Bury: The Final Countdown?
At the exact time of writing, I’m sitting on a hard plastic chair in a ward in East Surrey hospital. Mum fell a couple of weeks ago. She broke her elbow, but they haven’t been able to operate on it because she’s too weak for anaesthetic, but they can’t keep her in this ward forever. She needs to be moved on. She has dementia, so to a point we’ve already lost a significant part of her, and this morning they’ve told us that she has pneumonia, but there’s still breath in the body. Occasionally, she’s awake. Even more occasionally, she’s lucid. But it starts to feel as though I may even have already spoken to her for the last time, even if she can recover from this particular infection. It’s an odd place, this wilderness. On the one hand, she’s right there. So familiar. On the other, though, a big part of her been fading from view this last few months, and it’s accelerating. But it’s not quite there yet.
At such a time, you might be expecting me to be “putting things in perspective”, and I am. The background noise of this week in football has been centred around Lancashire, around two clubs, at least one of which bears a striking resemblance to a certain person sitting close to me. Today’s the day when the decision is supposed to be made. At midnight, the deadline set for the Bury owner Steve Dale to put up, shut up, and piss off. And if he won’t agree to that, the lights at Gigg Lane will go out for the final time. One hundred and thirty-four years gone, because those who were in a position to make this not happen couldn’t do so.
Bury Football Club is exactly half a century older than my mother, but football clubs aren’t human beings. There is nothing natural happening to this football club. This is a situation created by human beings, making conscious decisions. Despite this, though, clubs have a familial relationship to supporters. They form a part of our identity. They are, whether you like it or not, a part of our lives, as familiar as the furniture in our living rooms. And although there is no rule which says that football clubs have an expiry date, one observation about our relationship with them in relation to mortality does ring true: no football supporter should outlive their own club. I have quietly accepted that the time may be close, for mum. It’s unspoken at the hospital, but I’ve seen little to suggest improvement, on her part. It’s sad. I will cry. We all will. We all love her very much. But part of the healing process of grief is the understanding that death is an inevitable by-product of life. One cannot exist without the other. But none of what’s happening at Bury is inevitable. Anger is inevitable. Inevitable and, in this case, righteous.
News regarding the nature of Steve Dale and his dealings in this football club that has emerged over the last day or two has been extremely revealing. It has been reported that he paid £70,000 to Mederco – the company owned by Bury’s former owner which collapsed amid a flurry of unpaid invoices earlier this year – to purchase the club’s £7m debt to the company through a company in the name of his son-in-law. A penny in the pound. Welcome to the world of disaster capitalism, a world in which has more in common with a casino than the stock market, a world in which anyone can get a mortgage providing they’ve got collateral and something which could be interpreted as a plan. A world in which, every once in a while, it’s possible to turn a few thousand pounds into a seven digit figure in less than a year. A world in which it’s not about what you’re worth, but what you will be worth.
The key thing to remember about this world is that it is amoral. The profit is the point. It has been reported that Dale wants supporters to pledge £2.7m today to purchase the club. Of course, the likelihood of 2,700 Bury supporters pledging £1,000 each to Dale is unlikely to implausible, and the it seems unlikely that this would happen were the club given a year to arrange it, never mind having between twelve and thirty-six hours to do so. But the likelihood that someone will make an offer that will save the club – and which will be worth considerably more than the nothing that it is currently worth as a business – is high. Indeed, it’s difficult to imagine any other line of business in which this particular company would even still exist. But Bury Football Club is not “any other line of business.” Steve Dale knows this. He wouldn’t be a very good disaster capitalist if he didn’t. And this is the world in which professional football’s governing bodies need to start understanding they’re moving in now. It’s a world in which morality is a sign of weakness, in which the profit is the only thing that matters.
Nothing has changed. This is still a structural failure, from top to bottom. The FA have been conspicuous only by their silence. The EFL have backed themselves into a ludicrous corner, sealed in by a determination to look tough that runs in direct contravention to their desire to do absolutely nothing about it whatsoever. But even to blame the EFL for this failure is insufficient. Fair enough, Sean Harvey was the chocolate teapot of football administrators and Debbie Jevans, his successor, has catastrophically failed in her first test in charge. But a league is exactly what it says it is. The EFL is the seventy-two clubs that make it up. To talk of the EFL as though it’s a separate adjunct to the rest of the game is misleading. It’s a league, a group of clubs. The stain of shame should run deep. Although made up of clubs formed into leagues, professional football is very much its own eco-system, and blame should not be left at the door of any one individual or body. There is a pathogen within this body, and no-one has done anything to prevent it.
Well, not no-one, obviously. Yesterday afternoon, Joy Hart, a former director of the club and the daughter of Les Hart, a player who served the club with such distinction that a Gigg Lane stand is named for him, turned up at the stadium and handcuffed herself to a drainpipe there. This afternoon, supporters delivered a coffin to the stadium, to mark what, in the absence of any concrete evidence to the contrary, remains the club’s final day as a member of the Football League. These are the people who’ll be hurt, should Bury FC go to the wall in the near future, but the professional game itself doesn’t care enough about them to ensure that their clubs are ensure. The markets will decide. The markets are always right.
So, this is how I put it all into perspective. To the supporters of football clubs, the fact that our clubs will continue to exist is taken for granted. And we should be able to do so. The absolute minimum that we should expect of those running our clubs is that they will do so in the best interests of that club. And our absolute minimum expectation of those who regulate the game should be that they can deal rogue owners and clubs that get into financial difficulties. Every comment from Steve Dale has suggested that he never gave a damn about Bury. Every comment from the EFL has indicated that they simply do not grasp what all of this is about. We just want our football clubs to survive. Ideally we’d like them to thrive, but some clubs win whilst others don’t. That’s the very nature of the game. There is, however, no sell-by date on a football club. This could have been fixed months ago. It could yet be fixed now.
Mum doesn’t wake up throughout the entire duration of my visit. We have a few minutes alone, and I take a moment to tell her that I love her, to thank her for every last sacrifice that she ever made for me, and to let her know that, in spite of my occasional fragile mental health, I’m safe and loved. I don’t know if she can hear me, but I hope that she can, and I still hold out hope that she will do again. But my loss, whether impending or not, at least has the benefit of being an entirely natural state of affairs, and it’s a comfort to know that she has had a full and happy life, with a husband and children and grandchildren who love her very much, and that she is in the care of professionals who know what they’re doing. Bury Football Club has people who love it very much indeed, but this is not a natural position for a football club to be in and the professionals charged with its care have failed to take care of it in any meaningful sense. Regardless of what happens next for both Bury and the other stricken League One club du jour, Bolton Wanderers, we should all be angry that things have been allowed to get into this state, still more that all concerned have taken the decisions to lead us here in the first place were taken in the apparent belief none of this really matters.
Be good to the people that you love. They’ll be a long time gone.