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How the people of Bury lost their 134-year-old football club

Photo: Christopher Furlong / Getty Images

On the day Bury Football Club was expelled from the league, around 400 fans turned up at Gigg Lane carrying mops and buckets. Operating with skeleton staff after a summer of uncertainty, and with the first five games of the season already called off, the club had asked for help cleaning the four stands and their 11,640 seats so that the ground would be ready for Saturday’s match against Doncaster Rovers.

The stadium was left gleaming, but the game would never take place – a planned takeover bid by analytics company C&N Sporting Risk collapsed that afternoon, leading to the club’s expulsion. As the news filtered through Gigg Lane, fans who had dutifully scrubbed a ground that has hosted Bury matches since 1885 stared at the turf in a state of shock.

Over the following days flowers were laid by mourners outside the shuttered gates of the stadium. The floral tributes at Gigg Lane were joined by scarves, hand-written letters posted in plastic wallets and football shirts, not only in the blue-and-white of Bury, known as ‘The Shakers’, but also in the colours of many other teams, from football fans expressing solidarity. For Bury supporters, who only four months earlier had been celebrating promotion to League One, the decision by the English Football League (EFL) to expel one of its oldest clubs felt like a bereavement. It seemed certain that 134 years of history had come to an end.

 

The Gigg economy

Bury’s expulsion has had an impact on the area around Gigg Lane. There’s a ‘for sale’ sign in the window of Daphne’s café, a stone’s throw from the stadium and the former go-to place for cooked breakfasts for Bury staff. A few doors down, the fish-and-chip shop reports vastly reduced Saturday trade. At the Rose & Crown, one of the pubs where fans congregate, there are framed and signed Bury shirts on the walls. The barman says the pub would always be packed on match days; a group of Bury fans have organised regular Saturday afternoon meet-ups at three local pubs, including the Rose & Crown, to help keep them in business.

At Gigg Lane itself, the only sign of life to be found on a weekend morning is a motorcycle training course taking place in the car park. The Shakers Superstore is closed for good and the narrow blue doors leading to the South Stand turnstiles haven’t let through any fans since May. It’s a charming old-school English ground, not home to a giant of English football, but one on which hundreds of people were dependent.

There were the dozens of staff, most of whom were made redundant after going many months unpaid, and the promotion-winning squad, which was broken up over the summer. Several players had to borrow money to keep up mortgage repayments; midfielder Stephen Dawson was forced to sell his house and 29-year-old defender Tom Miller is now retraining as a plumber, so far unable to find another job in football.

Some of the 400 or so fans who turned up on 27th August to clean Bury FC’s stadium while they awaited news of their club’s fate. Photo: Christopher Furlong / Getty Images

But there was also the academy, whose roots spread deep into the local community. Nearly 150 local children aged eight and older trained here in pursuit of their dream of becoming a professional footballer.

“It was so difficult telling the kids that it was closing down,” says Mark Litherland, the former manager of the academy, and the man who had to break the news. “I’m emotionally attached to them so it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. It was quite a traumatic time for me, if I’m honest. There were lots of tears. People just couldn’t believe it.”

Like almost all his former colleagues, Litherland lost his job in the summer, and he is still looking for work two months later. “I was there for seven years, often putting in 60 hours a week and building strong relationships with the kids,” he says, adding that the academy was starved of resources by Bury’s owners. “The day after Bury were expelled I was told that the kids were now all free agents and could register with other clubs. Some of them had been here for eight years and were very close to getting professional contracts. I had spent years working and building relationships and it felt like it had all been for nothing.”

Many of the young players have moved elsewhere, and Litherland keeps in touch with them and their families through a WhatsApp group. “We had a unique vibe at Bury,” he says. “Sometimes I speak to parents whose children have gone to other clubs’ academies and I ask them what it’s like. They tell me that it’s just not Bury.”

The targets of Litherland’s upset and anger are written on many of the scarves, shirts and flags hanging from the temporary Gigg Lane shrine: former owner Stewart Day, Steve Dale and the EFL.

With Bury’s expulsion from the English Football League, the gates at Gigg Lane are adorned with messages from grieving fans. Photo: Christopher Furlong / Getty Images

Day, a property developer specialising in student accommodation, spent money the club didn’t have – taking out mortgage loans against the Gigg Lane ground to release funds – and left Bury in a perilous financial state. Then in December 2018, Dale bought the club from Day for a pound. Fans knew little about him other than that some of the companies with which he had been previously associated had been liquidated.

After Bury won promotion from League Two to League One in May 2019, the players put out a statement alleging that Dale hadn’t paid them since February, and it emerged that many club staff hadn’t received their full wages either. When C&N Sporting Risk did their due diligence on their potential purchase they discovered a financial situation they deemed unsalvageable and, perhaps sensibly, backed off.

The EFL is loathed by Bury fans not only for the expulsion, but also for its failure to protect one of the world’s oldest football clubs from two inadequate owners. On 5th November 2019 a parliamentary select committee backed up the fans, declaring that the EFL should apologise and pay reparations to former Bury players and staff who lost their jobs.

This has been taken away from us. All because of the greed of two men”

Bury supporters cannot understand how Dale was allowed to buy the club for less than the price of a cup of tea – he passed the EFL’s ‘fit-and-proper’ ownership test, but subsequently did not provide evidence of sufficient funding, as required under EFL rules. Dale raised fans’ hackles even further with a series of controversial comments in the run-up to the expulsion. He said in a BBC radio interview in August that he didn’t know there was a football club in Bury before he purchased it, and that walking away from the club would be “a very easy thing to do”. He also chastised Bury fans for being “full of beer”. Dale denies fans’ claims that he is to blame for the club’s collapse.

Members of Bury’s academy faced Liverpool in the FA Youth Cup in March 2019. Photo: Christopher Furlong / Getty Images

 

Bury through and through

There are few assets to speak of in the Gigg Lane trophy cabinet. In fact, not a single person alive today has seen Bury FC win a major tournament. Their two FA Cup wins came in 1900 and 1903 – the latter, a 6-0 trouncing of Derby County, was the biggest ever cup final win until it was equalled by Manchester City in 2019. They were relegated from the top flight in 1929 and never returned. But a lack of silverware doesn’t mean a lack of history. Talk to the fans who gathered at the Manchester Road End every other Saturday for years, through countless freezing Lancashire winters, yo-yoing between the lower leagues, and they’ll tell you about Tony Rigby’s audacious free kick against Birmingham City in 1998, Ryan Lowe’s promotion-sealing late winner against Chesterfield in 2011, or the play-off final at Wembley in 1995.

These and many other memories are shared by Bury fans on 20th October, when an all-stars game featuring ex-players takes place at the Neuven Stadium in Radcliffe, a town halfway between Bury and Bolton. It’s a typical non-league stadium, the kind of low-rise ground where people in the surrounding homes can watch the action through their bedroom windows, where cans of bitter are sold from a makeshift counter in the corner of the stand and where the catering vans hawk meat pies and chip barms.

The teams are led onto the pitch by a man who has come to symbolise the fans’ deep sense of betrayal. Kenny Hindle has taken the same bus to attend home games at Gigg Lane for over 70 years. Not a user of modern technology, in August he took that bus every day to enquire in person whether the club had been saved. The 78-year-old was among those cleaning the stadium when the news arrived that, no, it had not.

Supporters watch ex-Bury players in a fundraising match in Radcliffe in October, among them 78-year-old Kenny Hindle (right). Photo: Matthew Lee

Another Bury fan known to many of the 2,100 people present is the announcer, who has the unenviable job today of trying to keep up with the ever-rotating cast of ex-players on the pitch, and a rapidly growing scoreline. “I know people say we’re always going on about the two FA Cups, but this is our history,” says Brian White midway through the first half, revealing the years 1900 and 1903 tattooed on his hands.

This would have been his 22nd season as the PA announcer at Gigg Lane; now he finds himself at a loss on Saturday afternoons. “It’s been horrendous, to be honest,” he says. “As you can see from my hands I’m Bury through and through. My great uncle, Les Vernon, played for Bury in the 1920s and ’30s. My dad got engaged on the main stand at Gigg Lane in the 1950s. I remember going to games as a young boy; they used to open the gates near the end of the game for people to leave and we’d all run in and watch the last 15 minutes for free.”

White breaks off to announce a goal by Ryan Lowe, who won promotion with Bury both as a player and manager, before returning to our conversation. “This has been taken away from us,” the announcer says, gesturing towards young fans cheering their hero from behind the goal. “All because of the greed of two men.” White reveals that five employees are still working at Bury, including Mike Curtis, the groundsman. “He tends the pitch every day,” he says. “Every Saturday morning he marks the lines even though he knows there’s not going to be a game at 3pm. Why? Because it’s what he’s done for 35 years. It’s his life.”

Former Bury announcer Brian White shows off his tattoos commemorating his team’s cup-winning years. Photo: Matthew Lee

Several fans at the all-stars game tell of how the club’s expulsion hit them harder than expected. Neville Kitchen, wearing a T-shirt bearing the words “Day, Dale, EFL – Community Killers”, misses seeing the friends he made through supporting Bury; Chris Grady has lost all interest in the sport since August and can’t bear to watch the Premier League, where top players’ monthly pay packets are large enough to transform the fortunes of a struggling lower-league club; and Adam Clark, an 18-year-old volunteer radio commentator for a local hospital station, says the impact of the fiasco on the local community has been immense.

After the 6-6 draw ends, White hosts a shirt auction in the Radcliffe FC clubhouse, where the walls are adorned with signed photos of former Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson and local boxer Ricky Hatton. On the clubhouse patio Tony Tremayne, dressed in the team kit, recalls his dad taking him to the first of thousands of Bury games, a 3-1 win over Southport in 1957.

The effect it will have on the community of Bury is huge. We are grieving here”

His recollection of his favourite Bury memory begins with an apology to Barnsley FC, the Shakers’ opponents on the day away fan Tremayne stole a match ball in 1964. “I stuffed it in my bag and took it home,” he says with a laugh. “It was the first football in Bury without lacing [to hold the panels together],” he says. “Word got out that I had a white football without laces and kids came from all over Bury to play. We played 20-a-side matches with that ball!”

“I’m devastated,” Tremayne continues. “I feel emotional just thinking about it now, to be honest. I was a Bury fan at seven and now I’m nearly 70. It’s always been a part of my life. The effect it will have on the community of Bury is huge. We are grieving here.”

 

The miracle of Bolton

Twenty minutes down the road the fans of Bolton Wanderers FC are in good spirits, considering their team is bottom of the league on minus eight points. A few hundred supporters are gathered in the ‘FanZone’, a pre-match party in a conference room at the four-star hotel built into the University of Bolton Stadium. There’s big-screen Sky Sports football, live music from local acts and lager at £3 a pint. Kids in club colours take turns to kick a football at a giant Velcro dartboard. At the back of the room, the board members of the Bolton Wanderers Supporters Trust attempt to attract new members.

Among the recruiters are Maggie Tetlow and Mike Smith, whose cheery demeanours belie their beloved club’s sub-zero league tally. Bolton Wanderers, founded in 1874, is alive, and right now that’s all that matters. There’s a buzz about the place, despite the fact that the youthful team is extremely inexperienced and hasn’t won a game since March.

Mascots for local rivals Bury FC and Bolton Wanderers FC – which faced a similar expulsion threat – show solidarity outside the Gigg Lane ground. Photo: Christopher Furlong / Getty Images

Last season was horrendous: the team was relegated to League One before going into administration with debts of over £40 million – their punishment was to begin the new season on minus 12 points. The club failed to play the final fixture of last season because the players were on strike over unpaid wages and couldn’t participate in the first game of this season because it didn’t have enough senior players – a further points deduction is anticipated for that transgression. The club was on the verge of liquidation at the time of Bury’s expulsion, but the following day a protracted takeover bid by the Football Ventures consortium finally went through.

“We were minutes away from death,” says Tetlow. “People here thought we were too big to fail but then the clock kept ticking and we realised that maybe we’re not.” Bolton certainly has a big-club feel – the stadium holds almost 30,000 fans and has hosted gigs by Coldplay and Oasis as well as, seven long years ago, Premier League football. “When the takeover was confirmed it was sheer relief,” Tetlow continues. “How do you define an English city? You’ve got a cathedral, you’ve got a university and you’ve got a football club. You need to have a football club to feel like a proper city. The club is a focal point for 
the community.”

Not unlike its neighbour to the east, Bolton was once a thriving northern town, known for its cotton mills – and like Bury, it suffered from post-industrial decline in the decades after the war. But for a golden period starting in the mid-’90s, its football team restored some much-needed civic pride, competing in the UEFA Cup and attracting World Cup-winning players.

If the season ends in relegation it’s not the end of the world. The fans are just happy they still have a club”

“If Bolton Wanderers had disappeared it would have had a massive impact on the town,” says Smith, who attended his first Bolton game as a child in 1972. He remembers paying 5p for a kid’s ticket. “There’s now money being invested in Bolton and a masterplan for the town centre, but so much of the town’s future success rides on having a strong, successful club.”

The stadium is less than half-full for the visit of Rochdale, another Greater Manchester team struggling to attract fans in the shadow of wealthy, glamorous neighbours. The press box, built for a Premier League team with a global audience of hundreds of millions, is almost empty.

“Staying up [in League One] would be amazing,” says Marc Iles of the Bolton News, one of a handful of reporters present. The match does little to raise fans’ hopes – the inexperienced team collapse in the game’s latter stages, losing 3-1. “But if the season ends in relegation it’s not the end of the world. The fans are just happy they still have a club.”

Marc Iles, the chief football writer at the Bolton News

Iles has spent several years reporting the club’s woes both on and off the pitch. “All you have to do as a Bolton supporter [to feel better] is look down the road to Gigg Lane where you have all these fans on a Saturday afternoon with nothing to do,” he says. “Since the takeover the Bolton fans realise what they very nearly lost.”

 

Prolonging the agony

The Bury fans at the game in Radcliffe are heartbroken, but it doesn’t feel like a wake. While a few tears are shed – and a few angry chants of “Fuck the EFL” are aired – there’s also a tentative feeling of hope that the club could rise again.

The game and shirt auction raise over £20,000 for what’s known in football as a ‘phoenix club’, a new entity built from the ashes of the deceased. It’s been done before, with some success. After Wimbledon FC moved to Milton Keynes in 2002 to become the MK Dons, a group of anguished fans in south-west London started a new team, AFC Wimbledon, which was given a slot in the Combined Counties League. Since then they’ve won five promotions and now play in League One, the same division as bitter rivals the MK Dons and Bolton, and the one Bury were promoted to and expelled from.

Dominic Martinez is one of the fans trying to start a new Bury. Before the expulsion he had spent years warning fellow fans that the club was being disastrously mismanaged and thought he was prepared for the worst. “It hit harder than I expected,” he says. “The most difficult thing for me was breaking the news to my children. They haven’t got the same memories I’ve got, and that was a real spur for starting the phoenix club, creating new memories for them.” Like many other fans, Martinez hasn’t watched any football since the summer. “I realised that I’m not a football fan, I’m a Bury football fan,” he says.

After a few weeks of mourning the old club, Martinez and a few colleagues got to work creating a new one. “I’m the co-owner of the biggest Bury FC message board and I posted a skills survey to see what skills are out there to help us start the club,” he says. “After eight weeks we had 300 volunteers, from physios and lawyers to plumbers and fans who are directors of blue chip companies.”

The new club will be fan-owned, meaning members will have a say on things such as kit colours and the name of the team. A summer 2020 start is the target, although Martinez thinks next year will be too early for an emotional homecoming. “Of course we want to return to Gigg Lane,” he says. “If we move there I think we can get 3,000 people watching home games. It’s critical to the long-term success of the phoenix club.”

There is, however, a snag. The original Bury FC isn’t quite dead. Instead it clings on to life support, rarely heard from save for the occasional rant by Steve Dale published on the club website. There have also been a couple of outings in the high court.

You don’t want Bury FC to die because you love it, but you know it’s the best thing for it”

There’s no sign of Dale or anyone else from what’s left of Bury FC in Court One of the Rolls Building in central London, where on 30th October the club faces a winding-up order. Bury’s is the 40th name on a list littered with failed restaurants and pest-control firms. When it’s Bury’s turn, the club’s lawyer argues an extension is needed to establish whether the club had paid too much tax, and the judge grants 35 days. It is the second adjournment issued to the club in a month.

Neil Coupe, who attended his first Bury game 45 years ago, appears to be the only Bury fan present. “It’s Groundhog Day,” he says outside the courtroom, explaining that he was here two weeks earlier when the club successfully appealed for an extension to pay off its debts. “But this is a toxic carcass. There’s no future for the limited company as it currently is and this is a distraction because there are people in Bury trying to start a phoenix club. This is giving people some encouragement that there’s still some life left, but to all intents and purposes the original Bury FC is dead.”

Had he been hoping for a mercy killing? “It’s a difficult thing to say, but it’s true,” says Coupe. “This is a way of ridding the club of the existing ownership who, along with the previous ownership, are responsible for the situation we find ourselves in. The original club is over. Nobody can see it playing football again.”

“It’s a difficult thing to swallow,” says Dominic Martinez, who feels the same way. “You don’t want Bury FC to die because you love it, but you know it’s the best thing for it. It needs to be put to bed so that people can focus their energies on something positive. Even for me, an advocate of a phoenix club, it’s really hard to say this.”

The new club will most likely begin life in a regional league, and even if things go brilliantly well it will take several years to get back to League One. But a group of fans who still celebrate a cup win from 116 years ago are clearly not lacking in patience.

Organisers of a reborn, supporter-owned Bury football club pin their hopes on a future return to Gigg Lane, where football shirts representing teams around the country hang in solidarity. Photo: Matthew Lee

 

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