By Ben Collins – @BCjourno
IT was just gone 9.30am at BURY’s Carrington training ground. New manager Lee Clark wasn’t due to take his first training session until the afternoon, after he’d held his first press conference, but there were already plenty of people going about their daily business.
One of those was youngster Callum Styles. A shy, fresh-faced 16-year-old, he looked as though he might be lost. You could have been forgiven for thinking he was a young fan who’d won a tour of Carrington. With his slight frame and timid presence, he could even have been mistaken for a random youth player who would never get close to the first team and would soon disappear from the club’s books without trace.
The truth is far different. He’s already made an impact with the senior squad, and who would have thought that this eager beaver, who had arrived at the training ground long before the rest of the first-team squad, was set to make such a big impression on Clark.
Just two days earlier, as Bury’s home match with MK Dons petered out into a 0-0 draw, I heard one fan shouting at interim boss Chris Brass to bring Styles back into the team. “He’s the only one that can keep hold of the ball!” he said.
Brass should know. He was the one who gave Styles his first league start at Fleetwood on Boxing Day, and he soon looked at home, helping the Shakers to a 0-0 draw and what was a long-overdue clean sheet. Brass must have been impressed. He started him in the next 3 games too, against the likes of Bradford, Sheffield United and Scunthorpe, all sides going for promotion from League One. But Styles hasn’t featured since being brought off at half-time in the 3-2 defeat at Scunthorpe.
Until Saturday, that is. After replacing Brass last Wednesday, Clark named Styles on the bench for his first game in charge – a trip to relegation rivals Chesterfield. And the introduction of Styles and fellow youth product George Miller either side of the hour mark helped turn the game in Bury’s favour.
Ryan Lowe had a penalty saved but Andrew Tutte equalised before Miller pounced on a loose touch by the home keeper at the death to win it 2-1, giving the Shakers their first away victory since September.
Clark told me last week that he ‘doesn’t even look at birth certificates’. He very much believes that if you’re good enough, you’re old enough, and he proved that by throwing Styles and Miller into a crucial game which his side were losing.
While Clark also said that securing League One survival is the short-term goal, he is excited by the club’s long-term plan, and is already looking at that having handed Styles his first professional contract this week. The youngster signed a 2-and-a-half-year deal with the Shakers today (Wednesday).
Until Clark spoke with Bury chairman Stewart Day about the possibility of leaving the Kilmarnock job for Gigg Lane, it’s fair to assume he hadn’t heard of Styles before. He sure does now, after his first training session and his first game in charge.
Clark said on Saturday: “From what I’d seen of Styles on the training ground, I thought he was good. Then what I saw on the pitch there, wow! He was awesome, he’s got unbelievable talent and he’s very special. The substitutions were impressive when they came on, they made a difference for us.
“With George, it was the old adage – the harder you work, the more luck you get. That’s what he’s got in abundance, an unbelievable work ethic, and that’s what got him the goal. It was down to his attitude, his willingness to never give up on anything and to run and run.
“Putting young players in doesn’t worry me at all. I enjoy working with them and seeing them flourish. They’ve got to be given that chance some time. Just because they’re young, that should never be held against them. People say ‘well, they haven’t got the experience’. But the only way they get that experience is by playing games.”
Bury signed Styles in March 2016 after he was released by Burnley and he made swift progress in the youth ranks. Then-manager David Flitcroft rewarded him with his first-team debut as a sub in the final game of last season, making Styles the first player born in the new Millennium to play in the EFL. Such was Bury’s desire to play him that they didn’t realise he hadn’t been registered so the club were later deducted 3 points for fielding an ineligible player.
Styles is sure to help the Shakers earn many more points in future, though, and perhaps a few quid too. He’s already been watched by Manchester’s big two – City and United – as well as Liverpool and Everton.
Ryan Kidd, who has reverted to his youth-team role after assisting Brass, said: “Callum came to us at the tail end of last season having been released, surprisingly, from Burnley. We beat off several Championship clubs for his signature and it wasn’t long before we knew we had someone special in the building. Callum has progressed his all-round game this season to new heights and his work-rate is now matching his undoubted talent.”
If he keeps maintains his progress, he won’t be able to wander round like an anonymous competition winner for much longer.