For many towns in England, their football team is what puts them on the map. That’s especially true in the Football League; where there are some teams from cities and large towns, but lots of teams are from places where it’s fair to say that most people wouldn’t know they exist were it not for their football team. These teams may just be a name on a league table for most people, but for the people of those towns they’re a point of pride. They matter a lot.
One of those places is Bury, a town a few miles north of Manchester, whose football team, Bury FC, nicknamed the Shakers, were formed in 1885. To give that a bit of context, whilst Bury were being founded, the Statue of Liberty was being shipped over to be assembled.
Bury have mostly bobbed around in the lower leagues for most of their history, but have had several spells in the second tier, and are 2-time FA Cup winners.
But, by tomorrow, Bury may no longer have a team, as Bury only have until Friday evening to prove that they have the finances to be able to complete the season. Bury’s financial situation is so bad that they haven’t been allowed to start the season in League One, or play in the League Cup, with all of their fixtures so far being postponed.
Two weeks ago, the Football League stated that they couldn’t carry on postponing fixtures and gave Bury a deadline to show that they can carry on.
The last members of the Football League to be ejected because they couldn’t fulfil their fixtures were Maidstone United, who resigned from the league in August 1992 (Aldershot had failed to fulfil their fixtures the previous season) after they too couldn’t begin the season.
Below the Premier League, clubs are spending like crazy in order to try and get to the Premier League and get their share of the vast amounts of money on offer. Nearly all the Championship clubs run at huge losses. Two years ago, Wolves spent so much in order to get promoted into the Premier League, they lost over £1m a week.
Below the Championship lies Leagues One and Two, who also see clubs spending beyond their means chasing promotion, but without the TV money of the Premier League or Championship to fall back on.
The race for clubs to keep up with the Joneses means that clubs are seemingly always walking a financial tightrope, which leaves them vulnerable to being taken over by unsuitable owners.
Bury’s finances have been in bad shape for years. They were saved in the early 2000’s after a campaign spearheaded by Neville Neville, the father of Manchester United and England’s Gary and Phil, who are from the town (as is England right-back Kieran Trippier).
After years of relative stability, Bury’s finances had once again taken a nosedive, when they were bought by property developer Stewart Day in 2013. Day was a man with big ambitions for Bury, which included plans for a new stadium, and he started making some big signings. They started signing some former Premier League players like former Everton strikers Jermaine Beckford and James Vaughan.
Fans started to get concerned about how those players were being paid for, and they started to get their answers after it was revealed that Day had heavily mortgaged the club’s Gigg Lane stadium at eye-watering rates of interest, which adds up to about £1500 ($1800) per day.
The way the club operated under Day’s ownership also left a lot to be desired. Local contractors weren’t getting paid for work or services provided. Directors whose love for the club was unquestioned started to be frozen out, and AGMs started to be cancelled.
Eventually, Day’s businesses, which relied heavily on getting credit from a peer-to-peer lending company to build student accommodation, collapsed and that plunged Bury in a terrible financial state. They were taken to court for failing to pay taxes and other debts.
Last November, Bury were ‘saved’ by selling the club for £1 to Steve Dale, who, as it transpired, had a history of asset-stripping, the buying and selling of assets of companies in financial trouble. Things didn’t get any better.
It should be pointed out that Dale isn’t responsible for the mess at Bury. Unfortunately, he doesn’t seem to have helped either. He has said that the finances at Bury were much worse than he’d thought, with the club’s debts estimated to be around £8m.
It became quickly apparent that Dale didn’t have the money to support the club. Players and club staff weren’t getting paid, to the point where crowdfunding and foodbanks were set up to support the staff. Staff were also being made redundant. This made Dale a figure of hate at the club.
The sad irony is that while things were going disastrously wrong off the pitch, they couldn’t have been going much better on the pitch. Under the management of Ryan Lowe, the club managed to achieve automatic promotion. That’s a fine accomplishment at the best of times, but to do so when nobody was being paid is something extra-special.
Dale did manage to arrange an insolvency procedure that gives Bury a way out of trouble, but hasn’t shown the league that he has the funds to fulfil it, which is why Bury may go extinct.
The more the Bury fans, and the local MP, have implored Dale to sell the club, the more he’s dug in, issuing some pugnacious statements about internet trolls and arguing with a player on the radio about unpaid wages. Dale was refusing to engage with the Football League, which is probably why they’ve decided enough was enough. Only after the club staff released a statement begging him to sell the club, did he even start to consider the idea.
Bury’s last hope may come from Joe Sealey, the son of former Manchester United goalkeeper Les, who has expressed an interest in taking over. But that depends on Dale, who has already turned down a few offers for the club, being willing to sell. Sealey had indicated that Dale wanted over £1m for Bury, which given the clubs finances is a ludicrous sum.
Should Bury be kicked out of the Football League, League One would continue with 23 teams, and only 3 being relegated this season, and it may be the case that 3 teams get promoted into the Football League from the National League instead of two, but that is to be determined.
It would be hard to see Bury carrying on. It would be too late for them to play in any league this season. Theoretically, they could apply to join a league for next-season, but I think it’s far more likely they would just cease to be.
Even if they do get a reprieve, there’s an almighty task ahead of them. The team that got promoted last season has been broken up and reports have it that Bury only have 4 players in their squad. They are currently embargoed from signing anyone, so if they are cleared to play, they will need players quickly.
Manager Ryan Lowe moved on to Plymouth and was replaced by little-known Paul Wilkinson, who has had to limp through the pre-season with teams cobbled together with trialists, including one game where they had no first team players at all.
Bury have been let down by the Football League. After a few clubs got into financial difficulty, the Premier League and Football League introduced ‘Owners and Directors’ tests, which everyone calls ‘fit and proper persons’ tests. These were designed to weed out the unsuitable owners.
The Football League admitted it allowed Steve Dale to take over Bury without him having ever passed the part of the test where prospective owners have to show they’ve got the finances to run the club.
Sadly, Bury aren’t alone in the precarious finances stakes. Last week, former England international Sol Campbell quit his job as coach of Macclesfield Town due to unpaid wages.
Last season, years of mounting debts finally caught up with Bolton Wanderers. After months of unpaid wages, which saw club staff having to resort to using foodbanks, Bolton’s players went on strike and the club couldn’t fulfil a fixture and fell into administration.
Bolton have somehow kept going this season, but they are still in a terrible state on and off the pitch. Bolton are having to play academy players, because the few first team players they have are refusing to play because of unpaid wages. Despite being totally outmatched on the pitch, Bolton’s young players are performing admirably, but the whole club is a shell of what it once was.
It will be desperately sad if Bury are no more after tomorrow. Clubs like Bury may not mean a lot to most fans, but they mean everything to some.