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Guest writer Ben Collins sees Bury join forces with their latest famous friend, Robbie Fowler, in their charge for promotion.
While most eyes were on Old Trafford last Tuesday, there was something stirring on the other side of Manchester.
United were overcoming Chelsea to book their place in the Champions League semi-finals. But eight miles north, a famous face was helping unfashionable Bury take a big step towards promotion from League Two.
Only Notts County and Preston have been in the Football League longer, yet Bury is more famous for its black puddings and market than its football team. And with City and United just up the road, the Shakers have long been the backstair sprogs of Manchester football.
Even as the club spent two seasons in the Championship after Stan Ternent masterminded successive promotions in the late ‘90s, Bury knew their place – they were not getting ideas above their station. Sure enough, they were back in the bottom tier in 2002 and almost went bust before fans from around the globe chipped in to help the club out of administration.
They may live in United's shadow but Bury have close ties with them. United’s reserves used to play at Gigg Lane while many United youngsters have come on loan to Bury, such as current 12-goal striker Nicky Ajose.
The Neville brothers hail from Bury and Gary has brought some of his United team-mates to watch the Shakers. Their father, the splendidly named Neville Neville, is a former director who spearheaded the 'Save Our Shakers' campaign, and their mum, Jill, is club secretary.
Hiyaaaa! Neville Neville and co
Phil has spoken of his desire to one day manage his hometown club and the recently retired Gary was linked with the job after manager Alan Knill was head-hunted by Championship strugglers Scunthorpe last month.
Yet it was an old foe from down the M62 that came to Bury's aid as they close in on a first promotion for 14 years. Robbie Fowler spent last week coaching the first team and the Liverpool legend was in the dugout with caretaker boss Richie Barker for the midweek win over lowly Burton.
Fowler’s presence on the touchline helped keep the gate around the 2,500 average – not bad considering there was a big Champions League game on the box – yet you could tell many were a different bunch to the hardy souls that have followed Bury during their gradual decline since relegation from the second tier in 1999.
Like any lower-league club with more illustrious neighbours, Bury have plenty of fair-weather fans, and they became anxious too early. They had come expecting the Shakers to continue their march towards League One and for the most part they – and Fowler – must have wondered why they bothered as there were almost as many red cards as chances (for the record, Bury finished with nine men and Burton 10).
But they breathed a collective sigh of relief after defender Tom Lees rose highest to head the only goal late on and cement second spot.
Having been there or thereabouts all season, the long-suffering Bury fans finally dared to chant about promotion. They have since beaten Barnet on Saturday to build a five-point cushion over the play-off places with four games left.
Yet you'd think they would have learnt after recent years. Bury narrowly avoided relegation from the Football League for the first time in their long history in 2007, but Knill soon transformed them from perennial strugglers into promotion contenders. Little wonder Scunny, another of his former clubs, came calling.
Over 7,000 turned up for the final game of his first full season in charge – 2008/09 – and Phil Jevons' late penalty against Accrington put Bury on the brink of automatic promotion.
Fans poured onto the pitch thinking 1-0 was enough. It wasn't. And in the confusion, Andy D'Urso blew the final whistle after barely two minutes of stoppage time. Five had been indicated. Wycombe went up instead on goal difference – by just one goal.
Knill’s team looked like broken men. Yet worse was to come as Shrewsbury claimed a last-gasp goal to take the play-off semi into extra-time before winning on penalties.
After being in contention again for most of last season, Bury faded to miss out on the play-offs and no fewer than eight first-team regulars left in the summer. Incredibly, Knill rebuilt the side on a shoe-string budget to defy the odds by keeping Bury amongst the promotion contenders this term.
Several have excelled so it hasn't all been down to the form of Ryan Lowe, the 32-year-old striker who broke the club record of scoring in nine straight games to pass the 20-goal mark for the first time in his career.
Bury have a team stocked with technically gifted youngsters and Lowe has been helping them develop, even when he hasn't been wearing the captain's armband, and it was the veteran Scouser’s connections that brought Fowler to the club.
Lowe knew Steven Gerrard from their days at the Liverpool Academy and he later became pally with the Reds skipper through a mutual friend, Accrington keeper Ian Dunbavin.
Bury are short of coaching staff after Knill took his backroom team with him to Scunny, and Fowler, looking to build his coaching experience, offered to lend a hand. A Liverpool fan and a regular at Anfield, Lowe was happy to help get him on board and last week found himself driving to training with one of his idols.
Fowler has 'verbally agreed' to spend another season playing for Perth Glory. That, of course, is no guarantee he will return to Australia this summer so until the 35-year-old puts pen to paper, a serious coaching offer could sway him to stay in England.
"So am I in Australia or Lancashire now?"
Bury remain on the look-out for a new boss and Fowler confirmed he wants to go into management, admitting he will probably have to start at their level.
Despite winning his first four games in charge, Barker expects to go back to youth-team duties in the summer, and the Bury board are biding their time in a bid to find the right man. Whether that man is a big-name rookie such as Fowler or Gary Neville is open to debate.
But one thing is for sure. If big names keep associating themselves with Bury – and they clinch promotion – they might not be quite so unfashionable any more.
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