The Summer of Discontent: Bury II – A 14 Day Reckoning
For Steve Dale, the beleaguered owner of Bury Football Club, any feeling of respite couldn’t have lasted much longer than a few days. Confirmation that the Football League had accepted a CVA proposal offering 25p in the pound to non-priority creditors and payment in full to secured and preferential creditors must have felt, in a business sense at least, like the end of a dismal chapter in his professional life. Even at the low, low price of one pound, he’d been sold a pup in the form of a hopelessly financially incontinent football club which had been propped up by loans of dubious origin, all agreed by Stewart Day, a businessman from the wild west end of the business spectrum whose other businesses were heading inexorably towards insolvency.
But the agreed CVA absolutely hasn’t relieved pressure on the club. Within days of confirmation that “the old girl” had been “saved”, reality chose to bite yet again. The EFL issued a notice confirming that the club has fourteen days to prove that the club is financially viable for the coming season, and this is going to be a tall order for a club that still hasn’t paid its players for the end of last month, and for whom promotion from League Two at the end of last season will raise nowhere the near the financial benefits that are required to calm this particular sinking ship. Proving this is going to come down to Dale and Dale alone. Bury Football Club isn’t going to be able to prove this in itself. But the risk of not being able to do so is very clear – if Bury can’t prove their financial viability by the start of the new season, they’ll almost certainly be suspended from playing, with a strong possibility that they’ll be expelled from the EFL altogether.
The sense that the acceptance of the CVA didn’t much mark the beginning of a new era for the club was further accentuated by the news that the Stadium Advisory Group are now looking into whether the club has the resources to be able to host their first home league match of the season, which is scheduled to take place against Milton Keynes a week on Saturday. The EFL’s statement on the matter released yesterday added that, “Should the SAG confirm that the club does not have sufficient resources and facilities for its opening fixtures and/or the club fails to provide all the outstanding information and documentation, the board has the ability to exercise its rights under Regulation 28.2 to suspend the Club’s fixtures.”
From the perspective of the club’s recent insolvency event, EFL rules state that the club has be able to demonstrate its ongoing financial viability if it’s to continue into the new season, but it also has to demonstrate that the resources will be available to be able to host matches safely, according to current rules and regulations relating to the matter. A failure to be able to prove this might also lead to the club’s home fixtures being suspended. This, therefore, feels like a two-pronged matter, both of which relate to the same ultimate matter – money, or a lack thereof. Bury’s current financial position is such that, CVA over historic debts or not, the club has to prove its viability as a business, on the one hand in terms of its ability to function as a business though next season – paying the players’ wages on time would be a start – and on the other its ability to meet the costs relating to hosting EFL matches in a safe environment. Neither sound unreasonable, especially considering the events of the last few months and years.
Of course, it’s not unreasonable to respond to all of this by mentioning that the EFL might have been able to mitigate many of the problems of the last few weeks and months had they done their job and sought these assurances from Dale at the time that his purchase of the club was confirmed in December. The official statement released on the matter states that, “The EFL Board is working diligently to avoid this situation but ultimately can only act upon information received or not received from the club”, which is obviously true, but what this doesn’t address is the question of why this didn’t happen eight months ago. Even in an age where it feels increasingly as though the game’s governing bodies are applying their own rules in an increasingly haphazard and reactive way, it is frankly astonishing that they could allow the sale of a clearly financially distressed club without having followed its own rules on the matter, still less that they could then continue to be so inert as the rumours concerning the scale of the chaos behind the scenes at Gigg Lane leaked into the public domain.
The EFL have been acting as though they were the last to find out about all of this when they should have been the first, and the fact that this happened in this case can only leave us wondering whether they’ve routinely been ignoring their own rules all this time. Information regarding the ongoing viability of clubs is never released to the public, and understandably so. Such paperwork would, after all, contain extremely commercially sensitive information. However, such news surely now undermines any belief that the public may have had that the rules that are currently in place are being followed. Many have been arguing for tighter restrictions on football club ownership in response to a steady trickle of clubs that find themselves teetering on the brink of insolvency because of incompetent (or in some cases perhaps even malign) owners. Meanwhile, the EFL don’t even seem to have been following their own rules on the matter, and this all adds to the sense of a fundamentally broken relationship between the EFL and the supporters of its member clubs, for whom the phrase “not fit for purpose” has become increasingly commonplace when discussing this particular organisation.
With the new League One season eight days away, though, it still cannot be said with absolute certainty whether two of its clubs – Bury and Bolton Wanderers – will even be able to start the season, never mind see it through to completion. As such, the EFL has a week to to get its house in order and get concrete assurances from both clubs that they will be able to trade throughout the coming season. This isn’t just about those two clubs any more. The entire integrity of the coming League One season is at risk of being undermined, and should either of these two clubs start but fail to complete this season given what we know now about the EFL’s failure to ensure that Bury FC could be financially viable under Steve Dale then they will as responsible for this failure as anybody else.
It’s all very well having these rules in place in open and shut ownership cases. The challenges which prove the efficacy of such rules, however, come with cases such as clubs like Bury, for whom even declarations of insolvency seldom even manage to provide the “fresh start” that all companies in financial difficulty should hope for from such drastic action. If the EFL cannot guarantee to see through its own rules and ensure the financial viability of all clubs (and in turn the integrity of their own competitions), it’s difficult to see what the argument against ripping the whole organisation out and starting again from scratch might be. All supporters depend on the EFL getting this sort of thing right, every time. Small wonder there are so few people who ever really believed that the CVA recently agreed was anything like a solution to Bury’s increasingly terminal-looking illness.