The eyes of a global television audience were focused upon Old Trafford on Monday night as two clubs who dominate the national football landscape but share the same city played out the latest instalment in a drama that has been rumbling away for decades. Professional football in Manchester, however, is a world of haves and have-nots and this week, seven miles from the centre of the city, a familiar storm is brewing. Bury Football Club has had a wretched season at the foot of League One. Promotion two years ago was always going to be a challenge for a club which plays its home matches in front of crowds of less than three thousand people – less than one-sixth of the number of people that support the division’s best supported club, Sheffield United – but last season the club finished in a mid-table position, safe from the spectre of relegation back from whence they came.
This season, however, the wheels have fallen off the wagon. Bury lay rooted to the bottom of the League One table with just thirty-four points from their forty-two league matches so far. Although they are not mathematically relegated yet – and “mathematical relegation”, that decisive point of no return, is as much as supporters of some struggling clubs have left to cling to at this time of the year – they are seven points below the dotted line that could provide salvation for this season, and would need to win all four of their remaining matches to have anything like a realistic chance of avoiding the drop. Issues on the pitch, however, can start to look like irrelevancies when a financial crisis comes along, and Bury Football Club, it would seem, is on the point of becoming entangled in exactly this situation.
It’s not the first time that the club has been in this position. Fuelled by the largesse of majority share-holder Hugh Eaves, who bankrolled the club after taking ownership of it in 1992, the club made it to the First Division in 1997, and the following season competed – and this is a statement that feels other worldly in 2013- played a division higher than Manchester City. When the collapse came, though, it was as swift as it was unexpected. Eaves, a stockbroker, was caught with his fingers in the till of an investment fund that he’d held an administrative role for in 1999. All of his assets, including Bury FC, were frozen by the High Court, and the club felt the chill wind of sudden financial crisis blow through Gigg Lane. Eighteen people were made redundant, and the club came within a whisker of being sold to two individuals, one of whom was a former bankrupt who had been disqualified from acting as a company director for twelve years following irregularities in his running of another company, whilst the other of whom had companies which had also been put into liquidation and were under investigation by the Department for Trade & Industry. Both had been imprisoned for obtaining services by deception in 1997.
As the club’s financial position deteriorated it started to look as if Bury FC would not be saved. Having been relegated back to the third tier in 1999, a second relegation followed in 2002, as the club collapsed into administration. The club, however, survived. Collection buckets came out, money was raised, and this club fell through. Two trusts were set up, a supporters trust called Forever Bury, and another trust, Save Our Shakers, was set up as a fighting fund but ended up owning a majority share-holding in the company. A CVA was agreed offering ten pence in the pound to unsecured creditors, and Bury Football Club was saved. It was a time which threatened the exist of one of the more understatedly storied clubs in the English game. This, after all, is a club which joined the Football League as long ago as 1894, just two years after Newton Heath and Ardwick, who would later become Manchester United and Manchester City, who in 1900 became the first club from the Manchester area to win the FA Cup and in 1903 set an FA Cup record which still exists to this day, when they beat Derby County by six goals to nil in the final. This was a story worth saving. This was a club worth saving.
This season, however, familiar concerns have started to raise their heads again. Two years ago, the average weekly wage for a player in League One was £1,410. Manager Kevin Blackwell recently went public in saying that, “there was a lot of players here getting paid nothing and then some are paid £100 and £200 a week” and that “There’s six or seven players… earning less than the minimum wage.” This followed a public meeting at which Blackwell and club chairman Brian Fenton, who has been heavily criticised by supporters, faced those very supporters. Crowds at Gigg Lane have been falling sharply, down around 20% on last season and with a worryingly tiny crowd of just 1,396 turning out for their recent home league match against Stevenage. This is due most likely to a toxic mix of the continuing economic slump, the team’s abysmal form and lower division football’s continuing need to keep prices high (tickets for Gigg Lane currently cost between £17 and £21), but Bury find themselves stuck between a rock and a hard place on this matter. Dropping prices would not guarantee considerably bigger crowds than they have been getting this season, and it certainly wouldn’t guarantee greater revenue. And what Bury Football Club needs at this moment in time is cold, hard, cash.
Desperate times call for desperate measures, then, and this week the club issued an official statement spelling out exactly how bleak its current predicament is. In it, the club confirmed the financial difficulties that have become common knowledge throughout the course of the season, adding that, “At this moment in time the situation is now critical, we are quickly running out of money by trying short term fixes that are not working long term. The club desperately needs £1million of external investment to secure the long-term future of the club.” The club is hoping to attract investors to put in £100,000 each to keep the club alive. “We are looking for a number of people, local businessmen or women to join a consortium and invest £100,000 each, with a guaranteed payback”, the statement said, but there are obvious issue with what has been said here which need to be addressed. If the easiest way in the world to become a millionaire is to be a billionaire who takes control of a lower division football club, then the question of how any payback can be “guaranteed” is a more than valid one to ask, and that’s before we move onto the question of why the club needs £1m to secure its long-term future. According to its statement, Fenton has a “business plan,” but he isn’t making public what that is, so it’s difficult to interpret this statement in any other way than, “Please put money into this failing business, otherwise it will close,” and this doesn’t sound like a plan that would get very far on Dragon’s Den.
Perhaps a drop into League Two is what Bury Football Club needs at this moment in time. Wages and overheads should drop, and providing the club can find a little stability in terms of its wages, it should be able to pull through. Perhaps, though, Bury’s plea is a useful – if ham-fisted – reminder to all concerned with lower division football. Crowds at some clubs have been poor this season, and there doesn’t seem to be any end in sight to the steady drip, drip, drip of smaller clubs finding themselves in a financial pickle, and there certainly doesn’t seem to be any indication that the gap between the richest and the poorest is going to stop widening any time soon. When Bury found themselves in trouble a little over a decade ago, it was on account of the reckless behaviour of one man and a reckless application of that most troubling of whims, ambition. This time around, though, something about Bury’s difficult feels different. After almost one hundred and twenty years of holding onto a place in the Football League, Bury’s departure from it would be a notable loss. Such an eventuality remains some way off, and although the club’s problems of late have been well documented, with a sound plan there is plenty of scope for the club to pull through. The question, however, is this: how sound or otherwise is Brian Fenton’s plan? Bury supporters will find out in the fullness of time.
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