No Crystal Ball, but Things Must Change Now and Forever, from Within and Without

It won’t have escaped even the most casual observer’s attention that this has been a(nother) horrific week in the long and storied history of Bury Football Club. The two comfortable home defeats back-to-back have paled into complete insignificance because of off-the-field events yet again. From a financial perspective, the Shakers have rarely ever been healthier than merely ‘treading water’, certainly in my quarter of a century following the side. I’ve been become accustomed over the years to phrases like ‘cash-strapped‘ and ‘begging bowl‘. Before previous chairman Stewart Day came along however, you could at least look at the accounts and say that the debts were comparatively tiny to what they have now become – at the very least, an increase of tenfold since the summer of 2013, together with numerous CCJs and winding-up petitions, one of which will be heard next week on the 10th of April. I know precisely where I lay the blame for all of this, but I’m not here to talk about him – I’ve done that before and received vociferous criticism – the past has informed the present, and in turn has set the likely course for the future.

Equally however, the near-ubiquity of the money worries under different administrations has understandably hardened many supporters of other clubs to Bury’s plight, coming as it does with greater frequency all the while. I don’t expect or ask for sympathy from anyone, as it’s my belief that a fundamental change needs to happen both within and without the club in the domestic game as a whole. Once more, the change I speak of does not absolve any custodian of the club from their responsibility to restore prudence to the books, and it is simply unacceptable that the players and staff have not been paid their wages for March.

Late last night, current chairman Steve Dale penned a long statement on the official website, which warrants being put on here as it addresses some, but not all, of the vital issues:

“I’ve become aware of some recent speculation about our club and, although I usually prefer not to address or give credence to rumours, I feel it’s reached a point where it’s time to address the main causes of speculation and to offer first-hand information around some recent events.

Firstly, I would like to highlight how our dedicated players, staff, and directors have all rallied round to support our club to ensure its future. Fans, followers and the community, can rest assured that Bury Football Club is here to stay.

Unfortunately, though, I can confirm that there is some element of truth in the circulating information relating to the club’s financial affairs. Due to a number of unforeseen issues, the financial position of the club is significantly worse than what was discovered during our due diligence process prior to the acquisition. The full extent of the problems inherited from the previous ownership of the club have become apparent over time, and this has undoubtedly led to our current difficulties. It is certainly a testing time, but we can overcome it. We will overcome it.

To address some of the gossip pertaining to my own position, I can assure you that this remains the same as it has been from day one. On the pitch, I have always been clear that I can add nothing; from that perspective, the club is in the highly capable hands of our Sporting Director, our Manager, and the players. We’re currently sat third in the league, and so I consider them to be doing their jobs extremely effectively. If in any given week the team loses a bit of form, showing them support and enthusiasm will help them rise to the occasion, as they have so many times before. The disdain that has been shown in light of recent results, however, is not only disappointing in the extreme, it’s disheartening to a team who have performed exceptionally all season. Fair weather fans are not true fans.

On the financial side, I made a commitment to get the club on an even keel, at which point my job would be done and a new, younger custodian could take over. That is still my aim, and what I’m working towards, although this process is slower than I would have liked due to the new issues that have arisen. Whilst many in my position would have walked away having unearthed the true position of the club (as some of my advisors have urged me to do), that’s simply not my style. But nor am I a never-ending ATM machine. Fiscal prudence and fans through the turnstiles are what will ultimately safeguard the future of our club. The former of which we’re working on, and the latter of which we need your help with. The continuity of any club is only viable by the support and attendances of its followers. Supporters are the blood we need through our veins, so bring as many family and friends as you can, get behind the team and have a great day. This will serve as a valuable contribution to securing the future of our club in the immediate term, as well as for future generations.

Another point I would like to address is my non-appearance at the game on Tuesday night. Unfortunately, my illness has rendered it impossible for me to be as able as I once was. On Tuesday, I left my house at 5am and didn’t return until 8.30pm, having had back-to-back meetings and a 9-hour round trip in the car. All of which was to safeguard the future of our club. Upon my return, I was understandably drained and so I was unable to attend. When I’m able to, I attend all of our matches, including our ladies and youth team. This isn’t a chore to me, I enjoy every match I watch and am an avid supporter of every team at Bury FC. It, therefore, saddens me to have to address speculation about my commitment to the club, which has been unwavering from the start.

The final point I want to address is the extreme unpleasantness experienced after the match on Tuesday evening. Whilst people are allowed and, indeed, fully expected to have their opinions, the actions of a select few individuals after the game was shocking, unnecessary and completely inexplicable. The threats and abuse (much of which appears to have been based on false information) endured by directors and staff, who have been going many extra miles behind closed doors, was a disgrace. To be clear, any further behaviour of that nature will result in anyone involved being banned from the club indefinitely.

I would like to take the opportunity to give my sincerest thanks to our true fans, those who stick by our club no matter what, as you are the future of Bury FC. We will turn the current circumstances around, and your support whilst we do so is invaluable. Thank you.

Finally, I would like to wish all the other clubs in similar, or far worse situations to ourselves, all the best of luck.

Best regards,

Steve”     

Perhaps for legal reasons, he doesn’t make an obvious mention of the salaries owed; there are plenty of other things to pick out from it, though.

Firstly, I am decidedly not assured about the future. It’s gone well beyond a rallying cry for me. I don’t point the finger at Dale for that, but it signifies the culmination in my experience of rhetoric over action. I’ll only be ‘moved’ with a demonstration of the latter, starting with paying what is owed to all the employees of the club. I must then see that there is a proper plan in place for managing the debt and making the business (because unfortunately in many respects, that’s precisely what it is) solvent.

The ‘easiest’ way of doing that is by cutting the wage bill of the playing staff, which is precisely what I’ve been advocating for quite a while, and I’m far from a lone voice in that respect. If that means staying in the fourth tier (or lower), so be it. It’s far more preferable to the age(s) of false boom, bust and even more bust. The reality of that might mean far more emphasis on bringing through academy prospects than is already placed, or even demoting the status to Category 4, which would effectively cut off everyone below the age of 16, and see the club more as a beacon for talent discarded by teams higher up the pyramid to have a realistic, short pathway to senior action. This would be far from ideal in many ways, but we’re not in the time for ideals.

The way I interpret the paragraph about due diligence is that, put simply, it was rushed, most likely out of necessity for the club’s existence, which has probably led to the latest malaise. I’m glad he specifically mentions prudence in the statement and he is also right to say that, coupled with more fans attending, will certainly help in the short-term. The football that has been played has been the best in my lifetime – no doubt about it, and I don’t need to use any stats whatsoever to back it up. At this point, I find it incredible that Ryan Lowe and the players got booed by some fans. No-one’s disputing that it was a poor performance and result on Tuesday,

I would like to see a different ownership model in the future. You only have to glance around the EFL and below the elite in the Premier League itself to get a flavour of how the odds are forever stacking up against clubs, despite how much money is awash in the sport. Whether this model is fan-owned, several different substantial investors (thereby spreading the risk), or an amalgam of the two, I’m unsure, but the dangers of being in thrall to a single benefactor or someone masquerading as one have been plain for all to witness. Very few owners at any step on the ladder see a return on their investment, so it’s usually better if the parties involved have an existing affiliation with the area and club whilst not being blind to the potential pitfalls involved.

In an age of rolling news and social media, the gap between that statement and the previous one felt like an aeon had passed, when in reality, it was a little over two and a bit days. Into that yawning chasm stepped 1,001 rumours – some that transpired to have a kernel of truth to them; some that were fanciful to say the least; worse still, some of them were really ugly, and manifested themselves as referred to in the statement. On the one hand, it’s inevitable that with feelings running so strongly for so many, a few will become desperate in their search for answers. On the other, I totally condemn any abuse and threats made for the very simple reason that they’re completely unnecessary, and make any positive outcome much less likely.

In the midst of the radio silence yesterday, I could ruminate on little else but the fate of my club, so I penned this tweet:

I stand by what I said. Yes, a ‘phoenix club’ could rise up (and it would be something I’d like to have involvement in), but it wouldn’t really be the same. So much more would be lost than a member of the EFL for 127 years and counting – people’s livelihoods for one thing, and much of fans’ identities, too. The closure of the current club would be like a death of a loved one. I know that’s hard for those not really interested in football to fathom – ridiculous, even… but the sport is so omnipresent, so interwoven in fans’ lives that it is no exaggeration at all to hint at the devastation it would bring.

Thankfully, I’ve been told that the recently incorporated women’s team will not be part of that unthinkable scenario. As with the rest of the sides and other work that the Trust do, they have been run on a sound financial footing, only spending what they actually receive. It could catch on. More to the point, the women’s game as a whole is experiencing a lot of growth in England, and there is a realistic plan for the female Shakers to be a small part of that. As such, I have made a commitment to provide equal coverage of them in the future, both on this blog and on the podcast, which will launch in the summer. Exciting times lie ahead for them, at the very least.

Turning back to the men, the players going above and beyond what can reasonably be expected of them by agreeing to perform until the end of the season, regardless of whether they are paid in that juncture. Talk of promotion is very much a tertiary concern for me now; like anyone else, I would celebrate if it does happen, but it would be a Pyrrhic victory without the securing the club’s future and making substantive changes to reduce the likelihood of this ever happening again.

There are of course factors outside the club’s control that are making things more difficult. I can think of 10 sides this season that have faced major problems of one sort or another, with the EFL ignorant, powerless or both. The instances are increasing year-on-year; substantive changes must also be made to how clubs operate, how to slow or reverse the trickle-down effect of wage inflation, as well as the ‘Fit & Proper Person Test’, which is one of the biggest laughing stocks in the game at present if you’re a lover of very dark humour.

As the title of this post suggests, I don’t have a crystal ball. I have no real insider knowledge. This might even be my last entry on this blog about Bury Football Club as we know them today. As someone who’s trying to pivot their career into football writing, a lot of that is reliant on the continuing existence of the club I support from a distance. I can’t say with any certainty that I’d still find the passion to write if they ceased to exist.

On the 9th of May, I’ll be at the Eithad Stadium in Manchester, where I’m a finalist in the Football Blogging Awards in the ‘Best Club Content Creator’ category. If you like my work, please vote for me to increase my chances of winning it. I just hope that some action has been taken by then to ensure it’s not an extremely bittersweet occasion.

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