Uneasy favourites


A little look around the bookies pre-season odds for League Two sees an unusual name at the top of many of their lists – Bury. Having been a Bury fan for more than thirty years I have become more accustomed to looking a lot further down the list to find my team’s name, regardless of what division they were in at the time. As a result I have been used to exaggerating our chances and defending that opinion with blinding optimism despite compelling evidence to the contrary. Occasionally we would confound those odds and gain promotion or, as in 1997, actually win the division we were in. That was a season where my positivity even stretched to me putting money on it and having a cracking night out on it celebrating our only title win in my time supporting the club – so far. The bookmakers would have us believe another is due to come our way this season, but I can’t help feeling uneasy about that; Bury? Favourites? It just doesn’t sound right. I should be excited about this I should be looking forward to the new season, so why aren’t I?

In simple terms it is because we are Bury. If my thirty plus years have taught me anything it is that Bury never do things the easy way, every bit of success, every scrap of recognition has had to be fought for, battled over, it can’t really come this easy can it?

On paper we look to have assembled a group of players that will tear this division apart, hence the favourites tag. First to sign up was Danny Mayor from Sheffield Wednesday for a fee rumoured to be around £100,000. Mayor was one of the few Kevin Blackwell signings that worked out last season having been picked up on a season long loan from the South Yorkshire club. He looked a class above for us last season and was one of those exciting attackers that gets you off your seat. There was no way we would get him back we thought, surely even if Sheffield Wednesday didn’t want him we wouldn’t be able to afford him and even if we could he would not want to move to League Two permanently. We were wrong on both counts as in a shock to all it was announced at last season’s  player of the season evening, where he won the players’ player award, that he had signed a permanent three-year deal with the club. Wow! This was a real statement of intent for the club after a promising end to last season that had us almost in the play-offs after looking more likely to be relegated for most of the season. With the old season barely finished it was already looking bright for the next after securing Mayor’s services.

Following Mayor through the door were two more attacking players, both also former players at the club. First Nicky Adams arrived from Rotherham United deemed surplus to requirements even before they secured promotion to the Championship. Like Mayor, he arrived for an undisclosed fee described by Rotherham as a significant profit on what they paid Crawley Town for him in January. Also like Mayor he signed a three-year deal as he returned to the club he left six years ago.

Signing a two year deal was another returnee, Ryan Lowe who arrived from Tranmere Rovers. Whilst Mayor and Adams could be seen as young enough to be seen as an investment Lowe is certainly at the more experienced end of the scale at 35 years old is less likely to be seen so from that point of view. A fee, undisclosed, that ‘represents an excellent deal for the club’, as per the Tranmere website, coupled with the two year deal raised more than a few eyebrows. His scoring record at this level speaks for itself, and he is a hero round these parts due to his role in our last promotion three years ago. He may be seen as a gamble given his age and the old adage that you should never go back, but it’s a gamble worth taking for most Bury fans.

With signings of this quality added to picking up of Chris Hussey who excelled on loan from Burton Albion last season in a left wing back role, Shwan Jalal in goal from Bournemouth and Kelvin Etuhu from Barnsley all on frees it is little wonder we are being put up as favourites. These signings should make me excited for the new season – as most Bury fans are – so why am I not?

Well, it is three-fold really. Reason one is plain old pessimism, having been used to plenty of pain during my time supporting the club I know things rarely turn out as good as we hope. Putting us in as favourites just means it will just be highlighted even more if it all goes wrong. As a rule if there is a right way to do things and a wrong way to do things Bury usually end up doing the latter. Also I prefer us to be underdogs, written off, it makes the victory all the sweeter if it comes and lowers expectations, I’m not sure if I can handle being up there to be shot as we surely will be, and more to the point will the players?

The second reason is more technical than just a bad feeling it is the balance of the team/squad, that worries me. It has been great seeing all these attacking players arrive, even Jalal has been signed with a view to better distribution from the back than that of his predecessor between the Bury sticks, Brian Jensen. A post I read recently on one of the fans’ message boards asked where the players were that would dig out the points for us on cold, wet night in Newport?  I had to agree. Etuhu has been signed with a view to playing in central midfield, David Flitcroft having seen something in him during his spell at Barnsley that suggests he thinks the former Manchester City trainee can play there.  The fact that he has never played there in his career, not even when Flitcroft was in charge at Oakwell, makes you wonder how good he will be in that role. The other options in there are Chris Sedgwick another winger, like Etuhu, that Flitcroft has converted into a central midfielder, and reasonable one at that but hardly the hard-man you want in there winning the ball, breaking down the oppositions attacks. Sedgwick is joined by Andrew Tutte and Tom Soares, both are skilful players but are hardly known for their tackling ability.

Admittedly there is quality at the back in the form of Jim McNulty and Pablo Mills but with a midfield as lightweight as ours appears to largely be it seems they may be busy, or maybe we just plan to outscore the opposition! There are gaps in the squad list announced recently with the number five and number seven shirts yet to be filled so there is still time and the possibility that the issue is in mind to be addressed, or maybe Etuhu is the answer after all. Our successes down the years have usually involved a midfielder not afraid to get in where it hurts, Steven Dawson and Damien Mozika being recent examples when first the play-offs were reached in 2008 and then promotion secured in 2011. Both those sides played an attractive brand of football similar to that we are seeing again under Flitcroft but at the core was a hard tackling midfielder to ensure we weren’t out muscled. My fear is that we may be bullied out of some games without the right personnel, so no pressure Kelvin.

The third part of why I enter the new season in an unusually pessimistic mood surrounds matters off the field. Just over 12 months ago Stuart Day rode in as saviour of the club with the figurative wolves at the door and with no one else in the frame other than a local builder who just wanted the land the ground stands on ultimately. Day came in slashing prices and talking of five year plans to get us to the Championship. He set about revamping the commercial department too and brought the club into the 21st century with ground sponsorship and obtaining an events licence to hold events other than football matches on the Gigg Lane, sorry J.D. Stadium, turf. All this revamping off the field meant extra staff employed meaning more being paid out in salaries. On the field there was something of a revolving door effect going on as Kevin Blackwell was replaced as manager first by caretaker Ronnie Jepson and then ultimately Flitcroft with each given freedom to bring in their own players meaning a total of 47 players being used – and paid, some paid off too – last season.

Move into this season and the spending hasn’t stopped of course. Something in the region of £250,000 being spent on Mayor, Lowe and Adams, not to mention the wages that will have been paid out for these and the other signings. Mayor, Jalal and Etuhu were all registered with Championship clubs last season and whilst it is conceivable that they have taken pay cuts – as Adams has been reported as doing so – it is likely they are still on a salary in excess of your average League Two player. The club has come out in a recent fans forum in Tenerife – held during a warm weather training camp out there – that they have cut the wage bill by 30% from last year and done away with appearance bonuses replacing them with win bonuses instead. On the face of it this sounds fine but given we paid out wages for 47 different players last season a 30% could be explained by there simply being less players to pay right now. Is it 30% off the total figure paid last season or 30% off the figure at the end of last season?  The appearance fee aspect sounds good too, revolutionary almost, but if we have as successful season as the bookies are predicting then it is unlikely to save us very much.

On top of that the summer has seen a complete revamp of the pitch which has rumoured to have cost in excess of £300,000. Admittedly this was something that was needed with drainage an issue for a number of years but on top of the other spending seems excessive. And in that comment lies my concern; the spending this summer on and off the pitch seems excessive in general and worries me given our past trials. Bury fans of my generation have lived through a similar spell of seemingly prosperity in the mid to late nineties only for it to all fall apart – twice – ultimately saved by bucket collections and the sponsoring of seats.

The concern is that whilst Day has been a breath of fresh air a little look around the other companies he is involved in – mainly property development – show no visible signs of wealth that could fund the level of spending we have seen over the last year. There was of course the ground sponsorship deal last season, the biggest commercial deal in the club’s history we are told, but given the biggest deal we have had previously was £100,000 from the shirt sponsorship deal with the council that statement hardly means much. Even if the sum was more substantial there is the F.C. United effect to take into account. The rebel club moved out this summer after ground sharing since their inception and take away money that they were paying to use the stadium, money that was going into our budget. It is conceivable that the deal with J.D. Sports for the ground simply replaces what F.C. United paid.

Rumours abound that Day is just a front man for a wealthy individual who wants to stay out of the limelight but that remains to be seen as evidence of charges against the club have come to light suggesting the spending we are seeing is being funded by borrowing rather than a rich sugar Daddy. It could well be the case that there is someone in the background funding this given the stated reason for the ongoing delay in holding an AGM is due to a historical legal issue, believed to be surrounding shares. It could be that this legal issue is preventing the real new owner from taking over at this moment in time hence the need to borrow in the short term – as much of the lending is.

The frustration is the silence on such matters from the board. They breezed in last season promising openness and fans forums but other than one such forum at the start of last season and the recent one in Tenerife (where any questions regarding finances were discouraged) there has been little communication from the board.

Maybe I am just getting a little cynical having been here before. Maybe these guys are genuine and that there is nothing to worry about. An AGM has been promised for some point in September where hopefully it will all become clear. Until then I suppose I should just sit back, stop worrying and  enjoy the football, but I might dig out my bucket – just in case.

Written by Rich Beedle, We Are Going Up’s Bury blogger

Rich tweets at @richbeedie

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