It was May 4, 2019. Bury FC were celebrating a hard-earned promotion to League One after a memorable campaign under Ryan Lowe. They had drawn 1-1 with Port Vale at Gigg Lane to get them over the line. It was a memorable day for the fans and players as they enjoyed one of the greatest highs football has to offer.
But those celebrations soon vanished as just three months later they were expelled from the EFL due to a lack of funding as players and non-players alike were left unpaid by owner Steve Dale. A footballing institution was left in tatters.
Fans were stripped of their club in the blink of an eye and the fan base quickly split, each with their own plan to keep the spirit and the legacy of Bury FC alive. A once-proud football club which had won two FA Cups was left hanging on the edge of the abyss as Bury became the latest great footballing casualty as a result of financial problems.
Math Pickup, a member of the Bury FC Supporters’ Society and chair of the Est 1885 Group, recalls the unrest when the situation erupted. “At that time it really was devastating for fans like me, for my family and friends,” he tells The Sportsman.
“It really was a hammer blow to the community and the town of Bury. It felt like such a huge injustice.”
With opinion split amongst fans as to what to do next, different avenues were taken to keep the spirit of the club alive. Months after the Shakers were expelled from the EFL, a phoenix club, Bury AFC, was formed by the Shakers Community Benefits Society. The club came about as a result of frustration and to ensure football could continue to be played in Bury, with attempts to rescue the original club seemingly a lost cause due to Steve Dale’s belligerence.
“What inspired us to form and set up Bury AFC in the first place was most of us were fed up with things that were out of control at the football club, which was put in a position where it wasn’t going to play football anymore,” explains Shakers Community chairman Phil Young.
“That sense of loss of control meant that by creating it and founding it ourselves, and ultimately by controlling its destiny, that would restore not just that sense of control but a sense of pride in the community.”
While Bury FC had lost its EFL licence, it remained a legal entity and the owner of Gigg Lane, meaning Young and his contemporaries had to approach other local clubs regarding a groundshare for their new club. After an agreement was reached with nearby Radcliffe FC to play at their Stainton Park home, things quickly got rolling.
The Shakers Community chairman was impressed at how so many people came together to get Bury AFC in the best possible position ahead of a fresh start, emphasising that great sense of togetherness.
“It’s something that I keep repeating, that we as a bunch of people, as a community, are capable of way more than we think we are,” he adds.
These unsung heroes were able to get everything in place for the team to start playing football in the North West Counties Division One North. They appointed former Sunderland and Blackpool midfielder Andy Welsh as manager after receiving 750 applications for the role.
Unfortunately, the club’s first competitive season in 2020-21 came to an abrupt halt when the latter Covid-19 lockdowns meant that the campaign was postponed in December and subsequently abandoned in February. Despite that setback, they rallied superbly to win the league in their first full season in 2021-22, bringing some true pride and joy back to Bury.
But while all this was going on at Bury AFC, Pickup’s Est 1885 Group and the Bury FC Supporters’ Society had been making strides in attempting to save the original entity over at Gigg Lane. After initial attempts to save the club had been unsuccessful, they were able to make their move after the club was officially put into administration in November 2020.
“Our own efforts started in May of 2021 with our Est 1885 group who were working together with the Supporters’ Society who at that time were called Forever Bury.”
While many would fear the worst if their club was put into administration, Pickup saw it as a call to action. “In some ways it was a bit of a relief because it meant that something had to happen,” he explains. “Of course, you fear the worst that ultimately it could lead to liquidation, but at least it meant you were then dealing with an administrator who would perhaps be easier to deal with [than ex-owner Steve Dale].”
The MP for Bury North, James Daly, helped out, alerting the budding purchasers of a community ownership fund that was available to them, and with the help of US-base Bury fan Peter Alexander a £1 million total was raised to help to purchase Gigg Lane.
After being given an exclusivity period to purchase the club, a deal was struck in February 2022, with the Bury FC Supporters’ Society able to rescue Gigg Lane and the history and memorabilia of the club, but not the Limited Company.
“When we completed the deal with the administrator, that wasn’t for the Limited Company and therefore the debts still lie with that Limited Company, of which Steve Dale is the majority shareholder,” Pickup adds.
Since Gigg Lane has been saved it has felt the studs of players on its turf once again and there are plans for it to be used by the community. “We’ve had the [Bury FC] women’s team for their final three matches of the season which was absolutely wonderful, the last of which was when they won their league [the Lancashire FA Women’s Counties League]. We had over 600 fans here which was absolutely brilliant, seeing this place alive and football played on this pitch once again.
“We’ve got loads of things that we want to do with this stadium to make it a community asset.”
The one question hanging over both clubs now, though, relates to a merger of Bury FC and Bury AFC, with a vote being put to the two groups regarding the particulars of an amalgamation which could see football return to Gigg Lane as soon as this coming season.
“We’re trying to work with Bury AFC and look at a merger with them, which has been facilitated by Bury Council, the Football Supporters’ Association, Greater Manchester Combined Authority. So we’ve got a working group with them looking at an amalgamation,” says Pickup.
Young and the key personnel behind Bury AFC have kept a close eye on the developments at Gigg Lane throughout, and they too are keen to get the two sides back together. “There were a few hiccups and delays along the way for it all, but [the ground purchase] wasn’t a surprise,” Phil tells us. “The issue for us was then how do we go about making [a merger] work.”
The two parties agree that uniting is the best way forward for both clubs, while Bury Council have said they only want one club in the town and each club has something mutually beneficial for one another. Pickup has hope that they will see football return to Gigg Lane for the upcoming 2022-23 season but realises that the voting process between the two societies “takes time” and it might be too soon.
Young says that there is £1.3 million worth of funding waiting, ready to go towards work at Gigg Lane as soon as a merger is approved. He is confident that it will be agreed by both parties and believes that the consequences would be catastrophic for both clubs if an agreement can’t be found.
“You will end up with a split fan base, however that materialises. It fundamentally hurts the community and you end up with more confusion and uncertainty. You end up losing out on that immediate £1.3 million worth of additional cash that will come in to Gigg Lane to fund that part of the business plan, so the ground itself would end up stagnating.
“Ultimately, it will be incredibly depressing to see a situation where there’s a ground that’s empty because there isn’t an elite men’s football team to play in it, and an elite men’s football team that can’t progress beyond a certain level because it hasn’t got its own ground.”
But the dream remains that the unification can be completed and the town can go back to having its one club to follow on a Saturday afternoon.
“My long-term hopes of the merger are that we end up with a football club that has both a stadium and a football team that is ultimately controlled by the fans. I hope that it will be really well run and financially sustainable in the future.”
It has taken three years to get to this point but an end might finally be in sight. A club written off by its owner, the latest sad reminder of what money has done to the beautiful game could finally be brought back to life.
For the sake of everyone who has poured their heart and soul into each side of the Bury footballing divide, one can only hope that the decision for a merger is unanimous. They have been through enough football-related heartbreak to last multiple lifetimes.
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