Bury’s fate is a parable for the state of modern football

Anthony Clavane on 24 August 2019

Every so often, the football world gets into a tizz about something fairly inconsequential. The game has gone, cry the doomsayers. Integrity has flown out of the window, moan the handwringers. Whether it be diving Premier League stars on obscene salaries, narcissistic referees who hog the limelight or cheating foreign coaches who spy on opponents, the nation’s phone-ins are instantly inundated with calls from outraged fans.

There was another moral panic on 17 August when the video assistant referee (VAR) ruled out a late winner for one of the world’s richest clubs. This was the second week in a row that Manchester City had been caught up in a VAR controversy. The desiccated technology, one critic wailed, was killing football. “It’s sparked criticism across Europe,” weeped a website. “Something in the soul of the game,” a broadsheet scribe wrote, gnashing his teeth, “is lost.” Former QPR coach Ian Holloway, somewhat predictably, blamed the EU.

A nation yawned. Such first world problems do not really, as the never-knowingly low-key platforms of our breathless social media would have us believe, pose a threat to the game’s spiritual wellbeing.

The latest bother, however – about a small, unfashionable, lower-league football ground 14 miles from City’s stunning stadium, and not much further from Old Trafford, the home of the world’s third richest club, Manchester United – is another matter entirely. Last week was hellish for supporters of Bury FC. At their modest Gigg Lane stadium, a coffin bore the legend “RIP Bury”. A former club director handcuffed herself to a drainpipe. Long-suffering fans of the 134-year-old club ripped up their season tickets outside the gates.

On Saturday, the English Football League gave the club a reprieve until Tuesday at 5pm after Steve Dale – who bought the club for £1 last December – agreed a sale. But the club faithful know the existential threat remains. The fact that one of the oldest teams in the country is on the brink of being wiped off the football map is a parable for our times. If doom-mongers want a symbol of the once-beautiful game’s descent into ugliness, they should take the half-hour Metro ride from Manchester into Bury.

This journey is a reminder of the chasm that has emerged between football’s haves and have-nots. In the 1997-98 season, little Bury were in the same division as Manchester City, and famously beat them. Since 2008, City have been bankrolled by Abu Dhabi’s Sheikh Mansour to the tune of £1.3bn, and they are favourites to win the world’s most lucrative league three times in a row.

It is Bury’s 12-point deduction for insolvency, the suspension of all their opening fixtures and banishment from a cup competition – rather than the slings and arrows of disputed offside, handball or penalty decisions in the avaricious Premier League – that exposes the moral vacuum at the heart of the modern game.

Bury fans know they aren’t the only ones in dire straits. Blackpool, Coventry City, Port Vale, Oldham, Macclesfield Town and Bolton Wanderers have all spent time on life support, part of a roll call of English football’s lost, post-industrial heartlands. Bolton even set up a food bank for unpaid staff. Manchester United, on the other hand, has more commercial partners than Bury has players.

Bury’s stay of execution does not alter the trend for the rich to get richer while the poor become more debt-ridden. Premier League clubs spent a total of £1.3bn before the current season, half of them smashing their transfer records. By contrast, a quarter of EFL clubs have faced extinction in the past decade.

Football is broken. It is crying out for a salary cap; Bury were unable to pay the hefty wages they owed the players who won them promotion to League One. An independent body should be established to run its own fit and proper persons test; incredibly, the EFL let Dale take over Bury without providing proof of funds.

An honours board in the club remembers supporters “whose contribution marks them out, be it for their loyalty, sacrifice or endeavours”. These are not qualities normally associated with opportunistic owners. Dale has a track record of asset-selling, and has been a director of more than 40 companies.

In a revealing interview on 23 August, the Cheshire-based businessman said he “didn’t even know there was a football team called Bury” when he bought the club. He then admitted to not being a football fan. One suspects, however, he might have heard of Bury’s noisy neighbours.

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