Football: Bury fashion own line in success

Guy Hodgson on a Second Division club who are proving the benefit of positive thinking
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The Independent Online
If you wanted to explore football's "if onlys" by travelling along one road, you could do worse than take the A56. Old Trafford, home of the richest club in the world (self-proclaimed), lies just off the Chester road; 12 miles north there is Gigg Lane, and, as they say locally, there is unfashionable and there is Bury.

A hundred years ago there was a similar power divide, except then the more northerly club were in the ascendant. Bury were about to win the FA Cup twice in four seasons - with an aggregate score of 10-0 no less - while Newton Heath, now known as Manchester United, were heading for bankruptcy. Destiny is not always mapped out by a good start to life.

Which makes the bright times appreciated all the more and you have to go back a long way since things have looked so promising at Bury. Newly promoted, they are third in the Second Division, one point off the lead with a game in hand, and could go top of the table tomorrow with a victory at Gillingham. They may have been overtaken, and some, by Manchester United but they are at least thriving in a league of their own.

"Our ambition this year is to stay in the Second Division," Stan Ternent, their manager, said, "and at the moment we're ahead of schedule. The sooner we get to 50 points and ensure our survival the better, then we can all relax a bit."

Ternent is the sort of manager who never gets a mention when it comes to the game of naming successors for high-profile jobs, yet he has performed minor wonders on a budget that even clubs in Bury's division (Bristol City, Watford, Preston and Millwall come to mind) would find derisory. Before that, he had success at Bradford City, Hull City and, as assistant manager, to Steve Coppell at Crystal Palace.

Bury's financial position, which would be virtually untenable without the help of their London-based benefactor, Hugh Eaves, is allied to geography. Potential supporters are within an hour's drive of five Premiership clubs and, given the choice of watching the Yeboahs and Fowlers of this world rather than Wycombe or Gillingham, they have voted with their feet. A 4,000 crowd at Gigg Lane is reason for satisfaction, 5,000 a party.

Players, too, find the magnetic draw of bigger clubs irresistible as the workplace of Gary and Phil Neville, whose parents are employed by Bury, testifies. Yet while many clubs in what estate agents call the M62 corridor resent the Premiership's increasing pulling power, Bury stress the positive. They are not supping with the devil but have made an accommodation with him, and Manchester United's reserve team use Gigg Lane as their home.

"United don't come into the equation," Ternent said. "Their fans are all season-ticket holders and you couldn't get a ticket for Old Trafford if you tried. Liverpool and Blackburn are similar. And there's the flip side. Not every player can get into the first team at the bigger clubs and we're in an ideal position to monitor that."

What about Bury as a potential junior side for Manchester United? "I wouldn't mind some of their juniors," Ternent replied, quick as a flash, before adding: "The bigger clubs are going to get even bigger and it's feasible that Bury might become a nursery club. But it's some way down the road and there's a lot of competition round here. Stockport County, Rochdale or any number of clubs might fancy the idea themselves.

"There would also be a reluctance to lose the club's identity. Great players like Colin Bell and Neville Southall began their careers at Bury and we've got a good crop of youngsters coming through. I wouldn't mind being here in two or three years' time to see how they've developed."

The fate of Mick Walsh, who brought expectation and Ternent to Gigg Lane and was later dismissed, illustrates the chance element in football management that makes even projections into the near future risky. Then there is the stress that laid Coppell low at Manchester City and afflicts everyone running a football team.

"He's a close friend, Steve," Ternent said of Coppell, "and I was absolutely amazed when he left Maine Road. He's a very good football manager and an honest lad who is mentally extremely tough, so there'll be a good reason behind his decision. But if it's down to the hassle of management, I can well understand why.

"Stress is part of the territory, you learn to deal with it and it only becomes a problem when it affects your family. But I'm the last person to notice when things start getting to me. Sam Ellis [his assistant manager] will say to me: `Look gaffer, I think you need a couple of days off'. I've not spoken to Steve yet, but he'll tell me what the problem was."

The problem for Ternent is the anticipation that is growing in Bury. "Everything is rosy in the garden at the moment but the test will come when we lose three or four on the trot. So far we have the knack of winning straight after a defeat but a blip will come and we have to see how we will deal with it. Knowing Bury, it'll be well. We're a family club, we're all in it together and if there's a problem we all have a say."