Tag: bignews

This is C&N

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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‘The Haçienda Was a Better Run Club!’ – Can New Owner Steve Dale Make Bury’s Financial Status Viable?

I have never claimed to be a person ‘in the know’ where Bury Football Club are concerned, particularly with respect to the parlous financial state they always seem to be in, lurching from one crisis to another. This season, things have come to a head, with talk on social media even prior to the takeover of assets being repossessed, and rumours of certain players’ wages not being paid on time. Regardless of whether the latter is true, it’s undeniable that the latest findings by the well-known football finance expert Kieran Maguire have made for a sobering read:

The (small) caveat to that is that very few clubs in the English game operate at a profit, but fewer still can sustain such losses and continue to operate as a going concern in the medium term, something which is alluded to in the last edition of the available accounts, made up to the 31st of May, 2017.

That does not amount to a defence of (former) chairman Stewart Day by any means, and I have been heavily critical of him on my blog in previous years. This is his statement that was published on the official site earlier this afternoon:

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Two things immediately spring out from that tract: firstly, he became more than just the owner of the club; he became a fan. That is one of the aspects of the past five years that is the least contentious, and he was well-known for attending almost every single match on the road. However, sometimes when you’re that emotionally invested, it can blind you to bridging the ‘impossible’ gap between prudence and ambition, and Day was certainly had the latter in spades.

His stated aim when he himself took the reins in the close season of 2013 was to take the club to the Championship within five years. Despite gaining promotion to the third tier in 2015, and a bevvy of high-profile signings on expensive salaries across three campaigns, his dreams ended in failure, precipitated by losing money hand over fist, and the shambolic stewardship of a certain Lee Clark only accelerated the reversal of the side’s fortunes, ultimately resulting in being back where they ‘started’.

Day is at pains to point out the success of the academy system, and that will serve as the most positive part of his legacy in my opinion. Detractors will say that the cost of operating a Category 3 setup is not insubstantial, but the development and sales of several key graduates over that time have probably come close to covering the overheads that aren’t covered by Premier League grants and other sources.

At the time of writing, the two key questions that I hope will be put to new chairman, Steve Dale, centre around what has happened/will happen to the debts (mostly owed to Mederco, Day’s own company). The timing of this deal lends me to believe that it was done in some haste, at least from one of the parties involved. Additionally, the outgoing supremo cannot in good conscience claim to have left the club in a better place without some of agreement to write them off.

Even then, the more pressing concern centres around cashflow. Managing this is perhaps more crucial than servicing debts, and Dale and the members of the board, new and old alike, will have to convince increasingly wary banks and other lenders that the ‘rolling the dice’ times are a thing of the past in order to win back confidence and grow any cash reserves.

Like almost every outfit, player salaries and their contracts are the most major form of expenditure. There are close to 40 registered individuals on pro terms. Even if somehow Dale and McCarthy have more money than they know what to do with, they have to find a way of reducing that number in the next transfer window, hopefully without majorly impacting on the sparkling displays and form that have taken Ryan Lowe’s charges to the cusp of the automatic promotion places, although that cannot be guaranteed.

Several of the current group are unavailable, either because they’re out on loan (Harry Bunn and Tom Aldred most prominently) or are long-term injured (Jermaine Beckford). My advice to the new owner would be to instruct Lee Dykes to cut deals with their temporary sides in the first instance to get them off the wage bill and unfortunately in Beckford’s case, cut the club’s losses.

Simultaneously, attention will be on the likes of Danny Mayor, Nicky Maynard, Jay O’Shea, and Callum McFadzean, all of whom have been amongst the star performers… and each one has a contract that will expire at the end of the current campaign, with the youngest member of the foursome already being 24. That would mean they could all leave on a free, regardless of whether the club were in a position to negotiate extensions for them. Not an enviable position to be in…

Dale’s stated ambition is for the Shakers to be a ‘self-sufficient League One side’, and mercifully, he hasn’t (yet) put a timeframe around that. There are many hurdles to jump over before that can be achieved, and it could take no small degree of patience and luck to see that to fruition.

If I was asked for my advice to the new owner with regards to how he should operate the club, it would be along the following five themes:

  • Openness – I’ve already seen a line suggesting Dale himself is a ‘very private individual’; that’s fine, but there are many stakeholders and dyed-in-the-wool supporters of the club. Learn from the failings of Day and keep an open, consistent line of dialogue between the board and fans.
  • Pragmatism – To take an extreme example for the sake of argument, which is more important: extending Mayor’s contract or still having a club next season? Some decisions are bound to be poorly received, but if people can see the reasoning behind them, then it will be that much easier to justify them and keep their support (in more ways than one).
  • Set realistic targets – I don’t believe his stated aim is too ambitious; look close to home for examples of how it can be done, most notably at Accrington Stanley and Rochdale. Football doesn’t exist in amber; quite the opposite. If it takes several years or longer to get to the desired state of affairs, then it’s something that needs to be accepted.
  • Ego – Don’t surround yourself with people who’ll consistently tell you you’re doing a great job of running the club. Invite, and accept, criticism. Question whether you’re making the right decisions in the interests of the football club and those ‘invested’ in it, first and foremost. They’ll be here long after you’re not.
  • Sustainability – Again, this has already been alluded to. It sounds simple: pay individuals and businesses on time. If the cloth needs to be cut accordingly, do it. This has to go hand-in-hand with growing revenue streams away from matchdays, however. The report by Day in the last accounts on Companies House below shows that he keenly understood that element at the very least:

17 Accounts Statement

The press conference and club interviews later in the week should shed some more light on Dale’s business acumen, but I would be extremely reluctant to take what he (or anyone else says) at face value. On way too many occasions, the collective fingers of fans of football clubs have been burnt by new owners promising ‘x’ and ‘y’. Action over the next six months and beyond will echo for far longer than anything he states in the coming days, and I’ll be keeping both eyes peeled.

iFollow You, iFollow Me: Is the Broadcast Blackout Dying?

Saturday, the 8th of September 2018 marked a watershed moment in the long and storied history of English football. During the international break last weekend, the EFL streamed 15:00 kick-offs on their iFollow platform to domestic customers for the very first time during the ‘broadcast blackout’, prompting a vociferous reaction in some quarters. Is the new development all bad (or indeed, all good)?  This blogpost takes a closer look…

Mission Creep

The EFL announced iFollow in May of last year, primarily targetting two key groups of people: ‘exiled’ fans overseas and UK-based scouts and ‘anoraks’ (like the author of this piece), allowing the latter of these groups to play back the same footage supporters in other countries could enjoy live a day after first being broadcast. One of the inadvertent disadvantages of this move was that as a customer, you now became tied to your particular club, unable to listen to the commentary of the opposition your side were facing, which I often found more insightful than Bury’s, as well as being restricted to watching bare-bones highlights on YouTube or Channel 5 (as it was at the time) of any match not involving the outfit you held dear.

I know that the ability to watch games live was extremely well-received by fellow Shakers fans. Kieran Lomax stays up into the small hours of Sunday morning to get his fix in Australia, there now exists a fan club based in Poland and most prominently of all, the Norway branch increased their social media following considerably, especially when posting goal clips to Twitter mere minutes after they had been scored. I have not seen any viewing figures for Bury, but even if they turn out to be in just double figures, it has definitely helped them all feel ‘closer’ to the club they support, and this is bound to be replicated with other teams, too. Although Sunderland are one of several clubs that have chosen not to be part of the iFollow platform, their own streaming equivalent regularly attracts a number in the low thousands from outside the UK, according to new owner Stewart Donald. Either way, it helps to generate revenue on top of the current Sky Sports broadcast deal and that wouldn’t have been present beforehand, which will increase considerably from 2019/2020, whichever distribution model clubs agree to adopt.

However, as the link above alludes to, the streaming of matches within the UK was introduced earlier this season, with the EFL heavily advertising this fact both before the campaign commenced and in the days leading up to its advent. For full disclosure purposes, I took advantage of sadly not being able to revisit Sincil Bank for the first time in well over a decade due to work commitments by watching Lincoln City host Bury. I was under the distinct impression at the time that such instances were solely going to be the preserve of Tuesday night league matches (and Checkatrade Trophy games from the second round onwards) due to the ‘blackout’, until seeing the official Grimsby Town Twitter account promoting the availability of last Saturday’s thrashing to a domestic audience. I was actually quite shocked, which doesn’t happen often.

 

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It should be noted that the above worded response on the EFL’s own iFollow FAQs page gives no indication whatsoever to anyone reading it that 15:00 Saturday matches could be available in the UK during international breaks…

 

Slowly but surely, the relentless reposting from almost all of the League One and Two clubs of match streaming being available in the UK got the attention of one of the more vocal owners of an EFL club: Andy Holt of Accrington Stanley. Holt, along with the likes of Darragh MacAnthony and Alan Hardy, is one of the few leading figures at an EFL club to have a considerable social media presence, which he sustains through the good and bad. Through that channel, he has been extremely open with the public regarding Accrington’s finances, as well as his hitherto unwavering support for the EFL’s extremely controversial changes to the format (and entrants) of the Checkatrade Trophy. He, too, was caught out by the news (although his club are not part of iFollow), and throughout last Friday, did some investigating of his own whilst fielding questions from other users.

What he managed to uncover was that the EFL had taken advantage of a loophole in UEFA’s rulings governing the definition of the blackout to their members, which don’t cover periods when domestic football continues during international breaks. Holt was particularly aggrieved, as it was not brought up either implicitly or explicitly during the EFL’s Summer Conference in Portugal, later stating it had been part of the not-at-all daft sounding ‘Project Genie’, and now clubs have been presented with a fait accompli that could be hard to row back from, even if the collective will is there.

The Response

Reaction from fans in general has not been as universal in its condemnation as I would’ve anticipated. In a poll I conducted on this topic on Twitter, these were the results:

 

 

Firstly, I accept that a poll on Twitter with a sample size of 784 is hardly a) scientific and b) wholly representative of views. However, I conducted it in a completely neutral fashion, refraining from responding to any of the worded responses to my post to ensure it was as ‘ecologically valid’ as it could be in the circumstances.

The worded responses were generally centred upon the themes listed below:

A good thing

Considering 30% of respondents voted for this, I could only find one genuinely upbeat reply without caveats: in a nutshell, they stated that for fans with genuine reasons as to why they can’t attend match(es), it can only be construed as a positive. To expound, it could be the case that a person simply can’t afford to attend any longer, even if they live within spitting distance of the ground. The BBC’s Price of Football survey conducted last year showed that the average price of a matchday ticket even in the fourth tier was north of £20, and that’s without purchasing optional extras, such as a programme or food and drink.

Additionally, I know of several people who have mental and/or physical health conditions that make travelling to games extremely difficult to say the least, but who nevertheless are as much a fan as those who are able to attend in person. Alternatively, someone could have working patterns that preclude their presence at games, but who could still make use of streaming. I have seen conflicting breakdowns of just who receives what when someone buys a match pass, but I think it’s unlikely that the club they support would receive none of the proceeds, even in the worst case scenario.

A bad thing

As you’d probably expect, there were a plethora of these. Chief amongst them was the desire to keep the blackout sacrosanct; many are fearful of the impact a move they perceive as ‘the thin end of the wedge’ would have on both attendances and, as a consequence, the very future of clubs that are mostly reliant on gate receipts as their main source of income.

Others are reluctant even with the convenience that streaming every match would provide to partake, either because of the financial hit to the club, the experience watching away from the ground cannot hope to come close to emulating the authenticity of the sights, sounds, and even smells of being there in situ with like-minded people

Unsure

Of course, the issue is not black or white in many people’s minds. A proposed ‘workaround’ I’ve seen (and have seriously entertained) is to lift the blackout… but only when tickets for matches are sold out. There was once a similar scheme in the NFL, but that has since fallen by the wayside, and in truth, it’s difficult to compare two sports with vastly different infrastructures.

Along a similar vein, a club could charge the equivalent of a match pass to fans to enter their ‘home’ stadium, with footage beamed back from where their team are playing. This has occurred occasionally in the past, but has usually been confined to special events, such as major international tournaments and EFL play-off games. Widening this scheme to include long-distance away matches could be a way to counter at least some of the criticisms and concerns levelled at this stage.

The elephant in the room is arguably the Premier League. Long gone are the days when even eight or nine of the 10 ‘gameweek’ fixtures kicked off simultaneously, save for the final matchday – Sky Sports allow this to maximise the unfolding drama. Is there an appetite at the top table of the game in England to lobby for the blackout to be a thing of the past?

Supporters’ Direct

As you’d expect, the umbrella organisation issued a scathing response to the EFL’s move, making some good points before tripping themselves up with the following paragraph:

"You could say it is purely coincidence that Northampton Town, Exeter City,
Morecambe, Accrington Stanley, Portsmouth and Sunderland all suffered their
lowest league attendances of the season so far on Saturday.  I say there is
no such thing as coincidence."

I would’ve expected a deeper analysis (i.e. any) than a cursory glance of the attendance figures, which even now, not all clubs report in the same way, and the “That many are here? really?” sentiments I can echo from the recent match at Milton Keynes Dons.

Below is a table that details the figures:

crowds.PNG

They’re all, with the exception of Sunderland, within 1,000 of the average; in the first four teams’ cases on the list, within several hundred. None of the away followings that I could find data for exactly swelled the grounds they visited, with Burton Albion and Fleetwood Town posting some of the poorest away support in any of the four tiers (in terms of numbers). Notts County are unexpectedly propping up League Two, Morecambe is quite a long distance trip from Wiltshire, and Cheltenham Town are also struggling.

Five of the six hosts’ crowds are actually up from 2017/2018 on average. Sunderland’s long-suffering support have doubtlessly been buoyed by the feelgood factor Stewart Donald has brought with him to the club as the new owner, despite plying their trade on the third rung for the first time in 30 years. Accrington Stanley are in the same division as the Black Cats after a well-documented absence of over half a century. The massive caveat is that all of these sides have played just three or four times in the league at home during 2018/2019 to date, so the sample size is simply too small to draw any meaningful conclusions either way, and especially to draw a relationship between correlation and causation in terms of iFollow streaming.

Other Points for Consideration

The ‘Matchday Experience’ vs other comparable forms of entertainment

In some ways, it’s remarkable that attendances are either stable or on the increase in the pyramid. Very few outfits in the top four tiers are sharply decreasing through factors other than a demotion (Blackpool being an obvious exception to that). There are constant myriad complaints about the cost of matchday tickets throughout the divisions, with many supporters being priced out through a whole host of factors too numerous to mention at length in this post. The bottom line is that in the current era, there are many other forms of entertainment that people can partake in that are cheaper or comparable in terms of length and cost to a football match: going to the cinema, a concert, downloading a video game, film or TV boxset (or streaming them), watching other sports (such as rugby and cricket)… the list is endless, and many of these are more prevalent and accessible to more people than ever before.

Take this as an example. Even if you’re a family of fans and your number one pastime is football but the cost of seeing your beloved side from the comfort of your own home is a fraction of the time and effort it would take to get there, you’d be hard-pressed not to at least give streaming serious consideration, especially if your disposable income isn’t very high. If football clubs want to continue to attract young families with children through their doors, they must pay more heed to ensuring that the whole day is a positive one, and firmly focused on keeping them ‘happy’, regardless of the result on the pitch. This could take the form of having fun things to do in or around the ground which are free or as close as possible to being free to participate in. The competition for people’s hearts and wallets is only going to get fiercer in the years ahead.

Local Economy Suffering

One aspect I didn’t see anyone mention in their responses was that of the local economy of wherever the team they follow are playing at that weeknight/weekend. Supposing that attendances did noticeably drop across the board because of the expansion of domestic streaming, there would almost certainly be a profound knock-on effect to businesses and services situated in the town and/or adjacent to the stadium. Pubs and betting shops, not exactly everyone’s forté in the current climate anyway, would be under pressure. The same is likely of restaurants and takeaways, particularly those that are independently run, as they are perhaps less able to absorb any shortfalls. Of course, not every matchgoer frequents any of these establishments at a home or away encounter, but it is equally the case that there is a degree of dependency on football supporters visiting in good numbers.

 

 

Conclusions

A meeting has been convened by the EFL, set to take place next week, to discuss this very issue. I predict a similar outcome to the one that concerned the changes to the format of the Checkatrade Trophy. The ‘genie’ has escaped the lamp, and the ‘competition organisers’ will be extremely loath to put it back inside, especially if it deems the experiment last weekend to have been a success in terms of revenue. The EFL will use the broadcast deal set to commence next season as a carrot, and will also point to the increased guaranteed income that the runt of the proverbial domestic cup litter that has come about since the inclusion of U23 sides from Premier League and Championship Category One academies. If they can find a way to convince enough boards that their incomes will be protected by their latest project, expect the majority to fall in line.

From an outsider’s point of view, it has become increasingly unclear to me where the lines between FA, PL and EFL begin. The current burning issue is not going to go away anytime soon, and whilst the FA are still considering the incredibly short-sighted sale of Wembley Stadium, the domestic game at all levels runs the risk of being undercut by a slapdash embrace of streaming, without due care and consideration to the substantial knock-on effects that could well occur.

Personally,  I am in favour of what I’d considered to be the arrangement before last weekend. Keep it to long-distance away matches whilst a more coherent strategy is thought up, which needs to involve all the stakeholders, including non-league clubs, many of which often use the international break as a way of enticing those without a fixture to watch to attend. Technology will only continue to advance and intertwine more with football, and whilst in many ways I embrace that reality, I place zero trust whatsoever in the corridors of any of those three organisations to safeguard the grassroots and the clubs a proliferation of streaming will affect the most. If the EFL truly believe that ‘Every Game Matters’, perhaps they should look at adopting the mantra of ‘less is more’ so that football is more affordable for everyone… which will be the focus of my next post.

Chris Lucketti: The Right Appointment at the Right Time

Events moved swiftly yesterday and by the evening, former Bury captain Chris Lucketti was named as the club’s 40th manager in their history. It has in a way felt like a long time since Lee Clark was relieved of his duties three weeks ago and the former Scunthorpe United assistant will have his work cut out from the beginning to lift the Shakers from bottom spot in League One.

A no-nonsense centre-back in his playing days, he is remembered extremely fondly wherever he played (with the possible exception of his one-game appearance at Rochdale when he was just starting out!) and was at Gigg Lane for six years after being brought in by Mike Walsh. I started attending matches not long after his arrival and he almost immediately became a crowd favourite and someone whose signature I always sought during pre-match warm-up routines as a boy. His eventual partnership with Paul Butler was the bedrock on which the astonishing second successive promotion was won in 1996/1997 and for many observers, it will be difficult for any duo or trio in white shirts to ever emulate just how effective they were as a unit.

How relevant his time on the pitch will be in his first stint as the main man in the dugout is anyone’s guess but he will able to call upon several years of experience coaching in the third tier at both Glanford Park and Fleetwood Town and his rapport with Graham Alexander, which started when they were both in the dressing room at Preston North End, was obvious to see. He also briefly played at the highest level for Sheffield United and nobly avoided a horrible conflict of interest when on loan at Southampton in his twilight years by refusing to feature for the Saints in a contest between the two sides that could’ve seen the Hampshire outfit relegated had they not won. In a coincidental twist of fate, he left his last club Huddersfield Town after a certain Lee Clark had frozen him out for an entire season…

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Chris Lucketti was part of the most successful Bury side in the modern era; he now needs to galvanise a talented but disparate squad if they are to even come close to the glory days of 20 years ago

Being a leader of men from an early stage normally translates well into coaching. By the time he retired, he had already obtained his UEFA ‘A’ Licence but was ultimately unsuccessful in a swifter return to south Lancashire than proved to be the case as the reins for the U18s were handed to Richie Barker instead. His long-held desire has been to take the step up and for a second time, he missed out for a vacancy when Clark was appointed.

He doesn’t really have a managerial history on which you can draw certain conclusions about his tactical philosophy, playing style or how much he emphasises youth (although you could argue that even by applying for an underage group position seven years ago displays at some awareness of its importance to Bury’s ‘financial ‘model’). He had a two-match caretaker spell for the Cod Army in 2016 when Alexander was fired, winning one and losing one.

All that really matters in the very short-term is reversing the downward spiral for which the blame lies squarely on Clark and chairman Stewart Day’s shoulders. The latter has, with Lucketti’s appointment, tried to redress the balance wrought by his own mistakes. He must now allow the third permanent manager appointed during his tenure to get on with the task at hand.

At last, it appears that more than lip service has been given to a longer-term vision (at least where Lucketti is concerned). He will be able to dine out on the fans’ backing for longer than almost anyone else could at the helm. It is in some ways a brave move by the board and they should be applauded for that and I don’t perceive it as a massive gamble. Whilst you’d expect him (hopefully with the addition of some scouts) to identify several targets to rectify Bury’s woes, he also needs to be mindful that the churn of the past four years must now end. The club cannot afford for it to continue and it is disenfranchising for the individuals involved and the fanbase at large.

If his players can eventually exemplify on the pitch what he did on the hallowed turf for every side he featured in, most of the gap that has begun to widen between the ‘business’ and the supporters will be bridged. With the current talent at his disposal, a mid-table finish is not outside the realm of possibility. Healthy skeptics (like me) and optimists alike must now unite behind a true club legend because the sailing will not be smooth… but it can be a success. Time will tell.

(The caption is a dig at Neil Warnock in his second season in charge of Bury after being relegated in the first and is a paraphrase from a fanzine of the day!)

 

The Next Appointment Must Ditch Short-Termism

The news broke from the club last night that both Lee Clark and Alan Thompson have belatedly been relieved of their management duties at Bury. In my opinion, this decision has come two months later than it ought to have done for the transfer deadline debacle, as well as his public criticism of Saul Shotton, a promising 16 year-old who made his full debut at centre-back in the 4-0 defeat by local rivals Rochdale in the EFL Trophy, which whilst not exactly the most prestigious competition, still didn’t sit right with me.

His tenure is now in the past though and what’s left of the coaching staff must regroup for the vital game away at National League outfit Woking in the FA Cup first round. Ryan Lowe has been placed in temporary charge whilst chairman Stewart Day seeks an appointment within a fortnight. That in my view is the right decision to make with regards to the timeframe; a repeat of last season’s dalliance whilst waiting for Clark’s contract at Kilmarnock to run down to lower than a year is unacceptable.

The bookies have already set their stalls out with regards to the next manager odds and as per usual, the same tired, familiar faces feature:

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Some of the above ‘favourites’ certainly have merit (particularly Michael Appleton) but the list does not inspire confidence in me; he is almost certain to be beyond the club’s reach in any case

The football managerial circuit is often quite a closed shop, a concept which I will discuss in much more depth in another blogpost. Supporters and the media alike only tend to advocate those who belong to one or more of the following groups: a big name, tried and tested (and largely failed elsewhere), had a playing career at the highest level or ‘a club legend’. Very rarely do boards stray from those criteria and think a little more outside of the box and I don’t expect Day to either. I have the nagging feeling that yet again, it will be someone with a strong connection to Huddersfield Town, regardless of whether they are the best person for the role (cough Chris Powell *cough).

He might also do well to consider a restructure of how the club recruits players. That is not me saying that the current group are not good enough; far from it. However, the manager should be largely left to the day job of looking after their players, working on tactics and appropriate training schedules. A Director of Football is an increasingly popular, albeit still peripheral, role in English professional football. Granted, the previous time it was tried at Gigg Lane didn’t exactly work out well but the 10-year gap has seen big changes in the sport and clubs’ approaches and policies in this area.

I would go a bit left field and look very carefully at the work done by joint bosses Bernard Morley and Anthony Johnson at Salford City; yes, they have been well-backed by chairwoman Karen Baird and the famous owners but they have adapted extremely well to the club becoming fully professional in the close season and maintain a great fondness for Bury. More importantly, they are open to new ideas and are currently guiding the Ammies to a high standing in the National League North whilst playing an attractive, attacking brand of football. The only major caveat is that their contract has more than a year left to run, expiring in March 2019.

Whoever is at the helm when the side travel down to Gillingham in just under a fortnight’s time, below is the brief I would give them were I unlucky enough to be the person making the call:

Short-Term Goals

Pay Little Heed to What Has Happened Before

This relates to players being frozen out by the previous incumbent. For example, Nicky Ajose is fit but has not featured in a first team competitive fixture since August. It is a waste of resources for this to be the case regardless of your opinion on the start he made to his third loan spell in white and royal blue. The Charlton Athletic forward is far from the only player who was maligned by Clark in his eight-month reign but with Jermaine Beckford’s return date from injury unknown at the time of writing and Michael Smith woefully out of form and low on confidence, more options are needed to provide a cutting edge up top.

Accentuate the Strengths, Hide the Weaknesses in the Team

Below is a possible lineup for Sunday:

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What is your immediate gut reaction to it?

The lack of available centre backs inadvertently but immediately makes the setup look more dynamic. Some might look and say “Nicky Ajose can’t play as a lone striker”. In the right system, he can. The current weakest areas are in the left side of defence and the balance in midfield, but Andrew Tutte’s reemergence helps to a certain extent with that. The best three outfield players on paper would all be behind Ajose, so the general idea is to keep the ball as high up the pitch as possible. Revolutionary, I know… but for now at least, that’s the sort of strategy the new person should be employing. Putting the emphasis firmly on defence only works if the collective unit is strong.

Pay More Than Lip Service to Talented Young Players

That doesn’t mean all of a sudden that the likes of Shotton, Callum Hulme and Wealth Da Silva have to feature in every match. It is well-known that the Category 3 academy is currently very productive and there are a large number of the contingent who could make the step up on a more regular basis. Constantly talking them up and subsequently not playing any for large stretches of time as has previously been apparent makes no sense whatsoever, especially when injuries and suspensions bite.

Appoint Scouts to, Y’know, Scout Players

It has come to my attention that there are no scouts for the first team currently! This cannot be allowed to continue. As stated above, the new manager should concentrate on the day-to-day duties and allow specialists to find talent in areas which need strengthening. A more collegiate, informed approach can then be adopted when discussing who to sign. Which leads me onto…

Long-Term Goals

Cease the Ridiculous Churn of Players

There are more than enough on the books as it is already. Terminating unnecessary loan deals is a quick way to reduce the bloated roster but long-term, there should be fewer in and out of the door in any given transfer window. The turnover at Bury is the highest in England and has been ever since Day took over. He must now realise the error of his ways and instruct the new manager to take more care and consideration over each player (de)registration. Only then can the club realistically hope to have a semblance of harmony behind the scenes and a better crack at success on the pitch.

Re-emphasise the Value of Coaching Over ‘Quick Fixes’

This follows on from the above point. Modern tactics have shifted the onus once more from players being specialist in a certain role/position to needing to be multi-faceted. The requirements of any tactical system should reflect this. Only when there is a very specific role no current member can realistically fill in an appropriate timeframe should a new signing be considered. Delegate responsibility to the coaching team to ensure each individual knows what the manager requires of them in a given match. Don’t overcomplicate their duties it but by the same token, they don’t have to be the exact same every time. Respect the opposition’s threats and try to deal with them accordingly.

Stop Young Players Being Sold at the First Possible Opportunity

The function of the academy must now firmly move on from a quick cash-in by Day. Will Ferry could’ve offered something different to any group. That’s not to say he would’ve been necessarily better straight away but we’ll never know because he was sold before tasting a single minute of first team football. His and others’ values will more than likely increase when exposed to regular gametime – it’s quite a simple notion. Having the ability to retain precocious talent for at least a season or two will go a long way to helping the club be self-sufficient. Look at Rochdale’s model.

Prove You Can Adapt and Evolve Your Ideas Over Time

Some Bury managers’ stars have initially shined brightly but then dimmed when they hadn’t devised viable alternative strategies when things don’t go their way or injuries crop up. Having contingencies in place beforehand will curtail the inevitable dips in form. Additionally, when something works, don’t assume it will continue to do so in perpetuity. The sport is rapidly evolving, even at third tier level.

Bury Football Club Have No Identity

It would be exceptionally easy to characterise the eye-catching headline of this post as a knee-jerk reaction to the events of the past couple of days. The first thing I would say to that is much of the content below has been on mind for quite a significant period of time (and some elements of it for four years as will hopefully come clear).

Bury Football Club have a problem. A big one. A problem that cannot be assuaged by any new signing: a complete lack of an identity. When I say ‘identity’, I mean in the sense of an abstract concept that nevertheless, everyone associated with the club, be they on the board, part of the management team, on the reception desks or ‘just’ a supporter, they know exactly what the ethos is, what the short, medium and long-term plan is to ensure Bury survive and thrive and how as stakeholders (as much as I dislike that term), everyone can pull in the same direction whilst still maintaining their own opinions of how to get to whatever the goal is. In this post, I will focus on just the chairman and the manager, otherwise it would be a lot longer!

Stewart Day

The goal itself has been repeatedly stated as reaching The Championship ever since chairman Stewart Day set foot through the doors at Gigg Lane. Given the perilous nature of the finances and subsequent, utterly abject relegation to the fourth tier that immediately preceded his intervention in 2013, few supporters would’ve argued with the vision itself, even if 50 months ago, it was even more of a distant dream than it appears at the time of writing this.

The methods employed to reach ‘the promised land’ have been divisive ever since day one and are well-documented on here and elsewhere. The Shakers have seldom been far from the financial brink in my 24 years supporting the club and in truth, many of the decades since its founding in 1885. Different boards in the past drew criticism from sections of the fanbase for either being too conservative or cavalier, with no real balance discernible or ever struck. It seems as though from the outside looking in, the current contingent are erring very much on the latter and to a much greater extent than any previous incumbents, judging from the latest accounts.

Chief amongst the reasons for the current level of debt has been the turnover of first team playing staff. Here, I have inserted a very simple table, which exemplifies the churn since Day was in situ:

2013/2014: Transfers In - 41 / Transfers Out - 34; Total - 75
2014/2015: Transfers In - 26 / Transfers Out - 22; Total - 48
2015/2016: Transfers In - 22 / Transfers Out - 19; Total - 41
2016/2017: Transfers In - 26 / Transfers Out - 23; Total - 49
2017/2018: Transfers In - 25 / Transfers Out - 23; Total - 48

Certainly, you can play devil’s advocate and attempt to rationalise just why the churn has been so astronomically high and between a factor of two and three greater than the nearest other EFL clubs in the same time period.

2013/2014:

In the summer of 2013, the then-manager Kevin Blackwell had next to no-one left on the books because of the massive uncertainty regarding the future of the business, so the numbers in were always going to be quite high. A lot of the recruitment was late in the close season and much of it had what felt like a scattergun approach attached to it, which would borne out once he was sacked and eventually replaced by David Flitcroft. The former Shakers midfielder trimmed much of the ‘fat’ that he deemed of not a sufficient standard and things stabilised for a short timeframe.

2014/2015:

Flitcroft was heavily backed by Day and with the stated aim of promotion after guiding the BL9 outfit to the comfort blanket of mid-table from the relegation area of mid-table during his tenure, he made several eye-catching signings. Few of the loan deals from the summer worked out as expected and the roster was given a further shot in the arm during the winter months, with an excellent run rallying the side to third place on the final day.

2015/2016:

In a higher tier, it was almost inevitable that further additions would be required. With the squad he assembled, Flitcroft and Day had raised expectations of another successful season. The injury to, and poor initial start by on-loan goalkeeper Christian Walton was the catalyst for a series of embarrassing deals, where if the stand-in custodian didn’t perform heroics on their first start, they were quickly dispensed with. A colossal downturn in form during the middle of the campaign precipitated more churn. The slide was eventually arrested.

2016/2017:

Discussed previously on my blog. In short, an extremely mixed bag of players drafted in were hampered both by horrendous injuries (which some ascribe to the training methods Flitcroft employed and Carrington as a facility itself) and by the manager’s complete lack of ability to turn things around. He was sacked (with a heavy heart) by Day and his eventual replacement Lee Clark didn’t come to the club until the January transfer window was already closed.

Lee Clark

Make no mistake, the manager is culpable as well. There is a maxim within football that a new manager will seek to assert his or her own identity on the club they are in charge of; this is normally demonstrated through the personnel they bring in to the backroom and most obviously, onto the pitch. Clark had a well-earned reputation at SPFL outfit Kilmarnock for a high turnover of players and, diplomatically speaking, he made… full use of both transfer windows at Rugby Park. It was for that phenomenon more than any other factor that I greeted his appointment at Bury with a high degree of scepticism.

That said, I was willing to get behind him to see what he had learned from his previous stints and I even read his ghost-written autobiography to garner a better understanding of the personality behind the fan favourite as a player in the 90s in the stands at Newcastle United. What emerged from the book for me was someone who was still very deeply attached to his roots and also from a managerial point of view, wanted his charges to replicate the sort of shape and attacking strategy Kevin Keegan was renowned for throughout the footballing world.

The first inklings that he would try to duplicate this particular gambit at Gigg Lane were when he was asked once survival was secured how he would ideally set his side out. He promised listeners a high tempo, high-press 4-4-2, with the wingers playing more like inside forwards and the central midfield two being employed as box-to-box to cover the gaps and shuttle the ball between the back and front four.

2017/2018:

I looked over the roster he assembled in some detail during July. I believed on the eve of the opening game that it was a goalkeeper (which he himself stated time and time again) and another box-to-box midfielder light; the latter in particular was crucial as it became plain for all to witness that the overarching tactic hinged on Stephen Dawson avoiding injury. The reactive nature of the shapes since have suggested that he didn’t feel as though he had the right type of player in his absence, hence the loan signing of Rohan Ince from Brighton & Hove Albion.

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Will we see Adam Thompson in the white and royal blue ever again? Clark’s fiery interview suggests it’s unlikely under him; the loan deal to Bradford has baffled supporters

The alarm bells rang for me when I saw a tweet from Sky Sports correspondent Pete O’Rourke suggesting that Adam Thompson was set to sign for Bradford City on loan. This is a player who had only been acquired earlier in the summer on a three-year deal, which was confirmed shortly afterwards. This is someone who is on duty for the senior Northern Ireland national team and is highly regarded, so the overall reaction to this move was extremely negative. The same can be said of Zeli Ismail’s temporary journey down the M6 to another divisional rival in the shape of Walsall.

In a revealing video interview published today, Clark attempted to justify the perceived shambles of deadline day by stating that six players refused to go out on loan and that the power ultimately lies with them, as well as tackling Thompson and Ismail’s departures head-on. It is impossible if you’re not a fly on the wall to verify his claims (especially when you only hear one version of events) but I would say that it’s a situation that he has helped to create and is unlikely to be because they enjoy training and being around the ‘Premier League’ facilities. To have that many players who are not part of your plans at a club like Bury does not augur well for harmony within the squad and an act of contrition from both player(s) and manager might be required if illness, injury and suspensions bite as the months go by.

He has probably regained the majority with his candid press conference but he will only keep them with a vastly improved set of results and performances during September. The ‘honeymoon period’ was almost wiped out overnight with the week’s events and as he says himself, “talk is cheap”.

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Clark was particularly cutting and almost aggressive when questioned about Ismail, citing his injury record and how players’ “talk is cheap – it’s delivering (performances) that matters”

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All of the above has happened under Day’s guise. He has sanctioned a grand total of 261 incoming and outgoing transfers up to and including last night in nine windows. You can put the first year of his stewardship down to naivety and ‘starting’ later than most other clubs after the fallout of the dying embers of 2012/2013 but after that, my sympathy evaporates. As many fans of the club are often figuratively beaten over the head with, Bury are not a well-supported side in terms of attendances and as a business, they are still largely reliant on gate receipts to make up the bulk of the income (I will talk about efforts to start to move the club into more diversified business model in another blogpost).

It is his responsibility downwards to ensure a coherent strategy is adhered to by the club; from the perhaps more mundane matters such as comms through the official website and social media, the annual saga with the kits releasing the last of any club in the top four tiers (and only sporadically available online) to how the club are perceived in the wider football and public spheres. The turnover in player is but one important issue; supporters have every right to continue to question his regime as at the moment to me at least, it feels like four years of chrysalis have taken place: Bury Football Club aren’t quite what they once were before his arrival but neither are they yet, in the best sense of the term, a slick operation fit for the challenges ahead in the 21st Century.

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Day has made many missteps as Bury chairman; however, I found him personable and erudite when I met him last season and a greater ‘public’ presence without pomp and ceremony would go some distance to building bridges with supporters

The extremely ephemeral nature of the players at the club I love bothers me much more than seeing a different formation frequently or players being ‘out of position’. It is indicative of a deeper uncertainty at the core and until it is addressed, it’s difficult to envisage how fans can be brought back on board and continually invest their time, effort and money without many grumbles or qualms.

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You’d be forgiven for believing that there wasn’t a match on tomorrow with all the tumult this week. Graham Alexander’s Scunthorpe United are the visitors to south Lancashire and it must be especially difficult for them to know what to expect from Clark. The Iron are in fine fettle in the league and mercilessly took apart 10-man Plymouth Argyle 4-0 in their last outing in the division.

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New loan signing Mihai Dobre will be absent with Romania U21s. Michael Smith, a target man added to the squad after his contract at Portsmouth, is unlikely to play any part just yet. Chris Maguire might make the bench, so even with a (still) bloated squad, a lot of the options pick themselves. Expect Clark to pack the midfield in the face of some swashbuckling, enterprising approach play from the visitors in green and black.

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Alexander can boast a side with 20 fit and ready choices raring to go. Lee Novak, signed on deadline day from Charlton Athletic, might get thrust straight into the action and he will be keen to demonstrate just why Clark retains a great fondness for him. Paddy Madden and Kevin van Veen are not exactly poor alternatives and it is tremendously difficult to see a weak link in that XI or on the bench, especially the trio behind the lone striker.

As for a prediction, I have to again plump for a win for the opposition. The more settled visitors are on a high and they have good reason to be. They might find it a touch harder to penetrate the Shakers’ midfield with Ince’s physicality in particular but should still prove to be too much at this moment in time. The lack of creativity and too much respect paid to the opposition by the hosts is another distinct worry, so I’m going for a 2-0 win for the Lincolnshire club.

The Vaughan Identity: Almost Impossible to ‘Replace’… So Don’t Try!

By now, you’ll have most likely seen the news that striker James Vaughan has left to join recently relegated Championship side Sunderland in a deal purported to be somewhere hovering just under the £1,000,000 mark in a dual announcement alongside Aiden McGeady, with new Black Cats manager Simon Grayson familiar with both players from spells in charge of Huddersfield Town and Preston North End respectively.

In previous years, Bury selling their top goalscorer would’ve caused alarm amongst supporters, most notably the 2011/2012 season when Ryan Lowe left very late in the summer transfer window to join Sheffield Wednesday without thorough research and due diligence being carried out on his ‘replacement’ in the form of Shaun Harrad by then-boss Richie Barker as the slow disassembling of the promotion-winning side started to take place.

On this occasion however, there isn’t the same ‘feeling’. Granted, George Miller has also departed to another north-east club in the form of Middlesbrough earlier today and will link up with their U23s squad (something Lee Clark previously swore wouldn’t happen under his watch, but how much real control he has over that side of the negotiations is debatable). That leaves a theoretical void of 32 goals to fill from just those two players leaving; some of that burden will fall squarely on the shoulders of Jermaine Beckford, who it is fair to say that not many people truly believed would end up partnering Vaughan in attack in 2017/2018. To a lesser extent, the responsibility will also lie with Tom Heardman and Jay O’Shea from the existing roster… but it appears Clark has made contingencies for the scenario of Vaughan leaving judging by a line from the official site’s article:

“Once they matched the Chairman's valuation for him, there was no turning back and he was on his way. We shook hands and wished him all the very best.James was very respectful for what Bury FC had done for his career, now my job is to replace him and we think we have done that with a player the fanswill enjoy.”

The man in question turned out to be Nicky Ajose, who I will do a separate ‘Scouting Report’ post on next week. He isn’t the same sort of striker as Vaughan but I think that will be to the benefit of the team. That doesn’t mean I’m suggesting that he’ll score more than his predecessor but that his presence in the side will give more breathing space to Beckford and make opposition managers think even more carefully about how to combat Bury’s numerous attacking threats.

When Leon Clarke left around this time last year for Sheffield United, it was much less clear to me where the goals were going to come from. Tom Pope was a lot of things but prolific in the third tier was not one of them and none of the other options at the time had the pedigree. Then Vaughan came in and very quickly won every supporter over not just with his obvious charisma and burgeoning goal tally but also his work rate and desire to always perform to the upmost of his abilities.

As a Bury fan, I’m used to the ephemeral nature of players coming and going through the doors of Gigg Lane, especially the ones that show promise or redeem themselves and are quickly Snatched away. That’s part and parcel of being a fan of a selling club. Even though he was only there for a season, the impact Vaughan had on the club as a whole cannot be understated… and the Shakers faithful can take heart that there appears to be a clear strategy from the current management for these eventualities. Time will tell whether their gambit will pay off.

You can also read my Q&A with popular Sunderland blog The Roker Report that I did the day before he signed for the Black Cats on how I think he will do back in the Championship.

Rolling the Dice: Are Bury’s First Three Signings of the Close Season the Shape of Things to Come?

I should preface this piece by saying that I believe all three signings thus far are (at the very least) good players. That should be self-evident from this post but read on for a slightly different take on events thus far.

The tendency in the lower leagues is that the more successful teams (whatever their aims are) make their moves early in the transfer window. Whilst far from an exact science, it allows the management at those clubs to have more time to instill whatever their particular ethos is in those individuals and the players in question familiarise themselves with their teammates, environment and training programmes and become well versed more quickly.

Bury manager Lee Clark spoke of the need recently to get business done early for the reasons listed above and in a fiercely competitive transfer market like England’s, it makes complete sense. He has targetted players that he believes are ‘winners’, either by gaining promotion from the third tier or by holding their own in the Championship, which is completely understandable given the stated aim of reaching the top six in 2017/2018. However, I did not expect three signings to arrive quite so early and there has already been a pattern that has emerged other than the ‘winners’ tag – their ages.

Let’s first look at the three signings in a little more detail:

Jermaine Beckford, 33

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2016/2017 stats (for Preston North End in all competitions): 525 minutes, 4 starts, 14 sub appearances; 1 goal, 1 assist.

Largely frozen out of the first XI by Lilywhites’ boss Simon Grayson, arguably his most memorable ‘contribution’ was this:

Moreover, his playing opportunities have been limited ever since their promotion in 2015 but he has demonstrated in several seasons that he is prolific in the third tier and there are definitely parallels with Leon Clarke in this regard. He has previously partnered James Vaughan when the pair were at Huddersfield Town and their time together was fruitful but brief. Still possessing considerable pace and power despite his age and with a decent weak foot, Beckford also revels in the same ‘advanced forward’ role that Vaughan does a, which can be a double-edged sword from a tactical point of view and I’ll explore that in my next blogpost in much more depth.

Fans of clubs he has been at previously are mostly complimentary, with concern reserved for the occasional lack of discipline and seemingly like almost every Bury signing these days, his injury proneness.

Phil Edwards, 31

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2016/2017 stats (for Burton Albion & Oxford United in all competitions): 4,588 minutes, 51 starts, 1 sub appearance; 5 goals, 0 assists.

By far the least ‘bombastic’ of the three on paper, Edwards will offer vast experience and direct competition to Craig Jones in the right full back role. Featured against the Shakers for Championship survivors Burton in the EFL Cup and was quickly loaned out to Oxford, where he was almost ever-present and an important part of their very respectable league finish and serious tilt at the EFL Trophy, only to fall to defeat in the final. Gained promotion with the Brewers in 2015/2016, which is a big tick in Clark’s box.

Edwards’ style is much more conservative than the ‘typical’ modern full back. He is neither likely to drive forwards recklessly, nor will he provide much in the way of telling crosses or overlapping runs. What he will do is help to organise the defence, dominate in the air against the vast majority of wide players and perhaps equally as importantly, offer a threat in the opposing penalty area. He can also operate more centrally if required.

I canvassed opinion on him too, with the one major failing in his game being a propensity to give away penalties. Which brings me on neatly to…

Stephen Dawson, 31

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2016/2017 stats (for Scunthorpe United): 4,164 minutes, 47 starts, 3 sub appearances; 2 goals, 5 assists.

A player that needs no introduction whatsoever to Bury fans, especially after the recent campaign. Between his first and second stints at Gigg Lane, he starred for all four of his sides and held his own in the Championship for Barnsley under both Keith Hill and David Flitcroft, the former of whom secured his signature for Rochdale in 2014 after his own return to the Spotland dugout.

Highly competitive and combative, Dawson will plug the gap in midfield that some supporters have felt was missing since… Dawson. Seven years on, his positional sense is much improved and he is better at providing protection for the defence. Still liable to pick up a high number of yellow cards and be in the referee’s ear frequently, which is a trait I deplore and I’m not going to change my mind just because he is back in BL9.

At 31, he shows no signs of slowing down and featured in nigh-on every game for Scunthorpe in 2016/2017. He was deployed in a wide midfield role to limited effect in recent matches and whilst he is not slow, he lacks the raw skill that is often demanded in such positions. Clark is effusive in his praise of the box-to-box midfielder, having revealed he has attempted to sign him on a couple of occasions earlier in his managerial career; he is also bullish about Dawson’s continued ability to carry the midfield for the duration of his three-year contract, stating that age is just a number and that conditioning is paramount.

Opinion

What is increasingly noticeable when looking at the squad at present is that the average age is shooting up, bearing in mind it was already reasonably high (as illustrated by this excellent Experimental 3-6-1 graph). There aren’t actually that many members who can be considered to be at their ‘peak’ ages, even accounting for their main roles in the table below:

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The list above is still likely to fluctuate substantially and so that caveat currently exists in my argument. Things could still change in that regard. However, I am becoming more concerned as the days go by as to the transfer policy that has been adopted by Clark and approved by chairman Stewart Day. There is nothing wrong with targetting ‘winners’ but the profile of such players, given Bury’s current standing on the football pyramid, will always tend to be on the older side and deemed surplus to requirements (Dawson is a noteable exception in the latter case). They are also next to improbable to be cheap to sign.

The club’s finances are well documented and it is a path trodden by several others, particularly on social media and the message board. I’ve tended to stay away from directly involving myself in the debate as I feel that there is realistically little I could do, were the worst ever to happen to the club. What it feels like at the moment though goes back to the title of this post – rolling the dice to gain promotion in 2017/2018 and putting the future of the football club at risk. Every team ‘gambles’ in one sense or another that the players they identify and subsequently sign are of greater or at least equal quality to the ones who depart for pastures new.

However, I come back to the player profile of the three above. There are almost certainly going to be more bodies incoming in the weeks and months ahead – three minimum by my estimations and with Clark’s track record, I doubt that will be all. Every ‘new’ management team inevitably shapes their squad in their own image but the churn already has been considerable. Whilst the academy is performing brilliantly in terms of its output and at least several of the current crop of U18s could still have a big say next season, there is a yawning gap opening between their age band and the over 30 group. The saleable assets in the light purple (‘peak’) above all have very spotty injury records and combined with the season Vaughan has just enjoyed, it makes me a lot less bullish than Clark is that he will still be here to partner Beckford.

The latest accounts submitted to Companies House show another substantial loss for Bury, with wages and salaries close to £4,000,000 for financial year 2015/2016. Whilst it should be noted that the quoted figure will include non-playing staff, it still seems extreme for a club that has had very moderate/low gates for half a century and does not yet possess a method of generating sufficient levels of income on non-matchdays. With the mooted new stadium still some way off (or being a smokescreen depending on who you listen to), that won’t change for at least several more years.

It is hard to understate just how much is being bet on promotion in order to fulfill Day’s dream of Championship football at Bury by the fifth anniversary of his stewardship of the club. If it is achieved, I will celebrate just like any other supporter would do so as it might mean the future is a little more secure in the longer term… but there are (higher) associated costs with participation in the second tier, despite the near-tenfold increase in solidarity payments from the Premier League.

An equilibrium must be sought quickly to alleviate the impending financial woes: promotion is only one half of the ‘puzzle’ and despite the excellent signings thus far, it is still in my mind an outside chance as things stand, with a tougher League One on the horizon. More care and a longer term consideration needs to be devoted to whoever the next players are to sign on the dotted line at Carrington. They need to be younger/coming up or just in their peak so that the greatest possible fee is recouped if they prove to be a success on the field.

Whilst no fan enjoys feeling that the star turns in the side are ephemeral, if that is what it takes to get the business (because it is a business unfortunately) on an even footing, then so be it. I have no shame whatsoever in wishing that the club was ran much more like near neighbours Rochdale. Unless there is a big shake-up in how money in the game in England is (re)distributed, then they remain one of the acts to follow.

I want Exile Jr., currently nearly 20 months old, to be a Bury fan too… but that is only going to be possible with a more prudent attitude towards transfers than is currently the reality. Promotion alone will not solve these problems.

The Retained List 2016/2017: What it Might Mean for Next Season

Last Friday, this season’s retained list was released by the club. I made my prediction on what it would be on the largest unofficial Bury message board as per below:

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The reality is largely in line with my forecast; in previous years, it’s been wildly different. Listening to Lee Clark’s rhetoric since being appointed manager, it has come as little surprise that so many have been released and whilst you could argue that 17 have still been retained from the first team playing squad, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they will all still be there come the opening weekend in August, especially in one or two specific cases.

It is also a mistake to assume that because a player has been released, it means that they’re not good enough. There are countless reasons why a manager/director of football chooses to take this action, including a different tactical approach, personality clash, player unhappiness, a player’s salary being too high or having a release clause in their contract in the event of relegation or another criteria not being achieved and so on.

As I set out in my previous post, I will now try to assess why the 11 who are being let go and then the six loanees who have returned to their parent clubs. For each one and in future squad reviews, I will state what their principal or most used role was at Bury/their previous club and where possible, what I believe their best role to be based on my own opinion from observing them during matches:

Contracted Players

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Anthony Dudley, 20

Principal role: Advanced Forward

Exile’s ‘Best’ role: Inside Forward

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2016/2017 Bury stats (all competitions): 180 minutes played, 2 starts, 4 sub appearances; 0 goals, 0 assists, 0 hockey passes.

Assessment: A player who undoubtedly performed well at U18 level, Dudley is another who has found the step up to professional football difficult despite high hopes being placed on him. His chances have been scant but he has witnessed both George Miller and Rob Harker move ahead of him and they are significantly younger. Successful loan spells at fifth tier sides Guiseley and Macclesfield have indicated that he has a future in the sport and it would be hasty to write him off completely just yet. Expect the Silkmen to make a move for him in the coming weeks.

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Kelvin Etuhu, 28 

Principal role: Central Midfielder

Exile’s ‘Best’ role: Ball-Winning Midfielder

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2016/2017 Bury stats (all competitions): 1,369 minutes played, 13 starts, 9 sub appearances; 2 goals, 0 assists, 1 hockey pass.

Assessment: Not achieved the level of consistency required to continue his time at Gigg Lane in the third tier. There have been purple patches where he has been deployed to great effect as a shield in front of the defence (when it was a back four) and even popped up with the odd goal or two. One of many utilised too quickly in wildly different roles as the season progressed. Hampered by injury and, after Clark’s arrival, out of favour even when fit and the team setup was crying out for some protection in midfield.

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Hallam Hope, 23

Principal role: Defensive Winger

Exile’s ‘Best’ role: Deep Lying Forward

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2016/2017 Bury stats (all competitions): 2,091 minutes played, 22 starts, 17 sub appearances; 5 goals, 3 assists, 2 hockey passes.

Assessment: Hasn’t progressed on the pitch since signing permanently after two loan spells from Everton. There is no questioning the level of effort he puts into every performance but the end product is sadly not there and his endeavours are often curtailed by a poor first touch. Too often, his anticipation let him down when a more predatory instinct in the penalty area was required on the occasions he found himself in such positions. Previous manager David Flitcroft often placed him in a wide left role where his endless running helped out Greg Leigh early in the season but not much was forthcoming from an attacking point of view. A return to Carlisle might be in the offing, especially if their play-off bid falls short later this month.

Bury v Charlton Athletic EFL Sky Bet League 1 6/08/2016. Jacob Mellis, 26

Principal Role: Central Midfielder

Exile’s ‘Best’ role: Roaming Playmaker

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2016/2017 Bury stats (all competitions): 3,210 minutes played, 36 starts, 5 sub appearances; 3 goals, 6 assists, 4 hockey passes.

Assessment: The most divisive individual on this list in terms of whether he should have been offered new terms to stay at Gigg Lane. Recovered from a generally poor first season at the club in 2015/2016 to form a brief but potent ‘box-to-box’ midfield partnership with Tom Soares, whose rhythm once broken up through injury and suspension was never quite the same. Almost always proved to be more effective as the spearhead of a three-man midfield as his penchant for not tracking back and rash tackles rankled many fans’ perceptions of him.

When at his best, he was the sole player (besides Callum Styles later on in the campaign) capable of creating something out of nothing from the middle of the park. Often attempted through balls, which were his calling card and when they came off, they were reminders of why he once played at a higher level. Playmakers often drift in and out of matches if their creative outlets are thin on the ground and Mellis was no exception to that. Beguiling and frustrating in equal measure, his release comes at a pivotal point in his career and also could serve as an indication of how Bury will set up for their Plan A in 2017/2018. I don’t think he will have a problem in finding a new club but he must work on his discipline and be used correctly by his new manager if he is to prove Lee Clark definitively wrong for releasing him.

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Niall Maher, 21

Principal Role: Limited Centre Back

Exile’s ‘Best’ role: Limited Full Back

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2016/2017 Bury stats (all competitions): 1,422 minutes played, 16 starts, 6 sub appearances; 1 goal, 0 assists, 0 hockey passes.

Assessment: He will be remembered for two things in years to come whilst in Bury colours: firstly, being the only player to score a direct free kick for the Shakers in the entire season. Secondly, for harshly conceding a penalty in the televised game against Bolton (as shown in the photo above). Ostensibly signed to provide cover initially, he was thrust into the first team picture by a defensive injury crisis and suffered a baptism of fire, where every mistake he made seemed to cost goals and points.

As with Nathan Cameron in his inaugural season several years ago, it is clear to me that there is a ‘player’ in there and with the right kind of coaching (especially with regards to defensive positioning), his abilities will come to the fore. Asked to slot in to too many roles and positions too quickly, he is nevertheless comfortable on the ball and a threat down the flank. He might have to drop down to come back up but in my view, he could still have a long-term future in the game.

rob-lainton107-3568386_231x264 Rob Lainton, 27

2016/2017 Bury stats (all competitions): 630 minutes played, 7 starts, 0 sub appearances; 12 goals conceded, 1 clean sheet; 0 assists, 0 hockey passes.

Assessment: The first of two players on this list to be released at the end of the previous season, only to be re-signed under Chris Brass’ temporary management. Impressive on his second debut to keep Fleetwood at bay (a turning point after a wretched, record-breaking losing run), he nevertheless lost his place to Joe Murphy when the Irish stopper from Huddersfield initially arrived on loan in January. Shot stopping has never been in question but there are persistent doubts about his temperament, which is equally important as ability in professional sport.

Propensity to be statuesque from long distance drives has decreased since his first stints in 2013 but hasn’t been able to achieve the high level of consistency required of a goalkeeper in the third tier. Emergency loan to Cheltenham earned him favourable reviews from Robins’ fans despite conceding three; long-term future could be at stake this summer and he needs to find a club that will invest their resources into making him their #1 and keeping him there through positive reinforcement.

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Reece Brown, 25

Principal Role: Anchor Man

Exile’s ‘Best’ role: Anchor Man

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2016/2017 Bury stats (all competitions): 586 minutes played, 7 starts, 0 sub appearances; 1 goal, 1 assist, 0 hockey passes.

Assessment: Another mixed bag for the much younger brother of Wes and the second of two on this list to be re-signed by Brass. It is my belief that football will (continue to) evolve to a state where almost all outfield players are utility men/women and he certainly embodies that now. Not quick enough to be a full back, his positional sense is best utilised in a deep-lying midfield role. Crumbled along with the rest of the midfield in a diamond shape against Rochdale, his legacy will be an indirect free kick goal that he didn’t mean. Competent, full of effort and carries himself in an understated manner.

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Jermaine Pennant, 34

Principal Role: Roaming Playmaker

Exile’s ‘Best’ role: Winger

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2016/2017 Bury stats (all competitions): 201 minutes played, 2 starts, 5 sub appearances; 0 goals, 0 assists, 0 hockey passes.

Assessment: The cynics who questioned his signing from day one were proven to be emphatically correct based on the limited evidence available. The only mitigating factor was being shoehorned into a more central role, where he seemed especially unsuited for, given the need for discipline, the ability to track back on the counter and be in positions to support team-mates and take the game to the opposition. His halcyon days are far behind him and had he been able to play in his more favoured role, Brass and subsequently Clark might have squeezed something productive out of him. The first half shambles against Oxford will continue to both give fans nightmares well into the foreseeable future and be a warning to Clark and chairman Stewart Day against signing players based on past glories and reputation rather than current (and potential) ability and effort.

Chris Brown, 32; Paul Rachubka, 35; Ishmael Miller, 30

2016/2017 Bury stats (all competitions) – Chris Brown: 0 minutes played, 0 starts, 0 sub appearances; 0 goals, 0 assists, 0 hockey passes.

2016/2017 Bury stats (all competitions) – Paul Rachubka: 90 minutes played, 1 start, 0 sub appearances; 3 goals conceded, 0 clean sheets; 0 goal, 1 assist, 0 hockey passes.

2016/2017 Bury stats (all competitions) – Ishmael Miller: 55 minutes played, 0 starts, 3 sub appearances; 0 goals, 0 assists, 0 hockey passes.

None of these three managed more than 90 minutes between them, so it’s difficult to really ‘assess’ any of them. In Chris Brown’s case, he was injured shortly after arriving and never even kicked a ball in training afterwards.

In Paul Rachubka’s case, the perennial substitute goalkeeper only signed for Bury because of Chris Kirkland needing time away from the game. His one appearance had him badly at fault for two of Oxford’s goals from set pieces but still managed to chalk up an assist of his own. He leaves the Shakers with only two senior goalkeepers on the books at present.

In Ishmael Miller’s case, the signing smacked of desperation by Flitcroft to bolster the one area of the pitch that really didn’t need it at the time. Out of shape and often injured (stop me if you’ve heard that sad, old refrain before), he made zero impact in his ephemeral time in Bury colours.

Loanees

Cameron+Burgess+Bury+v+Northampton+Town+Sky+jUnEhDrPqCsl Cameron Burgess, 21 (Fulham)

Principal Role: Centre Back

Exile’s ‘Best’ role: Centre Back

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2016/2017 Bury stats (all competitions): 1,620 minutes played, 18 starts, 0 sub appearances; 0 goals, 0 assists, 1 hockey pass.

Assessment: Spent the first half of the season at neighbours Oldham and whilst he was part of the meanest defences in the league, praise from their fans wasn’t exactly glowing. However, in a white shirt, he has barely put a foot wrong (with the exception of a mistimed header leading to Chesterfield’s goal in Clark’s first game in the dugout). His solidity and physicality were key additions to a defence that had lacked a bit from both columns in the prolonged absence of Nathan Cameron. Strong left foot provided much-needed balance to the back line and his positional sense helped Leigh feel more confident to bomb forward. With Fulham in the Championship play-offs and a one-year extension to his contract a possibility the Cottagers could look into, his immediate future is unclear. If he can improve his composure on the ball, the young Socceroo could eventually go to the highest level of the sport on merit and hopefully Bury can be a more permanent step on that journey.

bryan-website107-3302448_231x264 Kean Bryan, 20 (Manchester City)

Principal Role: Ball-Winning Midfielder

Exile’s ‘Best’ role: Anchor Man

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2016/2017 Bury stats (all competitions): 791 minutes played, 7 starts, 6 sub appearances; 0 goals, 0 assists, 1 hockey pass.

Assessment: Like Cameron Burgess, his presence helped bring balance to a squad bereft of natural left-footed players. Impressive when I saw him in person against MK Dons last September in a four-man defence that suffered two injuries in the same match, he kept his composure well. His horror tackle against Rochdale signalled a long hiatus, firstly through suspension and then injury. His eventual return wasn’t as promising but he was utilised in a number of different positions within quick succession. He needs a sustained run in a settled side next season but that is almost certainly not going to be with his parent club.

tom-walker-bury-4x3201-3348941_613x460 Tom Walker, 21 (Bolton Wanderers)

Principal Role: Winger

Exile’s ‘Best’ role: Winger (but slightly further forward)

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2016/2017 Bury stats (all competitions): 611 minutes played, 4 starts, 11 sub appearances; 0 goals, 0 assists, 1 hockey pass.

Assessment: Signed on loan to provide competition for Danny Mayor, he is another in need of regular senior appearances at this point in his career. He did have two highlights in his limited outings: a superb recovering tackle and cross to Tom Pope to provide the winner in the dying embers of the home match against Chesterfield and his run and finish against Bradford in the EFL Trophy. Almost certain to be released by Bolton following their immediate return back to the second tier.

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Taylor Moore, 19 (Bristol City)

Principal Role: Wing Back

Exile’s ‘Best’ role: Ball-playing Centre Back

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2016/2017 Bury stats (all competitions): 1,574 minutes played, 18 starts, 1 sub appearance; 0 goals, 2 assists, 0 hockey passes.

Assessment: Tasked almost exclusively with playing an unfamiliar role, Moore acquitted himself very well. Oddly better at crossing with his left foot, he was mostly ineffective in the final third but understandably so given his preferred position and career thus far. Excellent with the ball at his feet and comes across very intelligently and eloquently during interviews, he needs to work on his left side and positioning in order to make the step up and claim a more permanent spot in Lee Johnson’s XI at Bristol City.

tom-beadling-profile107-3568371_231x264  Tom Beadling, 21 (Sunderland)

Principal Role: Ball-playing Centre Back

Exile’s ‘Best’ role: Half Back

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2016/2017 Bury stats (all competitions): 180 minutes played, 2 starts, 0 sub appearances; 0 goals, 0 assists, 0 hockey passes.

Assessment: Opportunities dented by a vastly improved defence during the latter days of Brass and then Clark, he performed admirably during captain Antony Kay’s suspension. His penchant for carrying the ball out from the back during admittedly limited viewing time suggests someone who could fulfill a role higher up the pitch and slot in as an auxiliary centre back if his side are under pressure. Like many of Sunderland’s younger players, he has not been given any chances at his parent club and the tumult surrounding the Black Cats at present after an early relegation to the Championship. A repeated refrain on these pages, he needs minutes in a competitive environment to help reach his potential.

Sylvain Deslandes, 20 (Wolverhampton Wanderers)

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2016/2017 Bury stats (all competitions): 0 minutes played, 0 starts, 0 sub appearances; 0 goals, 0 assists, 0 hockey passes.

Assessment: Hmm. Not much can be said without a single minute on the pitch. Was his presence helpful in pushing Greg Leigh to greater heights because he had genuine competition on the left flank? It’s impossible to know for certain. All I hope is that it doesn’t dissuade Paul Lambert and Wolves from loaning their young players in the future as their academy is one of the better ones outside of the Premier League.

Conclusion

With the exceptions of Mellis and Hope, none of the contracted players featured in even half of the games in 2016/2017, with injuries continually decimating the squad. The aforementioned pair’s exit suggests a change of direction in how Bury will shape up during 2017/2018. Clark is known to favour two ‘box-to-box’ midfielders and two forwards, which limits the scope for playmakers in such a system and forwards who have been played as defensive wingers for extended periods of time and shorn of confidence. The two in the middle will need to emulate Soares and Mellis’ early season performances but on a more consistent, sustained basis if what I believe comes to fruition. Tsun Dai has been promoted from the youth team and as he can fulfill a number of roles throughout the centre of midfield well (and even on the right flank), his versatility is likely to be one of the main reasons why he and he alone from the second year scholars who didn’t feature for the first team has been retained.

Creativity is more likely to be sought from the wings and one of the strikers. With James Vaughan almost certain to leave for a bigger club, Tom Pope’s future uncertain, Ryan Lowe all but retired, Brown, I. Miller and Hope released (as well as mobile target man Nathan Turner from the U18s), the forward line is likely to undergo almost as big a shake-up as ‘the engine room’.

In my next blogpost, I will review the season month-by month and subsequent to that, look at the retained players (as well as the U18s likely to feature), assess their performances from 2016/2017 where possible and see how they can improve and also where they are likely to be used.

Churn! Churn! Churn! (To Everything Twice A Season)

In a somewhat unexpected turn of events, Bury announced Lee Clark as their new manager on Wednesday afternoon after the club agreed a ‘compensation package’ with SPFL side Kilmarnock for his services on a two and a half year deal. It marks the first time in my lifetime of supporting the club (from early 1994) that they have hired a manager who was already in post elsewhere.

Much more important than that however is the timing of this change. It could be argued on the face of it that former head coach Chris Brass was improving results as of late (if not performances). There are 14 games to get their collective heads back above water and it is certainly not an insurmountable task given the number remaining.

What doesn’t fill me with joy is Clark’s previous managerial record. There are certainly caveats you can place on his spells in charge of Birmingham and Blackpool but it isn’t so much the mixed results that concerns me as much as the ‘churn’ of players, with an eye-watering number of arrivals  into Killie’s first team squad and, like Bury, a large number also arrived in the January transfer window. Somewhat predictably, Clark justified this in his first press conference as Bury manager by stating that he’d managed to get his former into the top six on the back of his extensive recruitment.

Undoubtedly, another summer of tumult is going to take place at Bury, regardless of which division they find themselves in. The Shakers have 11 players out of contract in the summer in almost every position on the pitch:

  1. Rob Lainton, GK
  2. Andrew Tutte, CM
  3. Jacob Mellis, CM/CAM
  4. Ishmael Miller, ST
  5. Jermaine Pennant, RM
  6. Kelvin Etuhu, CDM/CM
  7. Paul Rachubka, GK
  8. Chris Brown, ST
  9. Reece Brown, CB/CDM
  10. Ryan Lowe, ST
  11. Niall Maher, CB/RB

The above list doesn’t include the seven loanees or second year scholars from the youth academy who have featured in the first team like the very highly rated Callum Styles. Clark is well within his rights to stamp his own authority on the squad and bring in (and ship out) whoever he sees fit to, of course. It is likely that there’ll be players in addition to the list above leaving as a result of his assessment and for a plethora of other reasons individual to their own set of circumstances. It’s also important not to forget that they have now had three different men in charge of them in just four months and that is likely to have an adverse effect on confidence and knowing whether you’re still going to be employed after the curtain has come down on 2016-2017, regardless of current contract length.

Combining Clark and Bury chairman Stewart Day’s penchant for player churn is going to be a major concern for next season and beyond. The latter is quick to talk about long-term planning and there has definitely been success with regards to anything below the first team on a playing side. The financial grumblings many fans have are unlikely to go away anytime soon, not least because Bury had to pay compensation to Kilmarnock for Clark and cancelling contracts of existing Bury players and enlisting many new ones is unlikely to come cheaply; the last few years of public accounts are testament to that.

I am a firm believer that it is good coaching that can improve a team more noticeably and sustainably over a longer period of time than simply getting rid of someone if they’re not immediately up to scratch, particularly younger players at or near the start of their playing careers. Modern day football is ill-suited to this approach, even at Bury’s level. If a few games are lost in sequence, a lot of supporters immediately question the competency of the manager… and most boardrooms are not far behind. Not every problem has a workable solution and personalities (and egos) will always clash in life; football has a tendency to magnify these frictions given how much out of it is played out in the public eye and often when adrenaline is also high.

To that end, I’m of the opinion that for Clark to be successful at Bury, he must be given time by fans and the board alike. He must also have a slightly different relationship with Day than was the case with David Flitcroft. Flitcroft, arguably the most successful Bury manager this century, still had many flaws, not least of which was being able to adapt tactically if things were not working out and moreover, the churn of players that plagued his reign. Clark must be allowed one clean sweep of both coaching and playing staff and then told that only fewer, more organic changes can be made to help run the club on a more even keel and to get the best out of the resources he has at his disposal.

Both chairman and manager must be able to say ‘no’ to each other without it causing too much tension in their working relationship. Clark must say ‘no’ to any interference in the playing side of things, which has been alleged under Brass’ stewardship. Day must also say ‘no’ to Clark wanting to sign too many players after the summer transfer window is over and to any attempts to change how the youth academy is run, which would be detrimental to the long-term survival of the club.

His job starts in earnest against Chesterfield tomorrow. He is unlikely to have any players returning from injury fit enough to start against the Spireites at the Proact Stadium, but the likes of Danny Mayor, Kean Bryan and Ishmael Miller might be in contention for a place on the bench. Another unknown is what strategy he will adopt from game to game to ensure survival, other than a “winning one”. As a result, the predicted XI involves a little bit of guesswork, coupled with Tom Pope looking off-colour in the past few outings:

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As for the hosts, their only success this season in the league has come against the only team currently below them, the much beleaguered Coventry City. Their shape as of late has flitted between a fairly defensive 3-5-2 without the ball to a more standard, rigid 4-4-2, especially in home matches. Infamous striker Ched Evans will miss out through injury and, much like most other sides down at the bottom with the exception of Bury, they have found goals difficult to come by, averaging less than one a game.

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Chesterfield like to keep the ball down on the deck than perhaps most teams at the lower end of League One. Expect David Faupala, on loan from Manchester City, to lead the line but whilst he has a strong aerial presence, isn’t a target man by trade and possesses a good amount of pace. Reece Mitchell and Dan Gardner, another name familiar to Bury fans, will look to join in the attacks and look to cut inside to offer support to the strikers. Ian Evatt is always a threat at set pieces and Dion Donohue is as comfortable bombing up the left flank as he is stopping crosses coming in, so it will be interesting to see where he plays and if anyone is pitted directly against him (most likely Jermaine Pennant).

It’s hard to know exactly what to expect from this encounter: both teams desperately need the points and Lee Clark’s appointment has thrown a spanner in the works in terms of preparation for the match. I think he will opt for a slightly more attacking style and match up the Derbyshire outfit in midfield in terms of numbers. Another tight one is on the cards but I’m predicting a 2-1 triumph for Bury. Exile Jr. is much more confident, plumping for a 4-0 shellacking!