Bury manager Chris Lucketti will be making his home debut for the second time but on this occasion, in the dugout as his side welcome AFC Wimbledon to Gigg Lane. As you’d expect under new stewardship, the atmosphere surrounding the playing side of the club is more positive than at any recent juncture preceding his appointment. The addition of Joe Parkinson as his assistant seems to have gone down well amongst the supporters; ultimately though, they will be judged on the immediate future in terms of league results.
I don’t foresee any changes from the victory over Walsall in the EFL Trophy first knockout stage last Saturday, presuming Greg Leigh is feeling fit. A more than competent team display with the different units actually resembling units was the order of the day; Nicky Ajose underlined his credentials to carry the burden whilst Jermaine Beckford edges closer to fitness and seemed to have fostered a decent understanding with Michael Smith; a high press against the visitors could reap dividends, particularly if Jay O’Shea can find some space and play it between the compact lines. The early signs augur well under Lucketti’s guidance but it will be a different sort of test tomorrow.
His opposite number Neal Ardley has had what I would consider exactly the sort of 2017/2018 I expected from AFC Wimbledon, hovering just above the drop-zone and finding a reliable source of goals extremely difficult to come by. There have been notable wins (especially in the cups against Tottenham Hotspur, who they will face in the third round of the FA Cup after dispatching rivals Charlton Athletic last week) but consistency has been a huge issue. They of course had to deal with several high-profile departures in the summer and much of the craft and finesse witnessed last year has disappeared along with them.
Their style is very direct (even more so than in 2016/2017). Loanee George Long has been one of the better performers in League One between the sticks and doesn’t have any major weaknesses; the back four are all well-drilled, imposing in the air and content to sit very deep. Jon Meades’ long-throws have some potency, so the Shakers will need to watchful in those situations. The sitting midfield two of Tom Soares and Liam Trotter shuttle amiably when out of possession and provide good cover for their teammates.
Lyle Taylor’s pace can hurt plenty of sides and he will look to get as close as possible to Cody McDonald when the ball is punted up to the latter; his five goals are proof positive of his ability in an outfit that have the fewest shots on target in the entire division. Andy Barcham will look to do the same as Taylor, peeling off from the right to profit from knock-downs and draw markers towards him.
As for a prediction, I’m going for a 2-1 win to the hosts. There is no doubt that AFC Wimbledon will put up a substantial fight in tomorrow’s encounter (assuming the weather stays cold but clear and the game is fine). They should have the measure of Smith in the air but as he proved last time out, if Ajose can prove to be an effective partner for him, his lay-offs might be enough to unlock a dogged and resolute backline.
A more defensively resolute display formed the backbone of a second clean sheet in a week and enabled Chris Lucketti to avoid defeat in his maiden game as Bury manager against relegation rivals Northampton Town at Sixfields. Harry Bunn’s absence through injury meant an enforced change to the starting XI and the more conservative Callum Reilly had plenty to do in the first period; a costly error in possession almost let through the evergreen Marc Richards in an advanced area; the veteran striker was in the thick of it once more and should’ve done much better in the six-yard area from a whipped cross by Brendan Moloney but conspired to shoot straight at Leo Fasan.
Matt Crooks, in unfamiliar territory on the left flank, got into good positions all game and showed some quick feet and at times bamboozled Phil Edwards with his dribbling ability and his cutback was eventually stopped on the line by Eoghan O’Connell. Similarly, Matt Grimes’ set pieces always looked a threat and former Shaker Leon Barnett would’ve been disappointed not to hit the target with a towering header from his teammate’s corner.
Michael Smith bemoaned the number of missed opportunities the side that started the day at the foot of the table had but didn’t convert when they eventually gained a foothold in the encounter. As usual, he was the most guilty of spurning clear cut openings, although having had a second look at his looping header over Matt Ingram, I’m not sure there was much more he could’ve done from that position and if he had volleyed the ball, the odds would’ve been slimmer of a goal.
Rohan Ince continued his recent improvement with a box-to-box role befitting his attributes. He was the lynchpin in Bury’s midfield and quick one-twos enabled him to get in behind his opponents’ defence on two occasions. The former of these was the more presentable and an extra touch could’ve been taken to gain greater control of the ball. Nevertheless, he has played himself back into contention for a place beside Stephen Dawson once he returns from injury in the next few weeks.
The game wasn’t a dour affair by any means but wouldn’t have been the result Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink in particular was after; the Cobblers have failed to score in the entire month of November and what they would’ve previously thought was an eminently winnable fixture was made tougher by Lucketti’s appointment and the first signs of his hand at work in defensive organisation. A two-week break has now started between Saturday’s fixture and the next league match for either side and there should be some key players back once another ball in the third tier is kicked. For Lucketti, it represents a lengthy period in which to instil his philosophy into the squad and also to progress into the latter stages of the EFL Trophy away at Walsall. How he handles that tie could give us an inkling into his plans for the busy winter schedule subsequent to that match.
Caretaker player-manager Ryan Lowe swatted aside the notion that tonight’s FA Cup replay against fifth tier Woking was ‘an unwanted fixture’, doubtlessly in the knowledge that advancement into the second round at home to Peterborough United or Tranmere Rovers represents an eminently winnable tie and passage to a potentially lucrative, high-profile encounter in the third.
Several players staked their claim in Saturday’s ultimately disappointing 1-1 draw away at Gillingham to be considered from the start, particularly in midfield areas where no quarter will be given by their opponents, just as they demonstrated in the original match. Neil Danns is almost certain to be involved once more and will be looking to ingratiate himself with the home crowd by delivering another stirring performance. Rohan Ince’s presence should add more combativeness to the middle of the pitch, an area often overrun by the Cards last time out.
Nicky Ajose’s horizontal movement should give the men in yellow much more to think about and he is more apt to shoot from distance than most other forwards for the Shakers. Support from Jay O’Shea will be crucial in maintaining an attacking rhythm.
Anthony Limbrick’s charges have only had the one match (to their hosts’ three) since the game in Surrey, which was a hard-fought but dour 0-0 draw at FC Halifax Town. Kane Ferdinand is back from the suspension that kept him out of the original fixture and he will be the lynchpin in midfield. The temptation for them would be to sit deep and hit their League One opponents on the break but I have a feeling there’ll be a little more nuance to their strategy than that and at times, they will be looking to be on the front foot themselves.
As for a prediction, I’m going to go with a 2-1 win for Bury… after extra time. Under Lowe, there has been a steady improvement in the general performance levels but there is still a weakness late on in games, particularly from set pieces, that Woking could exploit. They have the physicality to make it another uncomfortable one and Inih Effiong will still be relishing getting in amongst the centre backs. Victory is vital for the 39 year-old’s standing with the board and it is equally so for the club as a whole; a truly abject record in the oldest domestic cup competition in my lifetime needs addressing this season and, just like in the last campaign, the opportunity is there. On this occasion, they simply have to grab it.
Neil Danns followed up a man-of-the-match showing in the midweek EFL Trophy match against Stoke City U23s with another strong performance away at Gillingham on Saturday. His power, coupled with Rohan Ince’s height and physicality, really had their opposite numbers on the run in the first half and it was noticeable how the home side, already in the ascendancy in the second period, found more time and space on the ball in midfield once he had been taken off (presumably because he started consecutive games after a long time in the doldrums). The manner in which he just about stayed onside, checking his run from Eoghan O’Connell’s delightful through ball from the back, was pleasing to see, as was his decision to shoot across goal for the opener. He has been previously maligned by former management and many fans and it will take more than one or two good games to rectify perceptions. However, his interview after the game was very open and honest and it certainly shed some light on events at the club. That dynamism will be needed for the FA Cup replay tomorrow against a Woking side with nothing to lose.
Michael Smith once again fluffed his lines but there are a lack of reinforcements currently available; Jermaine Beckford did not make the squad, caretaker manager Ryan Lowe is unlikely to select himself and Chris Maguire is probably not seen as someone who leads the line, rightly or wrongly. Presentable chances came both his and Nicky Ajose’s way but they didn’t make the most of them. The latter has proven throughout his career that, given sustained runs in a side, he can score a good amount of goals. Smith has yet to prove that and with a more dynamic-looking midfield behind him, all of a sudden, his role looks a little one-paced and perhaps not the right fit at the moment.
The marking for Josh Parker’s goal was slack, regardless of whether it was Greg Leigh or Smith’s duty. The number of late goals conceded must be a cause for concern for Lowe and it’s difficult to suggest that it’s down to one factor alone. The Gills dominated for large swathes of the second half, thanks in part to the introduction of Conor Wilkinson alongside the hustle of Tom Eaves, who has developed significantly his all-round game since his loan spell with the Shakers several years ago. Wilkinson put the defenders under significant pressure and his positive attitude caused problems whilst also giving his teammates another outlet to aim for.
Plymouth Argyle’s highly surprising win at Bradford City means Bury are now bottom of the league for the first time in 2017/2018… but I don’t think it’s time to panic. Strides forward have been made under Lowe’s stewardship and whilst that shouldn’t be taken as an endorsement at this moment in time for the permanent gig, it should nevertheless be recognised. Three tough home matches in a week give him a chance to rotate some of his selections, with tomorrow’s replay the only one in which they are expected to win. Any kind of result against both Blackburn Rovers and high-flying Shrewsbury Town, especially if performances levels are as they have been in the last two games, should bolster his case. Perhaps more experience is required in the coaching setup itself but if the players keep responding to his leadership, morale could be negatively affected by an external appointment, especially if that person chooses to terminate his contract.
Apologies to the faint of heart (or, well, any Bury fan at the moment) for the ghoulish image but it seemed apt for the time of year!
Bury’s disastrous, howling shambles of a season lurched to a new level of bleakness on Saturday with perhaps the most lifeless, gutless, spineless performance seen by the hosts at Gigg Lane this century (despite numerous, extremely stiff competition in that regard), especially given the now dire standing in the league table after 16 games. Only Plymouth Argyle are keeping the Shakers from propping up the division and even their results have been more encouraging recently. The players appeared shockingly low on confidence and simply had no clue how to set about the task of overcoming Doncaster Rovers even before Jermaine Beckford’s injury and Eoghan O’Connell’s deserved red card after being utterly bamboozled by John Marquis.
Admittedly, being a man down for an entire half would be a tough ask for any side but thanks to Clark’s lack of tactical nous, they never even laid a glove on Donny and when the inevitable winner came from a set piece, it prompted an exodus from the stadium and belatedly, chants calling for the manager to be removed from his post came from the contingent still present against their better judgement. Supporters have in fact been very patient and are not apt to blithely vent their anger mere games into a new chief’s tenure. 19 matches into 2017/2018 and the current incumbent’s record reads:
Won 4, Drawn 3, Lost 12, For 18, Against 29
Relative to any other manager in my 24 years of following the club, he has been backed in the transfer market more than any of them and yet has led his charges to a lower position than when he was appointed. The squad as a collective must shoulder some of the blame for their predicament but I would hypothetically swap Clark for any other permanent manager during those nearly two and a half decades of support.
Mike Walsh made some astute signings but ultimately led Bury to play-off final failure, a match so bad for anyone donning the white and royal blue that a fox running onto the old Wembley pitch was the highlight of the day. He failed to recover from that ‘hangover’ and was sacked after suffering a 5-0 reverse at home against Plymouth.
His replacement, Stan Ternent, was not exactly welcomed with any pomp and ceremony… but the rest is history.
Neil Warnock made many, many hugemissteps (especially with signings and donning attire of certain other clubs during his time), but his sides were generally hard to beat, if bereft of goals and invention. He resigned to take over at Sheffield United in the least surprising managerial move I can recall.
Andy Preece had a penchant of throwing himself on whilst player-manager in the dying minutes to ensure he drew the maximum salary from the club. He had a tough job (especially during administration). Ultimately, he was let go because of cost-cutting measures but he came back to haunt his former employers on several occasions with Carlisle United.
Graham Barrow was exactly what Rochdale fans at the time warned he would be: a long-ball merchant but without the results to back up his tactics and the football served up was generally dour. He did oversee the emergence of talent like David Nugent and Colin Kazim-Richards into the senior setup on a regular basis. A single win in the first 10 of 2005/2006 sealed his fate, however.
Chris Casper was someone I wanted to do well. Praised for his work with the U18s, he was promoted to stewardship of the first team. A comeback 3-2 victory against now-defunct Darlington ensured Bury’s 114-year league status was preserved but not without a point being deducted for fielding an ineligible player. This ‘feat’ was repeated a season later in the FA Cup, which meant the Shakers were denied a place in the third round. Nobly, he offered to resign but this was rejected by the board at the time. Bizarrely, his contract was extended after a long, winless run in March 2007. In an ironic twist, he was sacked before a replay against Norwich City at Gigg Lane, which shockingly, they won to secure passage to the fourth round.
Alan Knill did not deliver the success he ought to have done. Given every backing by the board, he rallied his troops upon his appointment to an almost unthinkable 13th place in less than four months, playing an enterprising, attacking 4-4-2 shape in almost every single encounter. The following season, a deviation in the closing stages from his oft-repeated ‘if you can’t win, don’t lose’ maxim might have yielded the points and/or goals necessary to achieve promotion. In the end, they fell short by a goal difference of one when parity would’ve made all the difference. One of the most-one sided play-off semi second legs ended in the most gut-wrenching of penalty shoot-out defeats. A total collapse in form from February 2010 onwards meant the Shakers missed out on the play-offs altogether. He jumped ship the following year at a similar interval to Scunthorpe United.
Richie Barker is still the most ‘successful’ man in post since Stan Ternent. Doubtlessly with the help of senior players like Efe Sodje and Ryan Lowe, he took the shell-shocked group to at one point within a whisker of the League Two title, securing promotion at eventual champions Chesterfield on their turf. Arguably, he had his legs cut from under him by the transfer deadline day sale of Lowe to Sheffield Wednesday in the subsequent campaign but free agents such as Mike Grella steadied the ship when the goals and points were drying up. A finish of 14th (goal difference from top half) remains the highest placing since relegation from the second tier in 1998/1999. He left to take over the then-cash rich Crawley Town on the eve of the new season.
Kevin Blackwell was extremely difficult to like when in post, but if Barker had his legs cut off him by the board, he had his hands amputated as well. It was a common sight for the bench to only have two from a possible seven on it and the Shakers were relegated with a winding-up petition against them. This was the point when Stewart Day took over and a whole slew of signings were made in a late close season rush. Many of them were found to be sub-standard and he was relieved of his post. He had roughly the same record as Clark now does…
David Flitcroft was a bit of a Marmite character. Under him, there were plenty of highs but also some frightening depths. He secured promotion in his first full season but was unable to really kick on despite some of the players he was allowed to sign. His inability to find an effective plan ‘b’ when hampered by injuries was what I believe sealed his fate and the 5-0 drubbing by AFC Wimbledon in the FA Cup made it impossible for Day not to sack him despite the public vote of confidence he received a week prior.
All of the above, with the obvious exception of Ternent, had major flaws of at least one sort of another but in spite of that, I would swap him for any of the others on that list. Not even Flitcroft was endorsed so much by Day as Clark has been when it comes to shaping his own squad and backroom staff. That of course makes it harder in some ways for him to be disposed of and I’m sure the injury (and eventual return) of Stephen Dawson will massively help give a stagnant midfield a boost. However, he has not demonstrated whatsoever even an inkling of an ability to get the most out of what I still maintain is the most talented roster since the time of ‘Stan the Man’, nor did he recruit when he had the chance for the contingency of Dawson being unavailable. The conservatism on display betrays where many of the players’ strengths and whilst there are areas of concern (which I’ll touch on in another post), he’s currently making a mockery of what ought to have been the best season in 20 years and it would only have needed a finish of 13th or higher to achieve that. My own pre-season prediction was relatively cautious amongst both the fanbase and pundits at large.
I take no pleasure in wanting someone to lose their job. That said, the time is now for a replacement to be found. Now whilst the likes of Chris Maguire, Jay O’Shea and Harry Bunn are still on the books. Now whilst there’s a decent chance of at least getting to the next round in two cup competitions. Now whilst Bury are not yet hopelessly cut adrift at the bottom of the league. The financial penalties will be large for making the decision but they will be even worse if the current course is continued. When even season ticket holders in large numbers are staying away from Gigg Lane, Day must be keenly aware of the precarious situation he finds himself in.
Even in the space of eight weeks, the general feeling at Bury Football Club has slid even further. The largest online forum, once a hive of vitriolic activity on the frequent occasions the team lost, is now a much more ambivalent place to visit and this is also reflected in the stands at Gigg Lane. In previous years, yet another limp defeat would’ve been the catalyst for a vociferous outcry against the manager. No-one I’ve spoken to wants Lee Clark to remain in post a minute longer but the discontent amongst fans is… muted in how it is manifesting itself.
For me personally, there is an anger at seeing the current squad, which, not without its weaknesses, are being really poorly utilised by the current coaching staff. The difference between the talent within it and actual results is the widest I’ve ever known it to be in 24 seasons of following the club. However, even that emotion isn’t what it could be, nor is it directed at just the man in charge of team selection, tactics and transfers. I am angry that the chairman Stewart Day has allowed things to become so toxic that supporters who have been going many more decades than I have and who still have the means to watch the team week in, week out, are reconsidering that arrangement or have already made the decision to sadly stay away.
Of course, these occurrences arguably happen whenever someone is fed up for a long period of time with performances but I think this time, it’s something deeper and points to a more fundamental disconnect with Bury and arguably, the sport itself. As everyone knows (and those who follow teams who can call on larger fanbases often point out), the third tier side at the northern point of the Manchester conurbation have seldom enjoyed a groundswell of people through the turnstiles, so when it becomes more than a handful of die-hards, it’s very noticeable.
Additionally, I don’t believe that simply dismissing Clark will solve the growing problems at Gigg Lane but it nevertheless is a completely necessary step to take before, not after, tomorrow’s match away at local rivals Oldham Athletic. The perceived reluctance to do so (which many link to the pair’s strong connections to Huddersfield Town) only prolongs the profound sense of disillusionment many now have.
As I’ve said before, it isn’t just with matters on the pitch but how things are off it. There is a big disconnect between most staff and customers and even a cursory perusal through some of the stories online, which even if some were embellished, still paints a damning picture. I confess I readily accepted the idea of football clubs being ‘businesses’ many years ago but to that end, it’s only viable (and even close to solvent) if it retains the current level of customers or ideally, adds to them. Ignoring hand-written letters by people who have supported the club in a timespan of many decades is just soul-destroying.
Once again, mooted talk of a new stadium being built ‘within three years of 2017’ has gone quiet. The implications of such an idea are wide-reaching for the town as a whole but people are still really none the wiser as to if it will ever become a reality, let alone how it will be financed. It’s symptomatic of the current regime, often over-promising and under-delivering on a whole plethora of schemes. Before too long, even well-intentioned announcements in public receive the cold shoulder because just as with how 2017/2018 is going, the gap between expectation and reality is massive.
I am the researcher for Football Manager 2018 (so please direct your bile to me when it releases!). As you can imagine, there is a ridiculous level of detail involved in that, from superfluous things like a player’s skin complexion to the much more pertinent bank balance conundrum. I was asked by my superior how a club with no major revenue streams currently outside of matchdays can possibly afford the likes of Harry Bunn, Jermaine Beckford et al. I have no answer for that and the general confusion around this aspect only serves to further drive a wedge between the board and the only stakeholders who really ultimately matter: the fans.
Whilst this blogpost is not quite as pretentious/pointless as an open letter, if someone with influence in the club does happen to come across these pages, I would like them to consider what I’ve written: the chairman needs to have a radical rethink of where the club is going, how this is communicated and most importantly of all, how to get the small but actually very loyal core support back onside. Clark’s removal is but one piece of the puzzle. A much more open, humbler approach is also required. Few hold Day’s Championship ‘dream’ against him. In these times of mega-money sloshing about the game but only really being distributed amongst a small cabal, Bury cannot afford to lose their best and main source of income. The problems are bigger than just one team in the third tier but there is still much that can be done to eliminate or minimise them now.
I suggested to the club two years ago to conduct detailed research into what exactly the ‘average’ supporter and citizen of the metropolitan borough wants from them. Whilst not a panacea, it would go a long way now to bridging the gap many sorely feel before it becomes irreversible.
All things considered, the current state of affairs is a drain on my enthusiasm to write reviews of games, not because the Shakers are frequently losing (although that doesn’t help!) but because it just feels like there’s an air of acceptance about it instead. On Saturday, it was a relatively even contest decided by a moment of magic from Southend United’s Ryan Leonard, who I warned about in the strongest terms during my preview. The current system does not play to the squad’s strengths and a change of tack is required tomorrow. Another loss would surely even force Day’s hand in this matter.
Blackpool boss Gary Bowyer will be looking to preserve the Seasiders’ unbeaten home record in League One this season as his charges welcome fellow Lancastrians Bury to Bloomfield Road. The hosts are sitting comfortably in mid-table and with the astute acquisition of Jay Spearing, they now possess two of the best passing central midfielders in the third tier. The former Bolton Wanderers box-to-box player will look to dovetail his role with captain Jimmy Ryan and provide ammunition for Nathan Delfouneso, nominally starting out wide (and who might swap flanks with Callum Cooke on the odd occasion) and Kyle Vassell. Like the club overall, the striker has made a promising start in League One, notching five goals this term. In the same build as most target men, he actually has the pace to go along with it and through him, they will seek to take the game to the Shakers and former leader Tom Aldred.
Chris Humphrey’s knock could open the door to Jordan Williams’ reemergence in the starting XI. Jay O’Shea might also be named in favour of Chris Maguire as Lee Clark looks to integrate the talented forward back into a hectic schedule of fixtures. Once more, most of the attacking thrust will come from the wing-backs regardless of who lines up on the right flank. Callum Reilly and Josh Laurent will need to prove that their competent showing as a unit up against Bradford City was no one-off because their opponents this evening are arguably equally blessed in that department. Granted, Spearing is likely to tire in the second half as he himself regains match sharpness but it will be up to the duo to shackle him and Ryan in particular from supplying their quick frontline.
As for a prediction, I’m going to plump for a 2-1 win to the visitors, which will mark their first three points on the road in 2017/2018. Doubtlessly, Bowyer has the tactical nous to hurt his opposite number but I’m optimistically hoping that Clark can start to utilise the numerous cards in his deck and string together a series of results to propel Bury up the standings. We shall see later this evening.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
On Sunday’s evidence however, Lee Clark’s admission that his side had “limped over the line” was an understatement. The Shrimpers managed to keep the attacking trio of James Vaughan, Tom Pope and Ryan Lowe extremely quiet and the visitors didn’t manage a single shot on target, which is a particularly damning statistic given the very high stakes of the match. In contrast to my preview, captain Anton Ferdinand shrugged off both his recent poor form and the potential threats against him and his fellow defenders with consummate ease. George Miller was similarly dominated when he came on for Pope early in the second half and it will prove to be a harsh learning experience for the youngster.
The midfield shape that had worked well against Northampton for Clark was found wanting against a more organised, quicker and skillful unit. With Lowe often too far in advance of Andrew Tutte and Paul Caddis, Phil Brown’s men were able to play in between them effectively and hog possession in more penetrative areas. Ryan Leonard was desperately unlucky with a snapshot from outside the box in one such passage of play to hit the outside of the post with stopper Joe Murphy beaten at his near post by the pace of the ball.
The hosts’ midfield dominance made for a solid platform for Simon Cox and Marc-Antoine Fortuné to stay as high up the pitch as possible and look for pockets of space in between the centre backs and draw fouls from them on the turn. With three of Bury’s back five issued with yellow cards, proceedings increasingly played into the strikers’ hands.
Stephen McLaughlin’s terrific half-volley for the only goal at Roots Hall was a reminder of the effectiveness of late runs into the area from midfield in open play. Very rarely this season have the Lancashire outfit had more than two lurking from crosses and although Leon Barnett’s poor headed clearance was straight into his unmarked path, it underlines how important the second ball can be from such situations from both a defensive and attacking point of view. Most successful teams know when and where to get bodies forward to hurt their opposition. Southend have frequently managed to do this throughout 2016/2017 and even with several injuries of their own to key players, they look to have the squad to push on next season and go higher.
There were only two small silver linings for the away supporters to hold onto (other than retaining third tier status). Danny Mayor made a cameo from the bench after such a long spell out and whilst clearly not 100% yet, he showed flashes of why he has been so sorely missed. The second green shoot of promise was having Will Ferry named alongside him after another excellent showing for the U18s in the penalty shootout defeat to Blackpool in midweek. Like Mayor, he carries a threat in the final third in wide(r) areas that has been lacking and it would be no surprise to see him feature heavily in Clark’s plans next season and he is bound to be joined by at least several of his teammates given the manager’s emphasis on handing sustained opportunities to talented players regardless of age.
I managed to narrowly triumph over my 19 month-old son with score predictions from when this blog started at the end of January. I’m not sure I deserve much of an award for it though!
I write this mini review as the half time score between Walsall and Port Vale is 0-0. Hopefully, it will remain that way after the match is over…
Northampton had a number of players in unfamiliar roles, not least of which was Brendan Moloney in an advanced position off the front two when he has made his career as a right back. Sometimes, this works out but it was representative of a disjointed performance from the Cobblers on this occasion, with Joe Murphy rarely troubled in the Bury goal.
Speaking of a lack of familiarity, Ryan Lowe was also played in a similar role to Moloney for the visitors. However, he had much more joy and turned in a man of the match performance, acting as a third forward with the ball with licence to move into the channels and between the lines to occupy the deep-lying midfielders in claret. If he does continue in a playing capacity next season, Lee Clark might have found a new option for him but as always, a note of caution should be applied to one-off stints in new positions.
James Vaughan showed just why he is much more than just a poacher as some perceive him to be (due to a lack of assists and chances created for teammates principally) with a brace of real quality. For the first, he maintained his balance and held off his man marker superbly to finish in the far corner after Murphy’s goal kick had bounced over everyone else. It is not the first time the custodian has had a big hand in a goal at the opposite end of the field and the distance and accuracy he can sometimes achieve with his distribution is an asset to the side.
For his second, he lashed in with his weaker left foot from the edge of the area. A lot has been made on Bury’s largest unofficial forum recently about how much of an ‘upgrade’ he has been on Leon Clarke last season but such talk misses the mark for me. The former Evertonian does have a more rounded game and a higher work rate but Clarke was often asked to play as a mobile target man with little support and his languid style, coupled with his reputation before signing in the summer of 2015, certainly helps to colour people’s views.
The 24-goal hitman has been able to lean heavily on the groundwork Tom Pope has laid in many of their matches up front together. I subscribe to the opinion that whilst the latter hasn’t been at this most effective recently (Saturday excepted), he has helped create space in behind an opposition’s backline by dragging them out of position. With sufficient support, Pope remains one of the best at this level holding up the ball and facing his own compatriots.
It would be harsh to exclude George Miller even from a mini review of the encounter, given his crucial header to help calm the collective nerves for the second Shakers goal of the game. He too has come in for criticism recently but can most certainly hold his head high with at least eight to his name in his first senior campaign. It is his anticipation that is his biggest weapon and leads me to believe that he can still improve considerably in seasons to come.
On this evidence and even whilst taking into account the absentees and lack of anything realistically riding on the game, the performance from Northampton was quite limited. Only Matty Taylor stung the palms of Murphy from a free kick, the midfielders struggled to gain much of a foothold on the game with both Paul Caddis and Andrew Tutte turning in energetic shifts in white shirts; the makeshift defence came off distinctly second best, too. It was little wonder that manager Justin Edinburgh lamented a gutless display and apologised to the considerable number of travelling fans.
It was very good to see Nathan Cameron make a cameo after spending almost the entirety of 2016/2017 on the sidelines. He is obviously still not fully fit but it would’ve been a huge mental lift for him just to even come on as a last minute substitute and get a crunching tackle in in front of the home supporters.
Friday’s mini preview for the final match of the season will have of course be largely driven by events tonight. One thing is for certain: Southend will be going all out for victory…
Analysing The Shakers, League One & Two, and Local English & Welsh Football