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Shakers review of 2013: Bury back from the brink
THE story of Bury’s troubled year should actually begin in December 2012, when the financial problems that almost brought the club to its knees first surfaced.
On the face of it, all seemed rosey at Gigg Lane as Kevin Blackwell’s side went into the month on the back of five wins and just one defeat from their previous eight matches.
But a lacklustre 1-1 draw at home to League Two Southend in the second round of the FA Cup on December 1 kicked off a real downturn in results and performances that would shape the rest of their season.
The Shakers went on to lose to Southend on penalties, and were dumped out of the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy by Preston by the same method.
The dip in displays continued in their League One campaign, with defeats at home to Leyton Orient and at Crewe and Carlisle, as well as draws against Shrewsbury and Preston.
But it quickly became evident the worsening performances were reflective of the darkening mood behind the scenes.
A bizarre sequence of events led to the Bury Times lifting the lid on the real cause for concern.
Bury announced the signing of former Leeds left-back Ben Parker on December 7, only to deny it ever happened a day later, following defeat to the Orient.
After tracking Parker down, it transpired Blackwell had tried to rush through his signing before the Football League imposed a transfer ban on the club.
He thought he had been successful, with Parker putting pen to paper on the deal, only to be told the following day that the move had been quashed.
The reason for the ban, it turned out, was because the club had been forced to go to the PFA for a loan to cover the players’ wages.
Chairman Brian Fenton tried to gloss over the seriousness of Bury’s plight, saying the “temporary cashflow problem” had been caused by forced postponements of two games due to waterlogged pitches.
But few people within the club believed there was the prospect of a happy New Year, although it is hard to imagine anyone suspected just how serious the situation would become...
COUNTDOWN TO RELEGATION...
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BURY started the year in the relegation zone and would never recover, but the manager and players enjoyed a mini-revival as they closed ranks.
Captain Steven Schumacher led the rearguard action almost single-handedly at times as he continued his best goal-scoring form for the club.
After missing a great chance to level late on in their 1-0 defeat to league leaders Tranmere on New Year’s Day, he rifled in a shot that earned a point at MK Dons and marshalled the troops to a 0-0 draw at Shrewsbury.
Despite struggling to field a team at times, with no new players allowed to come in, loan stars like Matt Doherty sent back to their parent clubs and injuries and illness sweeping through the side, Schuey maintained a belief that survival was possible.
Speaking after the Tranmere defeat, he said: “I know they are top of the league and going really well but I think the win was there for us.
“There’s not much between the sides apart from that we’re not putting the ball in the net and we’re not getting that little bit of luck.”
Despite the captain’s optimism, the noises coming from the manager were a little less encouraging.
“I’ve been telling them (the directors) their day of reckoning is coming,” Blackwell said.
“Someone better wake up and listen to it.”
Whether or not the directors were minded to listen to their manager’s ranting, they at least managed to pay off the PFA loan – thanks in no small part to the annuall instalment of TV money – and responded with the loan signings of defenders Ashley Eastham and Stephane Zubar, and striker Nicky Ajose.
But plans to off-load Marcus Marshall and club stalwart Efe Sodje were to hit a snag.
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Hopes of an unlikely Shakers revival were given a timely boost by the return of Ajose and Andy Bishop, who rekindled memories of the club’s League Two promotion season with a goal apiece in a 2-0 win at home to Doncaster on February 2.
An encouraging 2-2 draw at Brentford followed and, despite defeat at home to Sheffield United, Blackwell was in upbeat mood and couldn’t help but gloat about his ability to pluck a rabbit – or at least a player – out of the hat.
“If I had my own way I’d go and get a team of Ronaldos, but I can’t,” he said.
“So I’m trying to find players who cost nothing, fit the bill and play at the right level.
“Let me tell you, Paul Daniels would have a right job to do it as well.”
He added forwards Craig Fagan and Jonson-Clarke Harris in February, but mystery surrounded the 24-hour signing of Jeanvion Yulu-Matondo, who returned to the Continent after a below-par showing in a reserve game but later claimed he had been asked to play for nothing.
Results continued to yo-yo, with Bury following up a 4-1 humiliation at Notts County in front of the Sky TV cameras with a battling 1-0 win at Swindon.
But a season-ending injury to Zubar cast further shadow over the Gigg Lane outfit’s chances of survival and forced Blackwell into an embarrassing climb-down as he re-introduced Sodje back into the squad following a loan spell at Barrow, despite saying he would never play for the club again.
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BURY'S very own payday loan saga resurfaced in March, when new director David Manchester confirmed the club had gone back to the PFA for financial help.
Their latest bailout was supposed to cover the club until the end of the season, but with no prospect of refreshing a struggling squad the writing was well and truly on the wall.
Results again reflected their worsening financial situation, with Bury starting March with three consecutive defeats as they slipped to eight points from safety.
Late strikes from Craig Jones and Clarke-Harris briefly lifted the mood with a 2-0 win at home to Stevenage, but that was followed by a 4-1 thrashing at Bournemouth.
And even a Good Friday escape at home to Crewe, when a stoppage-time penalty from Andy Bishop rescued a point in a 2-2 draw, felt like too little, too late.
That feeling may have been intensified by the news that influential winger Jones would miss the remainder of the campaign with a hamstring injury picked up at Dean Court.
But worse news was to come in April.
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ANOTHER run of three consecutive defeats at the start of the month confirmed the end to Bury’s two-season stay in League One.
The first came at Leyton Orient on April Fool’s Day, after which angry fans were given the chance to blow off steam at a chaotic question and answer session with the chairman and manager.
The atmosphere in the Gigg Lane social club was like a bear-pit, with tensions heightened by the news the club had allowed highly-valued defender Joe Skarz to move to League Two Rotherham United, effectively for £5,000.
Knives that had been out for Blackwell at the start of the night were quickly redirected towards Fenton following some sharp exchanges between chairman and manager.
The blood-letting seemed to help, but by the end of the night it was clear that the club’s fate was just as precarious off the pitch as it was on it.
It didn’t seem to matter that Schumacher would also miss the rest of the campaign with a hernia injury when, the following week, Fenton put out an emotional SOS plea through the Bury Times.
He told the paper: “At this moment in time, the situation is now critical.
“We are quickly running out of money by trying short-term fixes that are not working in the long-term.
"We desperately need £1million of external investment to secure the long-term future of the club.
“Without this investment, the club will cease to trade and there will be no more football played at Gigg Lane.”
Defeat to Oldham the following Saturday ensured there would be no more League One football, at least, as Matt Smith headed in a late winner for the Latics that all but saved them from the drop.
Bizarrely, Bury rallied after relegation was confirmed, going on to win two and draw one of their last three matches.
But it would take another month before the smiles could return to the faces of everyone connected to the club.
WHEN THE REVOLUTION COMES...
MAY TO JULY
Exactly how close Bury came to going out of business is open to conjecture, but it is clear that the clock was ticking on this proud old club.
Almost 130 years of history hung in the balance for seven weeks – the time that elapsed from when Fenton rang the alarm bells to the date Stewart Day took over.
The new chairman, a previously unknown 32-year-old property developer from West Yorkshire, told the Bury Times he had stepped in sooner than he would have liked after the club was served with a winding-up order.
Day and his associates had hoped to wait until June to fine tune their takeover package, but were forced to act after directors admitted the club would go to the wall inside 24 hours.
In the dark weeks between the end of the season and the club’s eventual revolution (which many fans would say we are still waiting for) Blackwell was forced to release 22 players.
The only ones left when the cavalry arrived were those still under contract.
Senior pros like Schumacher and David Worrall would later be sold, while experienced players like Andy Bishop and Adam Lockwood would also be let go.
Blackwell said he would not be rushed into plugging the gaps, but admitted he would need to take a squad of at least 18 first-team players into the new season.
For a while, players like Bish joked they would struggle to put out a five-a-side team, but once the new faces started to arrive, they did so with dizzying speed.
By the end of the summer, when keeper Brian Jensen was signed on transfer deadline day, Blackwell had added 25 new, or nearly new, faces to his squad.
But despite pleading for time to let his players gel, the former Leeds boss would not get his wish.
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OPENING league defeats to early pacesetters Chesterfield and Oxford United were glossed over by a wave of euphoria at Gigg Lane.
The fact the club was back in business took precedent in those first days of the campaign.
All the animosity of the spring had either been forgotten, or swept under the carpet for now at least, as the new owners set about rejuvenating the ground and the squad.
Blackwell preached patience and caution, but he too was carried along on the wave of enthusiasm as Bury drew Premier League Norwich in the second round of the Capital One Cup after a good win over League One Crewe in the opening round.
Almost 1,000 fans made the trip to Carrow Road and while Bury were convincingly beaten 6-3, they showed great fight and no small amount of skill.
That was embodied in the final goal of an explosive game, rifled in from miles out by new fans’ favourite Jessy Reindorf.
The big Rwandan international was the standard bearer for a new breed of raw recruits, brought in for free but harbouring promise.
Others who caught the eye in those first few games included loan signings Anton Forrester and Jordan Sinnott, who both scored in the win against Accrington Stanley, and new centre-back duo William Edjenguele and Nathan Cameron, who were amongst the goals as they picked up four points from games against Burton Albion and Cheltenham Town.
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WHEN Day and his marketing team moved in at Gigg Lane they did so promising a revolution.
Intended as a motivational rallying cry to pull in the crowds of disaffected fans, the revolution took a sinister turn as results tailed away in September.
Bury were edged out by a single goal at Port Vale in the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy and Rochdale and Fleetwood in the league before a stoppage-time Forrester strike rescued a point at home to Southend.
All of a sudden, the knives were back out for Blackwell (not that they ever really went away in retrospect), and the pressure was on.
The month ended with a 2-1 defeat at Dagenham and Redbridge and, from looking cosy in the bosom of the new bosses, Blackwell looked like a man out on his own.
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BLACKWELL'S 383-day tenure as manager of Bury came to an end in the wake of a 0-0 draw at home to Newport County.
In typically bullish fashion, he attacked the fans calling for his head after that game, saying: “You can’t persuade people who don’t want to listen – so I’m not going to waste my time trying.”
The chairman wasted little time in making a decision after those comments, putting assistant manager Ronnie Jepson in temporary charge for the next match at Portsmouth.
While Bury lost that game 1-0, they went on to earn a point at home to Mansfield and then won their first game in 10 matches at Wycombe the following week.
That earned Jepson a longer period in charge, with Day confirming he would keep the job until at least January.
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IT was a case of out with the old and in with the new as Jepson set about trimming his squad and replacing some of the less successful Blackwell imports with more experienced pros.
That process was given a massive boost following the news that the owners had tied up the largest commercial deal in the club’s history with local sports retailer JD Sports.
Jones – one of only three players remaining from the start of the previous season – was promptly tied up on a new two-year deal before Jepson unveiled the signing of experienced striker Daniel Nardiello on loan from Rotherham to hook up with Millers team-mate Danny Hylton.
The sting in the tail of the investment was the renaming of Gigg Lane to the JD Stadium.
Accusations the club had lost its soul may be tempered in time by a run of success on the pitch, but there was only a hint of that in November as Bury followed up a 3-1 defeat at home to relegation rivals Torquay with draws at Bristol Rovers and at home to Cambridge United in the first round of the FA Cup.
The signing of former Manchester United striker Nardiello seemed to galvanise the fans and team, however, as Jepson’s squad followed up a third successive draw against AFC Wimbledon with a first win at home for three months against Hartlepool United.
Nardiello was the hero, scoring the only goal of the game, and he was on target again at former club Exeter in the final game of November, but failed to inspire the club's first back-to-back victories of 2013 as the home side twice fought back to draw 2-2.
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IT is hard to know whether the board’s promise to caretaker boss Ronnie Jepson – that he would be given until January to earn the full-time position – was a smokescreen or not.
But the combination of a damaging FA Cup replay defeat at non-league Cambridge United and a change of circumstances for David Flitcroft brought a swift end to his time at the JD Stadium.
The Bury chairman admitted cheering at the news of Flitcroft’s sacking as Barnsley manager in the car on his way home from the draw at Exeter.
A little over a week later, the former Shakers player was unveiled as their new boss.
Flitcroft’s homecoming was marked by a 1-1 draw against relegation rivals Northampton Town.
And by the time the squad next took to the field in a 2-1 defeat at Plymouth, another Bury old boy had returned to the dugout.
Chris Brass, who played alongside Flitcroft at Gigg Lane and went on to work as number two to Alan Knill, was tempted back for a second spell as assistant manager.
His arrival coincided with an upturn in results, as Flitcroft and Brass masterminded a late comeback to draw with Scunthorpe on Boxing Day before guiding the Shakers to the first win of their reign at home to York – a victory that catapulted Bury out of the League Two relegation places.
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