Review: ‘Things Can Only Get Better’ by James Bentley

For full disclosure, I had a very tiny part in helping fellow Bury fan James Bentley with his second tome about the Shakers (the first being centred around the 1984/1985 promotion-winning squad titled ‘The Forgotten Fifteen’ , which was set against the backdrop of the Bradford and Heysel disasters). I transcribed the parts featuring Mark Carter and David Pugh slowly, using lunch breaks at work to complete the task. It doesn’t affect how I perceive the book as a whole.

Having started the fortnightly pilgrimage to Gigg Lane mere months prior to where the main body commences as a wide-eyed eight-year old, the man in the dugout is Mike Walsh with a certain Stan Ternent as his assistant. It continues in a chronological fashion, spanning a four-year period until Neil Warnock takes charge and the downward spiral begins in earnest on the back of the meteoric rise hitherto experienced under Ternent, doubtlessly the most successful and best era to be a fan in the post-war period.

As well as chronicling the ups and downs of the seasons game-by-game, the major ‘added value’ comes in the guise of former players and staff agreeing to be interviewed for their takes on the extraordinary rise of Bury Football Club in the mid-90s, as well as accounts of supporters recollecting key events and their emotions at the time. Bentley is also able to call upon extensive archived material from newspapers (mostly the Bury Times when it still meant something to anyone, and the Manchester Evening News before the era of handing it out for free in the city centre). The local print and radio journalists add another layer to the prose, helping what might have been a bit dry at the end of another author’s pen or fingertips into a real page-turner.

Technology just before the proliferation of the internet into the collective public consciousness has a big say in the narrative, too. VHS tapes were still the order of the day, and even though attendances swelled to 6,000 or so in 1997/1998, it’s unlikely many copies of the season reviews were purchased back then, much less survive to this day and in a transferable state to more modern media. Anyone who’s watched the grainy footage on YouTube and other online platforms is extremely grateful for their existence; for me personally, watching back the highlights from that time (with a couple of famous exceptions) represented just the second instances of ever seeing them. That point can’t be understated because when they’re coupled with the excitable tones of commentator Paul Greenlees, it only enhances many of the goals’ iconic statuses, and ably demonstrates not having quick and endless access to them can allow a belated but renewed appreciation of memories hitherto trapped in amber.

The author himself was of a prime age for fully appreciating what was unfolding in front of the faithful few thousand in BL9, and this is relayed in what a player signing or leaving, a formation change, a rallying call, and the atmosphere before and during a match meant and felt like to him. Through no fault of his own, this in itself is a huge improvement over his first work. Simply being witness to the events adds an authentic voice to proceedings.

Whereas many of his anecdotes being close to a decade my senior are about going to pubs and driving down to away trips with his dad, what music he was into, and a finer understanding of the tactical points of the starting lineup, mine were about catching the 481 or 483 bus to Bury from Rossendale (initially with both my mum and grandma), dining in Burger King on the Rock, buying sweets in the Millgate Shopping Centre post office, and unzipping my bag to allow my teddy Paskin (named after John Paskin, the delightfully mustachioed South African striker the club had between 1994 and 1996 with a more than a whiff of porn star about him) to watch along with us.

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Like James, we were also at Wembley for the crushingly disappointing ’95 play-off final defeat to Chesterfield, and little would any of us have known that the 5-0 reverse to Warnock’s Plymouth early in the subsequent term would be the precipitant of the dramatic promotion the next May. We were among those gathered on the pitch after Ternent’s charges had done their bit, waiting to hear the outcome of the Darlington-Scunthorpe United game. Once confirmation of the draw came through, everyone, myself included, jumped up on down on the boggy pitch that barely passed as a playing surface. It would prove to be the last time my grandma was there in life. Some of her ashes were scattered there in September of the same year.

1996/1997 was the title winning season, and as was customary, Bury were one of the favourites for the drop. ‘Fortress Gigg’ was established, and with tribunal signing Dean Kiely in between the sticks, I had my first real favourite player. I’d always been a goalkeeper in the playground despite my small stature, and I always preferred asking for the jerseys over the outfield tops for birthdays and Christmases. What I didn’t know back then was just how protracted the saga had been over the fee for Kiely, and this is another way in which the book comes into its own – it has really helped me fill in the ‘gaps’ in what I would otherwise be able to recall.

Certain pivotal fixtures are of course covered in far greater detail than others, especially the decisive final pair that handed the club its first silverware for decades and a second successive promotion to boot. Once more, my feelings are mirrored in the author’s prose, but it should also be noted that even in the midst of success, the financial dark clouds that have never been far away from the Fishpool area were beginning to reform. Even in the days of lower league sides regularly paying transfer fees and a relatively low wage bill, Bury were still making fairly significant year-on-year losses. Whilst these pale in comparison to this decade and the inevitable liquidation of the current entity, they did add credence to the never-changing perception (and reality) of the club as either ‘cash-strapped’ or ‘spending beyond their means’.

Of most interest to me is the section on the first campaign in the ‘old’ Division One (now the Championship). I was starting high school, and it really felt like the team I loved and I were on the cusp of something. It was also the beginning of regularly travelling to away grounds up and down the country with my mum, including getting up at stupid o’clock in the morning to get on the official coaches to the likes of East Anglian rivals Norwich City and Ipswich Town. Although these were rarely wins, it never sapped my enjoyment of them or made me wish I’d done something else with my Saturdays and Tuesday evenings in the years since – indeed, as is reflected in the book, they were some of the best times of my life and of many others’, perhaps even more so for the ephemeral nature of being in the second tier on merit. The Valentine’s Day win over Manchester City at Maine Road in 1998 five days before my 12th birthday is unlikely to ever be beaten as my favourite away experience.

There are anecdotes contained within that few would’ve been aware of at the time, ranging from Ternent and Warnock’s mutual hatred to the far more harrowing tales of Andy Woodward, which only came to light in 2016 as the first in a deeply disturbing lone line of victims of child sexual abuse in football that continue to have ramifications in the sport to this day.

There are only two small negatives I can find in the book, neither of which really spoiled much. The first was an affliction all too common to Kindle editions, and unlikely to be the fault of the author. The formatting periodically lets things down – this manifests itself most strikingly in making words in a sentence combine into one for no real reason and giving pause for true comprehension of what’s being conveyed.

The second is the more than occasional party political allusion. I accept that the reader’s mileage will vary in this, and to play devil’s advocate, the ambiguous title of the book was very much of its time and famous for it. There are also instances where events current to the epoch are relayed alongside matches, some of which are of more pertinence than others; again though, these are less frequent or intrusive than his first book because of the authentic voice.

In summary, anyone with even a passing interest in Bury or more broadly about a less celebrated (former) member of the 92 will find plenty to entertain and elucidate them, and the author must be commended for the years of research and hard work that went into publishing it, as well as subsequent attempts to keep the ‘spirit’ of the club alive since expulsion of the EFL through a tour of pubs affected by the depressing events of the last six months whilst reflecting on better times without wallowing too much in nostalgia.