2017/2018. Predicted to make the top half at worst, featuring a squad with names that have won promotion out of that league before in a stadium that’s starting to show its age. A divisive chairman employs a manager whose tactics are found wanting. The star striker’s time is cut short, mediocre (at best) form nosedives and suddenly they find themselves bottom of the table, relying on personnel in their teens from a fruitful academy to show their more vaunted peers some craft and effort, with the club capitulating all too easily into the tier below. A new man is appointed on a permanent basis at the start of the close season (after a second coach had had a go), saddled with a roster full of expensive personnel, many of whom don’t want to remain there and whom the club can’t afford to retain in any case.
In the paragraph above, am I talking about Bury or Sunderland? That’s how closely linked the two clubs’ trials and tribulations were and, to a certain extent, still are.
I make it a point as a fan of the Shakers to cast my gaze far and wide, to see what’s occurring at other teams, both domestically and overseas. New Black Cats owner, Stewart Donald, has achieved an astonishing turnaround in his brief tenure to date, both galvanising and rallying the traditionally working class town’s fanbase ‘back into the fold’… before a ball has even been kicked. Yes, it won’t always be plain sailing in the months and years to come, but there’s an air of positivity that has long been absent.
Equally as importantly, he’s been very open and honest with supporters. I listened to the first podcast that interviewed him almost as soon as it went live and I liked what I heard, even though I have no link to the League One outfit whatsoever other than having written a couple of times for the Roker Report previously.
He promised to return in a month’s time and I once again found myself keenly listening, whilst waiting for yesterday’s World Cup games to commence. There was inevitably much discussion surrounding transfers and again, he was refreshingly frank, whilst still protecting details that needed to remain confidential.
Around halfway through, my ears pricked up at the rather unexpected mention of a certain Chris Maguire being a possible target. It was not dismissed in the first instance and then Donald said:
Would we be in for those type of players (Lyle Taylor and Maguire)? Absolutely.
I almost fell off my chair for two reasons. Firstly, publicly stating your intent to acquire players by name is rare in football. Rarer still does that act mean there is smoke without fire (unless you’re Chris Casper whilst Bury manager, but that’s a story for another article). It also alerts other clubs to your interest in the player. In the modern day, the main beneficiary in that situation isn’t either the buying or selling club but the agent.
Secondly, Maguire has just come off the back of undeniably his worst season ever as a professional in England. There were high expectations of him and a whole slew of other signings made in the summer of 2017, most notably Harry Bunn. I had seen him quite a few times in an Oxford United shirt and I was really excited at the prospect. He was a striker but not someone who would lead the attack, at least not as a target man. He was someone always appeared more at home in between the lines and he had a knack of popping up on either flank to receive the ball (due to his left foot being anything other than weak) and, better yet, he was an expert free kick taker – something Bury had been lacking for quite some time.
On his debut, he linked up well with Jermaine Beckford up top, but both of them conspired to miss penalties to put Walsall to bed. That was the apex of his nascent campaign in the white and royal blue, and neither of them started against Sunderland in the televised EFL Cup game. He toiled as results kept going against Bury and Lee Clark was utterly clueless as to how to get the best out of him, or indeed pretty much anyone. His bizarre summer transfer deadline day dealings massively destabilised a group, already encumbered with too many players and a ridiculously high turnover.
To everyone’s relief, Clark was sacked in October, but the rot had set in. Maguire was expected to step up in Beckford’s absence, sidelined as he was with a season-ending injury in the same month. The Scot has never been prolific in front of goal, but a lot more than a mere two were required of him. He only seemed to turn up against his former side in terms of anything close to what was required of him.
His body language smacked of someone who wasn’t up for the fight against relegation, and his work rate, one of his best attributes previously, took a similar nosedive. In March, then-caretaker manager Ryan Lowe eventually tired of his soporific displays and, if you believe the rumours at the time, told him to stay away. In any case he didn’t feature for the senior side again, becoming persona non grata and the chief playing figure for fans’ understandable vitriol.
Whilst that was playing out, the makeshift U23s were once again making progress in the Lancashire Senior Cup. In the final, he stood out like a sore thumb, scoring twice, once from the spot and then a curling effort from outside the box.
No-one from the outside looking in ever has a full grasp of all the reasons why something doesn’t work out and, as such, I can only speculate as to the reasons why. Maguire was far from the only ‘big name’ player to fail miserably; you normally anticipate one or two not to work out as planned, but for Bury in 2017/2018, it was closer to a dozen.
For me personally, I think it was more of a cultural problem: players, agents and other clubs alike have seen Bury spend big on transfer fees and wages, relative to the modest size of the fanbase and income. Additionally, when you ally those factors with a management team at the time not exactly known for their tactical acumen or even their interpersonal skills, and then throw some of those players under the bus in the same window as you sign them… it’s not difficult to foresee problems.
That said, I don’t seek to take any responsibility away from Maguire for his role in the shambles of 2017/2018… but if he does sign for Sunderland, I think he’ll be much more in his element.
He strikes me as someone who relishes the big occasion (just look at his antics against Bradford City after scoring his only other goal). He loves winding up opposition fans, creates as well as scores, has positional flexibility as I alluded to earlier and under the canny management of Jack Ross, he should flourish.
The days of Sunderland AFC being taken for a ride by under-performing players on inflated wages seem to be over. A parting of the ways is probably in the best interest of the person and the club, and, with a year left on his contract and still in his peak at 29, it should allow Bury to recoup at least some of the outlay in wages, but I would hope they would hold out for a transfer fee.