The EFL, Bolton Wanderers & Bury: Two Minutes To Midnight
With considerably less than a week to play before the start of the 2019/20 season, we might have expected such matters to have already been decided. The EFL’s two crisis clubs du jour had both been given a deadline by the League if they wanted to start their respective seasons, with the two clubs being given until five o’clock yesterday afternoon to prove their financial viability for the coming season. By late last night, it had become clear that one of the two clubs had at least managed to crawl to the starting line, whilst the other was still wheezing and panting in the warm-up area. As things stand – and saying any more than that would feel like a gamble, considering the parlous state of the two clubs concerned – Bolton Wanderers will start their season this weekend, whilst Bury will have to wait. At best.
To be clear, no fairy godmother turned up at the The University of Bolton Stadium last night with a blank cheque book. The club was put into administration at the start of the summer, but quickly had new buyers in the form of Football Ventures, a consortium which had been looking at the club earlier in the year. The administrators didn’t waste too much time in accepting their proposals to rescue the club, but the hitch was that the agreement reached was dependent upon the sale of the White’s Hotel adjacent to the stadium. With that sale not having completed – the hotel was separated from the club and going through a different administration process – doubts were starting to form over the club’s ongoing viability. Businesses in administration, after all, aren’t absolved from day to day running costs. A rescue plan has to include these, but in this case both the EFL and the administrators seemed to have accepted this plan on the basis of the sale of a hotel which hadn’t yet taken place.
Last night, however, there was finally a breakthrough when it was confirmed that Football Ventures, the prospective new owners, had reached an agreement with the Professional Footballers Association to borrow £2m in order to fund paying the players’ back wages. With rumours circling that the players had been unhappy with the terms previously offered to settle what they’re owed – further strike action, or at least the possibility thereof, had been mentioned in the media – and time running out things went to the wire, but late last night the EFL confirmed that they were satisfied with the information that they’d received from the club and that their opening match of the season at Wycombe Wanderers on Saturday can go ahead after all. Whether the EFL should be allowing Bolton to start on the basis of a loan of this nature is a different matter, but we can only presume that the paperwork received was sufficient to satisfy them.
Bury, it would appear, couldn’t or didn’t do enough to satisfy the League. The club agreed a CVA with creditors and the EFL last week, but settling unpaid historical debts doesn’t impact either way upon the costs of running the club on a day-to-day basis and, after the ongoing soap opera that the club became throughout last season, it was unsurprising to see the EFL wanting further assurances from owner Steve Dale concerning the club’s financial viability for this season. Their statement last night confirmed that this hadn’t been received, and that, as such, their opening league match of the season against Milton Keynes has now been postponed, whilst the club now has until noon on Friday to satisfy the EFL’s requirements or they’ll suspend their second game of the season against Accrington Stanley as well. The obvious and immediate question that the club’s supporters may well be asking this morning is that of whether either of these matches will ever be played. At this late stage, it seems as likely as not that expulsion can only be the next step for the EFL, and that would lead, after 134 years, to the closure of Bury Football Club.
If that assurance couldn’t be met under the threat of their opening match of the season being postponed, the obvious follow on question is that of whether the club’s financial viability can ever be proved. Supporters of the club long ago tired of Dale’s explanation/excuse that the club’s financial position turned out to be considerably worse than he’d thought it would be. And that excuse finally ran out of steam with the agreement of the CVA. This agreement surely meant that the historical matters – at least the unsecured historical matters – had been taken care of once and for all, didn’t it? Dale has now been in charge of Bury for eight months, and there comes a point at which this all becomes his responsibility. Indeed, having purchased the club for the princely sum of £1, it seems pretty clear that both Dale’s legal and moral responsibility for running the club at the point that his name went above the door.
While there was a period of grace during which people were prepared to listen to Dale’s complaints over the club being in a far worse condition when he bought it than he had been led to believe (which raises questions of its own about what due diligence he actually carried out), that time has long since passed. What happened prior to December last year might well have been the fault of previous owner Stewart Day, but this didn’t magically absolve Dale of responsibility for the club’s ongoing issues throughout the second half of last season and the summer break. And this is now a bigger issue than merely the well-being of one or two particular clubs. The structural integrity of the entire League One season is now under some degree of threat and, with there being no immediate threat to the club as a result of its CVA, there is no question that this rests firmly upon his shoulders. The point at which explanations turn to excuses had long since passed. This was the third extension that the EFL had given to allow this to happen. Small wonder their patience ran out.
Having said that, however, there are questions to be asked about all of this. Does an emergency loan from the PFA really prove the that Bolton Wanderers have proved their viability for the entirety for the coming season? In one sense, it may be that the deal to purchase the hotel is now moving forward and that the EFL are satisfied that this loan plus the fresh start will in itself be enough to secure the future of the club. That said, however, this all feels several steps short of where a declaration of financial viability should be. The owners of the club aren’t putting their own money here, and neither are they borrowing through anything like a conventional lender. The EFL’s statement last night – “while the League is here to support the Club through some extremely complex and complicated issues, the outstanding matters can be resolved only with the cooperation from the Club itself” – hinted that the club itself (or Dale, presumably) might not even have been cooperative in getting all of this completed.
It’s worth remembering that this isn’t a conversation that the EFL needed to be having four days before the start of the League One season either, though. The League held its AGM almost two months ago and it might commonly be assumed that all clubs have to provide paperwork confirming their financial position and ongoing viability for the coming season. The EFL is going to need to explain exactly why all of this is happening so close to the start of the season, and why they’ve allowed so many concessions to two clubs who have done precious little to indicate that they’re going to be any more financially stable than they were last season. It’s all very well to make the assumption that the EFL must presumably know exactly what they’re doing with regard to all of this, but few of the statements that they’ve issued in recent months have demonstrated a great deal of joined up thinking in this regard either.
Bolton Wanderers should seize the opportunity that they’ve been given with both hands. If the sale of the White’s Hotel can be completed and the takeover of the club by Football Ventures can be confirmed, then this, finally, should be the fresh start that this club so desperately needs. Starting the season twelve points adrift of the rest is a challenge and the club might have to recalibrate its hopes for the season to “avoiding relegation”, but at least they’re still in it. Bury, meanwhile, are sliding from view. Formed in 1885, members of the Football League since 1894, twice winners of the FA Cup, but none of that seems to count for very much, this week. There are now three days left to save the club, and no-one in a position to do so seems willing or able to do anything to stop it from sliding towards extinction. In a country that claims to value the depth and breadth of its football culture, this is no way for a new season to start.