Bury’s 14-match unbeaten run came to an abrupt end on Saturday as they suffered a 1-0 defeat away at Irlam.

Despite Bury’s recent impressive form, the battle at the top of the table remains finely poised with as many as five clubs having realistic ambitions for the sole automatic promotion place.

Shakers manager Dave McNabb made two changes to the side that beat Lower Breck with Charlie Doyle returning from suspension and former Irlam man Dec Daniels picked ahead of Benito Lowe.

The Shakers were still without leading scorer Andy Briggs, though there was a spot on the bench for new signing Dean Pinnington, who joined the club from FC Isle of Man.

In recent weeks Bury have got into a bad habit of starting matches poorly and inviting early pressure from their opponents. It appeared this would continue as Kaiden Barlow fired a shot on goal in the opening moments that only just deflected over the bar.

The Shakers struggled to keep possession or build an effective attack. As a result the ball stayed largely inside Bury territory and their usually stout defence were not able to clear their lines punished by the play from Barlow, as well as fellow attackers Mason Everton and Takura Sambizi.

It came as little surprise when Irlam took the lead, the ball played in from the home side’s right found midfielder Ethan Cartwright. Afforded far too much time and space by the Bury back line, he fired a shot that beat Wright at his near post.

The visitors could not muster much of a response. While the effort was there, there was a flatness to Bury’s play which was quite unlike the team that had won nearly every league game since the end of November. The closest they came in the first half was a scramble from a late corner that Oli Kilner could have scored from.

McNabb rang the changes at the break, making three half-time substitutions with attack-minded players Miles Storey and Pinnington added to the mix. This seemed to have the desired effect as within minutes of the restart, Bury had their best chance of the match. A left-footed curled effort by Daniels was superbly saved by goalkeeper Lee White.

Bury pushed hard for an equaliser, Sam Burns twice saw good shots blocked by an under-pressure Irlam defence, while Storey fired a Scarisbrick cross narrowly over the bar. Tom Moore headed wide from a Gaz Peet corner, Storey had a shot well saved by White and Burns dragged a shot wide of the post.

It was the sort of attacking impetus the Shakers had lacked in the first half, but it still was not enough. Chasing the match and a goal down, time was running out and Bury needed to convert a chance to see any hope of taking something from the match.

At the other end, with so many committed forward, Irlam looked to hit Bury on the break. Harry Wright was forced into a good save from Irlam player/manager John Main, while Jack Mitchell ought to have done better with a late chance when played through on goal against the Bury stopper.

Time ebbed away and the once unremitting attack that started the second half began to fade away. Bury could not find a way through and in truth were well beaten. The Shakers failed to score in a league match for the first time this season.

Bury will have to shake off their disappointment with games coming thick and fast.

Three home matches in seven days await McNabb’s side but they will have to face the first two without their raucous home support to keep their automatic promotion hopes alive.