The Day Bury Died: What The Hell Went Wrong?

At 23.07pm on Tuesday 27th August, for all intensive purposes, with the announcement that the club had been demoted from the English Football League (EFL), effectively signalled the extinction of Bury FC. The club had, effectively, run out of money.

With the English Football Association (FA) moving the game away from its amateur status in 1885, towards professionalism, Bury was born in the same year. Founder Aiden Arrowsmith managed to somehow broker the merging of two separate church teams, the Bury Wesleyans and Bury Unitarians, to form the club. Its home, since 1885, Gigg Lane, is one of the oldest football stadiums in the world.

Since this foundation, the team has been a part of the EFL for over 125 years playing 4,852 league games in that time, winning two FA Cup and 11 promotions – the last of which was only just in May 2019 – before its tumble out of the EFL.

2001 – The First Big Financial Collapse

Yet for keen #sportsbiz observers, Bury’s financial collapse was a rerun of a previous financial crisis which occurred, just over 18 years before.

Hands up who remembers ITV Digital Hub? In the world of Netflix and Amazon Prime, ITV’s Hub may seem quaint now, but with the benefit of hindsight it was ahead of its time in thinking. The Hub was the British broadcaster’s attempt to launch the then-world’s first digital terrestrial television network, and get people to pay for it.

As part of this, ITV recognised it needed content, especially sport content, in order to get audiences to subscribe. In June 2000, it paid £315 million to have exclusivity of exclusive rights for the games in the Championship, League One, League Two, and Worthington Cup (now called the Capital One Cup). The deal promised unprecedented security for lower league clubs, thanks to the money on offer.

To put this deal into context, to underline how crazy this money was for the time, and still is, Sky Sports paid £595 million for a five year deal, quite comparable in size. The deal kicked in this year. Yes, 2019, and with a longer term.

Yet from the start, ITV Digital Hub was struggling badly. Faced with issues around consumer disinterest in the product, and a severe piracy problem, it quickly floundered. By 2002, the company was losing an incredible £1 million a day and collapse, along with relinquishing broadcasting rights to lower league football. In a complete firesale of these TV rights, the EFL sold them to Sky Sports for just £95 million, over a four year deal.

Ouch.

The effect of the collapse of ITV Digital Hub had on lower league teams was devastating, especially to Bury. What compounded the situation was that former Chairman Hugh Eaves resigned in 1999, due to owing £20 million of “friends’ money”, as a knock on, funding from him dried up at the club.

Fast forward to 2002, the club was officially in administration on the 1st March, reporting debts of over £2.6 million, which included a £1.35 million mortgage secured against Gigg Lane. The club had just two weeks to raise £370,000+ to save the club from winding up completely.

Thanks to a high profile campaign, “Save the Shakers”, the club averted catastrophe that time. Part of their fundraising effort was to sell the 12,000 seats at Gigg Lane for £10 each, with Neville Neville (Gary and Phil’s father) also involved.

“Who on earth is bothered about Bury FC in the Congo?” 

Gordon Sorfleet, Bury FC Spokesperson, 2002. Source: The Independent

Fast Forward 2019 – The Real Collapse

Bury promoted to League One

In all this disaster, it is easy to forget that Bury actually managed to get promoted to League One in May of this year.

New owner Steve Dale bought the club for £1 in December 2018, yet from his statements to media, clouds were brewing.

“We’re not magicians, the club is in a mess and we will turn it around but if people are expecting big grand gestures and all of that, you’ll get none of that from me. I’ll do the job and then you can pat me on the head after. If I don’t do the job, slag me off – easy as that.”

Steve Dale, ex-Bury owner. Source: BBC Sport

Less than five months later, despite the team performing admirably and qualifying for the Playoffs, Dale was attempting to sell the club.

“I never went to Bury, it was not a place I frequented. For me to walk away from Bury and never go back is a very easy thing to do. I don’t do anything up there, I didn’t even know there was a team up there to be honest with you. I’m not a football fan.”

Steve Dale, Bury FC’s last owner, addressing the crisis, source: Daily Mirror

Issues around paying players and staff persisted to the level that the club did not play a single game this season and the EFL having to step in. With no credible buyer in sight, the club was expelled from the EFL. Everyone from Ministers, to England Manager Gareth Southgate waded into the media scrum around the club.

The Real Cost Of Bury’s Demise

Now, the police are also investigating fraud allegations, while a parliamentary enquiry is expected to be held.

Will it even matter?

Clubs like Bury are caught in a cycle of declining public services and public funding, coupled with the near death of local football teams which could help the situation. The local council in the area has lost 61% of its annual budget since 2010, equivalent to £85 million in funding.

Yet despite all the bluster and comment across the entirety of English football regarding the demise of the club, its near demolition does have a huge human impact as well. Club staff have been let go, despite not being paid for months, while midfielder Stephen Dawson revealed he was forced to sell his house following the club’s demotion. Mental health services, provided through the NHS, are also being offered to the club’s loyal fans.

Bury’s demise isn’t just about a club, but a reflection of the lower leagues of British football, and its immense impact on everyday people and their lives.

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