Bury Season Preview: firepower added

Bury started last season with a squad seemingly fit to compete for a top half berth, but instead finished 19th. If the club had not hoped for better then, ambitions have been raised now by a summer of heavy spending.  Supporter Peter Taylor, writer of the excellent Bury Me in Exile, talks to The Football Lab.

I think it’s reasonable to say last season’s finish was disappointing, given the start but there were warning signs even within that rise to an early 2nd place at the end of September that all was not quite as it seemed. Several injuries were sustained to achieve the 3-1 win at MK Dons in an encounter where the hosts were equal value for a point and the chronic lack of clean sheets, coupled with a lack of able and experienced defensive cover, was always going to bite eventually, especially when David Flitcroft had previously demonstrated a lack of ability to halt a long slide down the table in 2015/2016. He was hampered by injuries more than most and that was a large contributing factor but far from the only one.

I was realistic with my pre-season prediction and thought a finish of around 14th could be achieved (and that was before James Vaughan had signed). The fanbase largely rallied around Chris Brass during his short spell in charge to stop the rot and Lee Clark carried on from his blueprint and managed to add a bit more attacking nous in patches to augment the steely defence.

One problem has clearly been injuries. With physio Paul Morgan dismissed, are you encouraged by talk of a new fitness strategy?

The proof is of course in the pudding. It’s impossible to say from an external point of view whether Paul Morgan was in any way incompetent or that his fitness programmes alongside the rest of the coaching staff played a part in all of the injuries with any definitiveness. Nevertheless, it was pleasing that Clark recognised the problem early on and of course, fans will be encouraged that he has taken action to address the issue. He has signed one or two players, particularly Chris Humphrey, with a recent record of lengthy spells on the sidelines through various injuries. That’s always a risky venture but I am more confident that should a particular player be out injured (and it will still occur, just hopefully not as frequently), there is someone else who can ably deputise in their position/role.

Two key players to keep fit will be last season’s top scorer,Vaughan and new signing Jermaine Beckford. Are fans excited by the idea of two proven goalscorers playing together?

I think most fans are but there is still a more than understandable degree of scepticism that Vaughan will actually still be here on the closing of the summer transfer window. Beckford obviously didn’t have the best time of it at Preston last season but the pair have played alongside each other before on a number of occasions for Huddersfield at this level. Both certainly know where the goal is but my only worry is that their playing styles are too similar; they both like to play on the shoulder of the last defender. Neither of them can be relied upon to create chances and it could play into savvier opposition managers’ hands. Bury also have a storied history of signing proven goalscorers but for one reason or another, it doesn’t quite happen in a white shirt. Only time will tell.

Clark plans to start with two strikers who stay at the top of the pitch and, in Phil Edwards and Joe Skarz, two full-backs who stay back. Does he understand the growing demand for flexibility in the modern game?

Does he ‘understand’ the demand? Yes, his interviews certainly come across that way. However, much like Flitcroft, he is building a squad that will have a very strong ‘Plan A’. There are a number of players he has brought into the club this summer that can ably perform more than one role and that is also the case with a number of U18s that will be looking to break through into the senior side in 17/18. However, I remain far from convinced that he will readily implement a different shape to his high-press, high-tempo 4-4-2 unless a drastic rethink is required. The best managers at any level of the game take assertive and decisive action to change things, even if it doesn’t always end in success. From reading his autobiography and speaking to fans of his previous clubs where he has managed, the signs do not augur well in this regard… but management is a learning process. He needs to demonstrate he has learned from that reluctance.

Adam Thompson and Eoghan O’Connell have proved sturdy performers at this level. After shipping 73 goals last year, are you pleased to have a new-look centre-back partnership?

Yes and no. The centre backs last season, culpable as they most certainly at times were, were not the main reason for shipping so many goals. The main reason, other than the revolving door of personnel (chiefly down to injuries), was the complete lack of support in front of them whenever possession was lost. No-one could ably shield the back four (upon the change to a back five, it was a lot more solid) and so they would come under pressure time and time again. Couple that with a lack of continuity in the personnel, it made organising them and masking their vulnerabilities much harder.

On Thompson and O’Connell specifically, I would be pleased if they do indeed start the season as the first choice pairing, particularly considering Nathan Cameron’s damning injury record. The latter cannot yet be wholly relied upon and the new signings represent a higher degree of built-in flexibility as to where the defensive line can be deployed. The lack of pace in the middle last season for the most part made the gap between defence and midfield into a yawning chasm.

Goalkeeper Joe Murphy conceded just 13 goals in 16 games last year, five coming in a defensive horror-show at Oxford. You must be delighted to have signed him on a permanent deal?

Yes, of course. I wasn’t the vocal critic of Ben Williams – far from it. However, as I stated above, when the people in front of you change from week to week and you’re facing an unacceptable level of shots from dangerous positions, it will start to damage your confidence. When Murphy was brought in, coupled with the shift to a back five, things looked immediately much better. Every professional goalkeeper will be a good shot-stopper but the modern game requires much more than that from their custodian. Murphy is decent with his feet, unafraid to claim crosses and rush out of his penalty area should the need arise but most impressive of all are his organisational and distribution skills. I’m hoping whoever becomes his understudy in the coming season learns a lot from watching him because there are very few flaws to his game and his name on the teamsheet immediately reassures fans. Of course, he didn’t cover himself in glory in the hammering at Oxford last season but then again, no-one did. He isn’t an automaton and won’t be perfect every single game, so I take a philosophical approach if errors happen on occasion.

Stephen Dawson signs on a three-year deal from Scunthorpe while the younger Callum Reilly joins from Coventry. Do you expect to have a combative midfield?

For Clark’s gambit to work, it has to be. Every fan at Bury who was witness to Dawson’s first spell at the club (and subsequent encounters, especially last season with Scunthorpe) already knows all about his qualities and leadership. He has added positional discipline in the years that have passed since he was last in a white shirt, which was my main criticism of him then. I don’t like his penchant for thinking he is the referee of a match either but that is ultimately a fairly minor quibble. As for Reilly, he comes with mixed reviews and it will be interesting to see whether he lines up alongside Dawson initially as I still have a feeling there might be another ‘box-to-box’ addition in midfield to come. His left-footedness helps balance the likely XI if he features from the get-go. He is still relatively young and he will doubtlessly improve alongside Dawson. The whole strategy hinges on these two roles.

New signing Jay O’Shea has shown some quality at this level – but where do you see him fitting into the team?

Of course, O’Shea is well-known for his quality and number of roles he can play and I mentioned to you back at the start of May that I would love to see him at Bury and I was surprised it actually came to pass. Clark is wedded to that 4-4-2 and with lingering injury concerns over both Danny Mayor and Zeli Ismail, coupled with O’Shea revelling in cutting inside on his right foot, I believe he will compete directly with Mayor for the left wing position for the most part. Like Mayor, he can create and score but he is more potent than his teammate in front of goal and dare I say a little less predictable for the opposition to mark/track. With the signing of Humphrey, that sews up the competition on the right. If Clark was a bit more lateral (and if Vaughan leaves), I’d look to deploy him alongside Beckford but a slightly deeper starting position.

19-year-old George Miller scored eight goals last season despite only starting five games. Do you think he will benefit from having experienced goalscorers, including coach Ryan Lowe, around the place?

He will but again, it remains to be seen if he will still be here come September. He has been the subject of interest from the tier above but in truth, he is still very raw. His first touch especially needs a lot of work to truly progress but in many other areas, he has the right instincts. Lowe was a master of taking up excellent positions and anticipating a ball or a defensive mistake. He also possessed a more than decent first touch and I’m sure he has already emphasised that. His goals-to-minutes ratio was particularly impressive and certainly no fluke. As things stand (and if everyone stays), he will be the first striker called from the bench from the get-go and is likely to see more gametime as a result.

A lot of your new signings are likely to be on big wages. Is fan excitement over the new signings tinged with concern for the financial risks the club have taken?

Depends who you speak to. Some will rightly say that there are a plethora of players who have left over the close season that were likely to be on large wages and have thus far been replaced similarly but in much fewer numbers overall. As or my opinion, it all shapes up as a promotion-or-bust season as the business model is as far from sustainable as is possible and it’s difficult to envisage a way to continue as a going concern without the dramatic uplift in income the Championship would provide (and of course, expenditure would also increase). I have been told by a small number to ‘enjoy the ride’ and get behind the club. I am behind the club but I will remain steadfast in my continued criticism of the way it is run until changes are made to safeguard the long-term future of the football club at any level.

What are your thoughts ahead of the League One season as a whole? Any potential dark horses for you?

Most eyes are likely to be on Blackburn as favourites to go straight back up to the Championship and for good reason. Under Tony Mowbray, they only very narrowly missed out on staying up and they’ve barely lost anyone with the exception of Connor Mahoney who would be an improvement on what he has managed to bring in this summer, essentially replacing the midfield for a unit that are likely to contribute much more heavily in terms of goals scored, particularly in open play. I’m still kind of waiting for the wheels to fall off as off-the-field issues are unlikely to ever die out with Venky’s still owning the club; allowing the contract of a prodigious talent like Mahoney to expire is testament to that. They are likely to compete with Bradford for the title.

I think a bit too much emphasis has been placed on all three sides that came up automatically from League Two being punts for promotion but I think they represent just how difficult League One will be in 2017/2018 and there isn’t a single side I can think of right now as even close to relegation certs, which is actually quite refreshing.

As for dark horses, look for both MK Dons and Oxford to give promotion a serious tilt this season – Robbie Neilson was quietly very impressive during his first six months and I don’t expect the loss of Michael Appleton to the assistant manager job at Leicester to affect the excellent setup new boss Pep Clotet has inherited too much at all. If anything, it could galvanise the group who proved that on their day, they could terrify the opposition with their attacking play. A bit more consistency is all that is required for them to break the play-offs (or higher) this time around.

Many neutrals have mooted Bury as potential promotion challengers this year – do you agree? Where will you finish?

No. Of course, the rhetoric from within the club has been on achieving promotion and a lot of the players brought in have achieved just from League One in their careers. I go back to my previous answer about tactical inflexibility and Clark being wedded to a system that happened to work well in his playing days when almost every side used it. Football as a sport has moved on considerably in the period since. When it works, it will work at times spectacularly. When it doesn’t is the main problem. There is also a lack of the right players beneath Dawson and Reilly currently who can perform the same role to a good standard. Andrew Tutte could but he’s a bit better going forward than he is towards his own goal and he has a terrible injury record to boot. Callum Styles is more than exciting a prospect but he is a diminutive playmaker who is not suited to be a box-to-box midfielder. If Clark addresses my concerns, the play-offs are a possibility, not a probability. There will be at least a dozen sides thinking exactly the same thing, however.

In all likelihood, a top half finish will be achieved with or without Vaughan but that would be a failure according to the ambitions of the board and management team (as well as some fans). Coupled with the financial concerns a lot of fans harbour, it will be an extremely difficult summer to say the least in 2018 if what I predict comes to pass.

The Football Lab’s Verdict

Bury have upgraded in almost every position this summer, Dawson the stand-out capture. They should improve, but the issues of fitness and tactical flexibility will decide just how much. 11th