With our thanks to Peter Taylor of the excellent Bury Me in Exile.
Losing someone you’ve come to love is never easy. Of course, this can manifest itself in different ways, and you can never be certain how you’ll react when the time comes. When Ryan Lowe’s departure to Plymouth Argyle was finally confirmed on Wednesday, I found myself not sad… but pleased. Pleased that he’d finally been able to engineer an escape for both himself and Steven Schumacher from the perpetual shambles they were experiencing at Bury. Pleased that he’s extricated his family from financial uncertainty. Pleased that he’s gone to a club who in my view will swap places with The Shakers (in a best case scenario) at the start of the new decade.
Anyone who has been more than a passing follower of lower league football in England for at least 10 years will be keenly aware of the new Pilgrims boss’ credentials as a player. A deadly striker who came alive in the area, a hard worker, a vocal on-field presence, and most notably of all (to me at least), a canny operator – well-versed in game management and rallying the supporters of every single side whose shirt he adorned to his cause. Several years ago, he made public his desire to manage Bury at some point in the future. He was perhaps handed the chance earlier than he expected during his third spell at Gigg Lane on a caretaker basis, with his only previous experience of selecting an XI coming in one-off development games (Bury have never consistently had a reserves outfit, in the modern interpretation of the term). In those games, he was apt to hand plenty of the U18s more senior experience than they were accustomed to previously.
Such games and first team competition are worlds apart, naturally. Thrown in at the deep end twice during the woeful 2017/2018 campaign, he struggled to make a truly discernible impact, marooned as he was in an utterly toxic atmosphere. Many of the players were regularly accused of simply not trying their hardest, something that Lowe himself alluded to very strongly during a particularly aggressive interview towards the dying embers of that season. Relegation was sealed a full month before the end.
The very small improvements he made in temporary charge coupled with his legendary status as a player were not enough by themselves to make him the overwhelming favourite for the permanent gig. I personally favoured the pairing of Anthony Johnson and Bernard Morley, but they opted to move down a step to Chester from Salford City. The then owner, Stewart Day, was said to favour Keith Curle… but for whatever reason, it turned out to be Lowe.
Immediately, he set about trying to change the culture at the club, showing little mercy to those he perceived to not want to remain at Bury, and shipping out on loan those he couldn’t boot out for good (owing to some preposterous wages). Veteran Neil Danns who totally redeemed himself during 2017/2018, after having had the temerity to have played at Bolton Wanderers earlier in his career, was given an extension to his contract and made captain. In spite of him not being fully fit, or even deployed in a role befitting his qualities under previous regimes, he began to shine under Lowe. Nicky Adams was brought back (again); other, more low-key signings were confirmed that seemed to suggest a few lessons had been learned from the ridiculous churn of the immediately preceding years.
High-profile pre-season friendlies gave Lowe the opportunity to bend the ears of several of the brightest head coaches in the UK in Marco Silva, Steven Gerrard, and Jürgen Klopp. He later admitted that he used the fixtures to try to put across his philosophy to the squad – in a nutshell, they could play like a fourth tier version of Manchester City or Liverpool if they studied enough video footage of the elite in action.
There was little denying that the talent relative to their standing on the pyramid was high. Despite that, few pundits from the outside predicted a promotion tilt; I myself would’ve settled for winning one more game in the league than they lost. The season got off to a slow start, with three defeats in the opening seven matches even raising early doubts on Lowe’s position. I took a different view – they had played three of the bookies’ favourites (two of which were away from home), and looked competitive in every single encounter. What was true however was there was something missing up front.
The signing of free agent Nicky Maynard changed everything in a tactical sense when he arrived in October. Doubtlessly, results and performances were improving just prior to his late arrival, but Lowe now had someone not too dissimilar in playing style to himself to lead the line. The very attack-minded posture adopted was cranked up even further as autumn turned to winter, evoking favourable comparisons with Kevin Keegan’s Newcastle United sides of the mid-90s. He’d also instilled a real belief that the team could overcome the odds, which was most ably demonstrated in turning a 3-1 deficit against MK Dons into a last-gasp victory in January, and only a fortnight later, going toe-to-toe with eventual champions Lincoln City in a six-goal thriller, Bury coming from behind three times to level things up.
All the while, he’d been given assurances by new owner Steve Dale just before Christmas that there was no need to sell any of the top performers despite the parlous state of the finances the Prestbury ‘businessman’ had inherited, and as such, Lowe was left to his own devices. That equilibrium changed in late March on the eve of the Swindon Town game, Bury having gone unbeaten in the calendar up to that point. None of the players and staff had been paid their salaries for that month, and unsurprisingly, the intransigence of the situation began to be seen on the pitch; three losses in eight days in April almost derailed the promotion bid completely.
Obviously, they rallied under Lowe’s astute man management (a skill of his that was being called on far more heavily than ought to have been the case) to finish the job with a game to spare, but relations between chairman and boss had reached a nadir; indeed, the same could be said for anyone employed by the club by early May. One of them was going to have to leave for that situation to resolve itself, and Dale did confirm in one of his rambling statements that he was putting Bury up for sale.
I first heard of Plymouth’s interest weeks ago, having been very surprised that they were demoted to League Two. Initially, everything (apart from the distance he’d need to move his family) made complete sense to me as to why their board would pursue him: especially the part about needing to be in the city itself to act as a beacon of sorts for the local community. As the weeks passed however, the speculation never went away, lending more and more credence to the belief that the move would indeed take place.
As I said at the outset, I’m pleased that it’s now been confirmed. Lowe would doubtlessly have been a wanted man regardless of the financial situation at Bury, and the decision would’ve been an agonising one for him and his family to make. The time taken over it shouldn’t be used against him in by the Green Army if things aren’t always stellar. Put yourself in his shoes and few would behave differently, especially with loved ones to consider.
As for how he’ll fare in Devon, he has a rebuilding job to perform, with just 11 contracted players on the books. There are parallels in that sense to the circumstances he found himself in this time last year. He has been appointed as manager of a side that shouldn’t have gone down (on paper), needing to eschew the losing mentality at the club, and sign players quickly to bring the squad up to strength. The key difference is that Plymouth, having had their own tussle with oblivion in the not too distant past, are a much more sensibly run side with a larger fanbase and the potential to perhaps regain a foothold in the second tier with continued astute planning both on and off the pitch.
I’ve seen plenty of articles praising Lowe’s gung-ho philosophy, which is most certainly merited. That said, he might have to tweak it on the odd occasion, with 2019/2020’s League Two already looking like a scramble between a dozen sides or more that will fancy their chances of gaining promotion. I’m intrigued as to whether he’ll change formation to match the 4-2-3-1 most often deployed by previous incumbent Derek Adams, and what tactical lessons he’ll have learned from his first full season in management. At the very worst, he’ll have the peace of mind to concentrate purely on football matters, which augurs well for an exciting season to be a Plymouth supporter. He might bring with him one or two familiar faces and together they should find an environment where things are on a much more even keel. With partisan backing from the outset, it should spur him on to a repeated success and greater heights than he was able to achieve at Bury.
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