Bury FC: The Aftermath, Part II
The patient has been laying comatose for six weeks now, but even now attempts to revive it remain ongoing. In two days time we’ll have a better idea of whether Bury Football Club can be revived in its current incarnation. The club faces a hearing over a winding up petition raised by HMRC on Wednesday, and there doesn’t seem any obvious way in which a company which has been broadly dormant for the last couple of months and which has no revenue streams whatsoever will be able to head this off. Who is going to step in and paid what is owed? What possible justification could there be for a further deferral?
Shortly after the club’s expulsion from the EFL, the local council turned down a proposal to step and purchase the club, opting instead to continue supporting the work of the rescue board with the aim of developing proposals to readmit the club to the League instead. This, of course, was the only decision that the council was going to make over this specific choice. Bury’s accounts have been a financial black hole for longer than many can remembers and with funding to local authorities having had an axe taken to it over the last decade or so, and as one councillor, Tamoor Tariq, explained, there would be inherent risks in getting involved in such a plan at the best of times:
It’s not a simple case of purchasing Bury Football Club. It comes with some very severe risks which include paying off former football players and staff, inheriting the CVA – which in itself would a significant debt to HMRC – and it also includes the loan which stands at £3.7m which has also caused some difficulty from potential people who have been looking to purchase the club.
I think it’s our duty to support Bury Football Club but also we have to manage expectations and manage communications and the tone that we’re setting for our borough tonight. We have to be responsible about this and I think it’s important we don’t set those expectations to a level where people feel that they’re not being able to be achieved.
Still, though, there was hope that something could be put together to satisfy the EFL that Bury could be revived, and ahead of their meeting to decide whether the club could be reinstated into the Football League at the end of this season the working group charged with trying to secure a future for the club a proposal was sent to the EFL for “compassionate re-entry” to League Two at the end of this season which included a signed statement from owner Steve Dale saying he is committed to selling the club and confirmation of “active committed bidders” to purchase it, with a plea that, “We accept that the EFL has had to take action given the mismanagement that has brought Bury FC to this position. However, we believe the expulsion followed by the loss of a season’s football and readmission on terms you dictate is a fair punishment.” The plea, however, fell upon deaf ears, with the EFL’s executive Chair Debbie Jevans replying that:
While we are saddened that Bury FC is no longer part of the EFL, the board’s difficult decision to withdraw membership was only taken after every opportunity to find a resolution was exhausted.
Since then, in recognition of the efforts made on behalf of the club, the EFL has engaged with supporters’ groups, shared their submissions with our members and debated at length the issues raised.
Following the discussion today, clubs have established that the preferred direction of travel is to reduce relegation from League Two as a means of returning to 72 clubs.
The clubs felt that, in a difficult situation, this approach maintains fairness for all members and upholds the principle of the football pyramid.
James Frith, the MP for Bury North and one of the most important voices behind this appeal, described the response of the clubs of the EFL as “self-interest was served cold by many EFL clubs”, but the reticence of the governing body to act upon this request is understandable, in some respects. Steve Dale remains very much present and correct at Gigg Lane, and until he – and all traces of him – have been exorcised from the club, there seems little cogent case beyond the purely emotional for arguing that the club should be readmitted come the end of the season. It’s all very well arguing that he has signed piece of paper confirming his “commitment” to selling the club, but this means little in practice, and his previous form since taking over the club last December gives little indication that he can ever be considered to be acting in anyone’s best interests but his own.
Attention has shifted since then, with Dean Hamer, chairman of the Forever Bury supporters’ trust, confirming last week that the Trust is continuing to work towards forming a phoenix club, with an anonymous bidder investigating the possibility the remains of the club from the liquidator in the event of the club finally going to the wall once and for all. There was even a statement from the bidder, saying that “the complex ongoing discussions require a level of confidentiality.” Supporters, however, remain sceptical. So many “investors” – the majority of whom have given little impression of investing much of their own into the club in recent years – have kicked the tyres at Gigg Lane over the last few months and years that few have a great deal of patience left for those who wish to preserve their anonymity, even if their intentions for the club are true, as Forever Bury believe they are.
At the end of last week, then, a meeting was held between James Frith met with senior members of the FA board regarding what happens next. With the EFL being fairly steadfast in their refusal to countenance Bury being allowed to rejoin at the end of the season, attention now turns to what happens at the end of this season. There are, in short, two options. If the FA – who make the ultimate decision each year over who starts the following season in which division – agrees, the club could be placed into the National League or the National League North at the end of the season, providing it’s the essentially the same club that was thrown out of the League last month. Should this be impossible – and it may well be by the end of Wednesday, should the club be unable to bat away the latest insolvency proceedings brought against it – then a new club would likely have to restart at Step Five, the Premier Division of the North-West Counties League, next season.
Understandably, it would seem that the current plan is to pursue the former until it becomes impossible to do otherwise. Should this fail, then the latter should be considered a perfectly workable back-up plan. But the hurdles to the former remain formidable. The club would have to reach a satisfactory position with regard to the winding up hearing this week. It would have to have security of tenure over Gigg Lane (which would mean reaching agreement with Capital Bridging Finance Solutions, who – whether rightly or wrongly – hold a £3.7m over the ground), it would have to somehow see its way through to the end of the season without any other nasty surprises crawling out of the woodwork, and there is a strong likelihood that a complete clear-out of the club’s historical debts and a severance of ties to those whose names are currently listed as owners and directors of the club might also be required. There are a lot of ifs and buts relating to the club continuing in the National League next season, but for those who wish to keep the club playing at the highest level that it’s able to, it’s an avenue that has to be examined.
The fall-back option would presumably only apply should attempts to rescue it as a going concern in any way fail. Such a “new” club may or may not be playing at Gigg Lane. That £3.7m mortgage becomes somewhat more manageable when we remember that there is covenant over the land upon which it sits restricting its use to recreational purposes and that it is already listed as an Asset of Community Value, which would grant interested community groups the right to bid for the stadium, should they be able to formulate a bid and arrange finances to purchase it. It is considerably too soon to formulate any prognosis over how all of this might play out, but there are causes for optimism. The support of the local MP is getting the fans’ case heard in the right places and, although their statement at the end of last week was couched in caution, the fact that these hopes have not simply been dismissed out of hand gives those who wish revive Bury FC hope that a club representing this community will be playing somewhere, and at some level, next season.
The idea of playing Charnock Richard, Whitchurch Alport and Litherland REMYCA as equals next season may have Bury supporters coming out in hives at present, but what’s important to remember here is that the arguments concerning what happens to the club next largely concern the club as a legal concern. Bury Football Club didn’t die with expulsion from the EFL in September. Bury Football Club wouldn’t die if it were refused admission to the National League or the National League North next season. This is, of course, because football clubs exist somewhere else. We can only get a hint of what a club means from reading Companies House documents, because ultimately where it resides is in the hearts and minds of those to whom it means so much. There is no team at the moment, no league to play in, and no Saturday afternoon ritual for those who love the club. Some will likely drift away over the course of the season without the rhythm of a league programme to keep them hooked, but that flame will continue to burn, and for so long as it does the club will survive in some form or another. Even if it confirmed on Wednesday that this legal entity cannot continue in its present form, that flame will only flicker slightly. The patient remains comatose, but for now there remains hope, and that remains a powerful inducement to keep fighting.