Bury FC is on the brink. The club is in absolute turmoil off the pitch with players and staff having not been paid in months and the club under threat of extinction amid a turbulent financial crisis. Owner Steve Dale is attempting to settle the club’s debts and they have been given six weeks to get their house in order ahead of the new season.
One man who knows all too much about this situation is Bury left-back Chris Stokes. Having joined from Coventry last summer he was expecting to play a key part in Bury’s promotion push as they looked to return to League One at the first attempt. In fact, he did exactly that as the Shakers finished second and Stokes made it back-to-back promotions from League Two.
But things were not as good as they appeared on the pitch. The 29-year-old has not been paid since March and is now being forced to search for another club, given the financial situation he and his family are now in. Speaking exclusively to The Sportsman for the dog-based series ‘The Sportman’s Best Friend’ he said: “I got paid March’s wage a few weeks ago, but apart from that I’ve not had payment in April and May. There’s been no communication from the chairman or the club, and obviously, now we don’t have a manager, so it’s a situation where we don’t know what’s going on.
“We feel like supporters really because we don’t have any information, so we need the chairman to come out and give us something, otherwise we are going to lose the players.
“If not, it’s going to be a situation where we start the season in six weeks' time and we’re not going to have a manager or a team to go forward with, so it’s going to be a shame because last season was really successful for the club.
“We’ve got back into League One and look as if we are going in the right direction but obviously it looks like it’s not going to go that way at the moment. There is time and hopefully if there are new owners who are interested in taking this club forward, they will come forward as quickly as possible because this situation can’t go on for much longer.”
Stokes went on to speak of the help the Professional Footballers’ Association have provided to the players and the staff in a worrying time for all involved with the club: “The PFA have been really supportive, Simon Barker (Senior Executive of PFA) has come in and told us what our rights are as players and they’ve financially paid us half our wages.
“Obviously without that, us as players and staff wouldn’t have been able to carry on with our lives as we have families, we have mortgages to pay.
“At the end of the day this is League Two it’s not the Premier League, it’s not glitz and glamour, so obviously we don’t get paid, then we can’t pay our bills
“At the end of the day this is League Two it’s not the Premier League, it’s not glitz and glamour, so obviously we don’t get paid, then we can’t pay our bills and we can’t continue what we started as obviously it was a really good season.
“We are thankful to the PFA, who did pay us and gave us that support financially.”
Manager Ryan Lowe left for Plymouth Argyle and several players are now also on their way out, leaving Stokes himself in a difficult position. As a father, he needs a steady stream of income coming in and that has meant he has been looking at a move away from the club.
“Well, I sort of have to, as I don’t really have a choice as I’m not getting paid. When you’re a footballer you have a short career, so you have to look after your family, and I’ve had a successful time on the pitch in the last couple of seasons.
“Teams will obviously be interested in that, and they will be looking at that if they want to go up from League Two for example, or I can play in League One where I’ve done that at the top end with Coventry.
“I’m now in a situation in my contract where I can leave for free, so I have the right to do that. It’s up to Bury, because I’d rather stay if I can because I moved to this football club to be a part of it, I’ve moved my family up here and we’ve settled in the area, so if I can carry on and I do get paid then I’d love to stay.
“However, at this moment in time we are getting no information from the chairman, so if we don’t get paid then obviously I will have to look for a new football club.”
Stokes also spoke about the togetherness of the players at Bury and how they were trying to stick together during this incredibly testing time. Despite not being paid, they managed to navigate the last few months of the season and get the results that lead to promotion and what should have been a great celebration.
He said: “Yes, obviously we have a group chat and stuff and we all talk because we are all in the boat together.
“At the back end of the season, we all sat down and spoke as a group as we are stronger as a group than we are as individuals.
“At the end of the season, some players didn’t want to play and some just wanted their money, but we were all strong as a group and we decided together that we will stick together and fight for our one cause.
“By March and April, we got ourselves in a really good position at the top of the table so it would have been a shame if we packed it in, but obviously we would have had the right to as we weren’t getting paid.
“Bolton players as an example, chose to not play and fair play to them, they had every right to make that decision. We were in the same situation, but we chose to carry on as we were in a good position and we didn’t want that to dwindle out.”
So how close were Bury players to going on strike like their neighbours in Bolton?
“We did [consider not playing] yes, it was hard,” he said. “We had lots and lots of meetings and when we went into training there ended up being three hour meetings in the changing rooms. We ended up not training at our training ground and training at the stadium, and every day you’d go in for training and something different would be happening.
“It was emotional as well as obviously you’d go into training every morning and you’d see lads being unable to pay their bills. We also had meetings with the staff and some of them would break down crying.
“You feel responsible as we are the players who keep things going, so if it doesn’t go well then there’s no football club. So we all stuck together as a team, we went on the pitch and did the job and hopefully now, all that won’t be for nothing and the club can push forward and be a successful League One club.”
Stay tuned for the full episode of The Sportsman's Best Friend with Chris Stokes coming soon.