team and on the bench. Four wins from the remaining five will guarantee 2019/2020 in the North West Premier Division, and the same number of games will take place in double headers against Cammell Laird 1907 and Preston North End, each instance being inexplicably played after the first game, with only an hour break…
The very wet weather in the middle of the month caused the Reserves’ Plate Final against Nelson at Leyland to be postponed until this coming Sunday. Defeat to Stanwix Juniors put paid to Colin Platt’s slim hopes of promotion, but he will be hoping that strikers Sarah Knight and Kimberley Tyson can upset their higher tier opponents, and bring some silverware back home for a positive end to a very encouraging season under his leadership.