Bury FC: The Aftermath, Part V

by | Nov 8, 2019

Increasingly, it feels as though we live in a society in which to apologise is no longer considered an act of common courtesy, and more one of weakness. Politicians and other figures in the public eye frequently contort and mangle the English language in the pursuit of not apologising, searching for increasingly inventive ways to express their “regret” or victim-blame without making it sound as though they are victim-blaming.

On the one hand, it makes sense to do so. There is, after all, a widespread fear that apologising crosses a threshold at which legal liability for wrongdoing might come into play. On the other, though, the public has had to acclimatise to a modern language of weasel words and dog-whistling and we’ve become reasonably skilled at reading between the lines when public figures try to walk this line. We may not be able to describe what such insincerity looks like, but we know it when we see it.

Earlier this week, the Department for Culture Media and Sport published its findings into the debacle that led to the expulsion of Bury Football Club from the EFL at the start of September. They were not especially kind about the EFL’s handling of the matter, with an extract from the letter sent by Damian Collins MP reading as follows:

From the evidence we have received, we believe that the failure to enforce its own rules and regulations both prior to and following (Steve) Dale’s takeover of the club contributed to the problems that ultimately led to Bury’s expulsion.

The EFL was warned about the club’s finances and ownership, and had multiple opportunities to intervene, but did not do so in an effective or timely enough way to prevent the club’s problems from escalating.

As such, we conclude the EFL has failed in its duty to Bury FC and its supporters. We recommend the EFL formally apologises to the club’s staff and supporters and makes reparations for associated loss of earnings.

It’s pretty much unprecedented for such an inquiry in a football setting to result in such harsh words from a committee, but considering the varying degrees of astonishment on the faces of the panel as various stalwarts from the administrative side of the game in this country explained exactly how the ownership rules here (don’t) work, we probably shouldn’t be surprised by their strength of their reaction.

At points during the hearing, the incredulity of those from the outside of football’s weird bubble was obvious, as well-paid administrator after well-paid administrator lined up to detail their own failings with an honesty that bordered on relish. What little protection there is to shield clubs from rogue owners had failed in slow motion before a watching audience of millions, and they did nothing to prevent it, yet there they were, explaining to baffled MPs exactly why they didn’t consider this to be an issue. Small wonder Collins seems to have felt as though the only way to deal with the EFL was to chide them like misbehaving children. He could have been forgiven for thinking that it’s the only language they understand. The EFL’s response to the letter demonstrated why the tone of Collins’ letter was so necessary in the first place.

Responsibility for what has happened at Bury FC lies with the current and previous owners of the club. Their financial mismanagement led to the club’s insolvency and the withdrawal of its membership of the EFL.

We very much recognise the real distress felt by Bury FC supporters.

Withdrawing membership was a very difficult decision to have to take at the time and we regret that such a course of action was required. However, we stand behind the decisions taken in respect of Bury FC, which were applied in accordance with rules in place at the time.

The EFL recognises that there are lessons to be learned to reduce the likelihood of a similar situation arising in the future and as has been communicated previously, work is under way to understand whether it may be appropriate to modify our regulations and procedures to support the long-term financial sustainability of clubs.

So there we have it. We might have screaming it from the rooftops for more than a decade but only now, “work is under way to understand whether it may be appropriate to modify our regulations and procedures to support the long-term financial sustainability of clubs.” It’s not even an admission that a system of regulation which resulted in expulsion of a club might have failed. They may as well not bother with these crocodile tears, really. We already know what any internal investigation into “whether it may be appropriate to modify our regulations and procedures” will most likely find.

There have been thirty-seven insolvencies involving EFL clubs over the last twenty years. Over this period of time, six clubs – Chester City, Rushden & Diamonds, Darlington, Halifax Town, Scarborough and Hereford United (I’m excluding the uniquely disgraceful position that befell Wimbledon, here) – have folded altogether and have had to be reformed, all after having dropped out of the Football League altogether, with Bury set to join them, quite possibly as soon as the start of next month. Yet only now is there even any acknowledgement that there is the tiniest possibility that the rules might not be fit for use.

As for an apology, well, supporters of stricken clubs will likely be a long time waiting. As we have pointed on on this site before, the EFL is no more or less than the seventy-two owners of its member clubs, and they would never stand for the leadership of their organisation siding with the lower orders. Similarly, these particular turkeys will never vote for the Christmas present that decent, robust governance would be for supporters. The free market is God (for so long as it suits them for this to be the case – they start pleading special status when it doesn’t), and woe betide those uppity fans who criticise their richers and betters.

The irony of all of this, of course, is that this refusal to apologise, this intransigence, this unalterable belief, in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, their way is the only highway in town, is more likely than anything else to lead us towards what we absolutely need, an independent regulator for football. Neither the EFL or the FA have showed an iota of understanding of why supporters are so angry or why they’re held in such contempt by so many people, and their tin-eared responses to increasingly exasperated commentary on their shortcomings is all the proof we need that they are never going to get their own house in order.

Bury supporters are, as I write this, having to build a football club form scratch because they were let down entirely by everybody who should have been working and legislating for years to make what happened to their club an impossibility. They didn’t work. They didn’t legislate. And they won’t apologise. Their failure to do any of this, of course, tells us everything that we need to know about them. More importantly, though, the DCMS committee knows this and has confirmed as much. It knows that the EFL “failed in its duty.” Now it’s time for them do something about it.