Bristol Rovers vs Portsmouth: Preview

In the first match I’ll be attending in person this season, I take a look at the League One clash between Bristol Rovers and Portsmouth at the Memorial Stadium.

I have to admit that it’s strange to be writing about a game I’ll be at that doesn’t involve Bury in one form or another; it’s not an unprecedented occurrence, but it has been rare up until this point. Even with the phoenix starting to rise, it’s going to become much more commonplace. My love of football doesn’t begin and end with the Shakers, and this is just the inaugural step on covering sides in my locale.

Bristol Rovers, for their part, were not expected to be in the top half of the third tier standings with 14 games played. Had they won on Tuesday, Graham Coughlan’s charges would’ve been firmly ensconced in the play-offs, ably demonstrating how close the table still is in some areas. Instead, they turned in an abject performance at home to the previously winless Bolton Wanderers, fully deserving the 2-0 reverse inflicted on them by the Trotters.

The prevailing narrative where The Gas are concerned is an over-reliance on the explosive talents of Jonson Clarke-Harris, who rose to prominence in spectacular fashion last term. I still remember his loan spell at Gigg Lane six years ago in an abject squad under the bumbling, belligerent auspices of Kevin Blackwell. I could see then he had the raw qualities to progress his career, and his goal return of four in 12 augured well. This season began in much the same way as 2018/2019 concluded. An all-round striker, he has the strength and acceleration to get clear of his marker, be more than effective in the air, and has a knack of pulling off the spectacular.

It’s no surprise that the injury he suffered earlier this month has come as a grievous blow to the squad; only one goal has been scored in the three fixtures since, with no-one else stepping up in his absence to carry the burden. Tomorrow, they face a Portsmouth outfit way off the pace, and the perception is that their 1-0 victory over Lincoln City on Tuesday preserved Kenny Jackett’s job for the time being, at least.

Pompey have suffered more than most from fixture cancellations thus far, which goes a long way to explain why they’ve played fewer than every other side in the division. They too have had to cope without their star forward in the form of Brett Pitman, but have more able replacements – in fact, it’s disparaging to describe John Marquis in such a fashion, even if he just ended a long barren spell the other night for his third of the campaign.

no Sercombe and Clarke-Harris; vitriol for Clarke; Leahy possibly back in for Kelly perceived lack of a Plan B

Bristol Rovers 1920

Coughlan is likely to rigidly stick to a 3-5-2 that screams defensive solidity over creativity and risk. Pirates supporters will sincerely be hoping that left wing-back Luke Leahy can prove his fitness sufficiently to be back in the starting lineup. Michael Kelly, who has been deputising him, is far more suited for a flat four, and that conservatism has been another factor during the recent travails. Joe Dodoo had the beating of Kelly all night long on Tuesday, and whilst there’s no disgrace in that, it did highlight the inherent weaknesses on that side of the defence.

Alfie Kilgour is predominantly right-footed but is being deployed on the opposite part of the central three. He will look to cover Leahy’s runs whilst being wary of not being pulled too far away from his position, particularly given the fact that the opposition will match up the numbers. Tony Craig will need to be at his best to hold the shape together, whilst his teammate Tom Davies (who has made the most interceptions of anyone in the league), will flit between covering for the others when the line is penetrated and shutting down attacks on his flank.

As a unit, they’re instructed to play plenty of long balls to the strikers. On the occasions they don’t, distribution is evenly spread between the wings. If fit, Leahy is one of the better (few) creative outlets in the XI, and will go beyond the midfield three frequently. Alex Rodman has only recently been tasked with performing the same role on the right but has found a niche in thwarting wingers rather than being one himself.

Ed Upson is the nominal pivot in midfield, but in reality, all three of the likely starters tomorrow favour defence over attack in their actions. Very few of his passes carry any sort of risk, but he’s more likely to be in a suitable area to shoot than Abu Ogogo. Captain Ollie Clarke has been off-colour all season long, which just makes fans pine for Liam Sercombe’s recovery all the more. At his best, he can be the #8 that is so desperately needed to operate in between the lines.

The problems don’t stop in midfield. Tom Nichols looks like a man utterly bereft of confidence. He has accrued fewer than 10 goals in over two years and this is reflected in the calls for him to be dropped from the team. Like Victor Adeboyejo, he favours making drifting runs to the right half-space, either in anticipation of a cross from Leahy or to shift the opposition defence out of their set shape. The Barnsley loanee has yet to net in the league, and whilst he can hold the ball up well, that doesn’t serve much of a purpose without far more support from deeper on the pitch.

Portsmouth 1920

The usually unflappable Craig MacGillivray has been under-par between the sticks for the Hampshire side this season, coming off significantly worse against expected goals conceded to actual (9.46 to 12). That said, he remains both a confident taker of crosses in the air and a reliable distributor; the latter quality may be called into action on the counter regularly tomorrow. Full-backs Lee Brown and Ross McCrorie (who can also play in defensive midfield) will bomb forward whenever given licence to do so; the greater width behind John Marquis means the setup is less reliant on them being the ones to whip balls into the area.

Sean Raggett has come in for some criticism from his own fans this season, and the same can be said for Christian Burgess’ propensity to run with the ball ahead of the backline. When you couple that with not winning as many duels as he ought to, it does underline a certain nervousness in defence at present.

The two anchors in midfield have similar approaches to advancing possession through the second third of the pitch. Captain Tom Naylor, unlike Upson for Bristol Rovers, takes too many risks with his passing, including a strange obsession with clipped through balls over the defence that almost always get swallowed up. Ben Close covers more ground and is a little more solid but has the same problems with picking out teammates.

Gareth Evans has been tried in several roles behind the sole striker. Reluctant to shoot when deployed centrally and a better creator (from a low base) out wide, it’s unclear why he’s being persisted with directly off Marquis. There’s no shortage of attack-minded midfielders at the club who like to cause damage in between the full-back and nearest centre back, such as Marcus Harness and Ronan Curtis. The former of the duo has got the nod in recent matches, even though he’s more at home on the opposite side. The ex-Burton Albion favourite has a knack of anticipating loose balls in the area, which could be a key difference maker tomorrow.

Marquis will be hoping to improve as the season wears on. He cannot do this in isolation and needs more unpredictability when he’s supported. Ryan Williams does not have the same skillset as the aforementioned Curtis or the departed Jamal Lowe, which can make it easier for teams to simply sit in and soak up the pressure. Marquis is currently averaging under two shots a match despite the five attempts on Tuesday; only a third of these are on target, and both of these metrics have to change to salvage something from 2019/2020.

As for a prediction, I’m expecting a tight, low-scoring affair with little to choose between the sides. The stubbornness of both managers is manifesting itself in the styles of play on show at the moment. Rovers are hitting it long to a strikeforce that evokes no fear, bypassing a midfield seemingly designed to keep things tight when turnovers occur. Pompey, especially without Clarke-Harris lining up against them, have the superior individuals on paper but that has not coalesced into a cohesive team. Despite the plethora of options in advanced areas, too many balls are hit long into the channels or to a surrounded Marquis. What looked on paper a more exciting contest a few weeks ago doesn’t have that feel now – I’d love to be wrong, though!

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Bradford City Tactical Analysis

How have Bradford City fared under boss Gary Bowyer in the opening quarter of the 2019/2020 season in League Two? Let’s take a look.

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League Results to Date & General Performances

(Bradford score first in claret and amber):

Cambridge United (h): 0-0
Grimsby Town (a): 1-1
Oldham Athletic (h): 3-0
Stevenage (a): 1-0
Forest Green Rovers (h): 0-1
Crewe Alexandra (a): 1-2
Northampton Town (h): 2-1
Walsall (a): 1-0
Cheltenham Town (a): 2-3
Carlisle United (h): 3-1
Scunthorpe United (a): 1-1
Swindon Town (h): 2-1
Morecambe (a): 2-1

Life back in the basement division hasn’t all been smooth sailing for The Bantams, but they have certainly coped better than their fellow demoted sides from the third tier in 2018/2019 (11th, 19th, and 22nd respectively). Bowyer had the advantage of being hired back in March when their fate wasn’t sealed but was probable.

The extra few months of planning afforded to him has resulted in a huge turnover of players; moreover, the new arrivals have bedded in well at Valley Parade, and the first four matches yielded eight points. Although the next couple were narrowly lost in encounters that could’ve gone either way – the injury-time defeat at home to Forest Green Rovers particularly heartbreaking.

They’ve lost just one more since – a pulsating second half away to Cheltenham Town saw them strike twice but end up on the wrong side of a five-goal thriller in a game where they carved out the better opportunities. Once more, they piled on the pressure when they travelled to Scunthorpe United (the Iron were a man light for over 70 minutes) without the scoreline reflecting their dominance.

October has been fruitful thus far – six points from the first two fixtures now has them nominally in the automatic promotion places by virtue of goals scored over the more defensively resolute Forest Green Rovers; more importantly, supporters are feeling positive after suffering a downward spiral on and off the pitch for large swathes of the past few seasons.

Most Used Shape & Starting XI

Bradford 1920


Tactical Approach

Whilst Bowyer certainly does favour a conventional 4-4-2, something that he’s brought with him across the Pennines from previous roles, it’s by no means the shape he persists with all the time. Last Saturday against Morecambe for example, a defensive pivot was used behind a four-man midfield.

As you’d expect from having two on each flank, the build-up for most attacks are constructed in the outside channels, with a slight bias towards the right (40% to 34%). Connor Wood and compatriot Kelvin Mellor are both progressive with the ball, linking up well with the wingers in front of them. Wood is more apt to go beyond his teammate, but there’s no huge distinction between the source of crosses.

Centre backs Ben Richards-Everton and Anthony O’Connor (ably backed up by namesake Paudie) split wider when trying to pick out one of the strikers with direct long balls from their own third, as well as covering for the full-backs on when possession is lost further upfield.

Even when the single pivot isn’t positioned at the base of midfield, the duo in the centre work tirelessly to shut down counters and make supporting runs for the wingers to have a short passing option, or to be the recipient of a lay-off by a striker, usually Clayton Donaldson.

Dylan Connolly, who has been on the left in the past two games, is more apt to get to the byline than Harry Pritchard when cutting back or sending a looping ball into the centre. Donaldson and James Vaughan are a duo with copious amounts of experience further up the pyramid; the former uses his physicality to bring others into play in the construction of attacks, and the latter is also strong in his own right, working the channels to offer something different to just aerial battles.

Collective Strengths & Weaknesses

The Bantams are powerful in the air, always giving their opponents cause from concern from open play and dead ball situations. Of the 166 shots to date, 43 have been via headers, the second highest in the division – five of them have been converted, which is an impressive ratio when every factor is taken into consideration.

Defensively, they’ve held their own, managing to block plenty of shots and win more than their fair share of duels to turn potentially worrying situations into attacks.

None of the passing statistics stand out, but it could be argued that it’s testament to the individual qualities within the group to make the most of retaining the ball – the claret and amber army are decidedly average on most of those metrics, which makes sense when the strategy is to make the most of the know-how up top or cross from out wide. Crossing by even the elite clubs rarely leads to a goal greater than a ratio of 1:10 attempts.

A plus point that won’t be in the stats on WhoScored or Wyscout as such is Bowyer’s ability to rotate personnel, both through substitutions and the flexibility inherent in certain players’ abilities to perform different roles. It’s one thing to have a deep roster in most areas, but another to keep the ones who aren’t starring motivated and ready for when they do receive the chances.

There aren’t too many weaknesses that haven’t already been alluded to in some fashion. Looking at the pace down the sides, more use could be made of the likes of Pritchard and Connolly in a greater variety of contexts, but Bowyer might feel that preserving their stamina and with it, to differ their speed on and off the ball is more crucial to preserving superiority in the second phase.

Surprisingly, they’re next to bottom when it comes to accurate corners, even though the prowess in the air is the bedrock of constructing passages of play in every other situation. From a very low base, they could certainly improve in this regard.

Individual Strengths & Weaknesses

At a touch under a goal conceded every game, Richard O’Donnell has been performing admirably, and must be relieved to not be facing the same barrage of shots as he did last term. Against xGA (expected goals against), he is also faring well – 12 to 13.56. His  presence in the area is a comfort blanket for the defence when they’re breached.

Ben Richards-Everton’s strong left foot gives the back four great balance, and helps in no small measure in preventing the unit as a whole shifting too much to one side when attacked. Additionally, his propensity to time interceptions well is a huge boon, as was witnessed most prominently in the trip to Stevenage in September. Third choice centre back Paudie O’Connor has had a big hand in the opposite penalty box, showing a poacher’s instinct on two occasions already.

Matt Palmer has simply been everywhere in midfield. When playing a 4-4-2 of the kind Bowyer does, it places the pressure firmly on the pairing in the centre to cover ground at speed, win possession back and retain it with accurate passing, and participate in every phase of play.  He has recovered the ball successfully comparatively well, and has only given four fouls away to date – truly amazing when you consider the role he’s entrusted with.

James Vaughan hasn’t yet had the haul to back up his variety and frequency of efforts. The horrible penalty miss against Walsall aside, he’s looked reasonably sharp in front of goal after not having the best time of things in the past two campaigns at other clubs. Unusually, the majority of his strikes to date have been with his head, and you’d expect that to change over the course of the year. Both he and the misfiring Donaldson will be keenly aware that Shay McCartan and Aramide Oteh will be vying for their places – the latter had a goalscoring cameo last time out, and the duo’s versatility will surely come into its own as the weeks pass.

Despite Kelvin Mellor’s height, he’s only been winning 40% of aerial duels for a full-back, which ranks as one of the worst in the nascent season among his peers. It is nitpicking as he otherwise been a key asset in the XI, but it’s hard to diagnose the reason for it – it is important to remember that simply being tall isn’t always an indicator of being dominant when facing high balls.

Conclusions

As a manager, Gary Bowyer has not walked into any easy jobs. He had to contend with the Venkys and everything that they entailed at Blackburn Rovers; it was then very much the epitome of out of the frying pan and into the fire with fellow Lanacashire outfit Blackpool – there, with unimaginable constraints, he guided the Seasiders back into the third tier after a memorable play-off final win in his first season at the helm. In his present guise, he came into another famous ‘B’ club mere months after the Edin Rahic debacle had finally come to an end.

Even without all cylinders firing, he has taken what remained of last year’s crestfallen squad, added quality and know-how in the summer, and as the leaves are falling to the ground, Bradford are already in the top three where it’s hard to envisage they’ll drop out of. There’s a feeling that they still have yet to hit top gear, and all the ingredients are present for them to build on the momentum gained from recent wins. Maybe Donaldson won’t rediscover his finest form; maybe Zeli Ismail and Hope Akpan, who would be in the starting lineup of almost every other team in League Two, will remain decidedly inconsistent; the difference between them and their competition is that they can afford to have instances like that, being far less reliant on any one player to dig them out of trouble. Good times are coming back to at least one corner of West Yorkshire in 2019/2020.

Gillingham Tactical Analysis

How have Gillingham fared under boss Steve Evans in the opening quarter of the 2019/2020 season in League One? Let’s take a look.

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League Results to Date & General Performances

(Gillingham score first in blue):

Doncaster Rovers (a): 1-1
Burton Albion (h): 1-2
Blackpool (h): 2-2
Coventry City (a): 0-1
Bolton Wanderers (h): 5-0
Tranmere Rovers (a): 2-2
Wycombe Wanderers (h): 2-0
Bristol Rovers (a): 1-1
Ipswich Town (h): 0-1
Oxford United (a): 0-3
Southend United (h): 3-1

The very definition of a mixed bag of results for the Medway-based outfit thus far, which can be attributed in part to the customary number of signings a new manager tends to make in the first transfer window available to them (14), plus Evans’ own proclivities – he was doubtlessly persuaded by chairman Paul Scally giving him carte blanche to stamp his own distinct philosophy on the club.

One of the main complaints last season was that the Gills rarely played on the front foot, but for the most part, they have at least competed in the vast majority of their league fixtures to date. The first four games didn’t yield any wins, although supporters would’ve taken plenty of heart from more than holding their own against Doncaster Rovers.

There’s been a prevailing narrative to completely dismiss scorelines achieved in the nascent weeks when playing a weakened Bolton Wanderers, but I don’t think that’s totally fair, and the dominance they had over The Trotters did give a strong indication of what they could be capable of when given the chance to flex their collective muscles.

The apex was the impressive triumph over high-flying Wycombe Wanderers, ending the visitors’ unbeaten start in the third tier. Conversely, they were swept away by an Oxford United side full of swagger, but they haven’t had to endure any worrying runs of form.

Most Used Shape & Starting XI

 

Gillingham 1920
The tendency has been to retain a flat four and a front two, rotating the flexible midfield squad members to match up to their opponents


Tactical Approach

Evans has often been derided as a long-ball merchant, and this is borne out to a certain extent by the number of ‘reachers’ from defence. The Gills have the highest number of unsuccessful passes in the division according to WhoScored (the definition varies – on Wyscout for example, they sit seventh in that particular ranking).

The two centre backs split when construction is shorter, and the flanks are equally favoured. At 35, Barry Fuller is understandably less inclined to bomb forward as much as his compatriot on the left (usually Southampton U23s loanee Thomas O’Connor), but is still a massive influence on how the team functions.

Versatile Alfie Jones has mainly operated as the defensive midfield pivot, mopping up behind the rest of the middle third, intercepting loose balls and distributing it to the right channel. The energetic Mark Byrne is the dynamo on the other side, working to cover the space vacated by O’Connor’s forays and to link up with Oliver Lee.

Lee also shifts into the left half-space, providing another option for the full-back for a give-and-go, or to help ensure there are more bodies in the box for the crosses, which, despite the emphasis firmly placed on the wings for chance creation, they are actually in the bottom third for the overall number of attempts.

Alex Jakbuiak acts as a shadow striker, picking up the ball in between the lines as much as he’ll be found in the 18-yard area. Brandon Hanlan, having assumed the role vacated by the much-loved and prolific Tom Eaves, leads the line, but in truth, both strikers drift wide.

 

Collective Strengths & Weaknesses

Defensively, they are far less of a pushover than under the auspices of Steve Lovell. They have gone from needlessly putting themselves under pressure and facing the most number of shots in 2018/2019 to a far more favourable ranking, in part because the losses of possession tend to be higher up the pitch.

When in their own third, they are winning the ball back more regularly, especially in the air, which has been aided by a steady partnership in front of custodian Jack Bonham. This also manifests itself in sitting off less, with a noticeable ramping up in the work rate when possession has been conceded.

The players used so far have been a good mix of experienced know-how and promising potential, which is reflected in the average age of 26. This is significantly down from the previous term. Moreover, this is another indicator of greater ‘staying power’ in games, and they’ve yet to concede a single goal in the dying embers of matches.

The painfully low pass accuracy could well come back to haunt them as autumn turns to winter on heavier pitches that will sap energy. Despite having a compact shape, they’re not finding teammates often enough to ensure they’re not countered upon.

On the occasions they go on the dribble, they are losing those one-on-ones over half the time, which limits the number of different ways they can unpick their opponents. It also seems to create a paradox when wing-play is nominally limited to the full-backs that they aren’t especially adept in this regard, which in turn means they don’t utilise the outside channels enough for crosses.

Individual Strengths & Weaknesses

Replacing Tomáš Holý was never going to be an easy task, but Bonham has been an assured presence in goal. Whilst xGC (Expected Goals Conceded) is only one metric, he is performing considerably better against it than most of his contemporaries – 14 to 15.6. Every single one of his short passes has arrived at his intended target, and he’s yet to lose a challenge in the air.

Similarly, Connor Oglivie has made great strides in helping to dampen any lingering disappointment supporters might have had at the departure of Gabriel Zakuani. Together with new skipper Max Ehmer, The Gills are sturdier when faced with crosses into their own area. His permanent signing from Tottenham Hotspur U23s early in the summer after a successful loan stint was a filip for Evans, and he’s repaid his manager in spades since, bravely blocking six shots at close quarters.

Barry Fuller remains remarkably consistent, laying on two assists in the first 11 games, as well as picking out a forward from crosses more than 40% of the time, which is actually very high when you factor in all the possible outcomes and total attempts.

As a whole, they’ve been less reliant on a single individual to score the goals. Midfield anchor Alfie Jones has added a brace to his outstanding record of winning two thirds of his duels. Raidi Jadhi will be delighted with both his and Michael O’Connor’s progress back at Southampton U23s. The assured presence that was sorely missing in 2018/2019 to screen the defence looks to now be in situ.

Stuart O’Keefe has been an important fulcrum in the middle third; he always looks to progress with the ball into the final third by picking out a forward making a peeling run, or stands it up for O’Connor on the overlap. He has meshed that with his defensive duties reasonably well, helping to prevent his team being outnumbered on a quick break.

Alex Jakubiak’s contributions have been telling, too; three of his four goals have come from finding pockets of space on the left-hand side of the area, and the other displayed the kind of poacher’s instinct required to change games.

His strike partner Brandon Hanlan has been averaging a touch under two shots per match, and the majority of these have been off-target. He’ll also be a little disappointed not to be making his presence felt more aerially. The double-edged sword of having more competition for places will ensure he stays fresher (his cameo from the bench against Wycombe was telling), but also means he’ll no longer be a mainstay if he doesn’t improve his output.

I’d also expect a bit better from a creative standpoint from Olly Lee. The attacking midfielder conjured up plenty for SPFL mainstays Hearts last term despite a greater degree of variation in the shape, and if he can become that man for his new employers, he might give opposition managers and analysis teams more food for thought. He’ll be hoping his lay-off for O’Keefe in the last fixture is the shape of things to come.

Conclusions

I’ve seen the charge that Evans is a dinosaur in more ways than one with his approach to football management; a formula was once highly successful was not replicated at Peterborough United, and has not given fans enough to shout about (yet) in Kent. It is true that too many wayward long passes are played, and the body of evidence I’ve seen suggests that plenty of them are just not necessary.

The midfield as a unit are really solid and multi-faceted, and the greater depth the manager has been allowed to draft in should mean a repeat of last season’s flirtation with relegations (along with half of the division) won’t occur. Most of the pace is on the bench at the time of writing (Ben Pringle, Mark Marshall, and Mikael Ndjoli), which again means tactical tweaks can be made to tire out the opposition’s defenders, break out of their compact shape on the counter, or simply race to the corner flags to preserve a precious lead.

Critics who dismiss their rout of Bolton cannot by the same token ignore their besting of a dangerous Wycombe outfit. They’ve only been blown away once, and the massive disparity between xG and xGA (against) has been reversed so far, which can’t be explained away even by omitting the aforementioned thrashing.

Unlikely to trouble either end of the table, Evans should focus on making the best use of the talent already at Prestfield, rather than dipping into the market too many times in January, barring an injury crisis. He has more tools at his disposal than anyone at the helm since the late Justin Edinburgh, and a season of real progression can be had by making only small adjustments to the current setup.

 

My Vision for a Phoenix Club

The deed is done. Whilst (The) Bury Football Club Company Limited still exist as an insolvent going concern, the EFL’s decision to reject the proposal by the ‘Rescue Board’ to reinstate the Shakers in League Two for the 2020/2021 season will likely be the penultimate deathblow to 134 years of history. The coup de grace will surely come in the form of a final winding-up petition by HMRC, which is slated for the 16th of October.

The blame game is still being played, and depending on your own disposition as to how much of it is apportioned to Stewart Day, Steve Dale, and the EFL themselves. But I’m not writing another post that serves as a eulogy for what’s been. Out of the most devastating of circumstances arises an opportunity that, realistically speaking, was never going to come supporters’ way without some extremely rich individuals counting themselves among the base.

There will be some who, barring a scarcely believable intervention, will not want to come on the journey of any subsequent phoenix club – the grief is still very raw for one thing. If the merits of a new entity don’t make their mark on them in the fullness of time, then their decision should be respected.

Nevertheless, I maintain the view that there is a lot to admire about a clean slate, not too dissimilar to using the ‘Create-a-Club’ mode on the Football Manager series and analogous incarnations in other video games down the years, but made real, and far from the confines of fantasy.

Name and crest

bury1885

I’m not an expert on whether the original name of ‘Bury Football Club’ can be retained in any new venture in a legal sense. Obviously, that would be the preference of the overwhelming majority… but if that’s not able to be achieved, it opens up a lot of alternative options. As illustrated by the above image, my own choice would be 1885 Bury. Darlington faced a situation with many parallels seven years ago, and opted for ‘1883’ as their suffix (they have since dropped the moniker, having had the change approved by the FA).

1885 Bury would retain in their name a link back to the founding of the original entity, as well as mirror how a lot of clubs in the Bundesliga style themselves. This is of heightened relevance when it comes to setting out the possible ownership models later in the article.

As for the crest, I think it needs modernising (simplifying). Again, the above picture is a good example of what I mean, although sadly, a new club wouldn’t be able to retain the two stars signifying the number of FA Cup wins. The v-shaped badge is a hark back to a past iteration, but with an updated motto and more legible text.

In essence, people should be able to look at the crest and know at first glance it can only be Bury’s, whilst also making it far easier to duplicate onto kits, merchandise, and in general marketing itself.

Club Colours & Kit

 

buryNEW crest
Branding, like it or loathe it, is an integral part of football, and its importance stretches far below the EFL
buryNEW crest
More excellent mock-ups… but it now seems like an especially cruel joke to have the local council emblazoned on one of the kits!

Every facet would need to be voted, and the club colours and kit are no exception to that. The shade of blue that accompanies the white is not as clear-cut; it has switched between royal and navy historically, and I’m one of those weirdos who doesn’t really mind either way, having been witness to both in my time.

I think it would be prudent to strike up a business relationship with a local supplier for the manufacture and distribution of kits. This would enable them to be bespoke, which will be a key cornerstone of a phoenix club’s identity, as well as keeping the supply chain costs down. In turn, a simpler crest as described above would also make it easier to change the colours of it to a single hue, as evidenced in the away kit mock-up.

When possible, taking a leaf out of Accrington Stanley’s book would be a savvy decision:

 

It is just one method of engaging with the community; equally, they don’t change their kits every season unlike almost all of their contemporaries. This ensures greater longevity of the shirts themselves, but also keeps costs down for everyone involved.

When they do change, supporters can be involved in every step of the process.

The small matter of where they’ll play

For many, Gigg Lane is the club. It is also crucial in the sense of having a platform from which to apply to the FA for a higher tier than would otherwise be the case. Chester did this with the Deva on appeal, for example, and the ground is indeed listed as an Asset of Community Value, as can be seen on the spreadsheet link below:

https://drive.google.com/file/d/1bj6nNrp3UFxmOgR08z9zEiz2fCOnO_d7/view?usp=sharing

Even so, there is a high financial barrier to having the ground under fans’ ownership, especially without the help of wealthy backers, or even a Compulsory Purchase Order by the council, who would then lease it back to the new entity at a mutually affordable rate. This does not factor in the cost of maintenance, however.

If no deal can be struck, then it opens up the prospect of ground-sharing with other local non-league outfits, such as Radcliffe, Ramsbottom United, and Prestwich Heys. The notion is not without its pitfalls, however. All three have distinct identities of their own, and might feel like sharing their homes is the first step towards absorption. This would need to be categorically ruled out.

The third route would be to find an entirely new site, but the timescales for that would vary wildly, so it’s difficult to discuss in any real detail at present.

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The small matter of which division they’ll start in

As discussed, this is partly contingent on the ground situation. Throughout the process, I’ve heard from a number of different individuals the prospect of competing in an expanded National League North. The basis for That would seem to rely on the current business somehow surviving, the debts being cleared, and Dale not being in situ. The National League as a body are far more stringent on the financial side of their member clubs than the ‘competition organisers’ above them in the pyramid.

Even then, it would require the votes of the clubs to allow re-entry. It’s far from a foregone conclusion that current members would acquiesce; many will feel that the only ‘correct’ course of action is for Bury in either form to start right back on the bottom rung of the North West Counties League.

Strangely enough, the police might have a say, too. Very few grounds that far down are equipped for large away followings. If you take the view that even half the current fanbase would desert a new venture in the 10th tier, that would still constitute a regular crowd that would dwarf every other club by a factor of 20. There are inherent safety issues associated with that likelihood, and it just goes to show that any application to the FA would have many strands for them to consider.

Ownership model

The most common misconception when the phrase ‘fan-owned club’ springs to mind is that it conjures up the logical conclusion that it must also be a fan-run club. It doesn’t necessarily work out that way, even with 100% models. The board, normally run by a majority of volunteers, employ others in a small number of paid positions to work in the day-to-day football roles.

A wholly-owned fan club would have complete control over the direction of travel, decisions and elections onto the working group/board would be democratic, and would rise or fall on the strength of the sense of community fostered therein. I’d also advocate a ‘one owner, one member, one vote’ system, despite favouring a tiered system of ownership practised by Lewes

Another style would be to ape the 50+1 rule in the Bundesliga; essentially, for a club to have a license in Germany, they (the members) have to retain majority voting rights, but the true proportions vary from team to team. This would allow some flexibility in terms of accepting external investors, whilst ensuring that no matter how much they put in, it would never assume control.

I am personally more flexible in my approach to the model than some others I know of for a phoenix club; my red line however is that it must be 50+1 at the very minimum. Bury, and many other clubs, have normally come into financial difficulties at the hands of one individual or a succession of de facto sole owners dictating the course of events. That can never be allowed to happen again.

Philosophy & values

No longer can lip service be paid to both being a hub and a service to the townspeople and beyond. The hashtag ‘#MyClubMyCommunity’ quickly became an awfully ironic phrase as many began to suffer financially and mentally.

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Just as important as establishing the men’s first team is the revivification of all other teams, including the hitherto extremely successful women – I make no delineation between them in my support of Bury or a phoenix

It must be at the heart of everything. For me, this means an acceptance that having a club with the main focus being just a men’s first team is over. Women, underage, veterans, Ability Counts. All of them should be catered for. That won’t be the view of everyone else – far from it; in the early days, players are almost certainly going to be drawn from the borough and Greater Manchester – the level of pay they’d receive would preclude anything else. Inversely, this presents opportunities for a much stronger link between supporter and player – in some instances, they would be one and the same. Efforts need to be made to reincorporate the women’s first team back under the more stable wing. It has gone largely unnoticed by the wider media the devastation wrought on them; this, too, can never be allowed to happen again. They’re under the care of the Trust – its future is also uncertain, and efforts should be made to secure the charity.

I’m not in favour of publicised year plans as to the goals of a club, and this would be no different with a phoenix. The aim would obviously be to get back up the pyramid as high and as fast as possible, but there are significant bottlenecks off the pitch to realising those ambitions, let alone on it. There’s also something to be said for this not coming at the cost of diluting the model and/or jeopardising the long-term security.

The club must also not overexert itself in any commerical ventures, and maintain a lithe and agile stance to current trends and events. A far greater push for transparency is paramount, too – I look at the accounting example at Clapton Community as something to both admire and replicate.

This has helped them have a strong presence far outside Walthamstow, and they are but one of several very prominent ‘case studies’, for want of a better term, of how invoking community spirit coupled with a clear identity and constant communication can galvanise support from a smörgåsbord of different sources.

To summarise, a phoenix club would not be a permanent state of rainbows and pots of gold. There’s so much that needs to be done in the next four months to guarantee football is once again played next season, should efforts ultimately fail to revive the moribund current business. Make no mistake though, a phoenix club would be more than a palimpsest of Bury – there’s a massive chance to take the very best of The Shakers from the past 134 years and pay that forward for the next 134, whilst making the club more inclusive, modern, and a shining beacon of the town and beyond.

 

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:

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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.

Like what you’ve read? Support me on Patreon for just $3 a month!

patreon.com/burymeinexile

“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.