On August 2019, Bury were officially expelled from the English Football League after a last-minute takeover bid from C&N Sporting Risk collapsed. This was the first time since Maidstone in 1992 that a team had been kicked out of the Football League, so naturally it created a lot of media attention, especially given Bury’s long history (they were founded in 1885). The whole incident represented a very dark day for English football and in particular Bury supporters, many of whom questioned just how things had gotten this bad.
Much has been written about Bury’s plight and the failings of former chairman Steve Dale. An independent review, published in February 2020, found that a “lack of owner funding” was ultimately to blame although excessively lucrative player contracts, signed off by Dale, made matters worse. With their finances in such a sorry state, Dale placed Bury into administration on 27th November 2020 when their debts had reached a total somewhere in the region of £15m. Small stakes by the standards of the Premier League, where Mo Salah is reportedly asking to be paid that much every 30 weeks, but a massive amount at this tier of the football pyramid.
Despite the dire situation faced, there are reasons for Bury fans to be optimistic of what the future holds thanks to recent developments. It may be quite some time before they return to League One but the likes of Wimbledon AFC show that it can be done.
Fans Attempt to Reclaim Stadium
In October 2021, one of the prominent Bury fan groups, Est.1885, announced that “an association of Bury Supporters Groups and Bury-supporting Benefactors” had signed an agreement to “buy Bury F.C. (all memorabilia and intellectual property including trademarks) and the Gigg Lane stadium”. The hope was to have the deal wrapped up by the end of the year, thus marking the first major step in getting Bury back playing again at their historic home.
Administrators confirmed a bid had been made and that they had accepted it, expressing full hope that the deal would progress smoothly. Bringing the stadium under fan control would represent a huge victory for Bury fans as it has been the home of their beloved club since its foundation in 1885. With so many fans having forged an abundance of memories at the ground, being able to preserve the stadium will act as a huge boost to the local area.
Purchasing the intellectual rights to Bury FC should also mean, if the club does return, that it is able to retain all its history and original name. Sometimes in such deals the new club is not considered to be a continuation of the old and thus they are required to start from scratch. This is always the case with so-called phoenix clubs, such as Bury AFC, who will we focus on now.
Very soon after Bury were expelled from the Football League, a group of supporters created a phoenix club called Bury AFC. Three hundred fans joined in to help the effort, allowing the club to make a successful application to join the North West Counties Football League – First Division North for the 2020/21 season. Prior to the start of the their very first campaign, Bury AFC had 650 members and an elected club board that had appointed Andy Welsh as manager.
By October, the number of members had increased again to 1,000, despite Bury AFC playing in the 10th tier of English Football. Unable to play at Gigg Lane, Bury AFC shared Stainton Park (Neuven Stadium) with owners Radcliffe FC. Their inaugural season was eventually abandoned due to Covid-19, with Bury AFC in second place at the time.
Having developed a good following of members, of all which pay £5 a month to support and fund the club, you may be wondering what will happen to Bury AFC if Bury FC is resurrected. In almost all other instance where phoenix clubs have emerged, they have simply taken over the gap filled by the former club and that has been that. The notable exception of course is Wimbledon AFC, established when Wimbledon FC moved north and turned into Milton Keynes Dons. There is now an unconventional rivalry between these two teams that runs so deep that in 2017, Wimbledon refused to print the name ‘Milton Keynes Dons’ in an official match-day program!
Bury AFC & Bury FC Merger?
Although it is early days, there is some animosity between fans that launched the feeder club and those still battling to revive Bury FC. Despite the differences in opinion, there is at least a general understanding among supporters that they all love the same thing and belong to the same community. Indeed, Bury AFC offered something of an olive branch to the wider community in October 2021 when they announced they were open to a potential merger.
To facilitate such a move in a feeling of reconciliation, they were willing to change the name of their club to Bury FC, providing the FA approved of this. They also suggested holding new elections for the Shakers Community, the Supporters Trust, and even rebranding the group if required. Shareholding in the club would also be diluted with private individuals able to take up a minority stake in the club if this is needed for them to have debt-free ownership of Gigg Lane.
As Bury AFC acknowledged themselves, the argument against merging the two clubs is that the newly reformed Bury FC would join the 10th tier of English football, or the ninth if Bury AFC can secure promotion this season. Sometimes teams placing a new application do not necessarily need to start at the bottom, especially if they have such a big history like Bury. When Chester FC replaced the dissolved Chester City FC in 2010, they began in the eighth tier of English Football (Northern Premier League Division One North). Initially they were to begin a division lower but the club successfully appealed against the decision.
Starting at the eighth tier would be far from a gurantee though especially as Macclesfield, who faced similar cirucmstances, went into the North West Counties Football League (ninth tier). Although this was one league higher than Bury AFC started in, there is a good chance Bury will be promoted anyway to this league at the end of the 2021/22 season.
One of the key benefactors behind the Bury FC revival deal, Peter Alexander, was aware of the bad blood between Bury FC and Bury AFC supporters but noted talks were currently being made in good faith. In fact, it was the reconciliatory nature of the discussions that convinced him to proceed. He appears confident the two sides can come to an agreement and one that would see a debt-free Bury FC back for the 2022/23 season. Time will tell!