Bury may be the first sad domino to fall

FOOTBALL in Bury now depends on the creation of a so-called “Phoenix Club” after the club was expelled from the English Football League. Bury is a relatively tiny club (average crowd 2018-19: 4,044), one that sprung-up when industrial Britain was creating the roots for the people’s game. Football enthusiasts have always known the basic keynote facts about a club that has struggled in the shadow of nearby Manchester – two FA Cup wins by big scorelines (4-0 and 6-0), nickname of the Shakers, home ground Gigg Lane.

The failure of the proposed takeover by C&N Sporting Risk (headed by Alastair Campbell’s son, Rory) has placed Bury on the edge of the cliff. Time is running out, but one wonders if anyone will be persuaded to take the club over. Steve Dale, the current owner, who bought the club for just £ 1 (always a bad sign) in December 2018, explained to the BBC: “Everyone who has come to the table looks at the debts at the club from Stewart Day’s era and the deal collapses.”

The stumbling block for C&N was the fact they could not secure the stadium, possibly because there was a loan charged against it. Dale added: “As you know, the loan on the stadium was taken out two years ago, way before my time.”

People often consider that anyone willing to take over a football club is saying goodbye to a lot of money. How many people are prepared to do this in modern business? C&N said that Bury’s finances were “reflective of the systemic failings of a football club over a number of years.” Whereas in the past there was a degree of philanthropy involved in running a club, it is questionable if, in an age where football has become big business at the top end, investors have the same appetite to sign away their money and endure the wrath of emotional shareholders when things go wrong.

Bury’s last published accounts (May 2017) show a turnover of £ 4.6 million and an operating loss of £ 2.7 million. In five years, Bury’s losses increased significantly and were primarily the result of the club owner banking on his other companies being successful, which would allow Bury’s losses to be underwritten. It didn’t work out that way. When Day sold the club, his departing message was that he wanted to spent more time with his family, but pretty soon after, his business empire went under with media reports suggesting creditors were owed £ 54 million. Dale, meanwhile, appeared to be somewhat philanthropic but quickly came up against a financial hole generated by the previous regime. Dale didn’t endear himself to the public, however, cutting jobs at the club, leaving creditors waiting and also upsetting HMRC.

The Guardian reported on how the withdrawal of C&N was a case of “optimism turning to despair” as Bury fans wept for their club and called for an overhaul of governance around football. One club worker sat in the stand and commented,“this is my favourite place on earth,” which underlined how some people place such great importance on football as a map marker for a town.

David Conn of The Guardian said the details of Bury’s demise “expose an alarming, knacker’s yard wreck that is more broadly worrying for the economies of Britain’s old industrial places at this time of imminent national shock.” It also highlighted the vulnerability of the town and that this was “a grim warning that small-town Britain is still being left behind”.

David Gifford of the fans trust, “Forever Bury”, told the Bury Times that the football club contributed £ 3 million a year to the local economy. Head of the council, David Jones, cautioned: “The loss of the club would be the final nail in the coffin for the town.”

Certainly, the way Bury has been brought to the point of extinction does raise question marks against the future of small-town full-time professional football and once again, whether the English game, with its huge emphasis on glitz, glamour and big money, can sustain 92 clubs. The rise of the Premier has upped the ante for the rest of the footballing fraternity, even influencing aspirational and often foolish overspending in non-league football.

A report in the Independent a couple of months ago suggested that 75% of the 48 clubs in the bottom two divisions have very opaque futures. Moreover, there were now more and more clubs who were struggling to pay their wages. Football has a very clear class structure and there’s a big – and growing –  gap between the haves and have-nots. Mark Palios, the former FA Executive, said clubs are now gambling in order to bridge the gap, hence spending too much money. Football finance expert Kieran Maguire said that the gap is only “going one way…given that sponsors and TV viewers only want to see a few clubs”. With that in mind, Palios added that the business model of lower league clubs has to change. “If gates are your sole limit in terms of the potential of a club, then you will struggle.”

Bury’s story is one of mismanagement, a lack of transparency and the cloth not being cut according to means. Bury may be small, but it is part of the local community. If it were not there, people in Liverpool, London or Newcastle might not miss it too much, but the folk of Bury and certainly those that have made the pilgrimage to Gigg Lane, will mourn its passing. Fans of the nation’s lesser football institutions may nervously watch this situation and fear for the security of their own club. Nobody can feel comfortable about this sorry tale.

It is not yet a terminal prognosis for football in Bury, though. Doubtless, a new club will rise from the ashes. This demands supporter engagement and leadership. Given the recent history of Bury FC, surely this is a good argument for supporter-run (probably part-time) clubs at a lower level of the game?

Sources: Manchester Evening News, Bury Times, Daily Telegraph, BBC, Guardian, Independent.

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