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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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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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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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:
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:
Understand @buryfcofficial owner Steve Dale has accepted a takeover offer from a London-based group and is in process of notifying the @EFL – as yet unconfirmed.
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.
@JamesFrith James – How can I contact you directly to discuss the ownership status of Bury FC please? Have been in discussions with Directors over the last few days and have seen your intervention over the last few days in the media.
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.
This season, owing to certain circumstances and my new-found profession as a freelance writer, I’ve taken the opportunity to write team-by-team previews for every League One and Two side over on We Love Betting UK:
As at Christmas, I canvassed opinion on social media, grouping the grades as follows: A-B are good, C-D are okay, and E-F are poor. The grades are only a reflection of every player’s on-pitch performance, rather than their heroic stoicism off to it to continue performing without full pay since the end of February:
**IMPORTANT NOTE**: The ‘What Next’ for every player makes the assumption that a resolution of some kind will be found to the current shambles off the pitch with regard to finances and the immediate future of the football club… otherwise, there wouldn’t be much point including those sections!
1. Joe Murphy
Total Games / Total Minutes: 52 / 5,074
Goals Conceded: 65
Clean Sheets: 13
Assessment: Surprisingly voted by his peers in the PFA League Two Team of the Season, the veteran custodian didn’t miss a minute of league action, brushing off his injury problems from the previous term. The emphasis on quick and short distribution out from the back suited his style very well indeed. He made the odd glaring error as you’d expect from any guardian – allowing former Shaker Danny Rose to rob him of the ball in the home encounter with Mansfield Town to tap into the empty net sticks out in particular. That mishap has to be balanced with often being the very last line of defence in one-on-one situations, and he performed admirably in those cases, saving brilliantly from James Norwood at Prenton Park to ensure parity was kept and promotion was sealed.
Not the tallest or most aerially confident, coming for floated crosses and dead balls into the area were his weaker aspects throughout the campaign, and he conceded more than many other members of the ‘union’, hence a large contingent of fans’ shock at his award. Solid but often unspectacular, his presence on and off the pitch as the oldest individual in the dressing room proved to be a steady influence over the course of 2018/2019.
What Next: He’s harboured ambitions of going into goalkeeper coaching for a couple of years now. At 37, he probably still has at least another season of playing should he be offered another deal. Whether that’s in BL9 or with his #1 spot quite so assured I’m much less certain of.
2. Tom Miller
Total Games / Total Minutes: 15 / 936
Goals Scored: 0
Goals Assisted: 0
Most Common Position / Role & All Roles: Right wing-back / Right-sided centre back in a three / Right-back
Assessment: Started the season as the right-back of choice in a conservative 4-3-2-1, but an early injury likely hastened Lowe’s plans to adopt a more attacking posture. Frequently spotted on the bench thereafter, he had good cameos in the EFL Trophy in a number of roles that ably demonstrated his versatility. At wing-back, his style was in stark contrast to Nicky Adams when rarely afforded the chance, joining in less often in the sweeping moves forward. Additionally, he won plenty of headers down his flank when direct balls were lobbed in search of a nippy winger.
What Next: Still has a year left to run on his contract. Being pushed to a definitive third place in the pecking order by Adams and Ryan Cooney (a decade his junior) must have rankled him somewhat, but if so, there were never any public signs of it. More at ease in a flat back four, he’s an ill fit for a swashbuckling ‘score one more than the opposition’ mentality, but equally, his versatility is important. If the numbers on the roster are cut as expected, he might want to make the most of guaranteed first team football elsewhere as part of the group heading for the exit door.
3. Chris Stokes
Total Games / Total Minutes: 43 / 3,697
Goals Scored: 4
Goals Assisted: 0
Most Common Position / Role & All Roles: Left-sided centre back in a three / Left wing-back / Left-back
Assessment: The former Coventry City defender had quite the arc in his maiden campaign in white and royal blue. Like Miller, he started out at full-back before being pushed forward briefly. The emergence of Callum McFadzean saw him take up a less familiar left-sided centre back with mixed results. His lack of raw speed and physicality saw him beaten often in the air and on the turn when the opposition looked to press the Shakers in their own half to prevent an easy out-ball from their own third. His nadir came in the breathtaking comeback win over Milton Keynes Dons, having a big hand in all three strikes for the visitors (including an unfortunate own goal).
The loan signing of Scott Wharton late in the winter transfer window seemed to have put paid to his season, but he had an amazing renaissance in April, bagging a brace against Carlisle United and another goal with a superb volley at the far post to start the fightback versus Northampton Town, demonstrating a different sort of threat at left-wing back to McFadzean.
What Next: In his prime and with one more year at the club, I can see him staying and being at the very least a good candidate from the bench to call upon to either shore things up at the back or to give something different down the left.
4. Will Aimson
Total Games / Total Minutes: 43 / 3,940
Goals Scored: 4
Goals Assisted: 3
Most Common Position / Role & All Roles: Right-sided centre back in a three / Middle centre back in a three
Assessment: From the get-go, he was instructed to stay wider than most conventional centre backs do in a three-man backline, covering in behind Adams’ many bursts forward up the right flank. This was both a blessing and a curse for the former Blackpool stopper; it gave his teammates the reassurance to push onward, but made his distribution suffer somewhat, restricted in some ways to clipping passes down the channel for the strikers to run onto. Aerial prowess was on show in both boxes, scoring four times from set pieces, none more emphatically than the third equaliser at home to Lincoln City, gaining some small measure of ‘revenge’ for his harsh red card in the reverse fixture.
In the run-in, he took injections in his groin to get through the hectic schedule, which resulted in several early withdrawals from games and time on the sidelines. An unheralded member of the squad relatively speaking, his contributions didn’t go unnoticed by the more discerning observers.
What Next: His appearance makes you think he’s much older than just 25, but, with a year on his contract to run, he’s one of the best assets likely to remain at Gigg Lane into 2019/2020. Can only improve with time, and might be a more central figure in the defence to boot.
5. Adam Thompson
Total Games / Total Minutes: 54 / 5,102
Goals Scored: 2
Goals Assisted: 2
Most Common Position / Role & All Roles: Middle centre back in a three / Left-sided centre back in a three / Right-sided centre back in a three
Assessment: The pick of the bunch from a defensive point of view. Thompson’s travails last season are well-known, and he alluded to them during a Q&A for this blog. Almost immediately asked to be the all-important middleman in a backline often matched in terms of numbers on the counter, he had few truly poor outings in a year where he played the most of any Bury player. Not the most adept at combatting target men (a problem he shared with his cohorts), he nevertheless always gave as good as he got, being sometimes the only assured presence in front of Murphy. An accurate passer, he might be a tad disappointed not to have got more goals with his intelligent runs in dead ball situations, but showed great composure in the snow against Oxford United in the EFL Trophy to rifle home on the volley.
He was rewarded for his displays by occasionally receiving the captain’s armband, and he really was the glue that held together the defence far more than the goals conceded stat might suggest.
What Next: A swift return to third tier football and one of the more well-regarded centre backs this season in the league, a recall to the Northern Ireland national team setup is not beyond the realms of possibility. It wouldn’t surprise if that happened, and by the same token, if other sides were interested in his services, being at a good age and entering the final year of his contract.
6. Eoghan O’Connell
Total Games / Total Minutes: 35 / 2,278
Goals Scored: 3
Goals Assisted: 2
Most Common Position / Role & All Roles: Middle centre back in a three / Right-sided centre back in a three / Defensive midfielder in a three
Assessment: The mixed grading by fellow fans above signify that the Irishman had an up and down campaign. Physically, he’s the closest the club have to a dominating defender, and would certainly be the top candidate for isolating a lone striker in the air. On the ground is a different matter entirely, however, which is where the mixed results are borne out; when faced with speed, he can look more than a touch cumbersome, especially on the turn. On the other hand, when the team needs to take the initiative, which they almost always did by default under Lowe, his quality on the ball is there for all to see, with his often surgical through passes helping the whole backline advance up to 10 yards. There’s even an argument that he’s the best passer in the squad on his day, such is the difference he can and has made on numerous occasions.
What Next: Subject of serious interest from Coventry City in the winter transfer window, his prime is still some way off. Used in defensive midfield because of the aforementioned passing range, the biggest conundrum he faces is where he should be consider his go-to role, lacking the speed required for a two-man central defence, or to plow a lone furrow as an anchor in front of the back three/four in a counter-attacking outfit, as that could expose the shortcomings in his game.
7. Nicky Adams
Total Games / Total Minutes: 53 / 4,553
Goals Scored: 3
Goals Assisted: 15
Most Common Position / Role & All Roles: Right wing-back / Right-wing in a four
Assessment: I’ll be the first to admit I was a bit sceptical about his return to the club for a third spell, given the lengthy injury spell caused by a damaged anterior cruciate ligament at Carlisle United… and was then utterly perplexed when Lowe shifted him backwards to be a right wing-back after Miller’s own time on the treatment table began. However, it soon became abundantly clear that there was method to the apparent madness, and under the manager he also calls a dear friend, the mutual faith and trust was rewarded, being tasked with playing more like a conventional winger than anything. Putting in the most crosses of anyone in the division yielded the highest assist total in the EFL. Injuries have curtailed a bit of his speed, but he has found ways to combat that, adding probing corners and free-kicks to his repertoire over the last few years.
Stellar displays were always likely to peter out at some stage in the term, but he could never be accused of lacking effort when things weren’t working out as he’d planned.
What Next: It can’t be underestimated how much the vice-captain did for the cause, nor will it have gone unnoticed that he appeared in the second most number of matches in total. His consistently high number of assists will always have other outfits interested in a transfer, but he’s only likely to leave if events off the field conspire to offer him little alternative.
10. Danny Mayor
Total Games / Total Minutes: 44 / 4,143
Goals Scored: 12
Goals Assisted: 9
Most Common Position / Role & All Roles: Left-sided central midfielder in a three / Attacking midfielder in a four / Left-wing in a four
Assessment: Another to silence the doubters, lower league fans were treated to the sorts of displays that reminded them precisely why he’s such a joy to watch. The inside forward took a few matches (like the rest of the squad) to truly get motoring, but once he did, he was unplayable for large swathes of the season in a narrower, deeper position than he’s occupied previously as the nominal left-sided central midfielder. His dribbles from deep always gave his teammates hope that he could conjure something from nothing, which he conspired to do with pleasing regularity, whether benefitting from his own superb close control or by laying off the ball to a free man after dragging his marker horizontally across the pitch.
With such a special talent, the team will inevitably be weaker when he’s not in the lineup, as his needless, costly dismissal at home to Swindon Town proved, making him miss three matches with the worst disciplinary record in the side (some of which, like that incident, can be reasoned away by the number of fouls he suffered). His predictability in his movements on the ball did not necessarily translate into making him any easier to stop, and he was nominated for League Two Player of the Season again, losing out to Norwood, but can console himself by his inclusions in both official team selections.
What Next: Out of contract and almost certainly off elsewhere, which, after six seasons in south Lancashire, you could hardly begrudge him for. The key for him will be finding another manager like Lowe who will treat him in much the same way. Individuals have different needs in terms of support, and my hope for him is he can be a central component of another team’s plans whilst receiving the same sort of attention he’s experienced at Bury.
11. Jordan Rossiter
Total Games / Total Minutes: 16 / 1,593
Goals Scored: 1
Goals Assisted: 1
Most Common Position / Role & All Roles: Defensive midfielder in a three / Right-sided central midfielder in a three / Left-sided central midfielder in a three
Assessment: Another to assuage fears of breaking down on the pitch and in some style, too. The Glasgow Rangers regista was a ‘massive coup’ according to Lowe when he signed on loan during the winter transfer window, and once more, the gamble was vindicated. His start on the half-frozen pitch against Crawley Town wasn’t the most auspicious, from then on, he hardly erred, being precisely what was missing in defensive situations – someone who could intercept loose passes, win second balls, and redistribute with purpose.
Plying your trade in defensive midfield is probably the best way of going unheralded in the modern game, but it was his vision that stood out most about him, a perception shared by anyone who bore witness to his exploits for the Shakers. He’s never going to be relied upon for what he can do in the final third – that’s not his forté; that said, he capped off his temporary arrangement with a peach of a goal on final day, bending in a stunning effort from outside the area.
What Next: Steven Gerrard will be delighted with how he performed, and must surely have wormed his way back into contention for the Old Firm outfit. A return next season looks unlikely for several reasons, and if he is loaned out once more, expect it to be to a side in the Championship.
15. Byron Moore
Total Games / Total Minutes: 44 / 2,758
Goals Scored: 8
Goals Assisted: 3
Most Common Position / Role & All Roles: Right-sided striker in a two / Left wing-back / Right wing-back
Assessment: A surprise package in the sense that Lowe found an elegant solution to the absence of conventional wingers. Moore, hitherto almost always found on the right flank, carved a very specific niche of his own up top, which came to the fore before the signature of Maynard when there were fewer options to choose from. Important strikes in tricky away fixtures at Swindon Town and Colchester United respectively set the tone for having an important say in the course of the campaign. The nature of his playstyle and unfamiliarity with the requirements of a striker did at times mean he cut a frustrated figure, not always in sync with his partner.
The Plan B for him was to come on in place of McFadzean at left wing-back in an even bolder strategy based on camping in the opposition’s third and working the space in tandem with Mayor to get in behind. It didn’t always come off because it sometimes appeared as though they were occupying the exact same area, but it did signify a greater degree of tactical flexibility on Lowe’s part than any recent predecessor to his post.
What Next: Should stick around for a second season, and might have more consistent starts if the likes of Mayor and Maynard do move on. Positional versatility will be of even greater importance in a trimmed down roster.
16. Ryan Cooney
Total Games / Total Minutes: 14 / 809
Goals Scored: 0
Goals Assisted: 1
Most Common Position / Role & All Roles: Right wing-back / Right-sided centre back in a three / Right-back / Left wing-back
Assessment: Slowly but surely made his way into the frame over the nine months, eventually having the honour of being one of the youngest captains in the club’s 134-year history bestowed upon him for the last fixture of the campaign. Cooney’s rise is built upon a solid work ethic and a willingness to follow instructions and play where asked to. Better in the air than would probably appear, his stand-out performance came at right wing-back in the narrow EFL Trophy triumph over Mansfield Town, thwarting almost every sojourn down the channel. Steady performances ensured more minutes were afforded to him in the run-in, and he strikes a good balance between defence and attack when out wide.
What Next: Will probably be another mainstay on the bench from the get-go, having proven his worth in the difficult transition from U18s regular to the fringes of the first team over the course of the past year and a half. Intrigued to see how he will grasp his second full campaign as a professional in 2019/2020.
18. Dom Telford
Total Games / Total Minutes: 48 / 2,444
Goals Scored: 14
Goals Assisted: 5
Most Common Position / Role & All Roles: Right-sided striker in a two / Attacking midfielder in a four
Assessment: Finishing top scorer in the EFL Trophy was a double-edged sword for the striker, who gleaned half of his haul from the unpopular competition, as was the regular rotation in league games he was prone to being a victim of. Lowe showed more tactical nous in having him usually on the right side of the two, despite very much being a left-footed player. This gave Adams free rein to get forward unhindered, as well as frequently giving Telford’s marker pause for thought as he had the pace to dribble into central areas from a starting position well before the 18 yard line.
Described as a ‘fox in the box’ by his manager upon signing, he showed there was more than one bow on his strong with his diligence outside of it, possessing a low centre of gravity to compensate for his lack of height. This was seen before Maynard arrived, and the pair formed a good understanding, knowing in which context to stay close to one another and when to split to create openings.
What Next: 14 goals is an impressive number for any forward, especially for a player whose ratio was better than one in two. Could be the main man in attack next season if not subject to strong interest from elsewhere in the EFL. A major success story of 2018/2019 without question.
19. Scott Wharton
Total Games / Total Minutes: 15 / 1,266
Goals Scored: 2
Goals Assisted: 1
Most Common Position / Role & All Roles: Left-sided centre back in a three / Middle centre back in a three
Assessment: Parent club Blackburn Rovers recalled him from his season-long deal with Lincoln, disappointed that he wasn’t able to cement a first team place (it should be said he had extremely stiff rivals for a berth). Cian Bolger’s permanent arrival at Sincil Bank compounded matters, so Wharton was instead farmed out to fellow promotion candidates Bury. His 15-game stint has divided opinion somewhat – he, like the rest of team, looked utterly bereft of confidence in that three match losing streak during April, giving the ball away ridiculously cheaply. In other instances, he’s appeared a calmer, taller replacement for Stokes as left-sided centre back.
Goals in successive fixtures signalled his ability to be on the receiving end of dead balls, and when he was at his best, he shut down plenty of attacks in the half-space.
What Next: Reasonably successful seasons in the fourth tier should persuade Tony Mowbray to offer him to established League One clubs. I don’t foresee one of them being the Shakers.
21. Callum McFadzean
Total Games / Total Minutes: 50 / 4,213
Goals Scored: 0
Goals Assisted: 7
Most Common Position / Role & All Roles: Left wing-back / Left-sided centre back in a three / Left-back
Assessment: Like Moore, he performed way above my modest expectations. Didn’t arrive at the club with the best of reputations, and ‘released from Guiseley’, rightly or wrongly, did colour many supporters’ perceptions. Had a slightly shaky introduction at left wing-back, but then made the role his own with increasingly consistent showings, being almost as reliable with his low crosses as his counterpart Adams on the opposite flank with floated ones. No mean feat!
Might be slightly disappointed to be the only regular outfielder not to trouble the scoresheet – he certainly went close on a number of occasions. The self-confessed ‘better at attacking than defending’ belied his own statement throughout the campaign, and his goal-saving tackle at Forest Green Rovers after his own error was a sight to behold, running at full pelt to make amends. Formed an on-pitch rapport with Mayor not too dissimilar to the one the latter enjoyed with Chris Hussey.
What Next: One of the few out of contract individuals that under normal circumstances, the club would be desperate to keep hold of. Initially only came on a six-month basis, and had it deservedly extended. The hope is that history repeats itself, as he is yet another key figure in the squad who proved their worth and then some, appearing in three discrete left-sided roles.
26. Jay O’Shea
Total Games / Total Minutes: 47 / 4,589
Goals Scored: 16
Goals Assisted: 6
Most Common Position / Role & All Roles: Right-sided central midfielder in a three / Left-sided central midfielder in a three / Attacking midfielder in a four
Assessment: Everything I thought he’d be in his first year with the club he turned out to be in his second. Like several others, he was tasked with a different role than he was used to, playing as a right-sided central midfielder rather than off the striker or as an inside forward. The adjustment took time, and given that he forged a reputation as a goalscoring attack-minded player over a creative one, it’s truly astonishing he racked up 16 goals from such a withdrawn position. Even excluding penalties and direct free-kicks, the total would still be in double figures. All of this means he’s the best by that metric at the club in over half a century.
The goals did dry up by the end of February, but his contributions in those five months of white-hot form were extraordinary, earning him multiple Player of the Month awards, nominated for Player of the Season, and even a place in the EFL Overall Team of the Season. Whilst defending is never going to be his strongest suit, he had to do his fair share of tracking back and sitting in to protect leads, intercepting plenty of potentially dangerous passes into his own third.
What Next: Extended his contract on the quiet in January, for all that that’s currently worth. Like Mayor, there’ll be a queue of teams wanting his services, and as much as I’d love him to stay, I can’t realistically conceive of a way in which that will happen.
27. Gold Omotayo
Total Games / Total Minutes: 17 / 617
Goals Scored: 1
Goals Assisted: 0
Most Common Position / Role & All Roles: Left-sided striker in a two / Right-sided striker in a two
Assessment: Along with McFadzean and Jordan Archer, the giant Swiss-Nigerian target man made up one of the trio drafted in from non-league by then Sporting Director Lee Dykes. Initial signs were promising, scoring an injury-time winner on his debut from the bench against a depleted Yeovil Town. Since then, he was given a loan spell at National League side Maidstone Town, notching once during a 35-day arrangement. Eked his way back into contention in March, most often used as a battering ram when chasing the game to divert attention away from Maynard.
What Next: He possesses all the physical attributes to make something from a pro career. Usually in a good position to shoot but rarely able to for one reason or another, I think it’s reasonable to suggest he’ll be elsewhere next season.
31. Neil Danns
Total Games / Total Minutes: 39 / 2,931
Goals Scored: 2
Goals Assisted: 4
Most Common Position / Role & All Roles: Defensive midfielder in a three / Right-sided central midfielder in a three / Left-sided central midfielder in a three
Assessment: An instrumental presence on and off the pitch, the club captain didn’t have a stellar year in terms of his own form, but that won’t be what fans remember about him. Nominally the most defensive-minded midfielder before the arrival of Rossiter, the 36 year-old wasn’t especially cut out for the task. That said, few could accuse him of lacking the effort needed for such a demanding position. At Moss Rose, he rolled back the years with a brace of highest quality, providing a timely reminder of his talents further forward.
Rossiter’s signing all but relegated him to the bench for the last four months, but he was more than up to the task when coming on, with accurate passes into the channels a staple of his game.
What Next: He wants to continue playing for a couple more years yet, and will have a chance few Guyanese internationals would’ve dreamt possible this summer, being a big influence behind the small country’s qualification for the Gold Cup, their first ever major tournament. A massive motivator behind the scenes, he could be afforded the chance for one final season at Bury.
32. Caolan Lavery
Total Games / Total Minutes: 29 / 1,339
Goals Scored: 6
Goals Assisted: 0
Most Common Position / Role & All Roles: Right-sided striker in a two
Assessment: An unremarkable capture in many ways, the Sheffield United loanee gave plenty of huff and puff to a forward line that already had that in abundance. In his defence, he rarely had a full 90 minutes to impress, but did manage to get three goals in two derby day clashes with Oldham Athletic, the last of which had huge significance in the context of that fixture. Didn’t face towards the opposition goalkeeper enough for me, which limited the number of shots he was able to get off. A goal every 220 minutes or so doesn’t tell the full story one way or the other. More aggressive in the tackle than his competitors, this was usually at the expense of giving away a free-kick.
What Next: Released by the Blades, there’s still an outside bet that he’ll be back at Gigg Lane, or an ambitious outfit in the fourth tier once more. At 26, he needs to be holding down a regular spot in the EFL.
36. Nicky Maynard
Total Games / Total Minutes: 39 / 3,453
Goals Scored: 22
Goals Assisted: 7
Most Common Position / Role & All Roles: Left-sided striker in a two
Assessment: Curiously overlooked for official recognition of any kind at the end of the season, the much-travelled striker has to rank up there for me as one of the very best to adorn a Bury shirt in my 25 years of watching the club. Bearing in mind he was picked up as a free agent in October, to finish 2018/2019 north of 20 goals in all competitions is an outstanding achievement, and even more so conversely when you take into consideration that they only represented just over a fifth of the Shakers’ tally.
A provider as well as a predator, his all-round game, despite his protestations about being poor at heading, is proof positive of his past, much more lofty history. Scored a plethora of crucial goals, some more beautiful than others. His work-rate, first touch (most of the time), and movement really did make him the missing piece in the jigsaw up front.
What Next: An option already exists to extend his deal. It would be fantastic if that was somehow able to happen, but I have my doubts. A more stable club must surely be ready to take him on, which would follow the pattern of other recent potent strikers having single year stints.
Unused Players – What Next?
8. Stephen Dawson
Almost certain to leave in the summer, the tough-tackling central midfielder has been beset by injury problems and woeful displays when Lowe did pick him in the early going. The highest hurdle to a swift departure is the year remaining on his deal, but with pronouncements of cutting costs at the club, he might be persuaded to take a cut of what remains and move on.
9. Jermaine Beckford
The veteran striker played just 13 minutes in 2018/2019 after an aborted comeback from a lateral cruciate ligament injury. He targetted a return to first team action around the time of the play-offs, which thankfully weren’t required. His contract expires in June, and I’d be gobsmacked if he was still here after then.
14. Phil Edwards
Relegated to featuring in just the EFL Trophy on three occasions, the conservative right-back’s attributes are an ill-fit for an expansive, attack-minded wing-back system, possessing neither the height nor pace to make a decent fist of being one of the wider centre-backs in that formation. Certain to leave on the expiry of his contract in June.
17. Jordan Archer
Used extensively at Southport on loan as a lone target man, he hit nine goals in 31 appearances in all competitions for the National League North outfit. Still has a year to run on his deal at Gigg Lane, and has yet to be seen adorning the white and royal blue in a meaningful fixture. Difficult to envisage that changing after the elevation to the third tier, but he might get the opportunity to impress in pre-season friendlies to alter that perception.
20. Joe Adams
Finished well clear in the U18s top goalscorer charts, despite almost exclusively being used as a wide forward on either flank in a front three. Capped several times for Wales U19s, his stock continues to increase, and he made the most of a rare first team chance in the EFL Trophy with an assist, putting in a hanging cross for Telford of all people to head in. Mayor’s probable departure should open the door to more consolidated gametime, but don’t expect him to be thrust into the XI from the off. Strong with both feet, he’s a different kind of prospect, and one that needs developing in a sensible manner.
23. Joe Skarz
Distinctly unimpressive by all accounts on loan at FC Halifax Town for the entirety of 2018/2019. A mirror image of Edwards but on the left flank; now 29, perhaps his extensive injury history has sadly caught up with his body when he ought to be in his prime. His contract almost certainly won’t be renewed.
24. Tom Aldred
A mainstay for SPFL side Motherwell for the second season running, he’s barely missed a minute of action as the right-sided centre-back in a flat four at Fir Park. Clearly unwanted by Lowe when he perhaps had the chance to make him part of his plans south of the border, I’d be surprised if he didn’t end up once more lining up for the Steelmen in 2019/2020.
28. Saul Shotton
Surprisingly overlooked for minutes for the first team (particularly with the EFL Trophy in mind), given his commendable efforts last season. The young left-footed ball-playing centre back has yet to sign terms offered to him at the close of last season (meaning he’s still a scholar rather than a pro), which will negatively impact any offer from another club for his services from a Bury perspective…
29. Callum Hulme
The second player to receive a lengthy pro deal, the key for him is to improve his discipline. There’s little question he has the talent to make a success of a pro career – I haven’t seen that many youngsters have the range of passing he possesses, and he can also be effective anywhere in central midfield. What takes the gloss off slightly are a small number of very questionable incidents resulting in red cards. I wouldn’t be altogether surprised if an offer came in for him during the summer, but I’d be more than happy to be witness to a calmer, more focused individual donning a first team shirt with more regularity next season.
33. Harry Bunn
Spent almost the whole term on loan at higher tier Southend United, where he had a mixed bag of a season, full of the usual struggles to stay off the treatment table and flashes of quality. Started off for the Shrimpers mainly as an inside forward cutting in from the left of a 4-4-2 or 4-2-3-1, before latterly being partnered up top with Simon Cox. Two crucial goals during League One’s crazy relegation run-in were worth four points to his temporary side, making a huge difference to their hopes of survival in the process. Is there a chance for him to be back at Bury in the final year of his deal? I think it’s very slim, personally, even in the event of Mayor leaving. I envisage a similar situation to the one facing Dawson in the early weeks of the close season.
35. Scott Burgess
Another unfancied by Lowe, he had two loan spells in the upper echelons of the non-league system; the first was cut short at Wrexham with minutes on the pitch severely limited by the form of others in central midfield, and the second was with York City a tier below the Red Dragons, being a key part of a squad that pulled the Minstermen away from choppy waters and an unthinkable relegation into step three. Reportedly offered a permanent stay by manager Steve Watson, he could be plying his trade at the new stadium at some point next season.
37. Dougie Nyaupembe
Has the pace and flexibility to work in Lowe’s preferred style, but two loan spells at local sides Hyde United and Stalybridge Celtic respectively suggest that his future could lie away from BL9. Regular minutes at Bower Fold would’ve done him the world of good; turning 20 later his year, this is a career-defining summer for the Zimbabwean youngster. Yet again, it probably won’t be with Bury.
38. Sam Allardyce
The grandson of the one-time England boss, he’s perhaps a victim of there being no U23s setup more than he is any shortcomings in his game in being released at the end of his scholarship. Admittedly more effective as a centre-back without the ball than with (although he has worked hard to improve that aspect), he’ll almost certainly resurface at a club that can financially accommodate taking low-risk signings in bulk in the hopes of one or two of them eventually progressing to their first team or being sold on at a handsome profit.
39. Aaron Skinner
Developed as a full-back through the academy but was deployed frequently in central midfield, most notably during the FA Cup Youth run to the quarter-finals. Has had experience of being the captain for the U18s, and will be a key figure for Ryan Kidd in 2019/2020.
40. Aaron Brown
More goals will be expected from the Northern Irish forward during the second year of his scholarship, hitting just four in 2018/2019. He can play as the focal point or on the left of a front three (a favourite ploy of Kidd’s), and will have to contend with the likes of Joe Collins, Bright Amoateng, Cedric Ondoa and Femi Seriki (more on him below) for opportunities next season. Some players thrive on the increased competition, so let’s hope he’s one of those.
41. Cameron Hill
Much like Allardyce, he’ll probably have the same fate after his release. Started off the campaign on fire with the U18s, belying his withdrawn playmaker role in midfield to get amongst the goals. A bad injury kept him out for four or five months, before coming back in time for the Liverpool clash. He perhaps wonder what might’ve been without that setback.
42. Femi Seriki
Graced the bench on final day against Port Vale. The main purpose behind that was to push his name into the shop window again. Having only turned 16 a fortnight ago, he can play anywhere down the right side of the pitch or in a two up front. Crashed in an impressive eight goals from out wide whilst still underage for the U18s in 2018/2019. Still very rough around the edges, retaining him for the duration of his scholarship will prove difficult.
43. Scott Moloney
Impressed Lowe enough in training that he was content to have the young custodian on the bench after Preston North End loanee Mathew Hudson’s deal expired, rather than source a replacement. Suspect he’ll have to make do with the same next season, regardless of whether Murphy is still at Gigg Lane, but could be thrown into the EFL Trophy group games if the format remains close to the last few years.
It’s frankly impossible to carry on in the same vein as the previous analyses this campaign to conclude 2018/2019. Well-documented off-field issues on here and elsewhere did spill over to matches themselves. Without taking anything away from the sides that beat Bury during April, it’s difficult not to wonder whether some of those might have been prevented had the players been paid, and had manager Ryan Lowe not gone above and beyond his remit to motivate non-football staff, as well as a downbeat squad.
Fortunately, a mixture of an unbelievable rekindling of the team spirit, fans and club being as one (with the usual caveat), and promotion rivals Mansfield Town and Milton Keynes’ equally woeful form ensured the Shakers made it over the threshold with a game to spare. Requiring a point from a daunting looking trip to Prenton Park, Lowe’s heroes rallied from a relatively poor first half display by their standards to deservedly equalise in the second period, restricting the division’s top goalscorer James Norwood much more successfully than had been the case in the early exchanges. The enforced substitution of Eoghan O’Connell for Will Aimson after 38 minutes proved to be the catalyst to regain a foothold in the contest.
It was perhaps poetic that Danny Mayor was the one to get the all-important leveller. Just like with Tom Soares’ effort four years prior on the same ground, the actual finish wasn’t pretty, being hit against a defender’s leg, but you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who cared at that very moment or in the days since. Besides which, his turn on the halfway line to create the opening all by himself was a bittersweet reminder of his peerless ability to conjure something out of nothing, and that it will likely not be seen in white and royal blue again.
Rightly, the euphoria and imbibing of several shandies by everyone involved at the club once promotion was confirmed lasted well into the week. Although the final fixture at home to Port Vale was largely academic, a second 1-1 draw in the space of five days had two rare moments: firstly, sections of the home support applauding an opposition goal; Tom Pope took to Twitter after the match to acknowledge that:
Congratulations @buryfcofficial on the promotion and thank you to the fans for a lovely reception considering I didn’t give you the best of me you still gave me an incredible reception for which I’m truly grateful! Hopefully I’ll see you in a couple of years 👍🏻👍🏻
Secondly, Jordan Rossiter, rarely seen in deep in enemy territory, was left completely unmarked outside the area to arc a beautiful left-footed shot into the far corner. In a career dogged by injury, that goal marked only his third in senior football. Having come through his loan spell constituting 16 games unscathed and his reputation enhanced, Glasgow Rangers boss Steven Gerrard will doubtlessly be ecstatic that the gamble worked.
The result meant Bury clung on to runners-up spot behind champions Lincoln City, six points off the Imps and with a superior goal difference to MK. Suffice it to say, whilst on paper, the grand total of 22 wins and 79 points is nothing special (and is indeed ‘worse’ than previous successful campaigns), the circumstances in which the last 10 or so games were played out under makes it the most remarkable of the 11 promotions in the club’s 125 years in the EFL. It’s also reasonable to suggest that many followers of other teams are far from happy about the nature of it, which isn’t going to go away anytime soon. I’ll make an attempt to address this at the end of this post.
Ben Mayhew’s xG timelines illustrate that there was very little to choose between the Shakers and their opponents, almost without exception:
Ryan Kidd’s side wrapped up their highly commendable season with a derby defeat to a very strong Rochdale outfit, which meant they finished just outside the top three. Nevertheless, the greatest success of the term was in the FA Youth Cup, reaching the quarter-final stage against all odds before being understandably outclassed by Liverpool.
The likes of Joe Adams, Callum Hulme, and the well-regarded Femi Seriki were on all the bench for the senior setup on Saturday. Whether by accident or design, it’s hard to envisage these instances not increasing in League One; the budget will almost certainly be cut much further than what happened last summer (if the club survive the winding-up petition). That should also entail a smaller roster and perhaps a little less reluctance on the part of Lowe (should he stay) to give some of the more promising talents meaningful gametime.
As you can see from the Twitter thread above, the academy are still proceeding as normal for next season. The Carrington training complex, divisive among Bury fans as it is, remains a vitally important component of the underage structure, and that should not be dismissed out of hand so readily if the club are to really cut their cloth. The Shakers could do a lot worse than attempt to emulate the likes of Crewe Alexandra if they want to remain a beacon to players released from higher category institutions, as well as developing their own in-house for a fairly streamlined pathway at present to at least the fringes of the first team.
It would be extremely remiss not to mention at the huge success achieved throughout the different women’s sides.
In his first season with the U18s, Chris Honor led his charges to two cup finals and a top-three finish in their division.
The reserves managed to best higher tier opposition in the form of Nelson on on penalties during their Lancashire FA Plate Final encounter after mounting a thrilling comeback in regular time. Kimberly Tyson was particularly impressive up top, showing calmness under pressure for a cool finish for the second goal in the highlights package below:
Colin Platt’s team also came third in their pool, and they will hoping for an even better term next season.
The senior side under the auspices of Scott Johnson have gone from strength to strength ever since he was handed the reins just weeks after the campaign got underway, culminating in a title win and promotion at Gigg Lane itself on Sunday. For club stalwarts like captain Lucy Golding and Aymee Openshaw, the trophy has been a long time in the making, and it will be intriguing to see how they cut their teeth in the North West Premier Division, the fifth tier of the women’s pyramid. A very young squad overall, the potential is most certainly present for them to push higher in the next few years. It’s something I’ll be paying even closer attention to on this blog and when my podcast launches later this summer…
Whilst the celebrations of the past week were taking place, there was of course a very notable person in absentia. Owner Steve Dale has not been seen at the club recently, and his last set of ramblings on the official site dated the 25th of April made stark the grave situation facing the club, even if like me, you don’t take all the figures and needless anecdotes mentioned at face value.
At the time of writing, there are just eight days to go until the adjourned High Court appearance. Director Matt McCarthy mentioned in a more recent local radio interview that there are some interested parties looking to purchase the club from Dale. Simultaneously, there’s a new initiative that’s launched called ‘Buy Our Bury’. They’re looking for pledges from supporters with the aim of making the BL9 outfit fan-owned.
Correctly in my view, they’re not assuming that any successful takeover from Dale will transpire. Even if one does, I firmly believe it’s in the interests of any would-be party to have a conversation with BOB to help spread the financial burden of operating a full-time professional team in the domestic game. If you can, I’d like you to pledge an amount to the campaign. If not, please share the website with your friends. It might make all the difference.
Is this it?
I’d like to take this opportunity to address anyone who’s read up to this point and feels that the men’s team have ‘cheated’ their way to promotion: You’re half-right… but the culpability rests mainly with people no longer at the club – Stewart Day and Lee Clark. The vast majority of the alleged higher earners on the books have barely been used, if at all, by Ryan Lowe during 2018/2019 for various reasons. Does that assuage the overspending by the club for years? Not in the least.
All clubs in the Championship, 2/3 in the Premier League are losing money. Oxford announced their results this morning & had £4m trading loss. Championship income £530m & Wage bill £590m is the problem pic.twitter.com/sqQoUzLFf4
Should there be a punishment for clubs like Bury that have continued to spend beyond their means? Yes, I think so. However, we have seen all too keenly and all too frequently as of late that the EFL are not fit for purpose, and there’s nothing in their current rules and regulations to combat this. Every side in the Championship during 2017/2018 made a loss, in spite of the far higher level of income being part of the second tier ensures. That pattern is largely repeated in the lower reaches, especially when you take out money made from player sales. Again, that in no way excuses the reckless behaviour in the Gigg Lane boardroom during the past six years.
There is the chance that the new owners will wipe out the debt owed to all the creditors, and whilst in many senses that would constitute the best possible outcome for everyone, it could easily be seen as a ‘cheat code’ that draws a definitive line under the past with no repercussions whatsoever. I have a lot of sympathy with that argument, but until there comes a time that one or more high profile club goes bust, I just can’t foresee the EFL doing anything meaningful to clamp down on rogue owners and a flagrant disregard for the long-term futures of clubs. Financial Fair Play (FFP) hasn’t had the desired effect, and is not enforced in the same way throughout the divisions. You only have to glance at how they have handled the even bigger shambles due west at Bolton Wanderers to glean an understanding that massive financial reform is well overdue… but is the collective appetite there for it? What’s next on the blog?
Regardless of the outcome of the High Court case, I’ll be doing a detailed analysis on every player used in the second half of the season; discussing the retained list (if it’s released in the conventional sense…); putting together my alternative take on League Two Team of the Season; detailing my night at the Football Blogging Awards, which takes place this Thursday at the Etihad Stadium in Manchester; lastly, I hope to have at least one Q&A in the pipeline… and that’s far as I can look with the club’s future still up in the air.
Tightening Up… at Both Ends (aka Scott Wharton’s Impact and Easing the Burden on Nicky Maynard)
There can be no question now that the pressure is for the first time this season on Ryan Lowe’s men to ensure that the deserved 3-1 home reverse against Swindon Town last weekend does not come to signify anything more than a defeat in a highly competitive division.
Prior to the encounter, Bury had experienced an uncharacteristic spell of clean sheets, most typified by the emerging importance of Blackburn Rovers loanee Scott Wharton on the left side of the centre back three. The 21 year-old has largely been an assured presence in a previously weaker area of the XI, winning a greater proportion of aerial challenges and being more accurate (and shorter) with his passing than was expected of him under Danny Cowley at likely league champions Lincoln City.
No single shape in football is infallible, and the attacking thrust firmly emphasised by Lowe will almost always ensure the opposition in any given match have opportunities to give tough examinations of Wharton and his partners on the counter. When teams like the Robins push up their wingers to the same level as the nominally lone striker, it can often leave the defence in a three-on-three mini-game of sorts, and they can’t win every single one of those battles, especially when the frequency of those situations is as high as what was witnessed on Saturday.
On the flip side of the general tightening up at the back, at the other end, neither the goals nor quite the free-flowing movement was demonstrated in March; Macclesfield Town aside, the Shakers could only muster three more strikes in the month. You’d perhaps expect it to decrease at least a little as the scramble for points necessitates a more conservative posture from sides they play against, but it can’t have also escaped people’s attention that besides Wharton’s own commendable couple of efforts and a Jay O’Shea penalty, no-one else troubled the score-sheet except Nicky Maynard, who continues to gamely fight for second place in League Two’s top goalscorer charts with Kieran Agard and Tyler Walker of promotion rivals Milton Keynes Dons and Mansfield Town respectively.
Ordinarily, this wouldn’t be that big of a problem. Most clubs are reliant on one or two players to regularly get the goals to help them achieve their aims, but that just hasn’t been the case in 2018/2019, and the onus is really now on others to step up to assist Maynard. Caolan Lavery’s form has taken a nosedive since the derby with Oldham Athletic; Byron Moore might now be needed elsewhere (thanks to Danny Mayor); Dom Telford pulled up in the warm-up before the game at Grimsby Town; lastly, Gold Omotayo’s recent cameos from the bench have unfortunately not done much to inspire confidence.
Mayor’s three game suspension, which I’ll discuss at length further into this article, also means some of the trickery will inevitably be lost from the starting lineup, so more of the chances might need to be created between the striking partnership themselves, which has frequently rotated alongside Maynard.
Ben Mayhew’s xG timelines ably demonstrate a distinct drop-off in the Shakers’ supremacy during a month where the performances were less than sparkling:
Neil Danns’ Gold Cup qualification
Looking away from Gigg Lane for a moment, I thought it was certainly worth mentioning captain Neil Danns’ exploits for Guyana during the international break. A win for the Golden Jaguars over Belize in the final CONCACAF Nations League fixture ensured their participation at this summer’s Gold Cup, the first major tournament in the country’s history. Danns scored one spot kick and missed another, but there was no question that he massively contributed to their success under the guidance of Michael Johnson, the former Birmingham City and Derby County centre-back.
At 36 and with his contract up in the summer, there are inevitably question marks as to whether Danns will go into that tournament still a Bury player, but either way, I’ll be keeping a close eye on the action, which kicks off on the 15th of June. The draw will be held in Los Angeles in nine days’ time.
‘Replacing’ Danny Mayor for three games
Back to matters closer to home. There can be little doubt that at 2-1 down to Swindon, the Shakers still had a decent chance of restoring parity, despite being largely second best throughout the match. That task was made mightily more difficult by an idiotic lashing out by Mayor in response to a very poor challenge (to say the least) by Canice Carroll. No-one, and I include myself in this, is expecting a professional footballer to stay cool 100% of the time, especially when you’re fouled as often as the inside forward is. The stats have him in the top 10 in the fourth tier for fouls suffered, and then of course are the instances where he still gets kicked and nothing is given by the referee, which happens most often to the most dangerous players.
I have seen some people on social media suggest he and others like him should be offered more ‘protection’ by the match official. In practice, how would that actually manifest itself? Are they supposed to identify the ‘danger men’ before the game kicks off, and give the offender a red card regardless? No, there must be objectivity. Anyone that persistently targets and subsequently fouls an individual will eventually be sent off. If it’s a ‘team effort’, then in one sense, it shows just how much of a threat Mayor poses to them, and there has to be an acceptance on some level that that’s how it’s going to be.
The rush of blood to his head was thankfully not defended too strongly by Lowe in the post-match interview, who privately must have been incandescent about the incident. A good manager recognises that there are different personalities within a squad; Mayor is the epitome of an introvert off the field who, once he graces the turf, usually feels confident to express himself with some sublime pieces of skill and to beat his man repeatedly on the dribble.
His self-imposed absence comes at the most crucial juncture of the entire campaign, and provides Lowe with a huge tactical quandary in the next two weeks. There is no obvious candidate to replicate what Mayor brings… because they just don’t exist. That’s not a disparagement of anyone else on the roster, merely a reflection of the current predicament.
As a consequence, I decided to pose the question to fellow supporters on Twitter:
So… Danny Mayor will be suspended for three matches. Who do you put in his place? #buryfc
The versatile 30 year-old possesses the positional know-how and pace to bypass his marker and cut inside on his stronger right foot. As teams sit ever deeper during the run-in and hit Bury on the break, which Cambridge United are bound to do tomorrow evening (and I don’t blame them), Lowe is going to require someone to reliably carry the ball forward into the final third to both minimise the chances of that occurring, and to try to get in behind resolute backlines.
Moore has already proven to be a capable option in the left channel, and his presence would ensure that the transition to attack can still take place without having to resort to more direct methods, or pushing up others too high. It is the closest role he will receive under the 5-2-1-2 to his most natural place on the wing, and he is highly accurate when crossing the ball, drilling it into the box or shifting onto his right for a deeper far post effort.
The case against:
The aforementioned form of strikers not called Nicky Maynard. Moore, who has a one goal every four games on average during 2018/2019, has been adept up top, operating wider than most forwards would in a conventional pairing. With Telford possibly still out for a little while yet, his services might best be utilised alongside Maynard, rather than being tasked with supplying him.
His instincts are firmly on the attacking end of the spectrum, which is a double-edged sword in a system designed to take the game to the opposition in numbers. Will he really sit back to allow Callum McFadzean to hurtle up the flank on the outside, rather than drift inside? The conclusion I draw is that he’s much better when focused as high up the pitch as possible, and in a side already lacking ball-winners, he is even less defensively-minded than the man he’d be replacing.
The case for:
The skipper’s (temporary) restoration to the XI would ensure a true three-man midfield. Even before Mayor’s dismissal, it was plain to see that Rossiter was doing all the leg-work in the middle, which the more adventurous sides in the final seven games could easily exploit if afforded the opportunity to do so. It would also allow O’Shea to concentrate more on late runs to the edge of the area, and less on having to help out the Glasgow Rangers loanee (or less often, anyway). Danns is by no means a ball-winning midfielder, but you can guarantee his maximum effort to cover as much ground between the two boxes as possible.
It would also give more balance to the midfield, which would go hand in hand with a greater degree of flexibility. There might yet be situations in the three games ahead where Bury need to hold onto a lead, and I’d sooner trust Danns to hold fort than the other candidates discussed in this section.
The case against:
You’d be asking an awful lot of the wing-backs, both to provide the width and the attacking thrust.. McFadzean would more or less have to go it alone down the left flank, with the most attack-minded of the midfielders usually operating closer to Nicky Adams. The vice-captain, for his part, has not enjoyed the best time of it in recent games, but to expect totally consistent displays from individuals who are ultimately plying their trade in the fourth tier is a misguided one.
Would there be enough guile and creativity in the lineup? As much as I love O’Shea, he’s what I’d categorise as a goalscoring attacking midfielder, rather than as a playmaker. As I’ve already mentioned, it’s likely that it will be a case of having to break down two banks of four/five. Without someone to carry the ball from deep and do the unexpected, there’s an air of predictability in the approach play.
The case for:
Regular readers of this blog will know I mention Joe Adams from time-to-time, and for good reason. Rewarded for his displays in the youth side with a pro deal until June 2021 (currently the longest contract of anyone at Bury at the time of writing), he could just be the option few opposition scouts would anticipate playing. Lowe has often spoken with praise for him, whilst understandably being cautious about throwing him at the deep end. Still only 18, the Welsh U19 international is top scorer for Ryan Kidd’s youngsters this season, bagging 13 goals without ever playing in a conventional striker’s role.
He has the pace and the dribbling ability to beat his man and get in behind, but equally as importantly, he is strong with both feet from crossing situations, meaning that as his marker, you don’t know for sure which way he’ll go, and the Shakers could really do with that level of uncertainty in the opposition ranks without Mayor.
The case against:
As much as the manager is an advocate of developing talent, it would constitute a huge risk to thrust him into the starting lineup at his age, and in the situation the club find themselves in. Like Moore, his positivity could easily lead to counterattacks, and there’s also the small matter of whether he’s still injured, having had to drop out of the last Welsh squad he was called up for a fortnight ago. Like Telford, you don’t tend to get estimated return dates from Lowe during interviews, perhaps in an effort to keep his next opponents guessing.
Even if fit, there’s a time to properly ‘blood’ academy graduates, and it differs on a case-by-case basis. He might have a much bigger role next season in what is likely to be a squad reduced in numbers by a smaller playing budget (regardless of division) and the continuing lack of an U23s setup.
The unbeaten run, and ‘negative’ predictions
As the title of this post states, nothing lasts forever, which is especially true in football. The recency effect of less than scintillating displays, coupled with the defeat, has led to the return of negativity, and in greater amounts than I’d have expected. To go 14 matches without leaving a ground pointless is a superb achievement in any league, and the circumstances behind the remarkable turn-around in fortunes under Lowe.
In my preview of the game for Steven Fyfe’s blog for Saturday, I said Bury would lose to Swindon… and so they did. I caught quite a bit of flack for prognosticating ‘doom’, even being asked after the event whether I was happy that my prediction was correct! The answer to that should be blatantly obvious – no. However, I’m not going to do what I see supporters of almost every club do and say they’ll win if I don’t believe it will happen. I knew the threats that Richie Wellens’ outfit had at their disposal, I knew how he’d got them playing a more progressive style of football, and any guess at a result is just that – a guess.
I also play for fun a Predictions Game over on FL2 Blogger, and over the course of the campaign, excluding the rearranged game with Cambridge tomorrow, I have had Bury winning 18, drawing 15, and losing just six of the 39 games, which would leave the Shakers just two points shy of reality. So much for my negative predictions…
The remaining seven fixtures, and the big-game experience in the core squad
Attention now turns to the run-in, with that loss allowing MK to leapfrog Bury into second place. Wins for Mansfield and a white-hot Tranmere Rovers side, themselves with a game in hand on the rest of the pack, has ramped up the stakes for tomorrow evening. It should also be mentioned at this point that I did a bit of research into the ‘big games’ members of the Shakers’ core squad have been in during their careers, and one of the possible advantages of having an older than average dressing room is that there is a wealth of experience of successes (and failures) in promotion tilts through both the automatic and play-off routes, with three-quarters of the 20 used players this calendar year having had at least some memory to fall back on before 2018/2019.
I also decided to poll fans as to how many points they think will be accrued in the remaining seven matches:
The top end of that bracket would be sufficient for a club record points total of 86, beating out 2014/2015’s vintage under a certain David Flitcroft by one. But it won’t be easy to emulate.
Firstly, Colin Calderwood will be hoping for a big reaction of his own from a lacklustre display by the U’s in their own backyard, succumbing to a last-gasp defeat in injury time to top seven hopefuls Colchester United. Their own status in the EFL is still under jeopardy, with Notts County’s big win at the weekend cutting the gap to six points. The visitors have pace on the counter, principally in the guise of Jevani Brown, as well as the tall presence of target man Jabo Ibehre, who, whilst far from prolific this campaign, is exactly the sort of player Bury have struggled to contain.
Carlisle United are in no sort of form, and now find themselves outside the reckoning by three points. Well beaten by Tranmere, they will nevertheless target a win at Brunton Park this coming Saturday. Jamie Devitt is one of the best players in League Two, and you wouldn’t put it past Hallam Hope adding to his considerable goal tally against his former side.
The aforementioned Colchester come to BL9 on the 13th, and will probably be within a victory of the top seven at worst by the time the crunch fixture rolls around. The other U’s are the most puzzling outfit in the league, equally as capable of doling out thrashings as they are at receiving them. They should set their stall out to attack more than most have at Gigg Lane this season, with pace to burn on the wings and one of the best central midfield partnerships in the division – Sammie Szmodics in particular could cause damage.
Rodney Parade is a tough place to travel to, and Bury can expect little benevolence from Newport County on Good Friday. With 11 wins and just three losses at home, Michael Flynn’s charges are also still eyeing a late play-off surge, with two games in hand in which to reduce arrears. Jamille Matt had the beating of Adam Thompson in the reverse fixture, and both Padraig Amond and Ade Azeez are good options to call on if the Jamaican needs more support up top.
Easter Monday will pit the Shakers against probably the only side in their remaining games with ostensibly nothing to play for. Northampton Town have enjoyed some improvement under Keith Curle, but nothing too dramatic to convince observers that they’ll be challenging at the top end in 2019/2020. Nonetheless, they showed their defensive mettle in the earlier stalemate, and have some canny operators in midfield to ensure anything but smooth sailing.
For me, the key aim remains avoiding needing to go to Prenton Park on the penultimate weekend needing a result to seal promotion. Tranmere’s winning streak is no fluke, and whilst I think it’s almost certain that it will be snapped before the last game in April, they still look ominous at the moment, and I see little reason why their performances will taper off. Resolute in goal and at the back, unassailable top scorer James Norwood is backed up by a supporting cast in similar rich veins of form – the likes of Ollie Banks and Connor Jennings must be shut down to get anything from the game.
Port Vale ought to be all but home and dry on final day, but veteran Tom Pope will want to add to his century of goals (and counting) for the Burslem outfit. There is major concern off the pitch, but I don’t think it will prove the distraction some would like to believe on it. Again, Bury really don’t want to go into needing the points to cement a place in the top three…
Double glory for the women’s sides?
Scott Johnson’s side are now firm favourites to win the championship and with it, the only promotion place available. A 13-0 shellacking of Morecambe Reserves yesterday underlined the quality throughout the team and on the bench. Four wins from the remaining five will guarantee 2019/2020 in the North West Premier Division, and the same number of games will take place in double headers against Cammell Laird 1907 and Preston North End, each instance being inexplicably played after the first game, with only an hour break…
The very wet weather in the middle of the month caused the Reserves’ Plate Final against Nelson at Leyland to be postponed until this coming Sunday. Defeat to Stanwix Juniors put paid to Colin Platt’s slim hopes of promotion, but he will be hoping that strikers Sarah Knight and Kimberley Tyson can upset their higher tier opponents, and bring some silverware back home for a positive end to a very encouraging season under his leadership.
Analysing The Shakers, League One & Two, and Local English & Welsh Football