It’s over, then. After 124 years of unbroken membership, a press release late last night confirmed what had become increasingly clear throughout the day. There was no plan worthy of the name that could rescue Bury Football Club. Throughout the day there had been whispers and rumours that an iron might somehow be pulled from the fire, but it was all too late, and the truculence of the owner of the club, who earned himself a place in football’s infamy for his role in all of this. And there will be many fine words spoken about one of the League’s stalwart clubs, every single one of which will be too late to save them. The media attention yesterday ranged from the quietly-spoken love of the likes of the Guardian’s David Conn, who grew up a short distance from Gigg Lane, to the unsurprisingly tasteless nature of Sky Sports News, who had a ticker running the clock down to the five o’clock deadline set by the EFL.
We’ll never see inside the mind of Steve Dale, who will henceforth be known as the man who killed Bury Football Club. But, cathartic though it might be to verbally unload both barrels upon him, this is a story that began well before he started to circle over Gigg Lane. We mustn’t forget the misadventures of Stewart Day, the previous owner who mortgaged the club to high heaven and then fled. At the very least, we might surmise, he got something approaching a comeuppance with the collapse of his Mederco companies earlier this year, although it’s worth asking the question of whether these people, who seem to treat business as an extension of their own sociopathy, are even capable of feeling anything whatsoever in the ways that the rest of us are.
And for all their posturing, the EFL also have their cross to bear over all of this. The entirety of the professional game is now so wedded to free market economics that it effectively cannot regulate. It simply doesn’t understand the concept. In a just world, the events of the last 24 hours and longer would provide a wake up call to everybody, that bodies such as this simply cannot be trusted to run themselves. The EFL is ultimately the chairmen of its 72 member clubs. Consider that particular rogue’s gallery for a moment, and wonder at the fact that these people are allowed to self-regulate. And then, of course, there’s the FA. Or rather, there isn’t the FA, since they decided to abdicate themselves of any responsibility for the governance of the game several years ago.
And this is systemic. If you wanted to know the biggest truism about modern football, it’s that every club that has collapsed has no longer been in the divisions in which it found its name in the first place. Bolton Wanderers didn’t crash and burn while they were in the Premier League, despite their overspending being clear to anybody with a cursory understanding of it all. Clubs such as Hereford United, Chester City and Darlington didn’t go to the wall while they were members of the Football League. At the point where authorities could take some sort of decisive action in a preventative sense, they never do. “Basket case” clubs invariably get relegated, which suits the leagues down to the ground. Out of sight, out of mind. Another little problem brushed under the carpet.
There will, of course, also be those who will want to tell us that The Market must rule everything, that capitalism must decide who will survive and who won’t. So let’s be absolutely clear about this. There aren’t too many Football League clubs. Crowds have been increasing for years, despite ticket and season ticket price increases that would have shrivelled most audiences away to nothing years ago. That these crowd increases haven’t even led to financial stability for most of these clubs is most likely down to the fact that the only trickledown worthy of the name from the Premier League since its inception has been hyper-wage-inflation. It’s perfectly plausible to run a sustainable business on attendances of, say, 4,000 people paying £20 every couple of weeks. It’s not sustainable to do so when The Market has been bent so far out of shape that your club might have to be paying an average of £3,000-£4,000 per week on every single player just to stay competitive.
To put it simply, the game needs an independent regulator. It needs a body with teeth, with government legislation behind it, to actually ensure that this game is actually run by people deserving of the custodianship of these clubs. Because they are more than businesses, no matter what those who are incapable of measuring anything in terms other than pounds and pence might want us to believe. Tears were cried, yesterday. People are systematically having a piece of their identity stripped from them.
Call me old-fashioned, but so far as I can see if you’re going to do that to several thousand people at the same time, you need a pretty damn good reason to do so. Steve Dale’s retirement fund and Stewart Day’s right to profiteer off jerry-built student accomodation, as if this even needs to be said, are categorically not good enough reasons to rip the heart out of a community in this way. Dale, Day, and every other two-bit speculator who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing, pumped up on their belief in their inalienable right to grow fat off picking at the bones of our game, needs to be run out the game. They’ve had their fun. Now leave us the hell alone.
Where there is hope for Bury supporters this morning, it rests in the future rather than the present. So, what happens next? Well, the club continues to exist as a legal entity until it is liquidated. The most pressing issue facing Bury supporters now is what happens to Gigg Lane itself. It is believed that the stadium is already listed as an Asset of Community Value as a result of pre-emptive action taken several years ago by the club’s supporters trust, who got it listed in 2014 and, since ACV status lasts for five years, successfully renewed it earlier this year. It lasts until the 24th of June 2024.
But what does this mean in practice? In practical terms, ACV status means that any owner of the club who wishes to sell the ground (or any part of the ground including the car park) must inform the local council who will in turn inform the nominators, who would then have six weeks to decide whether they wish to make a bid to buy the ground. If they decide to make a bid there is a further six month moratorium period while a bid is prepared. During this time the ground cannot be sold. Dale would be under no obligation to sell, but ACV status does buy the Trust precious time to be able to try to get the money together to buy the ground and preserve one of the most important signifiers of what this football club is.
A phoenix club would be required to have a new name, although it may be possible to use its original name further down the line. Any new club would have to apply to join the league system for the start of next season, and the final decision over which division they would start in would be taken by the Football Association. In the case of Bury, this would almost certainly be somewhere in the middle of the non-league pyramid. It could be as high as the National League North, or it could be as low as the North West Counties League (three to four divisions lower.) The circumstances in this case, however, are almost completely without precedent, and the decision is at the absolute discretion of those making the decision. There haven’t been any clubs of substance that have gone bust in recent years for which a replacement of some form or another hasn’t come along afterwards.
This, however, might well only be the slightest crumb of comfort for desolate Bury supporters this morning, and understandably so. They have been let down by everybody. By owners who never gave a shit about anything but their own bottom line, and by regulators who are so wedded to the noxious concept of the “free” market that they simply find any form of regulation to be anathema and are, therefore, not worth the paper they’re written on as regulators. This is a shaming day for English football, a day upon which we have seen the neglect with which everybody treats smaller clubs. It’s structural, a fish that it rotting from the head down.
And if you are a supporter of one of those other smaller clubs then yes, you should be angry, and yes, you should be scared. Should your club ever find itself on a similar precipice, you now know the full extent to which there are no mechanisms to protect it. The entirety of the game needs drastic change. We’ve been reporting on these clubs for years, and it has been a minor miracle that yesterday’s events didn’t happen sooner. Whether this trickle becomes a torrent or not isn’t a question that can be answered right now – and anybody who confidently says that it can should be treated with caution – but we now know for sure that it’s possible. If nothing else, let Bury’s legacy be a conversation which actually results in a system which finally understands that our clubs are institutions which are worth so much more than the bottom line on a balance or the valuation of a piece of land.
No. Me neither.