It had all started so well. Victory over MK Dons on September 27th put Bury second in League One, leading up to an appetising meeting with league leaders Scunthorpe United the following weekend.
As accustomed to false dawns as Bury supporters may be, it would have taken an especially pessimistic one to have predicted their form since then. Prior to thrashing Peterborough United 5-1 last Saturday, Chris Brass’s side (admittedly, only for the past month and a half, following the sacking of David Flitcroft) had failed to win in 20 games.
As the Shakers slipped to defeat after defeat over the autumn months, their fate appeared inevitable, but with a number of loan signings arriving to freshen things up, combined with the news that a number of key players are close to a return from injury, relegation to League Two is far from a formality just yet.
The emergence of a number of exciting youngsters has also proved to be a source of encouragement, with teenagers Scott Burgess, George Miller, Callum Styles and Jacob Bedeau all impressing after being thrust into the limelight. The feeling is that with a full squad, the mixture of experienced pros and fearless tyros should be enough to catapult the Shakers away from danger over the last few months of the season.
The bipolar nature of their season suggests that the team’s success is also heavily reliant on confidence. Prior to their disastrous losing run, Bury had won five on the bounce, with Flitcroft also being named as the division’s Manager of the Month. His own fate was sealed in mid-November, but by this point his players’ confidence appeared to have reached such a nadir, that even they didn’t believe they could win a game; performances improved under Brass, but late goals saw them continue to slide towards the lower echelons of the table.
As their performances began to improve even further over the Christmas period, the Shakers were unlucky to face some of the division’s top sides. However, draws at Fleetwood Town and Bradford City, and plucky performances against Sheffield United and Scunthorpe United showed that Brass’s faith in the club’s youngsters had not been misguided.
A victory was always coming, but the manner in which it did was as much of a surprise as the winless streak that had preceded it. After falling behind to an early Tom Nichols strike, an incredible four goals in the space of 20 minutes from former Everton forward James Vaughan put the Shakers 4-1 up after just half an hour. Following months of misery, the Gigg Lane crowd could be forgiven for allowing themselves to get a little giddy as their side went into the interval with a comfortable lead. There was to be no throwing away of a lead this time, as Bury kept Peterborough at bay before the 18-year-old Miller fired home his fourth goal of the season to wrap up a comprehensive victory.
Whether the result can now spark a 20-game unbeaten run is probably unlikely, but with the next six games coming against teams in the bottom half of League One, there is a chance for the Shakers to build on Saturday’s victory. There is no doubt in any Bury supporter’s mind that they will rely heavily on the goals of Vaughan, whose 14 league goals have come at a rate of one every 117 minutes, and with the 28-year-old full of confidence it is time to show that he is a cut above at this level.
The return of a number of key first team players will also come as a major boost to the Shakers’ hopes of survival. Earlier in the season, wingers Danny Mayor and Zeli Ismail had looked unstoppable, causing problems for many an opposition full-back, before injuries struck. With the pair reportedly close to a return, Brass will be hoping that they can get back to their best as soon as possible.
However, goals are not the most important of Brass’s worries, with his side currently the joint-fourth top scorers in League One. Unfortunately, they also possess the second-worst defensive record in the entire Football League, but it is hoped that the arrival of Taylor Moore and Cameron Burgess on loan will shore up a porous defence that has kept just three clean sheets this campaign. Similarly, the re-signing of goalkeeper Rob Lainton, who was released in the summer, appears to have given the whole club a lift, and if they can gel into a solid defensive unit over the next few weeks then that may mean the likes of Vaughan and Tom Pope have to work a little less hard to ensure victory (Bury have failed to pick up a point on five occasions when they have scored two or more goals during 2016/17).
Brass may not have been the man that Bury supporters originally wanted to replace Flitcroft, but if he can steer the club away from the League One relegation zone then few could argue that he has not achieved his remit. It is also a great opportunity for the 41-year-old to make his name as a coach, after a 17 month spell in charge of York City between 2003 and 2004 coincided with the Minstermen losing their Football League status.
The Bury boss will be careful not to get carried away with Saturday’s result. The scoreline flattered the Shakers somewhat, and there is still a lot of work to do if they are to remain at this level next season. The young players may look promising, but it is crucial that some of the club’s more experienced professionals stand up and be counted in the second half of the season. In the likes of Vaughan, Tom Soares, and Leon Barnett, the Shakers have Championship experience and such players will certainly not want to suffer the ignominy of relegation to League Two.
Featured image: all rights reserved by Ronald Schutte