7 April ~ There was a distinctly underwhelming reaction from Bury fans when Alan Knill returned to Gigg Lane as manager just over three years ago. But in that time the club's fortunes have been turned around to the extent that his departure last week to another of his previous clubs, Scunthorpe United, has left a bitter aftertaste. Knill arrived back at Bury – for whom he had been a record £95,000 signing from Swansea in 1990 – with the side as perennial strugglers in League Two. Relegation had been successfully avoided on the final day in 2006 and on the penultimate weekend of the following season. A similar buttock-clenching finale looked on the cards for a third consecutive year when the board took the decision to dismiss the almost universally despised Chris Casper in January 2008.
A run to the fourth round of the FA Cup under caretaker boss Chris Brass suggested that these weren't bad players and under Knill they came together to arrest the slump. Efe Sodje was brought in to provide immediate basement defensive nous and on a wave of newfound positivity, that few expected after the new boss's spell in charge of Rotherham, Bury finished a creditable 11th.
But the following season, the Shakers soon found themselves at the summit of the division. Knill's eye for key players saw veteran striker Andy Morrell, tenacious Irish midfielder Stephen Dawson, goalkeeper Wayne Brown and electric winger Elliot Bennett all contribute. The boss's mantra of "If you can't win, don't lose" was reaping rewards on what seemed like a weekly basis. Astonishingly, it all came down to the final day. Bury had to better Exeter's result away at Rotherham in their home game with Accrington to guarantee automatic promotion in Knill's first full season. A nervy afternoon saw 1-0 wins for both sides and a subsequent capitulation to Shrewsbury in the play-off semi-finals.
Last season failed to hit such giddy heights after a raft of mid-season internal squabbling, particularly with Dawson. As clubs from higher divisions courted him and he made no denial of his desire to leave, Knill went public with claims that he should show some loyalty to the club and see the job through. All of which makes Knill's decision to abandon the ship at this crucial stage of the season baffling. With Bury handily placed, message board speculation was rife that he would be heading back to Glanford Park after the departure of Iron boss Ian Barraclough, but in an enigmatic interview on BBC Radio Manchester he refused to confirm or deny his movements. Five days after Knill obviously waved goodbye to the fans after a lucky 0-0 at Port Vale, he left taking his backroom staff with him.
With seven games left, promotion – and coming face-to-face with a Scunthorpe side looking likely to be relegated from the Championship – is still a very real possibility. Given a lot of the vitriol hurled online over the past few days, Knill shouldn't expect a friendly reception back at Gigg Lane. James Bentley