From a supporter’s perspective, it is difficult to gauge how Bury will get on in 2016/17. Based on what we’ve seen so far, it could go either way. An impressive opening day victory over Charlton Athletic provided hope that we wouldn’t be the divisions whipping boys, but the Shakers then failed to win their next three matches despite a series of spirited performances. A truly dismal 1-0 home defeat to Oldham Athletic set alarm bells ringing and things looked particularly ominous when David Flitcroft’s men went 3-0 down to Walsall within the space of 32 minutes on Saturday.
A second-half comeback followed, inspired by new signing James Vaughan, who found the net on his Bury debut. The game finished 3-3, a result which felt more like a victory than a draw. There had been talk in recent months that Flitcroft had lost the dressing room, but based on the second-half performance at the Bescot Stadium it seems as though the players are still firmly behind him.
The sale of Leon Clarke to Sheffield United has been cited as one of the major reasons for the anxiety surrounding whether the Shakers can stay up this season. The 31-year-old was the club’s top scorer with 15 goals last season and whilst his departure was seen as a necessity due to the high wages he was on, many fans were understandably worried about the gaping void that would be left behind.
The first few games of this season have seen long balls punted in the direction of targetman Tom Pope, who whilst being competent in the air, appeared to be expected to lead the line entirely by himself. This was never going to work; the former Port Vale man is limited at best when the ball is at his feet, but his strength and aerial ability make him the perfect partner for a clinical goalscorer.
It was painfully clear that a new striker was required. In addition to Clarke, Danny Rose, Ryan Lowe and Daniel Nardiello all left Gigg Lane over the summer, and whilst Chris Brown and Nicky Clark were brought in as replacements, their goalscoring records in recent years leave a lot to be desired. Finally, after weeks of watching Pope fight a losing battle up front on his own, Flitcroft moved to bring in Vaughan from Birmingham City last week.
The 28-year-old; who still holds the record as the Premier League’s youngest ever goalscorer, was on the verge of joining Burton Albion before the Shakers hijacked the move at the last minute. Some were initially sceptical about signing a player who failed to score in 20 outings last season, but Vaughan arrives with a pedigree that indicates he could be the man to replace Clarke.
After netting on his Everton debut aged 16 years and 271 days, Vaughan went on to make 47 appearances for the Toffees, scoring seven times. After loan spells at Derby County, Leicester City and Crystal Palace, the team he scored his record breaking goal against, the Birmingham-born player moved to Norwich City in 2011, but made just five appearances during his time at Carrow Road. A loan spell at Huddersfield Town followed and a record of 14 goals in 33 Championship matches was enough to earn the player a permanent move to West Yorkshire.
He looked to have finally found a home, scoring 17 goals in 53 games for the Terriers. However, Vaughan then left to join his hometown club Birmingham City on loan last season and things didn’t go well; he failed to find the net in 16 appearances for the Blues. Most of these were cameos from the substitutes bench, and, growing frustrated with a lack of first-team opportunities, Vaughan decided that it was best for him to move on again.
His time at St. Andrews may have put other Championship managers off signing him, but their loss could well be Bury’s gain. The Shakers have found themselves a player who, up until last season, has proven that he knows where the net is at Championship level and is certainly capable of reaching a tally similar to what Clarke achieved last season. Although many are expecting him to be a like-for-like replacement, Vaughan has a slightly different playing style to that of his predecessor. Both are regarded as natural goalscorers but whilst Clarke relies on his strength and can appear languid at times, Vaughan’s main strengths are his energy and speed.
Vaughan will undoubtedly feel he has a point to prove this season after dropping below the second tier for the first time in his career. His failure to succeed at Birmingham will have hurt and at 28, he will be hoping to make a return to the Championship as soon as possible. At Bury, he will now be the main man and if he can build on the auspicious start he made last weekend then a successful season will be on the cards for both club and player.
One of the most pleasing elements of Saturday’s game was how well the two strikers linked up once Pope came on as a first-half substitute. The two could compliment one another perfectly, with Vaughan looking like the type of player who may benefit from Pope’s physicality and link-up play. It must be noted that Vaughan himself is not bad in the air, so should Flitcroft opt to go with just one up front then the new man looks much more capable of playing the lone role than Pope does.
Next up in League One for the Shakers is Port Vale on Saturday. Bruno Ribeiro’s side have started the season well, sitting in 4th position after picking up 10 points from their opening five games. Bury will go into this one full of confidence following their second-half showing at Walsall and supporters will be hopeful that their new goalscorer can pick up where he left off. It may be too early to make a prediction on where the Shakers will finish come May, but the early signs are that James Vaughan will be crucial to their hopes this season.
Featured image: all rights reserved by Ben Early