Since the traumatic expulsion of Bury from the Football League after 125 years of membership, a funereal Gigg Lane has swirled with questions about how far the old club must fall, and how best to resurrect it. Uncertainties, and emotions supporters liken to grief, cloud the way ahead, and a new deadline looms: a winding-up petition issued by HMRC due to be heard on 16 October, which could see Bury finally crumple into liquidation.
Dean Hamer, chairman of the Forever Bury supporters’ trust, said in an update last week that the trust was supporting work on the feasibility of forming a new “phoenix” club while working with the latest in a series of potential investors looking to buy the expelled club’s insolvent ruins. This bidder, Hamer said, “at this moment in time wants to remain anonymous”. The bidder himself provided an anonymous statement, saying that “the complex ongoing discussions require a level of confidentiality”, and he was looking into restoring a “community-based club” at Bury.
“The fact that we are prepared to make this statement after the EFL ruling [of 26 September not to readmit Bury into League Two next season] should be treated as confirmation that Bury football club is still alive,” he said.
But it is not at all clear why an anonymous statement of general intent should be treated as confirmation that Bury are alive, when they are playing no football for the first time since their formation in 1885, had their academy painfully disbanded, have threadbare remaining staff, and are days away from a possible final collapse.
Some Bury supporters, weary of mooted investors, named and unnamed, are sceptical about this latest prospect and wary of the insistence on anonymity. Some fear a deal could be concluded before a full public assessment can be done of the buyer’s intentions, finances and plans, as happened catastrophically with the current owner, Steve Dale, who bought the club for £1 in December but never satisfied the EFL he had the money to sustain it.
Hamer says the potential investor, whom Forever Bury clearly believes is credible, wants to know what league the expelled club could play in before he decides to make the investment. There is now, he said, frustration with the Football Association, which is responsible for the decision, for not providing clarity. “We have a bidder in place but no indication as to where Bury will be playing next season,” Hamer said. “He can’t do business plans on that basis, and the club and its history could die on 16 October.”
The FA emphasises its willingness to provide guidance on a salvaged Bury’s potential future; in fact the Bury North MP, James Frith, is due to meet Andy Ambler, the FA’s director of professional game relations, on Friday. But the FA also acknowledges it cannot give a definitive assurance now, because its rules require a club to make an application, and significant details and proof of funding will have to be provided to the relevant committee, which then has “sole discretion” about admitting a club.
The rules are clear that Bury could apply to join the National League, stating that a club which “ceases to be a member of its league … may be allowed to make an application to join a league/division below the most recent league/division of which the club was a member”.
Any club has to have security for a ground to play at, so a deal to play at Gigg Lane would have to be done with the holder of the £3.7m mortgage on the ground, Capital Bridging Finance Solutions. The rules do not specify the financial arrangements required, but it seems likely that the FA and National League would insist on some settling of the club’s outstanding debts. That would mean fulfilment of the company voluntary arrangement (CVA) agreed by Dale, which promised to pay £4m of unsecured creditors 25p in the pound, and paying in full around £1m owed to former players and other football creditors.
If the old company wreckage is left behind and a new club formed, as AFC Wimbledon famously were in 2002, it can apply only to “step five” of the non-league system – for Bury, the semi-professional challenges of the North West Counties League Premier Division. Dominic Martinez, lead organiser of the phoenix club efforts, says more than 150 people of varied ages and professional skills are working on the project as volunteers.
“Many tears have been shed since the club’s expulsion, and I haven’t watched any football this season,” Martinez says. “The phoenix club is the plan B, but a lot of people feel it could be the best option. We have a focus, there is really positive energy and excitement we haven’t seen in Bury for years – and we’re up for it.”