‘The Haçienda Was a Better Run Club!’ – Can New Owner Steve Dale Make Bury’s Financial Status Viable?

I have never claimed to be a person ‘in the know’ where Bury Football Club are concerned, particularly with respect to the parlous financial state they always seem to be in, lurching from one crisis to another. This season, things have come to a head, with talk on social media even prior to the takeover of assets being repossessed, and rumours of certain players’ wages not being paid on time. Regardless of whether the latter is true, it’s undeniable that the latest findings by the well-known football finance expert Kieran Maguire have made for a sobering read:

The (small) caveat to that is that very few clubs in the English game operate at a profit, but fewer still can sustain such losses and continue to operate as a going concern in the medium term, something which is alluded to in the last edition of the available accounts, made up to the 31st of May, 2017.

That does not amount to a defence of (former) chairman Stewart Day by any means, and I have been heavily critical of him on my blog in previous years. This is his statement that was published on the official site earlier this afternoon:

day statement.PNG

Two things immediately spring out from that tract: firstly, he became more than just the owner of the club; he became a fan. That is one of the aspects of the past five years that is the least contentious, and he was well-known for attending almost every single match on the road. However, sometimes when you’re that emotionally invested, it can blind you to bridging the ‘impossible’ gap between prudence and ambition, and Day was certainly had the latter in spades.

His stated aim when he himself took the reins in the close season of 2013 was to take the club to the Championship within five years. Despite gaining promotion to the third tier in 2015, and a bevvy of high-profile signings on expensive salaries across three campaigns, his dreams ended in failure, precipitated by losing money hand over fist, and the shambolic stewardship of a certain Lee Clark only accelerated the reversal of the side’s fortunes, ultimately resulting in being back where they ‘started’.

Day is at pains to point out the success of the academy system, and that will serve as the most positive part of his legacy in my opinion. Detractors will say that the cost of operating a Category 3 setup is not insubstantial, but the development and sales of several key graduates over that time have probably come close to covering the overheads that aren’t covered by Premier League grants and other sources.

At the time of writing, the two key questions that I hope will be put to new chairman, Steve Dale, centre around what has happened/will happen to the debts (mostly owed to Mederco, Day’s own company). The timing of this deal lends me to believe that it was done in some haste, at least from one of the parties involved. Additionally, the outgoing supremo cannot in good conscience claim to have left the club in a better place without some of agreement to write them off.

Even then, the more pressing concern centres around cashflow. Managing this is perhaps more crucial than servicing debts, and Dale and the members of the board, new and old alike, will have to convince increasingly wary banks and other lenders that the ‘rolling the dice’ times are a thing of the past in order to win back confidence and grow any cash reserves.

Like almost every outfit, player salaries and their contracts are the most major form of expenditure. There are close to 40 registered individuals on pro terms. Even if somehow Dale and McCarthy have more money than they know what to do with, they have to find a way of reducing that number in the next transfer window, hopefully without majorly impacting on the sparkling displays and form that have taken Ryan Lowe’s charges to the cusp of the automatic promotion places, although that cannot be guaranteed.

Several of the current group are unavailable, either because they’re out on loan (Harry Bunn and Tom Aldred most prominently) or are long-term injured (Jermaine Beckford). My advice to the new owner would be to instruct Lee Dykes to cut deals with their temporary sides in the first instance to get them off the wage bill and unfortunately in Beckford’s case, cut the club’s losses.

Simultaneously, attention will be on the likes of Danny Mayor, Nicky Maynard, Jay O’Shea, and Callum McFadzean, all of whom have been amongst the star performers… and each one has a contract that will expire at the end of the current campaign, with the youngest member of the foursome already being 24. That would mean they could all leave on a free, regardless of whether the club were in a position to negotiate extensions for them. Not an enviable position to be in…

Dale’s stated ambition is for the Shakers to be a ‘self-sufficient League One side’, and mercifully, he hasn’t (yet) put a timeframe around that. There are many hurdles to jump over before that can be achieved, and it could take no small degree of patience and luck to see that to fruition.

If I was asked for my advice to the new owner with regards to how he should operate the club, it would be along the following five themes:

  • Openness – I’ve already seen a line suggesting Dale himself is a ‘very private individual’; that’s fine, but there are many stakeholders and dyed-in-the-wool supporters of the club. Learn from the failings of Day and keep an open, consistent line of dialogue between the board and fans.
  • Pragmatism – To take an extreme example for the sake of argument, which is more important: extending Mayor’s contract or still having a club next season? Some decisions are bound to be poorly received, but if people can see the reasoning behind them, then it will be that much easier to justify them and keep their support (in more ways than one).
  • Set realistic targets – I don’t believe his stated aim is too ambitious; look close to home for examples of how it can be done, most notably at Accrington Stanley and Rochdale. Football doesn’t exist in amber; quite the opposite. If it takes several years or longer to get to the desired state of affairs, then it’s something that needs to be accepted.
  • Ego – Don’t surround yourself with people who’ll consistently tell you you’re doing a great job of running the club. Invite, and accept, criticism. Question whether you’re making the right decisions in the interests of the football club and those ‘invested’ in it, first and foremost. They’ll be here long after you’re not.
  • Sustainability – Again, this has already been alluded to. It sounds simple: pay individuals and businesses on time. If the cloth needs to be cut accordingly, do it. This has to go hand-in-hand with growing revenue streams away from matchdays, however. The report by Day in the last accounts on Companies House below shows that he keenly understood that element at the very least:

17 Accounts Statement

The press conference and club interviews later in the week should shed some more light on Dale’s business acumen, but I would be extremely reluctant to take what he (or anyone else says) at face value. On way too many occasions, the collective fingers of fans of football clubs have been burnt by new owners promising ‘x’ and ‘y’. Action over the next six months and beyond will echo for far longer than anything he states in the coming days, and I’ll be keeping both eyes peeled.

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