As years go 2015 was a pretty good one for League One side Bury. A run of 13 wins in their last 16 matches of last season’s League Two season saw them dramatically snatch the last automatic promotion birth from rivals Southend United on the last day of the season.
In doing so they also broke two club records; their 85 points was the highest accumulated by any previous Bury team for the season as was the eight successive away wins, in that end-of-season run.
That form was carried into League One as they, along with fellow promoted sides Burton Albion and Southend (following victory in the play-offs) surprised many in their new division. Bury peaked in third spot at the beginning of October following a run of six successive wins that included wins against the likes of Walsall, Sheffield United, Coventry City and Peterborough United.
The club’s form in 2015 was good enough to see them emerge as the seventh best team in the whole of the Football League last year and the early season form this time round had fans dreaming of back-to-back promotions just like the club managed almost 20 years ago between 1995 and 1997.
The current chairman at Gigg Lane, Stewart Day, took over in 2013 with the express aim of taking the club into the Championship in five years but with the ambition shown in the signings made in the summer and the start made, three years was looking very much a possibility for a while.
Manager David Flitcroft’s summer recruitment saw him going for quality rather than quantity with strikers Leon Clarke and Tom Pope the most prominent of the arrivals. Many eyebrows were raised within the boardrooms and stands of fellow League One clubs as they questioned how the Lancashire club could afford the players they were bringing in on the relatively meagre crowds they attract. With the board, and Flitcroft, insisting the club was living within Financial Fair Play rules, and stating it had one of the smaller budgets in the division too, the quality argument stood up for a while but quantity is becoming an issue as injuries bite into what is consequently quite a small squad.
Despite the club having top class training facilities having done a deal last year with Manchester City over their old Carrington training ground Bury have been plagued by knocks of vary severity, particularly in goal where six different players have been used. Of the six one only made it as far as the bench though with old boy Paddy Kenny signing a short term contract late last year only to be injured in training and leave before adding to the 150 appearances he made for the club previously between 1998 and 2002.
It is not just between the sticks where Bury have struggled with the centre of midfield hit hard too, with the Andrew Tutte’s absence particularly missed in that department. The former Rochdale man made his first appearance in 16 weeks in the 2-0 defeat to Fleetwood Town last weekend after pulling up with a hamstring injury in the 3-1 win at Sheffield United on 12th September.
His latest appearance saw him last 68 minutes as he feels his way back in what was a seventh successive away defeat in the league. The drive and range of passing he brings has been missed in that department and it is hoped his return will see an upturn in fortunes sooner rather than later but the absence of other regulars in the engine room may dictate otherwise.
Kelvin Etuhu, Tom Soares and Jacob Mellis have all had absences of varying frequency and length that has consequently brought inconsistencies in selection that have hardly helped the current run of results. That defeat at Fleetwood made it just three wins in their last 13 league games, with eight defeats in that run, taking them from 3rd after they beat Colchester United at the beginning of October to the 14th spot they now find themselves in.
In comments post-match on Saturday Flitcroft was at a loss where to go next as he seeks to arrest a slump which is threatening to de-rail what had once looked to be a promising season. To be fair Bury suffered a similar run last season as they struggled to pick up points between October and January but still ended up getting promoted, proving that Flitcroft does have the ability to turn the current situation around. He has hinted at new faces in the January transfer window, so which areas of the team need his most urgent attention?
One area that doesn’t need looking at is the left wing; on that side of the field there have been many plaudits – this season and last – for the combination that is Danny Mayor and Chris Hussey. Mayor won League Two player of the year last season and has carried that form into the current season.
Hussey has also impressed this season with his ability from dead-ball situations particularly catching the eye, but has also linked up well with Mayor on many occasions to cause opposition problems in open play too. So well has the combination worked that Bury have come to rely on it a little too much, something opponents have figured out, with Mayor and Hussey finding themselves much more closely marked these days.
This would not be an issue if there was a reliable outlet on the right, but there isn’t. It was one area strangely overlooked in many Bury fans’ eyes over the summer with much of the attacking threat on that side of the pitch being left to full back Joe Riley alone. The former Bolton Wanderers man has done an admirable job patrolling that wing but lacks the support of a consistent team-mate in front of him, in defence and attack, like Mayor provides for Hussey on the left.
The hope, by probably both fans and management, was that the arrival of Chris Eagles in October would fill that gap but fitness issues have seen something of a stop-start beginning for the former Manchester United trainee. He has only made a handful of appearances with all but one coming from the bench
Leicester City loanee, Joe Dodoo was tried too after impressing Flitcroft with a hat-trick against the Shakers in the Capital One Cup earlier in the season, but after a promising debut against Burton Albion proved more style than substance with little end product to show for his obvious skills.
Given my earlier comments central midfield is clearly an area that needs to come into focus too; for me this is the key area of the pitch, it is where games are won and lost in my opinion, and with Tutte only just feeling his way back to full fitness it would not be wise to push him too much, too soon for fear of breaking down again.
The squad players of Danny Pugh and Reece Brown have been competent when called upon in that area but lack the dynamism needed to drive the team forward from that position. With Kelvin Etuhu still to impress many Bury fans in the role, despite this being his second season at the club, and the jury also still out on Jacob Mellis given his sporadic appearances, a solid dependable replacement in that area of the pitch is high on the shopping list for many Shakers supporters.
The defence, despite the goals against column perhaps contradicting this, has been fairly solid this season, but is an area that also needs attention in the window. Unlike other areas of the team the back four has remained largely the same all season but with fatigue and inevitable suspensions that come in that position cover is desperately needed. The only back-up Flitcroft has being utility men Brown and Pugh once more and the relatively untried Kiel O’Brien, who has made just one appearance since signing from non-league Chorley in the summer of 2014.
Despite the revolving door policy between the sticks, not for the first time under Flitcroft, there is an argument to address this area too with the current incumbent, Daniel Bachmann – on loan from Stoke City – seeing his performances dip in recent weeks after a promising first month. Last season the loan signing of Nick Pope from Charlton Athletic was something of a catalyst for the run to promotion, keeping 13 clean sheets in his 22 appearances. With him currently out of favour at The Valley, having started the season as first choice, there are some Bury fans hoping for a return, with hopefully a similar outcome – in terms of results if nothing else – as last season.
If Pope were to return it would be a blow for the club’s only senior permanent keeper, Rob Lainton. The former Bolton man has had a difficult time establishing himself since arriving at the club in the summer of 2013 but finally appeared to have won Flitcroft’s trust when taking over from Brighton & Hove Albion loanee Chris Walton at the end of August. The young Seagulls stopper suffered an injury and saw his season long loan ended opening the door for Lainton to finally establish himself. The 26 year-old did just that putting in some solid performances before injury struck him too. He has been out since the end of October due to a groin injury picked up in the defeat at Bradford City, starting off another round of goalkeeper roulette.
If the injuries can be cleared up and a settled side can be obtained once more there is no reason that Bury cannot return to the form of earlier in the season, as long as the right side conundrum is solved. Does Flitcroft stick, with what he has, or twist, the chairman’s arm for reinforcements? Time will tell as the transfer window clock ticks down.