900,000 Holes In Bury, Lancashire
This should be a shaming week for football in England. A country that loves the idea of its rich football heritage is set to lose at least one – and still quite possibly two – of its traditional football clubs, and nobody is doing anything about it but shed crocodile tears. The supporters of the clubs concerned are stranded, without even a team to watch, and those charged with safeguarding the integrity of the professional game here have been hopelessly inert, demonstrating not only that they are unfit to govern, but also that the rules put in place in order to prevent exactly the situations unfolding at The University of Bolton Stadium and Gigg Lane from coming to pass are simply not fit for purpose.
When Bolton Wanderers finally collapsed into administration earlier this year, it was the first time that a Football League club had done so in six years, and that’s something that the governing bodies doubtless counted as a huge success story on their part. The test of these rules and regulations, however, doesn’t come when everything is chuntering along as per normal. The test of these rules comes when something abnormal happens, and thankfully what has happened to both Bolton Wanderers and Bury remains abnormal. But there is no way of looking at the positions in which these two clubs find themselves today which doesn’t paint this as an absolute structural failure on the part of everybody who has touched it.
There have been times over the last few days when it has felt a little as though the situations at the two clubs have turned into an arms race of stupidity and failure. When Bolton Wanderers cancelled their match against Doncaster Rovers, they did so with what might be considered noble reasons. The club has less than a handful of senior players left on its books and had managed to play its first fixtures of the season by stuffing their team with teenagers. Their decision to postpone was, it was iterated, out of deference to the well-being of these young players. Step back from it, however, and the absurdity of it all starts to become clear. Not only was the club was allowed to start the season despite the fact that this was the case all along, but it was later reported that neither the EFL or Doncaster Rovers had been notified of this prior to the announcement being made. It’s entirely possible that this was just a communication issue – it feels a little as though the only voices still present at The University of Bolton Stadium are the ghosts of the past – but that’s no excuse.
Bury, meanwhile, remain hostage to their owner. It has been reported that Steve Dale has turned down offers to sell the club over the last week or so, so questions have turned to the small matter of what his motives might be for doing so. Unsurprisingly, Dale himself has remained tight-lipped on the reasoning behind this, with forty-eight hours now remaining before the expulsion process from the Football League begins, it’s starting to feel as though his desire to enrich himself is his sole objective from this entire mess. He certainly has form being involved in distressed companies, whilst the question of why a company called RCR Holdings, set up in July by Dale’s son-in-law, should be owed millions of pounds by the club hasn’t been answered either.
Meanwhile, the Bury Times has reported that Dale has turned down a bid to buy the club from the former Port Vale owner Norman Smurthwaite which included the payment of all creditors on the CVA agreed last month with the exception of a director’s loan of £3.6m which, at 25p in the pound, would hand Dale £900,000 from the CVA being approved. Anybody who has been watching the fortunes of Bury Football Club over the last year or so would likely raise their eyebrows over this claim. Dale purchased the club in December of last year for a pound, and if there’s one thing that most people can agree upon regarding this particular football club, it’s surely that the club doesn’t look much like a business that has had millions of pounds put into it over the course of the last nine months or so.
So, where’s the substantiation of these extremely large director loans? What was this money spent on? Bury is, let us not forget, a League One football club. It’s true to say that clubs at this level of the game can be a financial black hole, but even if we’re generous and allow the last year to be taken into account, this would still equate to almost £70,000 per week. “Where’s the money gone?” is a familiar refrain when football clubs are in financial trouble. It’s a valid question. And whilst Port Vale supporters might have a thing or two to say about the potential involvement of Smurthwaite at any football club, the very fact that he might be considered a last-gasp saviour – quite possibly that last that will show their face before Friday’s deadline – speaks volumes in itself about the state in which Bury finds itself.
Forty-eight hours. There are forty-eight hours left to save Bury Football Club, and all that we see is inertia and silence. The Football Association remains silent on the matter. The EFL, meanwhile, expresses “frustration at the lack of progress” with regard to the looming deadline, but is otherwise powerless with regard to what Dale does next. One can only wonder at how closely they even bothered to look at the CVA proposal documentation that they received before approving it. The EFL’s AGM in June should have been the point by which the ability of this football club to complete the coming season should have been addressed. A wing and a prayer simply isn’t good enough. To repeat: yes, Steve Dale may be a dick and, in the event that we even believe that he gave a tu’penny damn about the club in the first place, and that yes, he may have been an abject owner (how else to describe a club that is so close to death on his watch?), but this is a structural failure on the part of every single person or grouping who may have had the opportunity to do something to prevent this from happening.
So, yes, we should feel ashamed. We should feel ashamed that the governance of the game in this country simply isn’t worth the paper that its written on. We should feel ashamed of the fact that we don’t treat clubs as assets of their communities, which should have a greater value than anything that some asset-stripper or other might want to take from them. We should feel ashamed of the fact that two clubs formed in the nineteenth century are simultaneously so close to this precipice. We should feel ashamed that, for all the billions of pounds that flow through professional football, we can’t take care of all of our football clubs and guarantee their existence. We should be ashamed of the fact that institutions that mean so much to so many people can be treated in such a way, and that we refuse to protect them in a meaningful sense.
If Bury and Bolton Wanderers die, a tiny piece of English football’s soul will die with them, and if English football feels a tiny tug at its heart-strings at the point that such an eventuality is announced, that’s probably what’s left of its soul reminding us that all this talk of heritage, history and tradition was always pure bunkum, a marketing exercise to mask the fact that the only God that professional football ever worshipped was Mammon. Welcome, everybody, to the absolute bottom of the barrel. And we never gave enough of a damn to do anything about it.