Buried By Greed: Why we all deserve better
The sad end of Bury Football Club earlier this week should be a watershed moment for English football. The first club sent crashing out of the league for non-footballing reasons in 27 years, Bury’s expulsion from League One demonstrates the harsh reality of what we have known for years now: that sustaining a professional football club in this country is more difficult than ever, and that difficulty encourages overspending, mismanagement and a propensity for charlatans and vulture capitalists without a care in the world for the people at the heart of the communities represented by clubs like Bury.
This article should be a match preview for a game between Bury and Doncaster Rovers at Gigg Lane this Saturday. Instead, no fixture between the two sides will take place, and it may be a number of years before any club representing the town competes against us again, if they ever do. That this has been allowed to happen at a time when the elite clubs and bodies of this great sport are richer than ever is astounding, and the cruel final blow dealt to Bury at the end of a years-long saga of boardroom incompetence should act as a dire warning to us all that we cannot guarantee always having a football club to call our own.
Inevitable or avoidable? Either way, the EFL care not
Bury are far from the first league club to suffer long-term financial difficulties whilst in the EFL yet are the first since 1992 to lose their league status as a direct result. Since Maidstone United’s liquidation at the onset of the 1992-93 season – their last ever game coming against Doncaster Rovers in fact – dozens of clubs have fallen into administration or suffered a similar financial meltdown, but all managed to stave off expulsion or bankruptcy whilst a member of the EFL, formerly known simply as the Football League.
Rovers themselves were famously victim to malicious ownership and ended up relegated to the Conference as a result, whilst clubs such as Hereford, Scarborough, Chester and Halifax have all gone bust after dropping out of the fourth tier. The collapse of ITV Digital in the early 2000s left a number of clubs in dire straits, yet all ultimately survived as fully-fledged professional clubs, so how have Bury gone that one step further and sank into oblivion? The EFL seems unwilling to answer questions over their responsibility to Bury, or to similarly troubled Bolton Wanderers, with the finger pointed firmly at the individual owners who have either caused or exacerbated the problems affecting both teams.
There is no doubt that Steve Dale and his predecessor Stewart Day are the primary culprits for the demise of Bury, nor can it be argued that Ken Anderson comes away with any shine from the protracted saga at Bolton (now mercifully ended thanks to a buyout completed yesterday) but the EFL, in existence to oversee the three divisions of the league below the top flight, appear more keen to revamp the Associate Member’s Cup in the image of the Premier League’s desires or to busybody clubs like AFC Wimbledon over petty name recognition issues than actually safeguard its members.
That Bury have been continuous members of the league for well in excess of a hundred years, or are twice winners of the FA Cup, isn’t enough to save them. Nor is their position as a crucial part of the community in one of many hard-working northern towns that gravitates around its football club. No, so long as the EFL can get away with putting its fingers in its ears and saying “this isn’t our fault” that is exactly what they will do, and supporters and staff at clubs like Bury have to just accept it and be left to pick up the pieces. 134 years of proud history count for nothing as one man, a man who says he didn’t even know Bury had a football team before he took control, can run them into the ground without even being subjected to the regulations supposedly in place to prevent this sort of thing from happening.
And what of the rest of us?
If the EFL can’t properly safeguard its members from being mismanaged to the point of insolvency, surely they can at least do the one thing that any governing body of a sports league is set up to do, that being the maintaining of sporting integrity across its competitions? Sadly this is beyond them as well. By not doing more to ensure both Bury and Bolton could start the 2019/20 season on 3rd August with the rest of us, a complete shambles has developed distorting the fairness of the league, a mess which now cannot feasibly be undone between now and the end of the campaign.
Ordinarily, 24 teams will play each once at home and once away, completing 46 games each in which all get an equal shot at each other. This season, Doncaster Rovers and what is now 22 fellow sides will play only 44 games thanks to the expulsion of Bury, will have to contend with an uneven fixture list and will all lose vital revenue from a lost home game, whilst every single season ticket sold to a League One supporter this season is now slightly more costly than its original value was worth. Games cancelled at short notice means travel plans ruined, more money lost for fans, clubs and supporters’ bodies and a glaring omission from the division on every fixture list from now until May.
All of this pales in comparison to the complete loss to Bury fans of the club they love, deprived of the chance to see their local side compete every Saturday as they have done for the past 134 years of course, but the implications to everybody else are worth noting because it shows the EFL cannot guarantee its own basic aims to any single club or supporter. This means it is not fit for purpose as a governing body, nor as a representative for its member clubs. Something like this has been on the cards for a long time, yet it still feels shocking to be sat here in the midst of the reality.
Where do we go from here?
The concern now is whether or not this is rock bottom for professional football in England or simply the first case of many. Doncaster Rovers very nearly suffered this fate in 1998 shortly after Brighton struggled after owners sold the club’s stadium. Overspending around the ITV Digital fiasco led to points deductions for clubs going into administration. Several clubs went bust having failed to right the ship upon relegation out of League Two earlier in this decade. The writing has been on the wall for football as an unsustainably run sport. But the expulsion of Bury and the close-call for Bolton are the first tangible cases where a professional league club has had to face the very real notion of going out of business in nearly three decades and that cannot be allowed to happen without big changes.
The EFL is blatantly unfit to ensure the likes of Steve Dale don’t get their selfish hands on our beloved football clubs. The FA stands back and pleads ignorance. No regulations really allow us supporters, the most important group in any club, to make sure this isn’t allowed to happen. Not enough is ever done in the wake of these issues rearing their heads in the national news to stop it from happening again. How can we continue to allow things to stay the way they have been for years whilst expecting something to be done?
It seems too late for Bury now. But it doesn’t have to be too late for English football altogether. There must be change in the governance of domestic football in this country and this catastrophic occurrence that has befallen the people of Bury should not be allowed to happen ever again.