It is a sad state of affairs when you are having to write about a club that is on the verge of extinction after 134 years, but here we are with Bury FC on the brink of going out of business.
It has been a real rollercoaster ride for Bury fans over the past 15-20 years which has seen them go from almost being relegated from the Football League to achieving back-to-back promotions to the old Division One in the late 1990s. Over the last decade, it could be argued that Bury have been the Primark version of Premier League yo-yo club West Brom and have been the perennial yo-yo club in the lower leagues (which we say in the most affectionate terms) .
The question must be asked of how the club have gone from getting promoted to League One as recently as last season, in part due to the heroic effort of Ryan Lowe and his staff, to being on the brink of going out of business and being expelled from the Football League?
Off the pitch, their issues have lingered and surfaced in waves over the last 15-20 years. Bury have often found themselves appealing for funds to survive; In fact back in 2002 things got so desperate they were appealing for funds by holding buckets outside the stadium, and only came out of administration thanks to the late Neville Neville (father to Gary and Phil).
In more recent history, local property developer Stewart Day took over as chairman in 2013 to much publicity after a winding-up petition had been issued. Day immediately proclaimed himself as the clubs saviour and dare we say it, seemed to quite enjoy courting the attention of the media – Day’s actions included inviting press to the Carrington training facility (loaned from Manchester City), having grandiose plans for a new stadium and committing Championship Level salaries on strikers that included Leon Clarke, James Vaughan and Jermaine Beckford.
Because of the aforementioned history, it seemed that while fans were happy about the new investment there did seem to be scepticism about where the money was coming from, and whether the investment itself was sustainable. Given that Day was mortgaging the ground with loans at astronomical interest rates (which was probably only a couple of steps removed from being Wonga), it seemed that the fans fears were not without foundation. It was felt in some quarters that there was cloak of secrecy over the club which culminated in former directors and club ambassadors being frozen out, and shareholders’ AGMs cancelled.
After the disastrous 2017/18 season, when an expensive squad assembled by Lee Clark predominantly (with managerial stints from Chris Lucketti and Ryan Lowe) finished bottom, Day went quiet and allowed club legend Ryan Lowe to take charge, having initially been caretaker, and it is safe to say Lowe performed a minor miracle during his time at the club.
Then, out of the blue, it emerged that Day had sold the club in December 2018 for £1 to the “very successful businessman” Steve Dale, who had a reputation as being an asset-stripper and who had made a full recovery from leukemia.
Despite the off-field uncertainty, the team rallied around and delivered results on the pitch and were dead certs for promotion until it then transpired that neither players nor staff were being paid and were relying on food banks to eat, which lets face it is quite frankly shameful. Dale claimed that the financial mess that he inherited by Stuart Day was far worse than he’d envisaged, and during this process began to alienate himself from fans.
At the end of the season Bury secured promotion but to many at the club it was sweet bitter (as opposed to bitter sweet) or the elation before the storm (as opposed to calm before the storm – you get it) as many fans knew that the long-term stability of the club was bleak.
As soon as the season finished the exodus begun with club legend Ryan Lowe and several players from his promotion winning squad moving on to Plymouth Argyle, with other players either leaving of their own accord or released by the club which left the club with just six contracted players. Staff were handed notices, with Steve Dale claiming that they were “extorting” the club in asking for their unpaid wages. It is difficult to possibly comment without knowing the full facts but when several loyal employees are all delivering the same message, it becomes difficult to believe that they were extorting the club.
It has seemed that the more that the fans became desperate to get rid of Dale, the angrier and more defensive he became – confronting them and once referred to himself as a “grizzly bear”, which lets face it is a good laugh if it wasn’t for the desperate nature of the situation. Given the seriousness of the situation though, self-references like this simply cement his status as somebody that if he asked to see you next week, you would purposely tell him to “see you next Tuesday”.
In the meantime, Stuart Day had fled the country just as his company was placed into administration, owing creditors over £23 million. Dale had managed to get a Company Voluntary Arrangement (CVA) approved, meaning non-footballing creditors now only need to be paid 25p in the pound and led to him proclaiming to be saving “the old girl”, which is either attributable to a lack of social awareness or pure arrogance depending on your view of the man. The result was a 12-point deduction which has meant almost certain relegation for Bury before they even started the season.
Little-known Paul Wilkinson was plucked from Southern League side Truro City and appointed as manager knowing his salary expectations are less than what typical League One managers would command, and the club used a number of trialists for their last-minute friendlies.
To throw a further spanner in the works the EFL announced that Dale hadn’t shown proof of funds for the season, which has led to Bury’s first four fixtures being suspended, and leaving League One itself bordering on an absolute farce. The club have been served a notice that they will be removed from the Football League after 134 years unless this is satisfied by August 23, which at the time of writing is tomorrow.
Fans across the country have taken a mixed view towards the English Football League (EFL) for taking such a tough approach to the club after approving Steve Dale’s takeover, with some fans feeling it is quite right to clamp down on clubs that clearly flaunt the goodwill of their contractors and service providers and paying 1/4 of what is owed is pitiful for the businesses they owe money to which range from Local Councils to small businesses. Other fans take a more lenient approach and question quite how thorough the ‘fit and proper person’ test is.
To aggravate the toxic situation that has arisen between the owners and the staff and fan base, the club then issued an extraordinary statement (written by dissenting staff that hadn’t been paid for months) that an offer to buy the club had been made which has no doubt inflamed the situation further, and urged Dale to accept the club from going out of business. Despite Bury North MP James Frith informing Steve Dale of numerous offers to purchase the club all summer, Dale has came out to berate his skeleton staff and deny any such offers existed.
Although he has now accepted he has to sell, Steve Dale shows no willingness to do so, and seems to be playing hard ball with prospective purchasers because he is looking for ‘compensation’ for all the stress caused by the “idiot fans” as part of a deal.
While the full facts of this situation are unknown and there is no doubt Stuart Day left the club in a dismal situation, the EFL are partly culpable in this situation in not engaging in the appropriate and thorough ‘Fit and Proper Persons Tests’ and Steve Dale has adopted some form of victim mentality.
If I was Steve Dale I would sit back and reflect on the entire situation. Did he have sufficient funds to buy the club? Questionable. Did he inherit a worse situation than he originally anticipated? Perhaps, but could have been mitigated by the appropriate due diligence when purchasing the club. Has he managed the relationship between the club, the staff and the fans? We will say no. When loyal staff have worked at the club for years and fans are all against you, sometimes there is a common denominator and we’re afraid the buck stops with Steve Dale on this one.
It is quite sad and quite extraordinary in this day and age how a club, a community and everything it stands for has been torn apart could dissolve into nothing as a result of the serious mismanagement of a few select individuals. Of course, KAISER Football support any owner that can make money for both themselves and the club through promotions, improved TV and sponsorship deals, good cup runs and clever transfers generated by a good scouting network but owners of clubs have to realise that they should be custodians of the club. Football clubs are like any other business and owners that spend money that they or the club cannot afford are on a fast track to ruin. Equally they should not be asset strippers and they should not be milking the club for everything it is worth. Bury have been unfortunate in that it appears that they have had the two, and in quick succession.
The next 24 hours are the biggest in Bury’s history. We look forward to writing an article about their recovery.