There is something unremittingly blunt about the demise of a Football League club. Bury maintained a place in the Football League for 125 years and are twice winners of the FA Cup. Until Manchester City deconstructed Watford in the 2019 final, the Shakers were the sole owners of the biggest margin of victory an FA Cup final had ever seen, when in 1903 they defeated Derby 6-0. Three years earlier they had beaten Southampton 4-0, lifting the trophy for the first time.
At the end of the 2018/19 season, Bury won promotion from League Two as runners-up behind a beautifully balanced and sweetly run Lincoln. Chalk and cheese in terms of how they were run, it was nothing short of remarkable that Ryan Lowe’s team followed Danny Cowley’s champions into League One ahead of third-placed side Milton Keynes Dons, who themselves harbour a sense of entitlement to a place in the Championship as a bare minimum.
This all came just 12 months after relegation via the release and sale of 11 players. Half a squad replaced only by the collection of free-transfers. Despite the on-pitch feelgood nature of a successful promotion campaign, Bury’s players, coaching team and backroom staff were regularly left waiting for overdue wages.
Midway through the season, Steve Dale purchased the club for £1, paying off a looming tax bill and steering the club away from an impending winding up order. The cracks were merely being papered over and wages continued to be paid late, if at all.
In early-June, Lowe departed Gigg Lane to take over as manager of Plymouth, opting to remain in League Two rather than take his chances in League One with a steadily imploding Bury. His replacement was the former Everton and Nottingham Forest striker, Paul Wilkinson. He never got the chance to lead his new club into competitive action.
Bury’s plight has garnered both great sympathy and short shrift from football supporters and observers. The Football League set a series of deadlines for the club to prove it could both pay off its existing debts and fund their day-to-day functioning for the 2019/20 season. The lack of evidence that they could meet either requirement, or find a buyer for the club, was stark.
A late attempted takeover of the club brought hope, but when it comes to football it is notoriously the hope that kills you. By 5pm last Tuesday, Bury were dead in the water. Liquidation awaits. Andy Burnham, the mayor of Greater Manchester and former Secretary of State for Health, had written to Debbie Jevans, the Chair of the Football League, begging for a stay of execution. There were also efforts made by James Firth, the member of parliament for Bury North, plus Nigel Adams the Minister for Sport and Civil Society to facilitate more time.
Bury were given time, but they needed more than time. They needed a fit and proper person in the chairman’s office; Bury needed a truly fit and proper Fit and Proper Persons Test being operated by the Football League. Instead, the Football League let Bury down as badly as any unfit owner did.
In a case of one in, one out, Bolton limped their way to survival little more than 24 hours beyond the final whistle being blown on Bury.
At Gigg Lane, in the lead up to the inevitable, anger had risen, protests took place, and a former director chained herself to a plastic drainpipe that looked like it could easily come away from the wall it was attached to. It couldn’t have been more symbolic. A few yards away, the club shop remained devoid of stock and locked, when it should have been brimmed with merchandise celebrating their triumphant return to the third tier of the English game. This had been a situation which stretched throughout the summer.
This isn’t the first hot take on the fate of Bury by any means. All words were outstripped by a visual image produced by the widely celebrated David Squires. It is of the Premier League lion logo, which is stood atop a pyramid, while the names of Bury, Bolton, Coventry, Notts County and Macclesfield are consumed in flames below. The lion doesn’t roar, however, it simply lets out a pathetic “meow”.
Squires adds words to the image, but they aren’t necessary as the visual sensation speaks for itself. Regardless, amongst the words he opted for, the standout ones are heartbeat, community, pride, suffering, decline and demise.
A football club’s supporters are its aesthetic owners, its guardians and the club is handed down from generation to generation, where lifetimes are invested, memories and histories are made. What price do we put on the heritage of the game? Which club is next?
Blame is apportioned. Incapable directors are the first port of call; governing bodies that aren’t stringent enough in their research on prospective owners come next. After that it becomes that little bit more scattergun. Neighbours with deep pockets are heckled for not stepping in to help. Manchester City and Manchester United have found themselves rounded on for not dipping into those deep pockets of theirs. It is akin to Tesco and ASDA being told they should bail out the local shopkeeper when they hit financial difficulties.
The elite elements of the English game aren’t looking over their shoulders, however. They instead cast their eyes to the horizon and a future that is likely to bring a European Super League, or at least an increasingly closed Champions League shop. Put simply, the days of a club like Manchester United not being involved in Europe’s most valuable tournament, by chance of sluggish domestic form, will not continue forever.
Before long, the Premier League will look to protect itself from the threat of a Super League. A second tier of the Premier League would seem an obvious move if clubs like Leeds, Newcastle and Aston Villa remain regular visitors to it. This would cut the bottom two divisions – and the Football League itself – adrift.
The English game would arguably schism. Only fallen giants such as Sunderland and hobby clubs like Salford could have any real hope of gate-crashing and prospering at the party that goes on above them. Only the strongest will survive.
What can be done differently, though? As a section of football watchers lament the lack of assistance for Bury from the richest clubs of the Premier League, could there not be a system where top-flight clubs are bound by obligation to form a working link with a team from the lower divisions?
If a club like Arsenal could send half a dozen young players to a club like Bury for a season, allied to access of coaches and a subsidiary kit deal, then both the Premier League team and the lower league team benefit. The lower league team remains autonomous, while the Premier League team gets to observe a cluster of its young players gain competitive league experience as a collective, rather than individually.
A pipe dream it might be but the application of forward-thinking common-sense and a fit and proper person test of substance shouldn’t be too much to ask for. That way, we might be able to avoid the end of the road for more pieces of English football history like Bury.
By Steven Scragg @Scraggy_74