Tag: opinions

COVID-19 Will Expose Another Disease at the Heart of English Football

The implications of the COVID-19 outbreak will likely spare no facet of life as we know it: the global economy, interpersonal relationships, how care and social care are viewed, the hitherto freedom of being able to travel pretty much anywhere, and most sadly, the number of people who will die as a result of the disease.

The potential impact on domestic football can of course seem utterly trivial by comparison; the collective decision to suspend almost all organised matches in the country until early April was the prudent one, although as the days and even hours pass in a very changeable situation, any notion of resuming on that schedule looks blindly optimistic.

With roughly 80% of the season completed and the leagues poised for the run-in, the timing could scarcely be worse, especially for the clubs hoping to gain long-awaited silverware (like Liverpool) or promotion to a higher tier. Even those at the opposite end of the standings will take scant comfort in their predicted fate being unresolved.

The largest unknown factor at present is the timescale of the ‘peak’ to taper off under the current guidelines. Conservative estimates are several months, which would mean the height of the summer. Ignoring the contractual aspect for a moment, players are already being asked not to turn up to training. Whilst I’m sure they’ll still have some sort of regimen to maintain a high level of fitness, it would probably take a long lead-in to be back up to an acceptable standard of match sharpness. All in all, this would probably serve to delay matters further.

By far the most horrible part to contemplate is how the coronavirus could kill large numbers of people, with particular reference to the over 70s and those with underlying health conditions. Accrington Stanley owner Andy Holt has been vocal about the stark reality, doubtlessly conscious that a high proportion of the Lancashire outfit’s fanbase is in that demographic. No words can come close to how awful that is going to be, and is something that will repeated up and down the country. I can only hope it’s confined to an absolute minimum.

All of the above with the exception of the obvious might have been manageable if they were contained within a football culture and governance structure that looked beyond the annual balance sheets as a barometer of success. Between the muddled and shambolic auspices of the FA, the Premier League, and the EFL, there exists a toxic, trickle-down economic model, which thanks chiefly to television money and sponsorship, has lasted until this critical juncture. It won’t afterwards.

Stories such as the one that befell Bury gained plenty of wider scrutiny when they occurred, but could ostensibly be shrugged off as the weeks passed after their expulsion because of the almost criminal way in which they were operated by Stewart Day and then Steve Dale. The EFL washed their hands of it all extremely quickly, and subsequently released a report in late February effectively exonerating themselves from any responsibility. In the interluding months, massive problems have plagued several other teams, eroding the inculcation that every side had to submit sufficient proof of funds for the 2019/2020 season prior to it taking place.

Even those clubs with great backing off the field are going to feel the pinch; for most below the Championship, matchday income is their primary source of cash. They have now been robbed of that for an indeterminate duration that will far exceed early April; all the while, they will be paying the salaries of players and staff with very little in the way of revenue. Even the most benevolent and wealthy of owners will be sweating on the current situation.

Equally, it’s also unrealistic to expect those whose contracts expire in the summer to remain in situ if they’ve already been told they can leave. There is going to be a huge swathe of individuals in legal and financial limbo in the coming months, and it’s also vitally important to remember that in the non-league, that only applies until the end of the competitive campaign, not the cusp of July.

Although I have no ‘horse’ in the race, I believe the only outcome that’s close to fair is to null and void the season. I can also foresee the impasse being used in the future as leverage to cut down the total possible number of fixtures teams play. Even though I largely support that idea, without measures to ensure that smaller clubs don’t make losses, it will be yet another massive blow to those outside of the elite. Legal challenges, whilst understandable in theory, to any attempt to void the season will look ever more desperate and churlish as things unfold. There should be some form of recognition for the current leaders, but beyond that, it risks sinking into an endless quagmire of ‘ifs’, ‘buts’, and ‘maybes’ that no-one will come out of for the better.

Calls for the likes of Manchester City to support Macclesfield Town directly through the epidemic are wide of the mark. Solidarity needs to come from a far wider communal recognition that the structures in place are ill-suited to a small deviation from the script, let alone one of the magnitude that COVID-19 represents. It ought not to take a crisis to shake the cobwebs off the powers that be, but there is now a grave risk of the bottom of the game being completely cut away. I sadly anticipate many grassroots organisations and outfits being forced to fold without major intervention from the governing bodies.

An industry has grown up around and latterly exploded around football in the social media age of those who earn their corn from the sport, all the way from freelancers like several friends of mine to YouTubers to print/online press journalists. Whilst the latter group might be a little more secure for now, it’s important to remember their livelihoods could be in serious jeopardy.

There are no positives whatsoever to take from it all. Any possible moves to shore up the financial strife many will suffer from are unlikely to reach everyone in need. The only silver lining is if lasting and more stringent regulation is brought about, and that requires a step change in mentality. Whether that will come about by government force is another matter, but I should imagine that football is a long way down the list of sectors requiring some form of aid and investigation for the remainder of the year.

Mental health will also take a battering; there are many who depend on football in one way or another, whether financially, socially, or in another form. The probability of having loved ones die juxtaposed with the stark likelihood of the team they support going the same way thanks to coronavirus should be a clarion call to everyone to look out for each other as more and more have to self-isolate. It is in some ways a blessing to have the level of technology that makes it easier to check in with colleagues, friends, and family, and there really is no time like the present to start in earnest doing just that. As someone who’s currently medicating for depression, I have a degree of understanding just how valuable and necessary this is going to be.

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Review: ‘One Football, No Nets’ by Justin Walley

For full disclosure, I know the author in the sense we’ve had lots of conversations on social media before, but this doesn’t affect my review of his book.

I first purchased the work last September on the back of listening to some podcasts, and being vaguely aware of CONIFA, a sort of independent counterpart organisation to FIFA that holds its own ‘World Cup’ for nations not affiliated with the far more prominent governing body, mostly for political reasons.

The work takes place during a 12-month expanse, beginning with Walley’s appointment as national team manager of Matabeleland, an area covering three provinces on the western side of Zimbabwe. In a turn of events that becomes a recurring theme throughout the 362 pages,  it was far from straightforward for him to land that role, and perhaps just as importantly, it was effectively an unpaid one.

Life in Bulawayo was (and doubtlessly continues to be) a rollercoaster; travelling to and from there is an epic journey in its own right, taking Walley the best part of three days from the UK or his base in Latvia, but once in situ, he becomes accustomed to its very particular culture and way of doing things. Indeed, the first third of the tome is still under the brutal regime of the late Robert Mugabe, and his many informants, obvious (the military police) and not.

Taking training is often affected by the prevailing and well-founded fear as much as it is by the logistical and financial problems faced by the young players, fellow coaching staff and Walley himself. Co-founders of the MFC (Matabeleland Football Confederacy), president Busani Sibidi and technical director Busani Khanye, jump off the text as larger than life characters, and the relationship he had with the two men, with its many ups and downs throughout the fraught and fractious process to fundraise and obtain visas really draws the reader into a world that bridges the gap successfully between alien and relatable.

Whilst ensconced in Bulawayo, Mugabe is dramatically wrested from power, and the atmosphere immediately preceding and subsequent to his ‘resignation’. Walley’s near-daily recounting of that major historical event demonstrates in no uncertain terms the grip the dictator had on Zimbabwe as a whole, and how decades of repression affected everyday life. His testament of the days afterwards is especially palpable, and almost makes you forget you’re reading a book ostensibly about football, but which actually manages to achieve much more than that.

Of course, that’s not to say everything immediately improves once Emmerson Mnangagwa takes office. The title takes its inspiration from literally only having a single functioning football for training, and most of the places they are able to practice are on unmarked pitches without nets. Thankfully, the situation does remedy itself, partly down to the author and the Busanis’ crowdfunding efforts (when electricity and internet access were present), a network of people back in Europe… and a certain Bruce Grobbelaar.

Bruce-Brobb

Growing up in the 90s, the Liverpool legend was more known to me as a figure of comedy at best (through numerous goalkeeping gaffes) and the match-fixing scandal that rocked the sport at worst. I saw him turn out for Bury in his single appearance for the Shakers at Birmingham City in 1998, and although I have heard interviews in the interluding period since, it’s this book that hugely helps to redeem him to people like me.

Walley tentatively contacts him, and once a rapport is established after feeling like he was being ‘cased’ as to whether he was genuine in a motorway service station back in England, things really take off. His contributions are huge for the project to get Matabeleland to London for the CONIFA World Football Cup, from sourcing gear to personally intervening in the visa application process when it appears that the British Home Office, not the authorities in Zimbabwe, threaten to scupper months of diligent hard work and fundraising.

Even when they do all belatedly make the journey over, events are no less dramatic. Walley is far less prepared for reasons outside of his control than his compatriots for the tournament itself. Many of his best-laid plans, training drills and recruitment went awry in Bulawayo, which undermined him from the outset, and there are plenty of entries dedicated to the effects the difficulties he faced had him (especially feelings of depression), his long-distance relationship with his girlfriend whose Schengen visa expired partway through the period described, and the MFC.

In their first outing, Matabeleland win one and lose two of their group games, playing a further fixture to determine their overall rank of 13th. Walley reflects that the ‘lowly’ position belied their true performances, especially given that their vanquishers both made the semi-finals.

The author is extremely well-travelled, having visited 150 countries and counting. This is an important aspect to remember when reading; as someone who has personally known several people in my previous life working for a large conservation charity who had a tickbox competition amongst themselves to see who could blag another new stamp here and there to their already heaving second passports, Walley honestly and skillfully avoids the pitfalls of both a kind of perpetual fatigue and cynicism from doing so, and their opposite number, a wide-eyed reverence for anywhere that isn’t home.

It’s a difficult balance to strike, and the section dedicated to his adventures and escapades in Russia for the showpiece tournament serve largely as a rebuttal to the growing mistrust and paranoia from the UK and elsewhere about the largest sovereign state on the planet. Moreover, he is at pains to point out the friendliness of the populace from Moscow to Kazan, remarking several times on the lack of fellow England supporters at games (who were mostly put off by FCO advice and constant negativity in the media), as well as the good-natured bonhomie between supporters of competing teams.

The diarised format of the prose does admittedly take you out of the immersion on occasion; on the flip side, it adds a layer of authenticity that would be harder to replicate months or years after the fact, and I found myself reading sections into the small hours several times. Even if I hadn’t spoken to the author before, he’s the kind of person I’d like to meet. His take on the world is individualistic (yet not) and unvarnished (yet carefully considered). His passions for travel, football, and just appreciating the simple things in life make him a sympathetic ‘character’, even if you parse that away from the political turmoil he was privy to at very close quarters.

I’d recommend this book, regardless of whether you care one iota about the beautiful game. It’s not a prerequisite to enjoying it, nor are the terms too technically minded to have you reaching for Google or highlighting the text on an e-reader. It is, at its heart, a celebration of the kindness of strangers, the company of a relentlessly positive outlook of a group of young men in the face of real adversity, and a frank account of personal struggles and triumphs. Make this your next purchase – it’s worth every cent, penny, or Ecocash mobile transfer payment!

Bury 2010-2019: Team(s) of the Decade

I’m not one for any overt displays of nostalgia. Arbitrary points of time don’t particularly interest me; even so, with everything that’s gone on at Bury Football Club in the decade that’s already receding in the rear-view mirror, it feels as though one last, lingering look is warranted at the very least.

Plenty of other sites and publications have of course done a Team of the Decade for their respective clubs or a division as a whole. What very few of them will have done, however, is actually consider how the assembled XI would play as a collective. It’s normally just a case of shoehorning in the best individuals with scant regard for anything else.

I take a different stance, of course. The Shakers were ‘blessed’ with some of the most talented players in their modern history during the 2010s, for better or worse, and I’ve blended them together into a coherent lineup, even at the expense of omitting some of my favourites during that expanse of time:

Men

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The first thing to note is that the formation bears a very close resemblance to the ‘Plan A’ employed by Ryan Lowe during the successful promotion campaign in 2018/2019. The second aspect you’ll notice is that yes, some loanees are included. I’ve never had any qualms about regarding them just the same as permanently registered players – the expectations placed on them in my eyes have always been the same.

In goal, it has to be Nick Pope. Tall (even by a ‘keeper’s standard), a great communicator, and an assured presence behind his defence, his huge number of clean sheets during his spell in the second half of 2014/2015 were the foundations on which that surge into the last automatic spot in League Two were built on. Tactically speaking, his distribution from his hands and feet allow the defensive line to be higher than it might otherwise be. Calmly pinching crosses and dead balls out of the air can help to relieve pressure and start counters.

A three-man central defence allows the utilisation of wing-backs. Whilst the more traditional full-back role has evolved most of all in recent years, few in white and royal blue have had the balance right. Although criticised on more than a few occasions for his defensive shortcomings, Chris Hussey in full flow down the left flank was a joy to behold, and had the added string to his bow of being able to take extremely dangerous free-kicks (direct and indirect) and corners. Yes, he wasn’t always consistent in that regard, but that’s why he continues to ply his trade in the lower leagues (in the best sense possible). He always offered an outlet under David Flitcroft, keeping the play wide and working in tandem with his closest team-mate regardless of the shape. His low crosses were also a big asset, and well-suited to the strikers I’ve chosen.

Jimmy McNulty as the left-sided centre back would naturally shift wider to cover Hussey’s bursts forward. Another leader in a defence full of them, he mixed a good range of passing with his natural instincts to stay close to the forward and mark tightly. A reliable passer, he’d lay the ball ahead of Hussey to run onto, or hit a crossfield ball to the right to avoid the press.

Tom Lees remains in the highest echelons of temporary signings by the club. Belying his young age during 2010/2011 (the first of a trio of promotions in the past decade), he rarely lost an aerial battle in either box, and was almost always the primary target to be on the end of a dead ball. He won Players’ Player of the Year during that stint, embodying everything that was positive about that squad. Not the most imposing stopper, he made up for that with excellent aerial reach, scoring five in 50. By the end, he looked the most mature of the stable of centre backs, which is no mean feat at the age of 20, typically before someone in his role would even hold down a regular first-team place at any tier.

On the right of the triumvirate is Nathan Cameron. The charismatic ex-Coventry City player endured a terrible first year in south Lancashire, with regular calls from the stands and on forums to be released… but it was clear he had something. Flitcroft kept him on over the summer of 2014, and from then on, he blossomed into one of the very best, playing his way out of trouble with a quick turn to fool an opponent, using his body as a shield, and mopping up danger both ahead and behind the rest of the unit. He ws also very good on the ball itself, offering a level of close control and cool finishing more typically befitting and associated with a striker. The only issue he had was ultimately with injuries, dashing hopes of a career higher up in the Championship.

It’s fair to say that Matt Doherty was one of the very few bright lights during the relegation season of 2012/2013. In an era of there being two substitutes being on the bench, players turning out for free, and what little youth there was in the ranks being sidelined by Kevin Blackwell, the Irish youngster from Wolverhampton Wanderers swam as so many others sank without a trace. With three footballing centre backs behind him and Pope’s distribution to count on in this XI, he would support the forwards just as much as Hussey, with the added bonus of having a strong left foot in addition to his right, better positioning, and more (controlled) tenacity in the tackle. Excelling with late runs into the area to commit a defender away from other threats is another huge filip to have in a team built for committing men forward in numbers with greater assurance ‘at home’.

The last loanee is one Jordan Rossiter. He had extremely well-documented injury problems in the years prior to his shock move from Glasgow Rangers to the northern point of the Manchester conurbation, but he quickly assuaged the doubts lingering over his fitness (never his ability), becoming the missing piece of the puzzle in Lowe’s jigsaw. A peerless knack of being in the right place to intercept and shut down counters, he could also be the orchestrator of attacks of his own, being particularly adept at floating 30 or 40 yard forward passes to an unmarked teammate in space. Every midfield needs the right balance, and with such a fearsome competitor at the base, it would again give others the confidence to push on.

Danny Mayor… will we ever see someone like him again in a Bury (A)FC shirt? Does it matter? It’s more important now than ever to appreciate what and who came before. He, like Cameron and Rossiter, has had fitness issues in his career that have perhaps prevented greater individual success… but take nothing away from him. He’s had his share of personal accolades, doing more than everyone else to drive the team forward in whichever season he was at Gigg Lane. Anything less than dribbling half the pitch beating two or three players almost felt disappointing, such was his propensity to do it successfully. A creator who gradually shifted more and more central from the left, his rapport with Hussey (and later Callum McFadzean) were huge factors in opposition scouts attempting to mark him out of the game. Like a mirrored version of Arjen Robben, you knew he’d cut in and use his stronger foot to aim for the far corner more often than not. More often than not, his nemeses were powerless to prevent it happening. Some supporters think of him as the most exciting player in the last 30 years, and he would dovetail beautifully in this setup with Hussey and…

Steven Schumacher. My first instinct was to include Jay O’Shea, but in a clear example of not crowbarring someone in for the sake of it, I believe the assistant to Lowe at Bury and now in partisan Devon with Plymouth Argyle offered a bit more between both boxes. He too was fond of a long-range effort, of creating something out of nothing, of dictating the tempo… but as someone who others looked to more for on-field leadership, which of course has now translated into the dugout and training pitch. His vision was vital three seasons in a row, complementing Peter Sweeney‘s deeper playmaking instincts well. A one-in-six record from over 100 appearances for the Shakers cannot be sniffed at, and it was self-evident that he retained a deep fondness for the club in between his spells upon his return.

The finely tuned balance in midfield made it even more difficult to choose the two strikers. Lowe himself, Tom Pope, and Nicky Maynard all narrowly missed out. Present for only one season, James Vaughan was the epitome of a precociously talented individual who had experienced lengthy spells of unavailability that ultimately saw him go from club to club in search of consistency. Alongside the Port Vale legend, he certainly found it in more humble surroundings than he was used to. It didn’t take long for him to carve out his niche, proving his efficacy outside the area as well as in it. A propensity to try the spectacular (and succeed), he also liked to drop off the apex of attack and then run in behind the defence. The sheer variety of the shots taken and subsequent goals scored would ensure he was a multi-faceted threat.

Leon Clarke rarely has the body language which screams ‘full of effort’. If there was a phrase that would sum up his career that I continue to follow, it’s languidly clinical, with firm emphasis on the ‘languid’ part. Even so, he was often tasked with ploughing a lone furrow up top. Not precisely a classic target man, he honed his movement to a fine art, often deceiving his marker in the process. His goal in the memorable 3-1 victory over Sheffield United at Bramall Lane remains both a personal favourite and also an excellent summary of his strengths and character. He chased a hooked ball forward from Hussey, shrugged off the close attentions he was receiving (almost bouncing off him), controls it with his left knee and lobs the ‘keeper with his right foot. The audacity of it could only be carried off by someone with his personality type and matching skillset. As the focal point in this lineup, he’d be aided greatly by Vaughan’s unselfish runs, the support he’d receive from Mayor and Schumacher, and the accurate passing from Rossiter and the wing-backs. He never got that level of consistent service during 2015/2016 in real life, but still left the club with a one-in-two record.

Women

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Strictly speaking, this isn’t a representative Team of the Decade, having only known of, and very closely followed, the exploits of the female Shakers for a few years. However, easily their most successful jaunt was in 2018/2019. Suffering a very similar fate to the men – having to withdraw from the fifth tier after a glorious championship/promotion season, it should nevertheless not take away from their achievements, and many of them have since found other clubs at a similar standing or higher up the echelons…

Tess Duxbury often orchestrated attacks from goal, rolling or throwing the ball short to the expressive defenders to take the game to the opposition. Aymee Openshaw, who more often than was vice-captain, would sweep forward in support the five-woman midfield, angling her runs to always provide an option to float crosses to the far post from deep or close to the byline. Jordanna Holgate would cut off any space in between the lines, stepping out of defence to help the line continue to push up. Her central defensive partner Becca Dolman would drop deeper, helping to keep the shape on the rare occasions the Shakers weren’t dominant in possession. Leah Dolan mirrored Openshaw’s forays up and down the flank.

As a key component in the team and one half of the double pivot, Alisha Marsh intelligently split her duties between defence and attack, being a creative force from midfield and frequently troubling the scoresheet, but also being an effective screen in front of the back four. Chloe Davies also had licence to join in the approach play in the final third, often striking from range.

On the right, Sophie Rowlands had an uncanny ability to sweep home at the far post, whilst also working especially well in tandem with Dolan. Captain Lucy Golding reminded me of a female Wayne Rooney in the sense that she wanted to be at the centre of every attack her side made, and more importantly, had the confidence from without and within to be the taliswoman. Her free-kicks from 40 yards out would often end up in the net, and her finishing was simply unmatched – her hunger for goals rarely sated. Her contributions on and off the pitch to Bury are immeasurable.

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Lucy Golding always carried herself as someone who could go higher than the fifth tier of domestic women’s football, and she continues to prove that in spades at neighbouring Bolton Wanderers

Jordon Bailey‘s combined goals (22) and assists (23) actually totalled higher than Golding’s efforts. Her pace and work rate would almost always succeed in pulling defenders out of position to combat her, which would in turn create gaps to exploit, helped in no small measure by Caitlin Clancy‘s movement, stretching the play laterally to aid her teammates’ constantly penetrative runs into the final third and beyond any unsuccessful offside trap sprung.

2020-2029?

What will the next decade hold? Who will be the heroes on the terraces, and just where will those terraces be? I don’t have the answer to any of these questions, but any club adorning the name of Bury, seeking to embody the town, and embody a modern approach to running a football club is the only way any future articles like this will continue to be written by yours truly. I don’t want the women to be treated as a footnote in whatever comes next – they deserve far more than that, whatever their identities are. It’s also likely there’ll never be anyone with the same level of talent as a Rossiter or a Mayor for the men in most people’s lifetimes reading this now, but that’s no reason to turn away from a non-league adventure if fans are finally put first. Here’s hoping that comes to fruition in the coming months…

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.

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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.

My Vision for a Phoenix Club

The deed is done. Whilst (The) Bury Football Club Company Limited still exist as an insolvent going concern, the EFL’s decision to reject the proposal by the ‘Rescue Board’ to reinstate the Shakers in League Two for the 2020/2021 season will likely be the penultimate deathblow to 134 years of history. The coup de grace will surely come in the form of a final winding-up petition by HMRC, which is slated for the 16th of October.

The blame game is still being played, and depending on your own disposition as to how much of it is apportioned to Stewart Day, Steve Dale, and the EFL themselves. But I’m not writing another post that serves as a eulogy for what’s been. Out of the most devastating of circumstances arises an opportunity that, realistically speaking, was never going to come supporters’ way without some extremely rich individuals counting themselves among the base.

There will be some who, barring a scarcely believable intervention, will not want to come on the journey of any subsequent phoenix club – the grief is still very raw for one thing. If the merits of a new entity don’t make their mark on them in the fullness of time, then their decision should be respected.

Nevertheless, I maintain the view that there is a lot to admire about a clean slate, not too dissimilar to using the ‘Create-a-Club’ mode on the Football Manager series and analogous incarnations in other video games down the years, but made real, and far from the confines of fantasy.

Name and crest

bury1885

I’m not an expert on whether the original name of ‘Bury Football Club’ can be retained in any new venture in a legal sense. Obviously, that would be the preference of the overwhelming majority… but if that’s not able to be achieved, it opens up a lot of alternative options. As illustrated by the above image, my own choice would be 1885 Bury. Darlington faced a situation with many parallels seven years ago, and opted for ‘1883’ as their suffix (they have since dropped the moniker, having had the change approved by the FA).

1885 Bury would retain in their name a link back to the founding of the original entity, as well as mirror how a lot of clubs in the Bundesliga style themselves. This is of heightened relevance when it comes to setting out the possible ownership models later in the article.

As for the crest, I think it needs modernising (simplifying). Again, the above picture is a good example of what I mean, although sadly, a new club wouldn’t be able to retain the two stars signifying the number of FA Cup wins. The v-shaped badge is a hark back to a past iteration, but with an updated motto and more legible text.

In essence, people should be able to look at the crest and know at first glance it can only be Bury’s, whilst also making it far easier to duplicate onto kits, merchandise, and in general marketing itself.

Club Colours & Kit

 

buryNEW crest
Branding, like it or loathe it, is an integral part of football, and its importance stretches far below the EFL
buryNEW crest
More excellent mock-ups… but it now seems like an especially cruel joke to have the local council emblazoned on one of the kits!

Every facet would need to be voted, and the club colours and kit are no exception to that. The shade of blue that accompanies the white is not as clear-cut; it has switched between royal and navy historically, and I’m one of those weirdos who doesn’t really mind either way, having been witness to both in my time.

I think it would be prudent to strike up a business relationship with a local supplier for the manufacture and distribution of kits. This would enable them to be bespoke, which will be a key cornerstone of a phoenix club’s identity, as well as keeping the supply chain costs down. In turn, a simpler crest as described above would also make it easier to change the colours of it to a single hue, as evidenced in the away kit mock-up.

When possible, taking a leaf out of Accrington Stanley’s book would be a savvy decision:

 

It is just one method of engaging with the community; equally, they don’t change their kits every season unlike almost all of their contemporaries. This ensures greater longevity of the shirts themselves, but also keeps costs down for everyone involved.

When they do change, supporters can be involved in every step of the process.

The small matter of where they’ll play

For many, Gigg Lane is the club. It is also crucial in the sense of having a platform from which to apply to the FA for a higher tier than would otherwise be the case. Chester did this with the Deva on appeal, for example, and the ground is indeed listed as an Asset of Community Value, as can be seen on the spreadsheet link below:

https://drive.google.com/file/d/1bj6nNrp3UFxmOgR08z9zEiz2fCOnO_d7/view?usp=sharing

Even so, there is a high financial barrier to having the ground under fans’ ownership, especially without the help of wealthy backers, or even a Compulsory Purchase Order by the council, who would then lease it back to the new entity at a mutually affordable rate. This does not factor in the cost of maintenance, however.

If no deal can be struck, then it opens up the prospect of ground-sharing with other local non-league outfits, such as Radcliffe, Ramsbottom United, and Prestwich Heys. The notion is not without its pitfalls, however. All three have distinct identities of their own, and might feel like sharing their homes is the first step towards absorption. This would need to be categorically ruled out.

The third route would be to find an entirely new site, but the timescales for that would vary wildly, so it’s difficult to discuss in any real detail at present.

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The small matter of which division they’ll start in

As discussed, this is partly contingent on the ground situation. Throughout the process, I’ve heard from a number of different individuals the prospect of competing in an expanded National League North. The basis for That would seem to rely on the current business somehow surviving, the debts being cleared, and Dale not being in situ. The National League as a body are far more stringent on the financial side of their member clubs than the ‘competition organisers’ above them in the pyramid.

Even then, it would require the votes of the clubs to allow re-entry. It’s far from a foregone conclusion that current members would acquiesce; many will feel that the only ‘correct’ course of action is for Bury in either form to start right back on the bottom rung of the North West Counties League.

Strangely enough, the police might have a say, too. Very few grounds that far down are equipped for large away followings. If you take the view that even half the current fanbase would desert a new venture in the 10th tier, that would still constitute a regular crowd that would dwarf every other club by a factor of 20. There are inherent safety issues associated with that likelihood, and it just goes to show that any application to the FA would have many strands for them to consider.

Ownership model

The most common misconception when the phrase ‘fan-owned club’ springs to mind is that it conjures up the logical conclusion that it must also be a fan-run club. It doesn’t necessarily work out that way, even with 100% models. The board, normally run by a majority of volunteers, employ others in a small number of paid positions to work in the day-to-day football roles.

A wholly-owned fan club would have complete control over the direction of travel, decisions and elections onto the working group/board would be democratic, and would rise or fall on the strength of the sense of community fostered therein. I’d also advocate a ‘one owner, one member, one vote’ system, despite favouring a tiered system of ownership practised by Lewes

Another style would be to ape the 50+1 rule in the Bundesliga; essentially, for a club to have a license in Germany, they (the members) have to retain majority voting rights, but the true proportions vary from team to team. This would allow some flexibility in terms of accepting external investors, whilst ensuring that no matter how much they put in, it would never assume control.

I am personally more flexible in my approach to the model than some others I know of for a phoenix club; my red line however is that it must be 50+1 at the very minimum. Bury, and many other clubs, have normally come into financial difficulties at the hands of one individual or a succession of de facto sole owners dictating the course of events. That can never be allowed to happen again.

Philosophy & values

No longer can lip service be paid to both being a hub and a service to the townspeople and beyond. The hashtag ‘#MyClubMyCommunity’ quickly became an awfully ironic phrase as many began to suffer financially and mentally.

BW.jpg
Just as important as establishing the men’s first team is the revivification of all other teams, including the hitherto extremely successful women – I make no delineation between them in my support of Bury or a phoenix

It must be at the heart of everything. For me, this means an acceptance that having a club with the main focus being just a men’s first team is over. Women, underage, veterans, Ability Counts. All of them should be catered for. That won’t be the view of everyone else – far from it; in the early days, players are almost certainly going to be drawn from the borough and Greater Manchester – the level of pay they’d receive would preclude anything else. Inversely, this presents opportunities for a much stronger link between supporter and player – in some instances, they would be one and the same. Efforts need to be made to reincorporate the women’s first team back under the more stable wing. It has gone largely unnoticed by the wider media the devastation wrought on them; this, too, can never be allowed to happen again. They’re under the care of the Trust – its future is also uncertain, and efforts should be made to secure the charity.

I’m not in favour of publicised year plans as to the goals of a club, and this would be no different with a phoenix. The aim would obviously be to get back up the pyramid as high and as fast as possible, but there are significant bottlenecks off the pitch to realising those ambitions, let alone on it. There’s also something to be said for this not coming at the cost of diluting the model and/or jeopardising the long-term security.

The club must also not overexert itself in any commerical ventures, and maintain a lithe and agile stance to current trends and events. A far greater push for transparency is paramount, too – I look at the accounting example at Clapton Community as something to both admire and replicate.

This has helped them have a strong presence far outside Walthamstow, and they are but one of several very prominent ‘case studies’, for want of a better term, of how invoking community spirit coupled with a clear identity and constant communication can galvanise support from a smörgåsbord of different sources.

To summarise, a phoenix club would not be a permanent state of rainbows and pots of gold. There’s so much that needs to be done in the next four months to guarantee football is once again played next season, should efforts ultimately fail to revive the moribund current business. Make no mistake though, a phoenix club would be more than a palimpsest of Bury – there’s a massive chance to take the very best of The Shakers from the past 134 years and pay that forward for the next 134, whilst making the club more inclusive, modern, and a shining beacon of the town and beyond.

 

The Emperors Abdicate, but the Empire Will Live On

Yesterday, Lincoln City’s fraternal management team Danny and Nicky Cowley left the Imps for struggling Championship outfit Huddersfield Town, who just months ago were still plying their trade in the Premier League. In this post, I look at why, as talented as both men are, the void they’ve left at Sincil Bank can be filled, and doesn’t mark the threshold for what can be achieved at the county club.

Subject to intense speculation for what must’ve felt like an aeon for fans, the Cowley Brothers found the opportunity to take the cudgels a division above too hard to resist, writing in a statement full of class of their love and affection for everyone involved at Lincoln during a glittering, meteoric three-and-a-half years in charge.

Inevitably, a lot of the anticipation and reaction to the announcement from supporters was morose, and whilst my good friend Gary Hutchinson went on to suggest it wasn’t the end of the world for the club on The Stacey West blog, he did opine that the duo’s departure was “a dark day in its history”. I wholeheartedly disagree.

Yesterday was the strongest evidence yet that Lincoln City are still on the up, and more ‘relevant’ in a football sense than at any other juncture in my lifetime at the very least. Just like at Bury, it’s an extremely rare phenomenon for any manager (or management team) to attract serious, lascivious attention from another club, let alone one in a higher tier. Alan Knill made the leap to Scunthorpe United during the 2010/2011 promotion run-in, but was unable to prevent the Iron from being relegated to League One, where they would meet the Shakers in any case. His reign became more renowned for an accident involving a squirrel (yes, really), and the consistent image of him stood in front of the dugout, arms folded and powerless to prevent them from sliding further down the standings.

I’m confident in my belief that a similar fate won’t happen to Danny Cowley; the only parallel is that he’ll be inheriting a side with a very pronounced losing mentality – indeed, the Terriers won just once and drew a further three times under the auspices of Jan Siewert during his wretched 19-game tenure across all competitions. From the outside looking in, Huddersfield have an awfully lopsided squad, but the majority of which are not yet at the peak in their careers – this could mean that most of the dressing room are receptive to the meticulous ideas the pair will bring to the John Smith’s Stadium; given time, they’ll make a success of it, and the fact that they were top of the board’s shortlist suggests that they will be.

I’m sure they wouldn’t have wanted to end their trophy-laden stint on the end of a 3-1 reverse to Wycombe Wanderers (taking nothing away from the Chairboys whatsoever), but it is what it is. The Imps are sitting in fifth in League One, albeit having played a match more than most of the teams beneath them. Even so, that nominal position is a huge contrast to where they were in 2016 when a couple of P.E. teachers by day gave up that part of their careers to take over at a side that had just finished 13th in the newly christened National League, which was in fact the highest position at that point in the half-decade they’d been dwelling in.

Moreover, average attendances were hovering around the 2,500 mark, and in an anecdote oft-repeated since, the area was full of children wearing Manchester United, Liverpool, and Arsenal shirts, perhaps unsurprising given the plight of the Imps, but is nevertheless something that will probably chime with many readers and supporters of lower league teams.

Almost immediately, the Cowleys galvanised far more than the players at their disposal, but the cathedral city itself. Crowds doubled during their title-winning season, buoyed by the amazing FA Cup run to the quarter finals… but more importantly, people weren’t just along for the brief flirtation with the media spotlight. They kept coming back, and many who’d stopped going for one reason or another previously, returned through the turnstiles, feeling revitalised by the diligence and graft on the pitch and the fan-centred focus off it.

That rapport continued to go from strength to strength, with the Bank becoming a vocal and intimidating ground (for the right reasons) for their opponents to visit. I was asked by Gary to do some work around the clashes between Lincoln and Bury last term, with the second of these more than living up to its billing as a glowing advert for fourth tier football; one piece in particular drew praise, and engendered me to some of their fans on social media. I hadn’t written it to do so, but I felt it was important to dispel the notion of the Cowleys’ men as ‘cloggers’ and other lazy assessments of their tactical setup.

Given the intelligence and expertise in the boardroom now, I’m sure the appointment of the next manager will leave no aspect overlooked, regardless of the speed of which the decision is made. The two most prominent names I’ve seen mentioned elsewhere are Gareth Ainsworth, the Wycombe manager riding the crest of a wave at present; he was strongly linked with the vacant Queens Park Rangers post before Mark Warburton got the nod in May. Like the London club, he has a strong affinity with the Imps from his playing days, but it’s very difficult to foresee him leaving now to a divisional rival. I disagree with the idea that it would be a step down in any way to head north as I’ve seen been mooted on social media, however.

The second ‘option’ is Michael Flynn, working similar wonders at Newport County. He has taken the Exiles from 11 points adrift of safety in March 2017 to 60 seconds of extra time away from a penalty shootout in a play-off final away from a return to the third tier for the first time in 32 long years, all the while making Rodney Parade an impregnable fortress and enjoying forays in cup competitions. It would be an intriguing appointment, but the formation and tactics he employs do not look like a seamless fit for the gig, and that’s putting aside his own loyalty to the south Wales outfit for the sake of argument.

My pick isn’t currently managing at senior level, but has plenty of experience of doing so, even at 43. Michael Appleton left Oxford United for Leicester City to be Craig Shakespeare’s number two in June 2017, with the Foxes one year out from being Premier League champions and several months from being involved in the latter stages of the Champions League. Whilst it seemed like a no-brainer in many senses at the time, his superior would only last four months. Indeed, Appleton himself took caretaker charge of two matches, winning both.

Now at West Bromwich Albion as Under 23s manager, a club he had a previous association with during the latter days of his playing career (you can sense a pattern emerging), I don’t foresee the same anguish the other two would have in leaving their posts. Having had a baptism of fire in earlier managerial roles, he had a comparatively less fraught time at the U’s, gaining promotion in his second campaign to League One and taking them to the brink of the third-tier play-offs; additionally, they were also losing finalists in the EFL Trophy twice in succession, proving his ability to appropriately balance the demands of competing on two fronts.

Last year, he appeared on a very illuminating podcast with Not the Top 20, which gave a fascinating insight into both his personality and the way he operates, particularly to listeners like me that were familiar with the name since his emergence at United in the mid-90s, but not necessarily the man himself:

Current squad depth:

Lincoln 1920 September.PNG
An indicator of the current squad depth – positions and roles simplified for illustrative purposes

The first thing that’s immediately obvious is that the shallow end of the pool is up top and in support of the lone striker, which will hamper attempts by any other newcomer in changing to a two. I should add in the small caveat that with the Yellows, Appleton did most often employ a 4-4-2; however, he had the likes of Kemar Roofe and Chris Maguire to call upon – both of whom spent significant time on either flank, and when they were deployed in the middle, they’d often drift wide or drop deep to find pockets of space in between the lines, which in turn would create gaps for the attacking full-backs and wingers to move into.

At Lincoln, whilst there not be as big ‘names’ as those aforementioned, the collective attributes of Bruno Andrade, Tyler Walker, and Harry Anderson could make something akin to that a possibility. Ideally, someone else could be drafted in before January to share the burden carried by John Akinde, who still seems to draw harsh criticism from some circles.

Elsewhere, things are rosier, although last week’s EFL Trophy match perhaps highlighted the need for a fourth-choice centre back, which would multiply the formations available exponentially. Gianluca Bucci is still only 17, so it seems unlikely he’ll thrust into the fray unless things become desperate. Fellow promising youngsters Alex Bradley and Jordan Adebayo-Smith are out on loan with Harrogate Town and neighbours Boston United respectively.

The ingredients are (mostly) all there for a replication of the setup Appleton had at Oxford – a reliable goalkeeper, full-backs capable of bombing forward to regularly join in attacks, at least one dominant centre back (in both boxes), a central midfield two that can marry dictating the tempo with regaining possession; wide players who can both go outside and cut in; a second striker to make their marker second-guess whether to stay put or go with them when they drop off; lastly, a ‘target man’ to aim a variety of crosses.

Additionally, Appleton is a deeply working-class individual, who understands what’s required of managing a team away from ‘football’s hotbeds’ in England. Whilst Oxford weren’t quite as deep in the doldrums as Lincoln were when Appleton and Cowley were appointed, there was a shared perception that both were capable of something above their stations, and thus it was proven.

In his time away from senior management, Appleton has kept up with the machinations in the EFL, keeping a shortlist of ‘rough diamonds’ in the lower leagues, as well as young players from the top table who could be made available by their parent clubs for the second or third loan spell of their careers, as is his preference when making enquiries.

Like Cowley, it’s self-evident that he takes cup competitions seriously – that is certain to put a strain on a squad as shallow in some regards as the Imps’, but because they’re a well-oiled machine off the pitch, the bulk of compensation package for the brothers would almost certainly go back into the playing budget.

Whoever does get the nod, there might well be a ‘transition period’… but that ought to be no cause for panic – just look at what’s been achieved to date – just last night, Joe Morrell earned his first cap for Wales in a full international, which is testament to his ability and the high regard his club are now held in.

The ’empire’ won’t be destroyed just because of a change of personnel in the dugout. Supporters who returned under the Cowleys and the ‘plastics’ who have joined along the way (in turn tripling the gate) are not witnessing the zenith of what Lincoln are capable of. With an astute appointment like Appleton, the ‘glass ceiling’ is still some distance away. Becca Miller’s tweet below sums up the effect Danny and Nicky had on the club and the city as a whole. Sunny days are here to stay for one small corner in the east of the country.

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A Non-Zero-Sum Game

The current situation is very bleak indeed – stop me if you’ve heard that tired old refrain before. James Frith, the local MP for Bury North, has been central to keeping efforts to save the club in the public eye, and his latest post on Facebook suggests that there has been a snowball effect in galvanising support from both the political and business fields to convince Debbie Jevans, the interim CEO of the EFL, to rescind the ‘unanimous decision’ to withdraw the golden share (membership) of the competition.

Once more, the statement makes mention of an ‘interested party’ in taking over the club. Quite what the attraction is for any consortium now is in owning a side that won’t have any fixtures for 11 months minimum is hard to see, and that doesn’t even take into account the severe lack of income there will be during that interim period, the CVA (which is now under investigation), Steve Dale (fresh from his most unintentionally hilarious and bizarre ramblings yet and belatedly widespread recognition and media depiction as the last but most crucial ‘villain of the piece’).

Hopes were first pinned on C&N Sporting Risk, who pulled out an hour before the extended deadline last week over concerns surrounding due diligence. Latterly, a London-based pastor by the name of Gustavo Ferreira supposedly tabled a £7m offer for the business before said deadline, which wasn’t sufficient to persuade the competition organisers to change tack, mainly because it just wasn’t credible.

The EFL have come in for plenty of flack since, with condemnation coming in the form of chants at many of their fixtures last weekend, an online petition (with north of 40,000 signatures at the time of writing), and a savaging in the press. I believe that they have handled the situation incompetently rather than malevolently, having simply failed to heed the warnings from two years ago. The method behind the expulsion, as much the action itself, has weakened their already sagging reputation much further still, and in a far more serious way than suspending Bury’s games prior to their decision was to the ‘integrity’ of League One.

It is this that has led to a possible legal challenge against them from a number of disparate groups, one of which could be by Forever Bury, who are holding a meeting at the town hall tomorrow. The short notice of that gathering is understandable, given that the clock is already ticking on both the outcome of any court case and an application to the FA to rejoin the pyramid. Remaining staff and players at the club have had their worlds turned upside down, with parents of children as young as eight years old

I also wonder what now is actually is the best case for the entity known collectively as Bury Football Club, and I don’t think it’s as immediately obvious as it might seem. I’m sure plenty of readers would say it’s for the EFL to place the Shakers in League Two for 2020/2021… but under whose ownership? How would the CVA (if left unscathed by the investigation) and debts not covered in it be paid for? How would income be generated without any matches? Most pertinently of all, the largest sticking point is the current situation surrounding Gigg Lane itself, which would require roughly £4m to wrest back the stadium from Capital Bridging Finance Solutions, plus the cumulative daily interest.

I find myself increasingly of the disposition that, barring a miracle (and it has been the hope that has killed fans over and over and over again in recent weeks), a fresh start might not be the worst outcome. Don’t get me wrong, every sinew should be stretched to at least come to an agreement with CBF, but in lieu of that, the following tweet from the local council should be noted:

Ultimately, I’m suggesting that as big of a wrench as leaving Gigg and perhaps not being even in League Two would be, it doesn’t have to be the last page in the story of the club. A way must be found for extremely angry and grief-stricken supporters to come together once again. A phoenix club is the last resort, but its likelihood increases by the day – this is a non-zero-sum game where things are never straightforward on closer inspection. If and when it happens, I’ll put forth my vision for what it could be like, as I think even in the most dire of circumstances, there are opportunities. Until then, or a highly improbable reversal by the EFL, this blog will keep a watchful eye on proceedings. I need to write about something other than finances, and what that will be will follow later this week on the blog.

In the meantime, the clock is ticking on 134 years of Bury Football Club.

This is C&N

In a perpetual state of cutting it extremely fine, the future of Bury Football Club is still precarious at the time of writing. The events of the past week have at once felt like a whirlwind and running in treacle, amplified by belated but constant national media attention. Many of the club’s supporters have taken to the airwaves to highlight the (ongoing) plight, and yours truly has been no exception to that:

  1. Race to the Bottom: Episode 13 (opens in Spotify)
  2. The Big Kick Off: Episode 116 (opens in Soundcloud)
  3. Sky News Interview: Five minutes of my face on YouTube (sorry!)

The previously intransigent owner Steve Dale was sending all kinds of mixed messages on Friday during his grand tour of seemingly everywhere except the negotiating table, with as many as four interested parties in taking over before the midnight deadline set by the EFL for either sufficient evidence of proof of funds from Dale himself or for a deal to be struck to their satisfaction.

Like probably every other fan, I was glued to social media (even more than usual) as the minutes ticked by, desperate for some solid sleep but even more desperate for a credible source to break the news that there had been a sale, which duly came a little over two hours from oblivion:

What quickly emerged from then on were the identities of the group – C&N Sporting Risk, a small company whose main service is in data analytics, with Rory Campbell and Henry Newman at the head of the firm.

Campbell is the son of the infamous Labour spin-doctor Alastair, who, for all his… flaws (putting it extremely lightly) has always maintained a fervent and genuine interest in football, being a follower of fellow Lancashire side Burnley and raising a family with an appreciable knowledge of how important the link is between clubs and the communities they are an intrinsic component of.

Rory has created his own niche after completing the well-trodden Oxbridge PPE path, founding C&N in 2016 whilst still in his 20s after firming up his interests at university, with the ongoing  ‘Moneyball’ experiment at Brentford a big driver behind his deepening involvement in the sport (and perhaps the current interest in Bury). It’s impossible to ignore the betting aspect of his company, however, and there would be a question mark over just how they could as a business work around the strict laws set out by the FA governing inside information whilst owning a club. He would need to prove, much like Tony Bloom at Brighton & Hove Albion and Matthew Benham at The Bees that he doesn’t place any bets himself, only acting as a ‘consultant’ for others.

Newman’s background is more rooted in coaching, especially in London with two different clubs – Charlton Athletic and Barnet, the latter of which he had a brief spell as joint-interim coach with Rossi Eames two years ago, and the pair appeared on a Not the Top 20 podcast during their brief tenure:

In it, Henry sets out his vision for how football should be played, with an emphasis on an eye-pleasing style whilst still being mindful of the shortcomings of the squad he had under him at The Hive. He took a break from a role as chief opposition scout with West Ham United during that four-month interlude, continuing to hone and diversify his skillset in the game and firmly setting him on the road to his directorship at C&N.

At this juncture, it’s important not to get too far ahead of myself. A disappointingly short extension to the deadline, in C&N’s collective view, was granted by the EFL yesterday, providing only a single extra business day to conclude the deal (or at least 99% of it). Doubtlessly, between Stewart Day and Steve Dale, a complex web was woven for any future prospective owners to cut through and unravel simultaneously. A debt of gratitude is nevertheless owed by many to a few select people – the half-dozen or so at the head of Forever Bury, local MP James Frith, and even the likes of Ron Wood and former chairman Terry Robinson in the background.

One final thing to note right now is that whilst I can claim to have no insider knowledge of the wealth (or otherwise) of C&N, they have already provided to the EFL what Dale could not in terms of proof of funds. Moreover, their pursuit of a deal has been 10 weeks in the making, only coming to a head thanks to Dale relenting at the last possible moment… and crucially, well before the CVA had even been tabled, let alone approved.

Hopefully, this won’t prove to be another false dawn (and subsequently the footnote) in Bury’s proud, if often financially fraught, 134-year history. The Gigg Lane faithful don’t want the moon, just a club to continue supporting to pass on to the generations to come.

Answering the Unanswerable

This post is an attempt to answer some of the things I’ve seen written about Bury Football Club in the past few days in as balanced a way as the current situation allows. This isn’t the place for financial facts and figures – the approved CVA is in the public domain, and experts like David Conn for The Guardian and Kieran Maguire have opined extensively about the complicated web of debt and disarray.

“Bury spent beyond their means”

There’s absolutely no question about that, and it’s never been a particularly well-kept secret. This reached its absolute nadir during the close season two years ago, with former chairman Stewart Day letting Lee Clark loose with money he never had on players the club didn’t need and could ill-afford. The common retorts to that centre around a perception that few, if any, Bury fans railed against the actions of Day. I did on this blog on more than one occasion, but this isn’t about bigging myself up for that. Other supporters expressed their concerns far earlier into the regime and were utterly castigated for it. Even if the groundswell of opinion against what was happening had more weight, without representation on the board, what practical influence did anyone truly have? A small contingent did indeed boycott going to games or spending money towards the end before it became a more widespread stance under Steve Dale, ultimately resulting in some of the most die-hard supporters asking for refunds on their season tickets.

The case is then made that Mansfield Town were ‘cheated’ out of a promotion place because of said overspending. Whilst I do have a limited amount of sympathy with that angle, it should be stated that the budget the club had and the players they used to achieve that miraculous promotion was far lower than the previous term. That’s impossible to truly verify without looking at the latest accounts (still unpublished). In truth, the EFL should’ve been scrutinising the ability to even make it through 2018/2019 under Day’s ownership. His very quick exit in December has precipitated every event since.

Most clubs in the 92 ‘spend beyond their means’, but have ways of servicing the debt and/or repaying the loans they have access to. Very few make a profit of any kind, especially without the help of transfer fees. Make no mistake, if Bury did go out of business, they’d be the first of many without legislative changes to either give the EFL more powers, redress the laughable financial imbalances in the domestic game and/or to set up an independent regulator.

 

“Bolton Wanderers are being treated differently / The EFL have an agenda against / want to make an example of Bury”

Well in one sense, Bolton definitely are being treated differently. The protracted takeover bid by Football Ventures feels like it’s taken all summer to reach its conclusion, and it’s still not certain what the outcome of it will be – the hotel (a separate business) on the same site as the UniBol Stadium complicates matters to a great degree. The only logical conclusion to take is that the EFL are far more satisfied that there are measures in place for the Trotters to fulfil their fixtures (even if the majority of the ‘squad’ at the time of writing are still in their teens) than with the Shakers.

Several statements have been issued by both the competition organisers and Dale in the past week, with the intransigent owner taking an increasingly attacking stance in his against the football body. The latest was penned by his lawyer, all of which just leaves fans in the awkward position of hoping some sort of compromise can be reached that allows matches to be take place but also hastens Dale’s exit.

For what it’s worth, I don’t think the EFL have an agenda against the club; they just don’t feel they have the concrete assurances from Dale to fulfil the commitments and money owed to creditors. Expelling Bury is an extremely bad look for the competition’s integrity, but there’s only so long the situation can be drawn out without some sort of resolution. That said, I’ve been distinctly unimpressed by interim CEO Debbie Jevans’ politician-esque answers to questions she’s faced publicly about both clubs. It’s the employees and supporters who suffer in all of this.

“Things are really bad at Manchester United / Arsenal / Newcastle United”

It seems churlish to even compare the ‘woes’ of fans of the three Premier League giants above to Bury. In many ways, it is… however, if you take the view that what takes place at one club has a knock-on effect at another and so on, then a more holistic picture emerges of the state of the game. Accrington Stanley owner Andy Holt, affected by the suspension of next Saturday’s home fixture, has nonetheless appealed to his growing number of followers on Twitter not to take too much umbrage with the discontent those clubs’ supporters have at the way they’re being run.

Whilst it’s unlikely that in the short to medium-term that any of those businesses (because that’s precisely what they are) will fail to remunerate staff on time or have a kit supplier for the campaign, it all hints at a powerlessness to affect the sort of change they wish to see, and it should reverberate down the pyramid. A decision has to be with finality whether football clubs in the English system are businesses like in any other sector with all that that entails or ‘community assets’; if it’s the latter, then huge strides are required in order to bring that to reality. Football is meant to be ‘The People’s Game’, but it feels increasingly divorced from that in many respects. Rogue owners and those who would seek to put themselves and not the club they are custodians of first must be brought to heel. The mechanisms don’t exist to do that at this point, and might only when clubs that register more on the public consciousness than Bury suffer a similar fate.

“Other clubs won’t vote to expel Bury from the EFL”

Depending on how you interpret the EFL’s statement about the CVA being approved, there are either four days until expulsion occurs or still at least 14. Should it be the latter, It should nevertheless still be noted that the first two league matches being suspended will put inexorable pressure on the body to serve the notice as quickly as possible. It’s one thing to nominally rearrange those games (which, by the way, have already had negative financial effects on both Milton Keynes Dons and Accrington), but quite another to do that for the EFL Cup tie with Sheffield Wednesday. They’re unlikely to countenance a third match across two competitions they organise not taking place as scheduled, so you can expect a decision on that early into next week.

I don’t pretend to know what’s in the minds of most boards of the other 71, so this is only pure conjecture on my part. I would posit that the calls for expulsion will reluctantly grow louder every single day, cognisant as those same people will be on the widespread consequences of such a vote, both on the overall structure of League One downwards and the club’s viability. With Dale still resisting selling Bury, I can’t envisage a scenario now where they can remain in business for longer than several weeks. I don’t want that to happen (despite some bizarre claims to the contrary), but it’s not within my gift to exert any influence on proceedings, and it feels like this has been a long time coming.

“Without Bury, my interest in football would die”

A perfectly reasonable opinion to have, doubtlessly shared by quite a few people. For me personally, my interest has been significantly waning in the elite/top tier of the sport for sometime, which feels increasingly remote from the grassroots and up. You’d hope that a phoenix club would be formed in the absolute worst case scenario, although it doesn’t always follow that fans of the original would do the same for the new entity for a multitude of reasons: different location, much lower standing, the ‘soul’ would be lost, and so on. It’s something I’d like to be involved in from afar if it does transpire.

I cannot admit to being immune from just how jarring it was yesterday to even vaguely kept abreast of the opening day fixtures, knowing Bury weren’t a part of them and almost certainly won’t be in their present form ever again. It’s difficult not to leap into other people’s conversations about how their teams got on and say “what about Bury?”, but it doesn’t do any good to.interject. Most are sympathetic to the collective plight shared by several thousand fans.

My intentions for the blog in case Bury do cease to exist are as follows: I will on occasion go ground-hopping to fixtures local to me in the Forest of Dean that take my fancy – that could be anywhere from Bristol City in the Championship to Lydney Town in the Hellenic League Premier Division. It won’t be the same, but I still intend to take an interest and to write about what I see. I’m also a self-employed freelancer, so I need to keep that up to realise my ambitions.

All we can do is hope for Dale to do the right thing – change his mind, and sell the club immediately to avoid any of this happening.

CVA? CBA

A fortnight ago, it became even more abundantly clear that the immediate future of Bury Football Club in its current form is under serious jeopardy. Owner Steve Dale, the only director left, made a Company Voluntary Arrangement to the ridiculous number of creditors – for the full shameful and disgraceful list, download the document here. In short, the proposal, if accepted on the 9th of July, will see those entities classed as football creditors paid in full as per the EFL’s rules. The rest will have to make do with 25%, and the total debt would then be reduced to a touch under £3m (former chairman Stewart Day’s company Mederco are excluded from the scope). The biggest mystery is the mention of Dale himself being a creditor… to the tune of £3.6m. I have seen no documented evidence of the loan in the public domain, and the accounts are now ridiculously overdue. It would however, go a long to explain Dale’s reluctance to sell up.

One possible outcome of the proposal being accepted is that the EFL, the self-styled ‘competition organisers’ will see fit to deduct the Shakers 12 points ahead of the new season, but frankly, that’s the least of many fans’ worries. 2019/2020 is already a write-off… and that’s the best case scenario. Manchester City have served notice to evict their neighbours from Carrington, even though as the CVA confirms, the rent had been a nominal amount. It simply hadn’t been maintained. That move will leave them without a training ground, and the news has further damaged whatever was left of Bury’s reputation.

Only circa six senior players are still in situ, and no pre-season preparation has even taken place yet. Expect that number to decrease even further in the coming days. The U18s, whose salaries are funded from elsewhere, are in better nick. As ever, their fate is somewhat contingent on the continuing machinations above them. With Ryan Lowe and several other key staff and players firmly ensconced in much more stable surroundings at Plymouth Argyle, the ‘search’ for a replacement was finally over yesterday. One of the most needlessly bombastic and asinine managerial announcements I’ve ever read, Paul Wilkinson’s credentials are steering Truro City to relegation… into the seventh tier! I can only presume there was a clause in his still-fresh contract with the White Tigers that allowed him to join a pro outfit without compensation. 

What that move does is meet the most minimum requirement to creditors that there’s a ‘plan to move forward’. Very few supporters truly believe the appointment amounts to any more than that, and it is still far from clear if or how Wilkinson will be paid, let alone cobble together a large enough squad to fulfil the fixtures, which start in earnest a month from now. I maintain my belief that they won’t be. Others have voted with their wallets, requesting refunds for their season ticket purchases already. Obviously, I don’t live close enough to attend regularly, but until Dale has sold the club, I won’t be financially supporting Bury in any way; not through merchandise, not through ticketing, not through iFollow (which I cancelled a fortnight ago before it automatically renewed), or by any other means.

Enthusiasm is at an all-time collective nadir, and since Lowe’s own departure, there has been no official confirmation from the club about the subsequent leavers, which also means that none of them have been thanked for their selfless service last season. Plenty of observers are predicting Bury won’t even reach a positive number of points (should they even be afforded that opportunity). The anguish the ongoing howling shambles is inflicting upon the remaining staff and fans is unprecedented, and goes far, far beyond being upset and angry at witnessing many of last season’s heroes depart. Yes, there have almost always been financial problems, but never anything close to this. More are coming round to the depressing realisation that a phoenix club might be the least worst option as things stand.

The state of limbo has left me feeling like a frog slowly boiling in a saucepan, and more pertinently, utterly uncertain how to proceed with this blog, too. In the short term, I’ll be focusing on the women’s teams, reviewing football related books… and hopefully, not seeing the work I’ve prepared for previewing every club in League One and Two go to waste.