Bury on the brink: A day in the life of a dying football club

A day of anger, sadness, fear and anxiety ends with a sliver of hope

Bury Football Club: Scene outside Gigg Lane as club struggles with financial issues

On the eve of Bury’s potential expulsion from the Football League, Gigg Lane is quiet.

Whereas Wednesday was dry, Thursday morning is wet. It is 24 hours since the Joy Hart, daughter of club legend Les and a former director, made national headlines by chaining herself to a drainpipe next to owner Steve Dale’s parking space, but today the expanse of tarmac in front of the ground is empty. And with each of those hours that passes, hope that this historic club will be saved is eroding.

Rather than resistance, there are instead signs of resignation. Quite literally. “Destroyed by con man Steve Dale. R.I.P Bury F.C. 23/8/19” one reads, plastered over the club’s sports bar, confidently calling time on 134 years of history a day early. The only activity is a handful of cars rolling in and out of the car park. One crawls past a group of reporters and the driver mistakes them for fans. “Half five, six o’clock. Bring as many as you can down.”

Bury will be expelled from the Football League today unless a suitable buyer is found or, more pertinently, Dale accepts an offer. An owner who was described merely as “a very successful businessman” by the club’s official website upon his takeover last December has proved to be anything but. A closer inspection of his history in business reveals a track record selling the assets of struggling companies.

Eight months on from his purchase of the club for £1, Bury have won promotion to League One with a squad of unpaid players, suffered a 12-point penalty for insolvency and seen all six of their opening fixtures of the new season postponed. The EFL is still waiting for Dale to provide evidence that he can meet the financial commitments that come with owning a League One club.

Joy Hart outside Gigg Lane with a coffin

Prospective buyers have, until now, been knocked back. One is understood to have met Dale and spent the best part of an hour in what were initially promising negotiations. The buyer was sat there, telling himself he was on the verge of owning a football club. But when he asked about the club’s level of debt, he received no sufficient answers. The talks subsequently broke down.

Yet Bury’s troubles do not begin and end with Dale’s ownership. Under his predecessor Stewart Day, a Lancashire property developer, the club faced three winding up petitions from HMRC in 2016. Loans at extortionate interest rates were secured against Gigg Lane. Players went unpaid then, as they do now. This is a club that has walked a tightrope for much of its recent history.

And the lack of stringent checks on prospective owners means that – even if an apparent saviour is found at the eleventh-hour, pulling the club back from the brink – nobody can be certain that it will not happen again. Dave Giffard set up Forever Bury, the club’s supporters’ trust, in 2002 to stave off the threat of administration following the collapse of ITV Digital. In the years since, he has learned a valuable lesson about the state of English football, particularly outside the top two divisions.

“What we’ve realised now is just how many predators there are out there, prowling round, looking to buy into clubs just to make a quick buck,” he says. “It’s frightening.” Giffard has approached prospective buyers over the last few months, speaking to local businessmen and his conclusion is that an independent body – separate from the EFL, the Football Association and other authorities – is needed to run its own Fit and Proper Persons Test.

“If you want to drive a car, you need a license. If you want a dog, you need a license. If you want to teach at a primary school, you need a license. That should be the same for anybody who wants to own a football club,” he says. “Even if we go I shall be fighting for an independent body, whether from an Act of Parliament or whatever... That same body could act as an ombudsman for the fans. We can’t talk to the league. If you have a chairman like we have, you can’t talk to him. You feel powerless.”

The effect of the club’s crisis on the local economy is already being felt, given the postponement of home match days which bring local businesses rely upon. At the same time as a protest was being held outside Gigg Lane on Thursday evening, the popular Rose and Crown pub on Manchester Old Road, frequented by match-going fans, was holding a meeting to discuss its own precarious future.

“We can feel it now, all the local pubs in the area,” says Eva Benes, the landlady. “We are relying on the income. Every second Saturday and during the week the pub would be full, but since they haven’t played, it affects how much beer I order.” Benes says she is under threat of losing her lease of the pub to the brewery due to dwindling trade. She needs football to return to Bury to have a hope of saving her business.

Back at Gigg Lane, it is tea time and a crowd is slowly assembling, just as the driver promised, but the air of resignation remains. Hart has returned, chaining herself to the same drainpipe. She recognises the frustration and anxiety of those joining her this evening. “People are passionate about their club,” she says. “They are angry. They are sad. If it goes the wrong way, I can’t bear to think about it.”

Dave Horner, a lifelong supporter, is one of the first to arrive. “It’s a term that gets used by fans a lot and I don’t always like it, but there is a certain sense of embarrassment that we haven’t done enough,” he says. “We were in the pub on Saturday, and it felt like you were getting ready to go to someone’s funeral.

“Instead of having a quiet conversation, perhaps we should have been shouting about it,” he suggests. “Support-wise we’ve often been a bit reactive. You look at Blackpool with the Oystons, at Newcastle, what they’re trying to do. The fans are there, they can see the iceberg on the horizon. We’re seeing it when it’s on the bow.”

A sign outside Bury's Gigg Lane (Getty)

There is impatience, too. Horner describes the prospect of an extension as the worst thing that could happen for the club. Steve Colvin, who unloads a coffin reading ‘R.I.P Bury’ out of a removals van, agrees. “We need this sorted, Friday deadline. It’s been going on for weeks and weeks and weeks. Everybody is absolutely distraught with this. There is anger, because we’re just frustrated. Since May, we’ve not known where we’re going. Every day is uncertain.”

And yet, an extension may be exactly what Bury get. An interview on BBC Radio Five Live with James Frith, the Labour MP for Bury North, is played out loud in front of Gigg Lane on a car stereo system. Frith claims that Dale is ready to do a deal, that there is at least one credible party interested in buying the club and that Nigel Adams, the Minister for Sport, will request for Bury to be granted more time from the EFL.

“I’m not saying they’ll be dancing outside Gigg Lane...”, the radio presenter said. A few fans are, actually, though others remain sceptical. It seems the sadness, the anger, the fear and anxiety, the impatience and the frustration that Bury supporters have known for the last few months could well extend beyond Friday’s deadline. But as long as all those emotions are in play, there is still also hope.

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