Shakers putting their faith in buckets

Closure still a genuine threat for Bury as supporters across globe unite to prevent demise of historic club
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The Independent Online

The maddening inequalities of English football have been laid out for public display in Greater Manchester this week, along with a demonstration of the deep, popular love which, in reality, still sustains the game.

A few days after Manchester United's captain, Roy Keane, signed a new contract for a reported £4m annual salary, following his manager, Sir Alex Ferguson's, three-year deal at £2.5m per year, 65 volunteers shivered outside Gigg Lane on Tuesday night collecting coppers in buckets towards the desperate campaign to save Bury Football Club from liquidation. United play their reserve matches at Gigg Lane.

Bury, placed into administration on 1 March by their two directors, John Smith and Fred Mason, have debts of around £2.6m, including a £1.35m mortgage secured on Gigg Lane. The High Court allowed the administrator two weeks, until next Friday, to raise £370,000, Bury's running costs – mostly players' wages – for the season, or the club will be wound up. Immediately, Bury launched a public appeal to save the Shakers, which has led to a tidal wave of solidarity from fans all over Britain and the world.

Gordon Sorfleet, Bury's committed publications manager, reported yesterday that one scheme, whereby people can pay a minimum £10 to have their name permanently inscribed on one of Gigg Lane's seats, had raised £62,700. Football fans, appalled by the idea of any club going bust, have swamped Bury's telephones and official website with offers. Donations have arrived from Germany, the US, even the Congo. Sorfleet marvelled: "Who on earth is bothered about Bury FC in the Congo?"

A man from Aberdeen, Michael Robertson, sent a cheque, saying his son Ben, while playing in goal for Oldham's youth team at Bury some years ago, had been knocked unconscious and stopped breathing. Bury's two physiotherapists had saved his life.

At Tuesday's local derby against Oldham, the appeal to fans produced a gate of 8,000 at a thumping 1-1 draw, bringing in £45,000, twice what Bury would normally have expected. Sorfleet talked there to fans of Ipswich, Charlton, Kidderminster, Arsenal, Tottenham, and one man who had travelled from Plymouth. "They said they couldn't bear to see any club fold, and that there but for the grace of God went their clubs." The fact that Bury made 18 administrative staff redundant 18 months ago and now have only eight employees has meant they have had problems running the appeal and counting the cash.

Bury fans will hold a public meeting in the Town Hall tonight which they hope will lead to the formation of a supporters' trust with a substantial role to play in the club's future. Tomorrow's relegation battle against Notts County has been designated a Fans United day, with supporters expected from clubs all over the country, following the tradition started in 1997 during the campaign to save Brighton and Hove Albion.

Notts County, the world's oldest league club, themselves narrowly escaped going into administration on Tuesday night with debts estimated at £5m. Derek Pavis, the club's former chairman, agreed to sell his shares to Albert Scardino, the American businessman and journalist, for an undisclosed amount, believed to be around £600,000, payable to Pavis in two installments. Scardino admitted the club had "short-term cash problems", but insisted they had "bright prospects" and would soon begin to pay their creditors, like the Inland Revenue, which is owed two overdue PAYE installments.

Bury's administrator, Matthew Dunham of the accountants Robson Rhodes, welcomed the public response, and was optimistic that enough money will be raised to keep Bury alive this season. But this is only a short-term stay of execution; the administration effectively declares the company insolvent and freezes the historic debts, allowing time for a way to be found to pay them.

Bury owe the £1.35m mortgage, £750,000 to the creditors of the club's former benefactor Hugh Eaves, £170,000 to the Professional Footballers' Association, which has been paying its members' wages, £140,000 in PAYE on those wages, and around £500,000 to other creditors. The mortgage is secured, the Inland Revenue must be fully paid, as, according to League rules, do "football debts", in this case to the PFA. But the unsecured creditors, including the Eaves debt, may be offered as little as 10 pence in the pound. The administration, therefore, has made the club cheaper for any potential purchaser to buy.

This week David Jones, Bury's former company secretary who had previously worked to facilitate a takeover by unknown investors behind a company called Mansport Developments, said those backers were still interested. Mansport had withdrawn, said Jones, after the Manchester Evening News revealed that he is disqualified from being a company director, that Paul Barrett, Mansport's Director, was involved with several companies recently put into liquidation by the DTI, and that both were convicted in 1997 of obtaining services by deception.

"That's true," he said, "but irrelevant: we were not the people investing in Mansport. Those people have not gone away and can now buy the club more cheaply." Jones is still secretary of Swinton Rugby League Club, who play at Gigg Lane; he said they were so far unaffected by Bury's crisis.

Dunham said he had received no firm offers beyond expressions of interest from Alex Tarsus, a Leeds-based Turkish businessman, and a 72-year-old gay Bury fan called Beau, who has claimed to have eight backers prepared to invest more than £10m in the club. "Long term somebody needs to take it on," Dunham said. "This is a first-class football club, but it needs a benefactor."

The heartwarming rally around Bury, though, cannot mask the more general crisis in football's very structure. Most blatant is its inequality: the 20 Premier League clubs have a three-year TV deal worth £1.5bn but, since the 1992 breakaway, share almost none of it with the 72 League clubs. Manchester United's income from each home match at 67,500-seat Old Trafford earns them around £2m. But director John Smith rejected as too crude the idea that United should bail Bury out: "Don't criticise them; they've been brilliant. They brought the first team here for a pre-season friendly, which raised £90,000. And we get around £2,500 for each reserve game they play. No, it's the game at large which needs restructuring."

Without redistribution, wage inflation from the top, from Roy Keane's reported £80,000 per week, still trickles down. Ambitious clubs pay wages for players who can compete at a level higher, in the gamble they will take them where the money is. At Bury, successive promotions in 1996 and 1997 were bankrolled by Eaves, who later confessed to having misspent funds he was managing, and solicitors were appointed to recover all his assets, including Bury.

Mason has summarised Bury's situation: weekly wage bill £25,000, monthly income the same. This is completely unsustainable, yet, unlike a normal administration in which employees are unavoidably laid off, at an insolvent football club players cannot be made redundant, because their contracts are protected by agreement with the PFA. So Bury have shed 18 staff, including receptionists and the laundry assistant, but no reserve player can have his wages even renegotiated.

The black truth behind the stories of fans' goodwill is that their tenners and coppers will, if the High Court allows the club to continue, be spent on players' wages which Bury cannot afford. With no supporters' trust in place to pay money in exchange for shares and seats on the board, donors will receive nothing except their name on a Gigg Lane seat. If a buyer can then be found for the club, he will be subject to no scrutiny at all except whether he has raised some short-term cash.

Neither the Football Association nor the leagues have yet made serious attempts to restrain wages, introduce better management or redistribute more money, to prevent the overspending crisis affecting dozens – a majority – of football's most historic clubs. Bury's administrator was certain "many clubs" are heading for insolvency. A great, much-loved game, but with ridiculous economics: expect a bumper gate, high on emotion, at Gigg Lane tomorrow.