Bury on the brink: How a football club’s death affects the community
Two bad owners have led the club to the point where they’re now facing extinction
Bury have had their first six games postponed by the English Football League, been removed from the EFL Cup and face the very real prospect of being ejected from the league on Friday, which would mean League One proceeding this season with only 23 teams. Photo: Martin Rickett/PA Wire.
When my great-grandfather, Thomas Watts, was captured during the first world war, I can only imagine what thoughts filled his head during his incarceration. Not yet married to my great-grandmother, Sarah Pilling, he might have been dreaming of a pint in the magnificent Oak Room of the Old White Lion in Bury town centre or lounging in the summer sun in Kay Gardens a short walk away.
He might, too, have longed for a small patch of land on Gigg Lane that the Earl of Derby had donated to Bury Football Club in 1885 and that was home to the 1900 and 1903 FA Cup winners. After he had emerged from the horror of the trenches, he would go on to take my dad, Graham, and my uncles to that same patch of land. In turn, my dad took me and for the past 31 years we have repeated the trek countless times.
Now, if the club’s owner, Steve Dale, does not provide the English Football League with the financial information it requires by midnight on Friday, that walk we could do with our eyes shut may be snatched from us.
Expulsion from the EFL would almost certainly spell the end of the club and has been brought about by catastrophic mismanagement from the last two individuals who have held its keys.
The club has not been an entirely likeable entity since 2013 when the property developer Stewart Day took over as chairman and chased his dream of Championship football. Local tradespeople went unpaid for services rendered and huge, lucrative contracts were given to players who did not deliver the goods (unlike last season’s squad, which achieved a remarkable promotion, even after it emerged they had not been paid for months).
It has become virtually impossible to defend the club against its business practices, but we have to remember that the club is bigger than Day or Dale, who bought the club for £1 from Day and who is said to want a seven-figure sum for his “troubles”. The club is not these two separate men. It’s the 3,000-plus people for whom their support of the club is the defining characteristic of their lives.
The effect on these people and the local community if Bury are expelled and then fold will be devastating. When Bury Football Club feels good about itself, Bury feels good about itself. We are not unique in this respect. Lots of small towns who have a member in the 72-club EFL need Jeff Stelling going crazy over last-minute winners on Soccer Saturday on Sky or their place in the classified results rundown.
Bury supporters are not alone either in feeling that their fellow fans are an extension of their families. Walking to Gigg Lane at 2.45pm on a Saturday and conducting a postmortem of the game in the social club afterwards is about community. It is about being on nodding terms with a thousand different people who, when you see them in the supermarket on a rainy Thursday night, you raise your eyebrows to them in recognition of shared experiences in a gesture that says: “Great goal on Saturday, wasn’t it?”
I feel like I’m a member of a secret society that I was welcomed into when I was seven years old. Supporters have invited those who sit around them at games to their weddings. We grieve when they die. My friend Barry died in 2015 and his ashes were interred on the pitch in front of the Cemetery End. When I posted about his death on a message board, I said: “You may not know his name, but he was the bloke in the South Stand who wore the big Russian hat.” From that simple description, the tributes to a fellow Shaker flowed.
Fans know people at the club such as the former social club steward Ian Fitzsimmons, commercial office manager Lynne Kent and her mother, Joan, whose father played for the club in the 1930s and is Bury’s most-capped player. Joan is 80 and was still employed by the club last season. She’s watched me personally grow from a snot-nosed kid to a 38-year-old author of two books about Bury teams.
Before the 1892 Lancashire Cup final, the chairman, JT Ingham, said: “We will shake them, in fact we are the Shakers,” and thus gave the club the greatest nickname in the Football League.
The EFL, Day and Dale might not be shaken by the death of the club by a thousand cuts, but a small and proud town will be, along with thousands of descendants of people like Thomas Watts.
James Bentley is a lifelong Bury fan and author of Things Can Only Get Better: Bury’s mid-90s rise under Stan Ternent. – Guardian