Bury AFC: Definitely NOT A-Okay

I’ve been doing my best to not venture onto football social media recently, with far more of the discussion based around the run-up to the general election here in the UK than any other topic. Personally, I like to keep these things entirely separate.

However, I was alerted earlier yesterday to the following post during my self:

Understandably, many onlookers, including some Bury fans, were and remain confused. I received several private messages asking me what the hell was going on. The simplest way to break it down is as follows:

Thanks to the adjournment at lunchtime, Bury Football Club (Ltd) still exist for the next fortnight at least. I have been told by more than one source of a rumour that Steven Wiseglass, the insolvency practitioner who supervised the CVA back in the summer, will also be appointed as the liquidator when that inevitable event occurs. He would effectively be reviewing his own earlier work, which is as (un)ethical as it sounds.

Forever Bury, the club’s Supporters’ Trust, were, rightly or wrongly, entirely focused on saving the club in its current guise, often acting as mediators and the first point of contact for any prospective buyers. After expulsion occurred in August, quite why anyone without sufficiently deep pockets and an affiliation with the area (if not necessarily the club itself) would still seek to get involved is open for debate. For the past five years or so, they’ve been at turns totally supine and only good for organising beer festivals. The new blood, which was badly needed, came and was rendered moot by the very recent events.

Step forward one Robert Benwell. A quick five-minute search on Google and Companies House reveals all you need to know with a high degree of confidence in him. These pieces of evidence were less apparent when he suddenly appeared on the largest online forum for Shakers fans, asking whether they would ‘invest’ to secure the business’s future. The reception was positive at first, until too many people started to pose too many awkward questions, having been thoroughly burned by the likes of Stewart Day and Steve Dale.

Obviously, this wasn’t enough to dissuade Benwell from his current course of action. Many of the fans who signed up in good faith to become members of Forever Bury over the summer (‘Lifetime’ ones to the tune of hundreds of pounds) are now outraged that they were neither consulted, nor asked to vote on backing Benwell’s attempts to salvage what he can post-liquidation. Nor were some of the board members, including the vice-chair. It is important to note at this juncture that if any sale happens after liquidation, the resultant entity cannot be called Bury Football Club – it wouldn’t be the same thing.

buryafc
A phoenix club, but not the phoenix club, further clouding what little certainty exists

Current Forever Bury chair Dave Giffard has gone against the Trust’s own constitution with this move, and the statement released last night is wholly inadequate. The repeated references to NDAs (non-disclosure agreements) and the overall ‘divorced from reality’ tone have done precisely zero to assuage fear and anger.

All of this has seriously threatened to derail the momentum behind the phoenix club. Whilst I’d never suggest everything has been seamless in its initial setup, the communication has been professional, constructive feedback has been taken on board for the most part, and qualitative research on the future direction of travel has been undertaken. The headline to take away is that the vast majority of respondents voted overwhelmingly in favour of a club being at least 51% owned by supporters like themselves.

As has been repeated to nigh-on infinity, the fanbase is fractured, and individuals currently fit into one of these five broad groupings:

  1. People who want the original club to survive no matter what.
  2. People who are suspicious of the motives (‘egos’) of anyone getting involved with any entity. A lot of this is directed at the phoenix club, but not wholly.
  3. People who don’t mind which form the club takes for 2020/2021, but their red line is seeing them turn out at Gigg Lane.
  4. People who are fully behind the phoenix club.
  5. People who just want to watch football again.

Ostensibly, I am in the fourth category, and I have had an extremely minor role on two of the working groups. I voted for 1885 Bury as the new name, just like my save on Football Manager 2020. In real life, there is still time to have your say at the time of writingI haven’t seen anyone in favour of the FB-backed Benwell venture since it came to light. The overarching mood is just one of wondering when suffering supporters will stop being dumped on. Zoë Hitchen’s superb #WeAreBury exhibition in November and the coordinated efforts to help out local pubs affected by the expulsion whilst bringing fans together should be commended.

Before long, however, a resolution is needed. People have their individual red lines. Not everyone will go along with a phoenix, or indeed return to watch the old club in majority private ownership. Not everyone is prepared to travel outside the main town for a possible ground-share. Not everyone will accept that a new entity’s name cannot be Bury FC for the foreseeable future. Not everyone will accept non-league football in any guise.

This is the legacy of decades of sailing close to the wind, which ratcheted up under Day and was perpetuated most cruelly perhaps by Dale. Yes, there are other people and bodies partly responsible or negligent, but they’re the main ones.

I’d like to see the ones who are left coalesce around a shared vision. A 51%+ fan-owned club is my personal red line. There are other ownership models which might make a return to the EFL more likely and quicker, but that no longer in my mind is the most important ambition. I have never known an era in my lifetime where Bury weren’t one or two steps away from oblivion, even when operated by people with the requisite skills and passion. A majority fan-owned club is not a panacea in and of itself to financial strife, but it does mean that there is far more scope to influence proceedings, and far less scope for living beyond its means.

I’ve had enough of the depression, the listlessness, the anger… all the negativity associated with Bury in one form or another. Still, the debates rage. Still, the fingers get pointed. Still, football in the town is used for party political purposes in the midst of the worst, most vitriolic election campaign I can remember.

I gave up a more stable income to become a freelance writer (if you’d like to support my work, you can find out how here). I was sincerely hoping that Bury would be the main subject, one way or another. My way of scribing might not always illuminate my love of the club, but it’s there… just now not unconditionally. Having accepted the ‘death’ of Bury FC as an inevitability quite early on, I am more than prepared to walk away if once again, overall control is given to a person or persons with no love for the club. Football in England is need of massive reform, and hoping against hope for a benevolent dictator at best is something I can no longer countenance.

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