Author: burymeinexile

The Emperors Abdicate, but the Empire Will Live On

Yesterday, Lincoln City’s fraternal management team Danny and Nicky Cowley left the Imps for struggling Championship outfit Huddersfield Town, who just months ago were still plying their trade in the Premier League. In this post, I look at why, as talented as both men are, the void they’ve left at Sincil Bank can be filled, and doesn’t mark the threshold for what can be achieved at the county club.

Subject to intense speculation for what must’ve felt like an aeon for fans, the Cowley Brothers found the opportunity to take the cudgels a division above too hard to resist, writing in a statement full of class of their love and affection for everyone involved at Lincoln during a glittering, meteoric three-and-a-half years in charge.

Inevitably, a lot of the anticipation and reaction to the announcement from supporters was morose, and whilst my good friend Gary Hutchinson went on to suggest it wasn’t the end of the world for the club on The Stacey West blog, he did opine that the duo’s departure was “a dark day in its history”. I wholeheartedly disagree.

Yesterday was the strongest evidence yet that Lincoln City are still on the up, and more ‘relevant’ in a football sense than at any other juncture in my lifetime at the very least. Just like at Bury, it’s an extremely rare phenomenon for any manager (or management team) to attract serious, lascivious attention from another club, let alone one in a higher tier. Alan Knill made the leap to Scunthorpe United during the 2010/2011 promotion run-in, but was unable to prevent the Iron from being relegated to League One, where they would meet the Shakers in any case. His reign became more renowned for an accident involving a squirrel (yes, really), and the consistent image of him stood in front of the dugout, arms folded and powerless to prevent them from sliding further down the standings.

I’m confident in my belief that a similar fate won’t happen to Danny Cowley; the only parallel is that he’ll be inheriting a side with a very pronounced losing mentality – indeed, the Terriers won just once and drew a further three times under the auspices of Jan Siewert during his wretched 19-game tenure across all competitions. From the outside looking in, Huddersfield have an awfully lopsided squad, but the majority of which are not yet at the peak in their careers – this could mean that most of the dressing room are receptive to the meticulous ideas the pair will bring to the John Smith’s Stadium; given time, they’ll make a success of it, and the fact that they were top of the board’s shortlist suggests that they will be.

I’m sure they wouldn’t have wanted to end their trophy-laden stint on the end of a 3-1 reverse to Wycombe Wanderers (taking nothing away from the Chairboys whatsoever), but it is what it is. The Imps are sitting in fifth in League One, albeit having played a match more than most of the teams beneath them. Even so, that nominal position is a huge contrast to where they were in 2016 when a couple of P.E. teachers by day gave up that part of their careers to take over at a side that had just finished 13th in the newly christened National League, which was in fact the highest position at that point in the half-decade they’d been dwelling in.

Moreover, average attendances were hovering around the 2,500 mark, and in an anecdote oft-repeated since, the area was full of children wearing Manchester United, Liverpool, and Arsenal shirts, perhaps unsurprising given the plight of the Imps, but is nevertheless something that will probably chime with many readers and supporters of lower league teams.

Almost immediately, the Cowleys galvanised far more than the players at their disposal, but the cathedral city itself. Crowds doubled during their title-winning season, buoyed by the amazing FA Cup run to the quarter finals… but more importantly, people weren’t just along for the brief flirtation with the media spotlight. They kept coming back, and many who’d stopped going for one reason or another previously, returned through the turnstiles, feeling revitalised by the diligence and graft on the pitch and the fan-centred focus off it.

That rapport continued to go from strength to strength, with the Bank becoming a vocal and intimidating ground (for the right reasons) for their opponents to visit. I was asked by Gary to do some work around the clashes between Lincoln and Bury last term, with the second of these more than living up to its billing as a glowing advert for fourth tier football; one piece in particular drew praise, and engendered me to some of their fans on social media. I hadn’t written it to do so, but I felt it was important to dispel the notion of the Cowleys’ men as ‘cloggers’ and other lazy assessments of their tactical setup.

Given the intelligence and expertise in the boardroom now, I’m sure the appointment of the next manager will leave no aspect overlooked, regardless of the speed of which the decision is made. The two most prominent names I’ve seen mentioned elsewhere are Gareth Ainsworth, the Wycombe manager riding the crest of a wave at present; he was strongly linked with the vacant Queens Park Rangers post before Mark Warburton got the nod in May. Like the London club, he has a strong affinity with the Imps from his playing days, but it’s very difficult to foresee him leaving now to a divisional rival. I disagree with the idea that it would be a step down in any way to head north as I’ve seen been mooted on social media, however.

The second ‘option’ is Michael Flynn, working similar wonders at Newport County. He has taken the Exiles from 11 points adrift of safety in March 2017 to 60 seconds of extra time away from a penalty shootout in a play-off final away from a return to the third tier for the first time in 32 long years, all the while making Rodney Parade an impregnable fortress and enjoying forays in cup competitions. It would be an intriguing appointment, but the formation and tactics he employs do not look like a seamless fit for the gig, and that’s putting aside his own loyalty to the south Wales outfit for the sake of argument.

My pick isn’t currently managing at senior level, but has plenty of experience of doing so, even at 43. Michael Appleton left Oxford United for Leicester City to be Craig Shakespeare’s number two in June 2017, with the Foxes one year out from being Premier League champions and several months from being involved in the latter stages of the Champions League. Whilst it seemed like a no-brainer in many senses at the time, his superior would only last four months. Indeed, Appleton himself took caretaker charge of two matches, winning both.

Now at West Bromwich Albion as Under 23s manager, a club he had a previous association with during the latter days of his playing career (you can sense a pattern emerging), I don’t foresee the same anguish the other two would have in leaving their posts. Having had a baptism of fire in earlier managerial roles, he had a comparatively less fraught time at the U’s, gaining promotion in his second campaign to League One and taking them to the brink of the third-tier play-offs; additionally, they were also losing finalists in the EFL Trophy twice in succession, proving his ability to appropriately balance the demands of competing on two fronts.

Last year, he appeared on a very illuminating podcast with Not the Top 20, which gave a fascinating insight into both his personality and the way he operates, particularly to listeners like me that were familiar with the name since his emergence at United in the mid-90s, but not necessarily the man himself:

Current squad depth:

Lincoln 1920 September.PNG
An indicator of the current squad depth – positions and roles simplified for illustrative purposes

The first thing that’s immediately obvious is that the shallow end of the pool is up top and in support of the lone striker, which will hamper attempts by any other newcomer in changing to a two. I should add in the small caveat that with the Yellows, Appleton did most often employ a 4-4-2; however, he had the likes of Kemar Roofe and Chris Maguire to call upon – both of whom spent significant time on either flank, and when they were deployed in the middle, they’d often drift wide or drop deep to find pockets of space in between the lines, which in turn would create gaps for the attacking full-backs and wingers to move into.

At Lincoln, whilst there not be as big ‘names’ as those aforementioned, the collective attributes of Bruno Andrade, Tyler Walker, and Harry Anderson could make something akin to that a possibility. Ideally, someone else could be drafted in before January to share the burden carried by John Akinde, who still seems to draw harsh criticism from some circles.

Elsewhere, things are rosier, although last week’s EFL Trophy match perhaps highlighted the need for a fourth-choice centre back, which would multiply the formations available exponentially. Gianluca Bucci is still only 17, so it seems unlikely he’ll thrust into the fray unless things become desperate. Fellow promising youngsters Alex Bradley and Jordan Adebayo-Smith are out on loan with Harrogate Town and neighbours Boston United respectively.

The ingredients are (mostly) all there for a replication of the setup Appleton had at Oxford – a reliable goalkeeper, full-backs capable of bombing forward to regularly join in attacks, at least one dominant centre back (in both boxes), a central midfield two that can marry dictating the tempo with regaining possession; wide players who can both go outside and cut in; a second striker to make their marker second-guess whether to stay put or go with them when they drop off; lastly, a ‘target man’ to aim a variety of crosses.

Additionally, Appleton is a deeply working-class individual, who understands what’s required of managing a team away from ‘football’s hotbeds’ in England. Whilst Oxford weren’t quite as deep in the doldrums as Lincoln were when Appleton and Cowley were appointed, there was a shared perception that both were capable of something above their stations, and thus it was proven.

In his time away from senior management, Appleton has kept up with the machinations in the EFL, keeping a shortlist of ‘rough diamonds’ in the lower leagues, as well as young players from the top table who could be made available by their parent clubs for the second or third loan spell of their careers, as is his preference when making enquiries.

Like Cowley, it’s self-evident that he takes cup competitions seriously – that is certain to put a strain on a squad as shallow in some regards as the Imps’, but because they’re a well-oiled machine off the pitch, the bulk of compensation package for the brothers would almost certainly go back into the playing budget.

Whoever does get the nod, there might well be a ‘transition period’… but that ought to be no cause for panic – just look at what’s been achieved to date – just last night, Joe Morrell earned his first cap for Wales in a full international, which is testament to his ability and the high regard his club are now held in.

The ’empire’ won’t be destroyed just because of a change of personnel in the dugout. Supporters who returned under the Cowleys and the ‘plastics’ who have joined along the way (in turn tripling the gate) are not witnessing the zenith of what Lincoln are capable of. With an astute appointment like Appleton, the ‘glass ceiling’ is still some distance away. Becca Miller’s tweet below sums up the effect Danny and Nicky had on the club and the city as a whole. Sunny days are here to stay for one small corner in the east of the country.

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Struggling Dons Duke it Out, Plus More League One Analysis

The first of my weekly analyses of the third tier sees a diminished fixture list because of the maiden international break of 2019/2020.

Milton Keynes Dons clash with AFC Wimbledon in both a ‘grudge match’ and the first of two early kick-offs. Paul Tisdale has already stated that “it’s not just another game”, although he intends for his troupe to prepare for it in the same manner as always. The Buckinghamshire outfit have been underwhelming in their swift return to League One, only winning the xG battle once and conceding double figures in the first five encounters. The 3-4-1-2 that served them so well last season has been exposed by better quality this term, and the continuing reliance on Dean Lewington on the left has neither gone unnoticed nor unpunished by the opposition, and the lack of willingness to close down across the board is hurting their efforts.

Wally Downes has encouraged his young squad to “embrace the occasion”; still seeking their first win, there’s an argument to be made that they’ve already played most of the fancied sides in the competition at this juncture, and most of the pressure will be on their adversaries tomorrow lunchtime. Kwesi Appiah will be relishing facing a backline shorn of Regan Poole (with Wales U21s), and a side overall that rank as one of the bottom four during defensive duels.

The other early start sees an all-South Yorkshire clash between Doncaster Rovers and Rotherham United. Both clubs have been hit badly by the postponements (Bolton Wanderers and Bury matches in the first month of the season in Donny’s case), but Darren Moore’s charges remain unbeaten in the four that have taken place. They have garnered impressive results without being dominant, and the versatile Kieran Sadlier has been amongst the goals despite the vast majority of his shots being off-target. As you’d expect, much of the approach play has flowed through the quick feet of the evergreen James Coppinger, who has a tendency to drift to the right when deployed centrally.

Paul Warne will simultaneously be ruing the injury to Kyle Vassell, whilst comforted in the knowledge that there is plenty of competition to replace him for the next three weeks. The pace of Freddie Ladapo could see him move across the attacking trio, or Brentford loanee Chiedozie Ogbene might start. Michael Ihiekwe has been a rock at the back, monstering his opponents in the air – four out of five duels are won cleanly by him, and there’s no reason that should change tomorrow.

Bristol Rovers manager Graham Coughlan wants to “build a winning mentality”, particularly at the Memorial Stadium. His side will welcome Accrington Stanley to the south-west tomorrow, with the performances of the right-sided defender earning rave reviews at both ends. He has two assists to his name already, and his accurate crosses aiming for the far post seem to be getting a lot of joy. Ed Upson’s displays at the base of midfield have also been notable, and he should have time in between the lines with which to operate in.

Assistant boss Jimmy Bell has noted “the mood in the camp has improved” after two wins in a week, and the squad has been further bolstered by the very late loan signing of  Sadou Diallo Wolverhampton Wanderers U23s. His distinct height advantage over Séamus Conneely could come in handy during matches Paul Coleman anticipates regularly ceding possession and territory in. More positively, Colby Bishop has made a quietly superb start to life in League One, regularly hitting the target (and the back of the net) and making the most of the chances that come his way.

Coventry City are unbeaten going into their tie with Blackpool. The Sky Blues have given up less than 10 shots on or off target on average in the first six league games, which is reflected in the goals against column – two 3-3 draws have skewed the statistics. Mark Robins has said that “performances have been good… but we want to take it up another level”. Michael Rose has stood out in central defence, and the healthy competition for places up front has translated into early notches.

The Tangerine Army are also riding high in the charts, and Simon Grayson is adamant that when they do lose, “it won’t be through lack of determination or character”. Striker Armand Gnanduillet has hit four in a month, timing his diagonal runs into the box to perfection. There’s something perhaps a little unsustainable about facing so many shots with only five conceded to show for it, so I’d expect either a regression to the mean to occur soon.

Their coastal neighbours Fleetwood Town probably didn’t deserve to lose by two goals at Highbury against Lincoln City last time out. Joey Barton signed Jimmy Dunne on loan from fellow Lancastrian outfit Burnley on deadline day, and the centre-back might replace the one-paced Peter Clarke for the Oxford United encounter. The usually livewire Ashley Hunter has been off-colour thus far, but Paddy Madden has continued to rack up the goals. Ched Evans could earn a start to more closely mirror the visitors’ extremely predictable shape.

Karl Robinson for his part claims the O’s performances “have been sensational”, something that does not tally with the reality. Striker Matty Taylor is nearing a return, but the big concerns remain at the other end – they have conceded 13 from just 54 shots faced and an xGA of 8.04 in total, and there’s a real lethargy to Simon Eastwood’s goalkeeping thus far.

Tranmere Rovers only have a single victory to their name (tantamount to a free hit against a youthful Bolton side) that’s keeping their heads above the relegation zone. Otherwise, they’ve been defensively poor, shipping two per game in the other four fixtures, but they have a trio of players on two for the season at the right end; Connor Jennings especially has made the step up with consummate ease, making a very good fist of probing in behind Stefan Payne as Micky Mellon continues to shuffle the pack.

Gillingham have also not fared brilliantly under Steve Evans, and the first grumblings of discontent are likely to surface if they fail to come back from Birkenhead with at least a point. Again, take out the stroll against the Trotters and a more negative complexion emerges. The majority of the first choice XI are new signings as you’d expect under Evans, and some are struggling to adjust. One of the better performers has been Watford loanee Alex Jakubiak. Operating as the left-sided attacking midfielder in a trio or as a striker, his calm finishes have kept The Gills in contention in the games to date.

It would be remiss to analyse Wycombe Wanderers without making mention of the eyebrow-raising loan capture of Rolando Aarons from Newcastle United. Under Gareth Ainsworth, the Chairboys are one of a clutch of clubs yet to taste defeat, and quite where Aarons will fit in remains in question, with his manager saying “It’s becoming really hard for me to choose who to leave out these days because there’s a lot of players who deserve to be in the team, but I can only pick 11.” David Wheeler has been impressive cutting in from the left and offers a very different threat to Aarons in the air, helped in no short measure by the incisive passing of Joe Jacobson from the back to spring the front three into action.

Lincoln City are kept from the summit by Ipswich Town. Danny Cowley has once again been hotly pursued by teams in the Championship, but is very settled where he is at a club that continues to go from strength to strength. The trickery and pace of Tyler Walker gives Cowley two distinct options to choose from with which to plough the nominally lone furrow in attack, but the wider midfielders quickly make up the space to support their teammate. His rounded playing style and composure under pressure have helped the Imps into the promotion places, and the game tomorrow should be the most exciting in the EFL.

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James Hanson: No One Hit Wonder, Plus More League Two Analysis

The first of my weekly analyses of the fourth tier focuses on the many surprises thrown up in the early exchanges at both ends of the standings.

It’s reasonable to suggest that Bradford City have underperformed whilst adjusting to life back down in League Two. Gary Bowyer has tried out four distinct shapes in the opening half-dozen encounters, and has lamented the loss of all-rounder Jamie Devitt to the sidelines for at least a fortnight. The injury might, however, help to reduce the amount of tinkering he’s willing or able to do for the foreseeable future, starting with the clash at home with Northampton Town. The Bantams have ranked high in the number of shots thus far but close to bottom with those that have been on target (in the bottom four with both Wyscout and WhoScored), and could do with that changing quickly in front of a sizeable crowd against the visitors.

Keith Curle has stressed the importance of nullifying the threats the hosts possess in their ranks to further frustrate the slightly restless support. The Cobblers enjoyed a superb win over much-fancied Plymouth Argyle in their last outing, with Andy Williams bagging a brace as the focal point of the attack from a pair of Sam Hoskins’ crosses. However, they’ve had a similarly disappointing start to 2019/2020 overall, and Nicky Adams has yet to notch an assist despite an xA of 2.28 (third in the league) – I’d imagine that will change in a fixture that will emphasise pushing wide to create chances.

Cambridge United boss Colin Calderwood will be hoping his proclamation that “lessons have been learned” from their insipid defeat to Port Vale rings true. Whilst not yet living up to their billing from 2018/2019, Forest Green Rovers are likely to dominate possession once more, which could mean a repeat of chasing shadows for a second week. The performance and competition for places could mean a number of changes are made. The centre back pairing of George Taft and Greg Taylor have laid on more passes than anyone else in the squad, and they’ll need those balls to be accurate from defence to prevent being camped in their own third for long spells.

The Nailsworth outfit have not translated their time in control to goals thus far, not even striking once per game. Custodian Jojo Wollacott’s dismissal after half an hour last time out was the chief reason for drawing a blank; Mark Cooper has praised the quality of his attack-minded players in the lead-up to tomorrow, and there ought to be opportunities to climb off the foot of both the touches in the box and shots taken tables, and moreover, earn a convincing win to (temporarily) silence any doubt.

Stephen Pressley has been keen to stress he’s “doing everything he can to maximise the group”, and you once again feel that for Carlisle United to prosper, they’ll have to avoid lay-offs to their small squad… and the likes of versatile forward Hallam Hope to be fully concentrating on the task in hand. That should be an easier task now that the transfer window has closed and he remains in situ, but the Cumbrians have to halt the chances and goals they give up – they were extremely fortunate to keep a clean sheet against Scunthorpe United, losing the xG battle 1.98-0.18!

Stefan Scougall has gleaned two in five from the left side of central midfield, but is a big doubt for the visit of Exeter City. The Grecians are the early pace-setters, with a two-point cushion over their nearest rivals. Nicky Law always looks a class act down the left channel, but even more impressive has been Aaron Martin, especially since being shifted inside as the anchoring centre back in the three. It is partly on the back of his aerial prowess and reading of the game that have aided in their quest to shut out the opposition, making more defensive interceptions collectively than any other team. It will be intriguing to see how he organises his partners when they make the mammoth trip tomorrow, being matched man-for-man by Carlisle’s frontline.

Cheltenham Town have carried their excellent form (particularly at home) into the current campaign, crashing in eight goals in three league fixtures at the Jonny-Rocks Stadium. New signing Jonte Smith will be keen to get in on the action, having eschewed the opportunity to help Bermuda in the CONCACAF Nations League during the international break to ensure his transfer could go ahead without any hitches. Assistant manager Russell Milton took questions this week prior to the Stevenage encounter, much of which centred around what Smith will bring to the group, as well as citing the treatment table list for the Hertfordshire club’s travails up to this point.

Dino Maamria has challenged his troops “to put everything aside” as they seek their maiden victory. He’s rotated personnel in attack to address the string of ‘nils’ against their name, and they were unlucky not to bag a win over Macclesfield Town last weekend. The recent captures of Craig Mackail-Smith and Adam El-Abd add oodles of experience and game management to what was hitherto one of the younger rosters in League Two, although the former might have to settle for a place among the substitutes after Kurtis Guthrie got off the mark.

Callum Harriott has rejoined Colchester United after having a loan spell in Essex several seasons ago. His signing will add even more pace down the flanks, and John McGreal will be banking on it serving as another positive step in their recovery in League Two. Opposition managers are all too aware of the threats at their disposal, and the U’s propensity to get caught offside is testament to that.

Walsall chief Darrell Clarke has been channelling his inner Arsène Wenger ahead of the game, pointing to ‘mental strength’ as the key in shaking off a decidedly indifferent start. Picking the final pass forward has also been a problem – right winger Rory Holden needs more helps from the likes of Danny Guthrie in supplying the front two. The Saddlers rank bottom for key passes created.

Grimsby Town have blasted in 13 goals in six matches to date, and the deadliness of target man James Hanson, scoring half of his 10 shots on target. Granted, two have been penalties, but that takes nothing away from his personal and The Mariners’ rejuvenation in 2019/2020; his presence has been a constant thorn for defences, and at a bare minimum, he has had at least two efforts every match. Set pieces have been a huge part of their superb start, but Michael Jolley believes the “toughest test of the season so far” lies in wait tomorrow when Crewe Alexandra travel eastwards. His adversary for the weekend, David Artell, was effusive in his praise for Jolley, having coached together for the Alex U16s at an earlier stage in their respective careers.

The maturing Railwaymen were able to retain most of their brighter young talents from the previous term, and were at least the equals in terms of xG in the two defeats they have suffered to date (the 3-0 reverse against Plymouth was by no means an accurate reflection of that match). There are few better in the division in the six-yard area than veteran Chris Porter, who can count on Charlie Kirk on his immediate left to ping accurate balls to him.

Leyton Orient are yet another side with a 2-2-2 record, and head coach Ross Embleton believes they “are small margins away” from improving their results on the road. In the immediate future, they will look to do that back at base when they entertain Swindon Town. Josh Wright has proved to be a shrewd acquisition, adding goals and know-how from deep in midfield; the main issue remains conceding big chances that have undermined the low overall number, and this is surely not going to change tomorrow.

The Robins will be backed by a sold-out away end, and first-team coach Tommy Wright expects there to be plenty of goals to entertain them. ‘Wellensball’ has them three points off the top, with the loanee strike partnership of Eoin Doyle and Jerry Yates plundering eight between them. The progressive, riskier passing employed by the Wiltshire outfit is hard to defend against, doubly so when backed up by enterprising wingplay.

Macclesfield Town have continued their promising opening under new manager Daryl McMahon, already accruing nearly a quarter of the points likely to be required for survival as a minimum. Ben Stephens, who can play both up top and as a #10, has been instrumental in their form, acting both as chief creator as well as chipping in with his share of the goals.

Crawley Town are also faring much better than most pundits would’ve anticipated. Gabriele Cioffi is understandably pleased with both the application of his players and the depth at his disposal, the latter of which he added to earlier this week with the signings of Denzeil Boadu and Gyliano van Velzen, and he will be keen to see how they fare tomorrow – Reece Grego-Cox’s place on the right of the three looks most under threat.

It’s hard to recall a time in recent seasons where it hasn’t felt as though the manager of Mansfield Town‘s position is under serious scrutiny. Lying 19th at the table even at this early stage is unlikely to be tolerated for long, but thankfully for John Dempster, Ryan Sweeney’s red card against Exeter City has been rescinded. Sweeney is one of several big names that have not lived up to their billing, which has collectively overshadowed Danny Rose’s fine return in front of goal. Dempster is pinning his hopes on “the Stags soaring” against surprise bottom side Scunthorpe United.

Paul Hurst has endured a torrid opening to his stint in charge, hampered in some ways by injuries – his latest interview on the official site makes for grim reading in terms of expecting many of them making a return in the immediate future. Loanee George Miller has spoken of the need “for a chance to fall for him” to get off the mark, but his game has always been about making a nuisance of himself to create his own opportunities. Rory McArdle’s contribution cannot be sniffed at, but his effectiveness in the air at both ends has not led to much in the way of points.

Morecambe stalwart Jim Bentley has reverted the formation to a 4-4-2 since a costly couple of fixtures that kicked off 2019/2020. This had the desired effect temporarily until reverting to type in the past fortnight. Barry Roche, for so long one of the most reliable goalkeepers in the basement division, has not been at his best, and a solution must be found to plug the gaps if another long season of struggle is to be avoided. Lewis Alessandra’s made the most of his scant chances to date, scoring each of his four shots on target. He should get some further opportunities at home to Salford City.

The Ammies have given up triple figures already, facing 104 shots, by far and away the worst record in the league. Thankfully, that hasn’t translated into comparatively many goals conceded, and Jack Baldwin, on loan from Sunderland, is sure to take his place in the heart of the defence as a countermeasure to that particular stat. Jake Jervis joins a strong-looking forward line, but at present, it’s too easy to pass through their midfield.

Newport County are one of two sides to remain unbeaten in League Two at the time of writing. Rodney Parade has been a fortress for sometime, whilst on the road, they have ground out points when not performing at their zenith against opponents at least their equals on paper. Michael Flynn is adamant that the division “will be the most competitive it’s been in a long time”, something I’m also of the view of, and anticipates another bruising battle with Port Vale.

The Valiants have become tougher to beat under John Askey, who is hoping to take advantage of the Exiles’ absentees tomorrow. It’s no longer simply a case of hitting it to club legend Tom Pope and hoping for the best, as there now exists more depth and devilment in attack. Jordan Archer will be pushing for a place, and he takes up similar positions to Pope but with a change of pace. David Amoo helps to stretch defences that would otherwise remain pretty compact, and that will be the most interesting aspect during tomorrow’s game.

Plymouth Argyle boss Ryan Lowe has been quick to temper any notion of Jose Baxter “getting one over” the latter’s former employers, Oldham Athletic. Both manager and player have not seen things go all their own way in 2019/2020. As is now typical for a Lowe side, most of their attacks have come down the left channel (42%), with the middle relatively underutilised. It should serve as no surprise that they’ve also conceded the bulk down their left, and will have to get much closer to the winger. Chris Eagles should provide them with that chance if selected.

It’s been another term of off-the-pitch machinations overshadowing results on it, which have also been hard to come by so far. Head coach Laurent Banide will be hoping deadline day signing Filipe Morais’ return to Boundary Park will help inject the dressing room with a much-needed boost. The strikers have a single goal between them, and although Chris O’Grady’s departure to neighbours Bolton Wanderers was far from lamented, it has highlighted the lack of a potent target man in their ranks to finish off Gevaro Nepomuceno’s floated crosses.

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“Could You Spare Some Cutter, Me Brothers & Sisters?”

Paraphrasing a line taken from ‘A Clockwork Orange‘ as my inspiration, I’m delighted to launch my own Patreon page!

I’ve been writing about Bury on this blog for nearly three years. Unfortunately, their expulsion from the EFL, coupled with my move into freelance writing as a career, has meant that I have had to diversify what I write about in order to continue pursuing my passion and ambition.

The blog itself and future video and audio content on YouTube and a podcasting platform (both of which will be coming soon) will always be free for everyone to access. I’ve yet to make any money whatsoever from my blog itself since its creation, with the ads on the site not generating enough revenue to pay me more than the minimum $200 threshold WordPress specifies to pass that along.

I’m not a fan of asking for money in any shape or form, and any money received through Patreon will have no direct effect on the type of content I produce – that is, I’m not simply going to start chasing the money, I’m going to continue writing in the same manner I always have, which has received excellent feedback from people within and without the sport.

I greatly value the small but extremely dedicated readership I have garnered up until this point, having started BMiE as a way of overcoming overwhelming grief and a deep dissatisfaction about the way my day job/career was going, having ignored doing what I was good at and took enjoyment from doing for far too long. BMiE did start with a slightly lighter tone to reflect the ‘hobby’ aspect of its formation, but soon developed into a more serious body of work.

With the above in mind, I have taken the step of creating this page you now find yourself on. Hopefully, If you have read this far, it means you are at least mildly interested in BMiE, which earns you my eternal gratitude – please read below to find out more specifics about my plans for the future. 

How are things going to change?

‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’. As much as that mantra is a little tired, it does ring true for me and my plans. Events outside of my control (especially surrounding Bury) have dictated to an extent the path I am now on. The style in which I write will remain exactly the same, which is kept consistent across my social media channels.

How much are you asking for?

$3 a month. As simple as that. If you want to contribute more, I won’t say ‘no’, but I wanted to ensure it’s as simple and as low as possible. I only envisage this changing if I receive a lot more support than I’ve bargained for!

What’s the long-term plan?

To be able to make enough from BMiE and my freelance work for others to never have to consider going back to a career I hated. The figure in my head is comparatively low to be able to achieve that. I also want to finish my (football) scouting studies and gain press accreditation. Obviously, I also hope that the bulk of what I write about can return to being about a club with ‘Bury’ in its name, but there are no guarantees of that…

Additionally… if you sign up to become a patron in the first month, you’ll gain access to extra content (and I stress ‘extra’, because it will never be in place of anything now), as well as being able to suggest articles for me to write about – I’ll come up with a system of choosing the best ones, depending on how things progress. There is a permanent link in the blog’s sidebar to join!

https://www.patreon.com/burymeinexile

What to Expect for the Foreseeable Future

Hopefully, you’ll have seen my post on Bury from earlier today, and the subsequent announcement from the ‘working group’ kicks things into the latter of the month.

The effects of the summer’s machinations on my budding freelance writing career have been massive, in terms of the opportunities I’ve been able to take up (or not, as the case might be); the general level of enthusiasm I’ve had for crafting pieces, given that I had to abridge my analysis of League One and Two and focus almost solely on the financial side of the game; lastly, the feeling that I’m playing ‘catch-up’ on a season that’s already a month old.

It’s time to shake that malaise off, though. As I’ve said before, I want to continue to write and enjoy it to the fullest again. As you might’ve guessed from the redesign, there will be a broader view of local football, taking in matches in person that will be played out as high as the zenith of the Championship to as low as the 10th tier in England (which might still be where a team called ‘Bury’ will be in 2020/2021), as well as wherever observers would transpose Welsh football. Below is a map and a list of potential clubs that I’ll be visiting during the next nine months or so:

Local Clubs
WordPress has an awful habit of compressing/resizing images – to see it more clearly, right-click ‘open image in new tab’, then delete the dimensions at the end of the URL
Local Clubs
The number in parentheses corresponds to the tier the club ply their trade in

What struck me when researching teams in close proximity to where I now live was the sheer number of them. I would never have envisaged that before, and to the best of my knowledge, the Gloucestershire and Monmouthshire areas are not renowned for playing host to a litany of outfits in the upper reaches of the non-league system; an interesting quirk of the current campaign is that the county city of the former have been placed in the National League North, meaning their away trips are often quite arduous for the top level of regionalisation. How the expansion will affect them or the division of clubs from next year remains to be seen.

Additionally, I’ll be resuming my analysis of League One and Two, looking at each side week by week in a snapshot, dissecting their tactics, players, and perhaps most tellingly (depending on the personalities) the managers’ quotes about how they think their charges are faring. I’ll also be reviewing books more frequently, starting with ‘One Football, No Nets‘ by Justin Walley. All of these changes, along with the work I’ve put in the redesigned site (which will be finished by tomorrow), should mean there are at least two posts per week that are easier to find and read… and it will never be about the frequency for me, always the quality. I hope you’ll support me along the way, because I think the future, despite everything, is going to be exciting for the blog.

 

A Non-Zero-Sum Game

The current situation is very bleak indeed – stop me if you’ve heard that tired old refrain before. James Frith, the local MP for Bury North, has been central to keeping efforts to save the club in the public eye, and his latest post on Facebook suggests that there has been a snowball effect in galvanising support from both the political and business fields to convince Debbie Jevans, the interim CEO of the EFL, to rescind the ‘unanimous decision’ to withdraw the golden share (membership) of the competition.

Once more, the statement makes mention of an ‘interested party’ in taking over the club. Quite what the attraction is for any consortium now is in owning a side that won’t have any fixtures for 11 months minimum is hard to see, and that doesn’t even take into account the severe lack of income there will be during that interim period, the CVA (which is now under investigation), Steve Dale (fresh from his most unintentionally hilarious and bizarre ramblings yet and belatedly widespread recognition and media depiction as the last but most crucial ‘villain of the piece’).

Hopes were first pinned on C&N Sporting Risk, who pulled out an hour before the extended deadline last week over concerns surrounding due diligence. Latterly, a London-based pastor by the name of Gustavo Ferreira supposedly tabled a £7m offer for the business before said deadline, which wasn’t sufficient to persuade the competition organisers to change tack, mainly because it just wasn’t credible.

The EFL have come in for plenty of flack since, with condemnation coming in the form of chants at many of their fixtures last weekend, an online petition (with north of 40,000 signatures at the time of writing), and a savaging in the press. I believe that they have handled the situation incompetently rather than malevolently, having simply failed to heed the warnings from two years ago. The method behind the expulsion, as much the action itself, has weakened their already sagging reputation much further still, and in a far more serious way than suspending Bury’s games prior to their decision was to the ‘integrity’ of League One.

It is this that has led to a possible legal challenge against them from a number of disparate groups, one of which could be by Forever Bury, who are holding a meeting at the town hall tomorrow. The short notice of that gathering is understandable, given that the clock is already ticking on both the outcome of any court case and an application to the FA to rejoin the pyramid. Remaining staff and players at the club have had their worlds turned upside down, with parents of children as young as eight years old

I also wonder what now is actually is the best case for the entity known collectively as Bury Football Club, and I don’t think it’s as immediately obvious as it might seem. I’m sure plenty of readers would say it’s for the EFL to place the Shakers in League Two for 2020/2021… but under whose ownership? How would the CVA (if left unscathed by the investigation) and debts not covered in it be paid for? How would income be generated without any matches? Most pertinently of all, the largest sticking point is the current situation surrounding Gigg Lane itself, which would require roughly £4m to wrest back the stadium from Capital Bridging Finance Solutions, plus the cumulative daily interest.

I find myself increasingly of the disposition that, barring a miracle (and it has been the hope that has killed fans over and over and over again in recent weeks), a fresh start might not be the worst outcome. Don’t get me wrong, every sinew should be stretched to at least come to an agreement with CBF, but in lieu of that, the following tweet from the local council should be noted:

Ultimately, I’m suggesting that as big of a wrench as leaving Gigg and perhaps not being even in League Two would be, it doesn’t have to be the last page in the story of the club. A way must be found for extremely angry and grief-stricken supporters to come together once again. A phoenix club is the last resort, but its likelihood increases by the day – this is a non-zero-sum game where things are never straightforward on closer inspection. If and when it happens, I’ll put forth my vision for what it could be like, as I think even in the most dire of circumstances, there are opportunities. Until then, or a highly improbable reversal by the EFL, this blog will keep a watchful eye on proceedings. I need to write about something other than finances, and what that will be will follow later this week on the blog.

In the meantime, the clock is ticking on 134 years of Bury Football Club.

This is C&N

In a perpetual state of cutting it extremely fine, the future of Bury Football Club is still precarious at the time of writing. The events of the past week have at once felt like a whirlwind and running in treacle, amplified by belated but constant national media attention. Many of the club’s supporters have taken to the airwaves to highlight the (ongoing) plight, and yours truly has been no exception to that:

  1. Race to the Bottom: Episode 13 (opens in Spotify)
  2. The Big Kick Off: Episode 116 (opens in Soundcloud)
  3. Sky News Interview: Five minutes of my face on YouTube (sorry!)

The previously intransigent owner Steve Dale was sending all kinds of mixed messages on Friday during his grand tour of seemingly everywhere except the negotiating table, with as many as four interested parties in taking over before the midnight deadline set by the EFL for either sufficient evidence of proof of funds from Dale himself or for a deal to be struck to their satisfaction.

Like probably every other fan, I was glued to social media (even more than usual) as the minutes ticked by, desperate for some solid sleep but even more desperate for a credible source to break the news that there had been a sale, which duly came a little over two hours from oblivion:

What quickly emerged from then on were the identities of the group – C&N Sporting Risk, a small company whose main service is in data analytics, with Rory Campbell and Henry Newman at the head of the firm.

Campbell is the son of the infamous Labour spin-doctor Alastair, who, for all his… flaws (putting it extremely lightly) has always maintained a fervent and genuine interest in football, being a follower of fellow Lancashire side Burnley and raising a family with an appreciable knowledge of how important the link is between clubs and the communities they are an intrinsic component of.

Rory has created his own niche after completing the well-trodden Oxbridge PPE path, founding C&N in 2016 whilst still in his 20s after firming up his interests at university, with the ongoing  ‘Moneyball’ experiment at Brentford a big driver behind his deepening involvement in the sport (and perhaps the current interest in Bury). It’s impossible to ignore the betting aspect of his company, however, and there would be a question mark over just how they could as a business work around the strict laws set out by the FA governing inside information whilst owning a club. He would need to prove, much like Tony Bloom at Brighton & Hove Albion and Matthew Benham at The Bees that he doesn’t place any bets himself, only acting as a ‘consultant’ for others.

Newman’s background is more rooted in coaching, especially in London with two different clubs – Charlton Athletic and Barnet, the latter of which he had a brief spell as joint-interim coach with Rossi Eames two years ago, and the pair appeared on a Not the Top 20 podcast during their brief tenure:

In it, Henry sets out his vision for how football should be played, with an emphasis on an eye-pleasing style whilst still being mindful of the shortcomings of the squad he had under him at The Hive. He took a break from a role as chief opposition scout with West Ham United during that four-month interlude, continuing to hone and diversify his skillset in the game and firmly setting him on the road to his directorship at C&N.

At this juncture, it’s important not to get too far ahead of myself. A disappointingly short extension to the deadline, in C&N’s collective view, was granted by the EFL yesterday, providing only a single extra business day to conclude the deal (or at least 99% of it). Doubtlessly, between Stewart Day and Steve Dale, a complex web was woven for any future prospective owners to cut through and unravel simultaneously. A debt of gratitude is nevertheless owed by many to a few select people – the half-dozen or so at the head of Forever Bury, local MP James Frith, and even the likes of Ron Wood and former chairman Terry Robinson in the background.

One final thing to note right now is that whilst I can claim to have no insider knowledge of the wealth (or otherwise) of C&N, they have already provided to the EFL what Dale could not in terms of proof of funds. Moreover, their pursuit of a deal has been 10 weeks in the making, only coming to a head thanks to Dale relenting at the last possible moment… and crucially, well before the CVA had even been tabled, let alone approved.

Hopefully, this won’t prove to be another false dawn (and subsequently the footnote) in Bury’s proud, if often financially fraught, 134-year history. The Gigg Lane faithful don’t want the moon, just a club to continue supporting to pass on to the generations to come.

Answering the Unanswerable

This post is an attempt to answer some of the things I’ve seen written about Bury Football Club in the past few days in as balanced a way as the current situation allows. This isn’t the place for financial facts and figures – the approved CVA is in the public domain, and experts like David Conn for The Guardian and Kieran Maguire have opined extensively about the complicated web of debt and disarray.

“Bury spent beyond their means”

There’s absolutely no question about that, and it’s never been a particularly well-kept secret. This reached its absolute nadir during the close season two years ago, with former chairman Stewart Day letting Lee Clark loose with money he never had on players the club didn’t need and could ill-afford. The common retorts to that centre around a perception that few, if any, Bury fans railed against the actions of Day. I did on this blog on more than one occasion, but this isn’t about bigging myself up for that. Other supporters expressed their concerns far earlier into the regime and were utterly castigated for it. Even if the groundswell of opinion against what was happening had more weight, without representation on the board, what practical influence did anyone truly have? A small contingent did indeed boycott going to games or spending money towards the end before it became a more widespread stance under Steve Dale, ultimately resulting in some of the most die-hard supporters asking for refunds on their season tickets.

The case is then made that Mansfield Town were ‘cheated’ out of a promotion place because of said overspending. Whilst I do have a limited amount of sympathy with that angle, it should be stated that the budget the club had and the players they used to achieve that miraculous promotion was far lower than the previous term. That’s impossible to truly verify without looking at the latest accounts (still unpublished). In truth, the EFL should’ve been scrutinising the ability to even make it through 2018/2019 under Day’s ownership. His very quick exit in December has precipitated every event since.

Most clubs in the 92 ‘spend beyond their means’, but have ways of servicing the debt and/or repaying the loans they have access to. Very few make a profit of any kind, especially without the help of transfer fees. Make no mistake, if Bury did go out of business, they’d be the first of many without legislative changes to either give the EFL more powers, redress the laughable financial imbalances in the domestic game and/or to set up an independent regulator.

 

“Bolton Wanderers are being treated differently / The EFL have an agenda against / want to make an example of Bury”

Well in one sense, Bolton definitely are being treated differently. The protracted takeover bid by Football Ventures feels like it’s taken all summer to reach its conclusion, and it’s still not certain what the outcome of it will be – the hotel (a separate business) on the same site as the UniBol Stadium complicates matters to a great degree. The only logical conclusion to take is that the EFL are far more satisfied that there are measures in place for the Trotters to fulfil their fixtures (even if the majority of the ‘squad’ at the time of writing are still in their teens) than with the Shakers.

Several statements have been issued by both the competition organisers and Dale in the past week, with the intransigent owner taking an increasingly attacking stance in his against the football body. The latest was penned by his lawyer, all of which just leaves fans in the awkward position of hoping some sort of compromise can be reached that allows matches to be take place but also hastens Dale’s exit.

For what it’s worth, I don’t think the EFL have an agenda against the club; they just don’t feel they have the concrete assurances from Dale to fulfil the commitments and money owed to creditors. Expelling Bury is an extremely bad look for the competition’s integrity, but there’s only so long the situation can be drawn out without some sort of resolution. That said, I’ve been distinctly unimpressed by interim CEO Debbie Jevans’ politician-esque answers to questions she’s faced publicly about both clubs. It’s the employees and supporters who suffer in all of this.

“Things are really bad at Manchester United / Arsenal / Newcastle United”

It seems churlish to even compare the ‘woes’ of fans of the three Premier League giants above to Bury. In many ways, it is… however, if you take the view that what takes place at one club has a knock-on effect at another and so on, then a more holistic picture emerges of the state of the game. Accrington Stanley owner Andy Holt, affected by the suspension of next Saturday’s home fixture, has nonetheless appealed to his growing number of followers on Twitter not to take too much umbrage with the discontent those clubs’ supporters have at the way they’re being run.

Whilst it’s unlikely that in the short to medium-term that any of those businesses (because that’s precisely what they are) will fail to remunerate staff on time or have a kit supplier for the campaign, it all hints at a powerlessness to affect the sort of change they wish to see, and it should reverberate down the pyramid. A decision has to be with finality whether football clubs in the English system are businesses like in any other sector with all that that entails or ‘community assets’; if it’s the latter, then huge strides are required in order to bring that to reality. Football is meant to be ‘The People’s Game’, but it feels increasingly divorced from that in many respects. Rogue owners and those who would seek to put themselves and not the club they are custodians of first must be brought to heel. The mechanisms don’t exist to do that at this point, and might only when clubs that register more on the public consciousness than Bury suffer a similar fate.

“Other clubs won’t vote to expel Bury from the EFL”

Depending on how you interpret the EFL’s statement about the CVA being approved, there are either four days until expulsion occurs or still at least 14. Should it be the latter, It should nevertheless still be noted that the first two league matches being suspended will put inexorable pressure on the body to serve the notice as quickly as possible. It’s one thing to nominally rearrange those games (which, by the way, have already had negative financial effects on both Milton Keynes Dons and Accrington), but quite another to do that for the EFL Cup tie with Sheffield Wednesday. They’re unlikely to countenance a third match across two competitions they organise not taking place as scheduled, so you can expect a decision on that early into next week.

I don’t pretend to know what’s in the minds of most boards of the other 71, so this is only pure conjecture on my part. I would posit that the calls for expulsion will reluctantly grow louder every single day, cognisant as those same people will be on the widespread consequences of such a vote, both on the overall structure of League One downwards and the club’s viability. With Dale still resisting selling Bury, I can’t envisage a scenario now where they can remain in business for longer than several weeks. I don’t want that to happen (despite some bizarre claims to the contrary), but it’s not within my gift to exert any influence on proceedings, and it feels like this has been a long time coming.

“Without Bury, my interest in football would die”

A perfectly reasonable opinion to have, doubtlessly shared by quite a few people. For me personally, my interest has been significantly waning in the elite/top tier of the sport for sometime, which feels increasingly remote from the grassroots and up. You’d hope that a phoenix club would be formed in the absolute worst case scenario, although it doesn’t always follow that fans of the original would do the same for the new entity for a multitude of reasons: different location, much lower standing, the ‘soul’ would be lost, and so on. It’s something I’d like to be involved in from afar if it does transpire.

I cannot admit to being immune from just how jarring it was yesterday to even vaguely kept abreast of the opening day fixtures, knowing Bury weren’t a part of them and almost certainly won’t be in their present form ever again. It’s difficult not to leap into other people’s conversations about how their teams got on and say “what about Bury?”, but it doesn’t do any good to.interject. Most are sympathetic to the collective plight shared by several thousand fans.

My intentions for the blog in case Bury do cease to exist are as follows: I will on occasion go ground-hopping to fixtures local to me in the Forest of Dean that take my fancy – that could be anywhere from Bristol City in the Championship to Lydney Town in the Hellenic League Premier Division. It won’t be the same, but I still intend to take an interest and to write about what I see. I’m also a self-employed freelancer, so I need to keep that up to realise my ambitions.

All we can do is hope for Dale to do the right thing – change his mind, and sell the club immediately to avoid any of this happening.

CVA? CBA

A fortnight ago, it became even more abundantly clear that the immediate future of Bury Football Club in its current form is under serious jeopardy. Owner Steve Dale, the only director left, made a Company Voluntary Arrangement to the ridiculous number of creditors – for the full shameful and disgraceful list, download the document here. In short, the proposal, if accepted on the 9th of July, will see those entities classed as football creditors paid in full as per the EFL’s rules. The rest will have to make do with 25%, and the total debt would then be reduced to a touch under £3m (former chairman Stewart Day’s company Mederco are excluded from the scope). The biggest mystery is the mention of Dale himself being a creditor… to the tune of £3.6m. I have seen no documented evidence of the loan in the public domain, and the accounts are now ridiculously overdue. It would however, go a long to explain Dale’s reluctance to sell up.

One possible outcome of the proposal being accepted is that the EFL, the self-styled ‘competition organisers’ will see fit to deduct the Shakers 12 points ahead of the new season, but frankly, that’s the least of many fans’ worries. 2019/2020 is already a write-off… and that’s the best case scenario. Manchester City have served notice to evict their neighbours from Carrington, even though as the CVA confirms, the rent had been a nominal amount. It simply hadn’t been maintained. That move will leave them without a training ground, and the news has further damaged whatever was left of Bury’s reputation.

Only circa six senior players are still in situ, and no pre-season preparation has even taken place yet. Expect that number to decrease even further in the coming days. The U18s, whose salaries are funded from elsewhere, are in better nick. As ever, their fate is somewhat contingent on the continuing machinations above them. With Ryan Lowe and several other key staff and players firmly ensconced in much more stable surroundings at Plymouth Argyle, the ‘search’ for a replacement was finally over yesterday. One of the most needlessly bombastic and asinine managerial announcements I’ve ever read, Paul Wilkinson’s credentials are steering Truro City to relegation… into the seventh tier! I can only presume there was a clause in his still-fresh contract with the White Tigers that allowed him to join a pro outfit without compensation. 

What that move does is meet the most minimum requirement to creditors that there’s a ‘plan to move forward’. Very few supporters truly believe the appointment amounts to any more than that, and it is still far from clear if or how Wilkinson will be paid, let alone cobble together a large enough squad to fulfil the fixtures, which start in earnest a month from now. I maintain my belief that they won’t be. Others have voted with their wallets, requesting refunds for their season ticket purchases already. Obviously, I don’t live close enough to attend regularly, but until Dale has sold the club, I won’t be financially supporting Bury in any way; not through merchandise, not through ticketing, not through iFollow (which I cancelled a fortnight ago before it automatically renewed), or by any other means.

Enthusiasm is at an all-time collective nadir, and since Lowe’s own departure, there has been no official confirmation from the club about the subsequent leavers, which also means that none of them have been thanked for their selfless service last season. Plenty of observers are predicting Bury won’t even reach a positive number of points (should they even be afforded that opportunity). The anguish the ongoing howling shambles is inflicting upon the remaining staff and fans is unprecedented, and goes far, far beyond being upset and angry at witnessing many of last season’s heroes depart. Yes, there have almost always been financial problems, but never anything close to this. More are coming round to the depressing realisation that a phoenix club might be the least worst option as things stand.

The state of limbo has left me feeling like a frog slowly boiling in a saucepan, and more pertinently, utterly uncertain how to proceed with this blog, too. In the short term, I’ll be focusing on the women’s teams, reviewing football related books… and hopefully, not seeing the work I’ve prepared for previewing every club in League One and Two go to waste.