English Football’s Judgement Day
It’s Tuesday afternoon, and there are now a couple of hours left. For the supporters of two football clubs just six miles apart in the North-West of England, today is a day that might just come to define who they are for the rest of their lives. Will they be supporters of Bury, founded in 1885 and joint-holders of the record win in an FA Cup final, or will be they be supporters of Bury 1885, quite possibly sharing another club’s ground and sitting out the FA Cup altogether for their first year as they get to grips with life in the non-league pyramid? Will they supporters of Bolton Wanderers, founder members of the Football League and the club of Nat Lofthouse, or will they be supporters of Bolton Town, members of the North West Counties League, holding open trials to find players to represent a new club which will be dedicated to reconstructing the name and legend of the club that they used to love, but died?
The waiting is agony, and there have been signs for some degree of optimism over the last couple of days that both can be saved. There are new buyers for Bury, another one of these football statistics companies, but will they be able to get their deal confirmed and over the line by the EFL’s deadline by the time of the deadline? It is now being rumoured that there is a new consortium that has the wherewithal and interest to buy both the Whites Hotel and Bolton Wanderers, but will they be able to rescue the club and get the money in place to keep that club afloat? And regardless of whatever happens to these two clubs, how quickly will it be before this extraordinary day is forgotten and as close to normal service as possible resumes? Today is a day for questions rather than answers. There are almost too many to ask, though.
At Gigg Lane this morning, there were around three hundred supporters who are simply refusing to say die. After the club put a statement on its official website saying that it needed volunteers to get the ground ready for a first league game of the season on Saturday, these supporters turned up and are doing their bit. At such a time, perhaps it’s as much as you can do, to sweep the aisles in order to take your mind off it. So long as it’s not five o’clock there are still signs of a pulse, and whilst that might not count for much in the overall scheme of things, it’s doing something. A burger van even turned up to feed them, free of charge, while a five year old Bolton supporter was pictured cleaning the Gigg Lane seats. People talk a lot about “the soul of football”, but they often do so in the abstract. It isn’t. These people are the soul of the game. They’re also the people who’ll be hurt the most, and for the longest amount of time, by the pathetically inert reactions that have gone on around them over the last few months or so.
Meanwhile, the latest round of live televised Sky Sports matches has been announced and features Bolton Wanderers vs Bury at noon on the 8th of September. This may be wild optimism on the part of the broadcasters, but it does at least offer a tiny ray of hope to those who are fearing the end. Furthermore, should both clubs pull through this match will be played on an international break weekend, so supporters of neither club may wish to tune in as a show of support for our entire league structure and system. Sky are probably more a symptom than a cause of the malaise of the lower divisions – it’s hardly their fault that football is incapable of looking after its own – but the symbolism of clear, here. Crowds across the Football League have held up considerably better than would have been expected thirty or forty years ago, but wage inflation has pushed everyone to the point that the game depends on television money in order to keep fuelling itself. Those glittery trinkets aren’t going to buy themselves, you know.
So for now there’s little else to say apart of “good luck.” For the people at Gigg Lane, giving their time in a club’s hour of need, or for those feeding them as they do their bit. For the thousands of others, distractedly hitting F5 on the news pages at work, or on social media on their phones. For the combined hundreds of years of history that is so close to coming to an end. And for the supporters of almost every other club at this level, so many of whom have been close to this scenario, even if they didn’t quite one as close as Bolton Wanderers and Bury are right now. No matter how this plays out over the remainder of today, this unprecedented day must never be allowed to happen again.