The fall of Bury FC: how this club was led astray – again

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“I am extremely proud to take over the role and responsibility of putting Bury Football Club back onto a strong football and financial footing.

“Bury Football Club needs the ongoing support of the local business community as well as the tremendous fan base that has been left frustrated for so many years. I will support Kevin [Blackwell, manager at the time] to achieve this, however we must remember that at all times we must never allow this club to be in this financial position again.

“Step one is to stop the rot and to start from a clean page. Over the next few weeks we will welcome supporters to the club in a series of question and answer sessions in order to allow everyone the chance to express their opinions and allow their frustrations to be released.

“All I am asking is to be judged on the way forward and ask for your ongoing support. The quest for Bury FC is to now secure the best possible players within our five year plan.

“Finally, join the Shakers revolution – take your place at Gigg Lane – together we will rise.”

These were the words of Stewart Day on 29 May 2013, the day of his appointment as chairman at Gigg Lane as he plucked the club from the brink of the abyss and saved their existence.

The position at the time was grim. Just over a month earlier, on 10 April, it was announced that £1 million was needed ‘in order for the club to survive’, willing benefactors encouraged to part with any spare cash in order to prevent the Greater Manchester club from ceasing.

Having borrowed two short-term loans from the Professional Football Association within the 2012/13 season the club was twice placed under transfer embargoes as a consequence of their leasing, eventually causing relegation to League Two. The forthcoming campaign did not appear to hold much hope; upon Day’s movement into the hot seat, the club had only eight registered players on their books.

The Blackburn-based property developer was the hero, the man to prevent one of English football’s bastions of traditionalism from death. His words were needed to rouse the dedicated souls to whom Bury runs through their blood, as it did with their fathers and grandfathers before them, as they stared into the bleak possibility of the demise of their club – for the second time in only eleven years.

As forget not that this was, is, a club that came perilously close to extinction earlier in the century also. In May 2002 prospects looked arguably even gloomier than at the time of Day’s takeover. Following the unravelling of owner and fan Hugh Eaves in April 1999, who confessed to raiding his former business partners for the money used to acquire his lifelong team before taking out a series of extortionate loans mortgaged on Gigg Lane, the situation reached its crux three years later: the club was placed into administration three days prior to a court hearing in which Prentis Investors (of Sheffield solicitor Richard Prentis, who ran an investment scheme from which the club borrowed £1 million at 15% interest) sought to repossess Gigg Lane. Debts soon spiralled to the total of £4.8 million.

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Only a worldwide campaign – in which contributors of £10 or more were enticed by the promise of having their names emblazoned upon the seats of Gigg Lane – alongside a campaign set up by club press officer Gordon Sorfleet – SOS: Save Our Shakers – produced the desired effect. The historic old club managing to survive by the skin of its teeth.

The young magnate made clear from the outset that, within his opening five years in charge, their aim was to reach the second tier. In fact, when revisiting their progress in a report put out in December 2015, he revealed “Not only did I want to get into the Championship, I also wanted to have a football club that could sustain itself in the Championship and compete.”

Such aims were designed to pull supporters together, give all a collective ambition in which everybody could play their part to achieve. However, as many felt at the time of his announcement this was a very ambitious claim for a club which were not only battling to stay in the Football League as a whole, but also taking their first tender steps out of very near insolvency.

Safety was eventually secured under new manager David Flitcroft, and in the Summer of 2014 Day and his manager went about assembling a squad worthy of promotion. Many high-profile players were identified and recruited, transfer fees were paid and there was a huge player turnover of 37 throughout the season as a whole.

Whispers were beginning to circulate however as to the money being splashed by Day, with many questioning where this available cash was coming from so soon after the peril they faced. Day vehemently denied they had the biggest budget in the league, insisting they stayed with the Financial Fair Play regulations bestowed upon clubs by UEFA.

Billed as one of the favourites for promotion, it took a final-day success at Tranmere Rovers – which topped off a run of 13 wins from 16 at the end of the season – combined with a Southend United slip-up for their aim to be achieved. The revolution was underway.

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Meanwhile, Day went about securing a landmark move for the club off the pitch. Having lived in the shadow of many of their North-West neighbours, he was able to benefit from the local giants with whom they are in close proximity to as he secured a five-year lease on Carrington Training Centre following the departure of Manchester City to Sportcity near the Etihad Stadium, beginning in early 2015.

The move to the 60,000sq metre, state-of-the-art complex was seen as a major move for the club, labelled by Day as ‘a statement of intent’ and the ‘biggest deal in the club’s history’; the starkest contrast to the dilapidated, run-down Lower Gigg, consisting of just one pitch and no changing rooms of which the club occupied beforehand. Their presence at one of the biggest training centres in the country would, it was said, help attract players of a calibre not possible at their previous base.

With their place in League One regained, plans were underway to make the Shakers a force to be reckoned with. Their biggest piece of business was the arrival of Leon Clarke at Gigg Lane. With the then-30-year-old striker boasting an esteemed CV of clubs such as Sheffield Wednesday, Queens Park Rangers and Wolverhampton Wanderers, this was a move deemed impossible for a club of the stature of Bury to complete; when Clarke signed on the dotted-line, it made many sit up and pay attention. Carrington was cited as a major reason for his arrival, and for many fans they would surely have refused to believe that just two years after their lowest ebb they would be able to coerce a player to the club who was recently transferred for £750,000. Yet, this transfer concurrently increased the band of those convinced that Bury were spending money they did not have.

The 2015/16 season started emphatically, the Shakers flying high in the top two until early October before an awful run of form saw them drop down the league and only just evade the drop. Meanwhile, Clarke finished as their 18-goal top scorer. He was sold to Sheffield United a year after his arrival, paving the way for a forward of a similar ilk, James Vaughan – an attacker who was Everton’s youngest ever top-flight player aged just 16, and had plied his trade in the top two divisions of English football – to arrive in Greater Manchester.

Vaughan’s move to the club prompted a response much the same to that of Clarke’s coming, and strangely both seasons were almost identical. During Vaughan’s season at the club (Where he, like Clarke, was top scorer, bagging 24 goals), the side again started strongly, occupying the top spots in the division until a blip that began in October produced a run of 16 games without a win, featuring twelve successive losses. Again, the club only just survived relegation.

The captures of Clarke and Vaughan represented Day’s rapacious appetite for success, something he was accustomed to early in his life through his property empire and the millions he made before turning 30. Patience does not appear to be Mr Day’s forte, and these two signings were two attempts to fast-track promotion and funnel all of their hopes through one big-money striker. As their early form in both seasons showed, this plan can bring success in the short-term; as their subsequent drop through the table in both seasons also showed, it rarely yields success over a brutal, squad-testing 46-game season.

Determined to replicate their early season form over a whole campaign, Day pushed the boat out further in the Summer of 2017 to try and construct a squad capable of finally reaching the promised land of the Championship. An eye-watering 48 players have entered or exited (Or done both, in the case of several acquisitions) the doors of Gigg Lane since the conclusion of the 2016/17 season, all in the quest for success. For now was the fifth year of the five-year plan. The pressure was on to deliver.

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Again the cheque book came out, a plethora of big-name and big-money players joining – none more expensive than winger Harry Bunn, who cost a reported club-record £500,000 – all of whom were recruited to try and ensure that Day’s five-year plan would bear fruit in its final season.

Joining Bunn were names such as Jay O’Shea, the attacking midfielder who rejected an offer from newly-promoted Championship side Sheffield United; Chris Maguire, the forward whose reported wage dwarfed the average salary of a League One player; and Stephen Dawson, the former captain of Scunthorpe United – themselves a side that have spent heavily to try and force their way back into the league above – who was offered a deal that, in the words of Iron chairman Peter Swann, he ‘could not compete with’.

The star names continued to flock into BL9, with fans pinching themselves at the talent they had managed to secure. Surely this was too good to be true?

Sadly, it may appear that way.

In their latest accounts it was revealed that the club was operating at a £2.5 million loss for the year 2015-16 – albeit down by £400,000 from the losses reported for their promotion year of 2014/15 – with an increase of £1 million in staff wages paid. This was the season when Clarke was their shining light, their star man who was paying back his high wages in his goal-scoring effect on the pitch. When you factor in the thought that since then there have surely been a multitude of players of whom will have been earning similar sums – surely higher than is sustainable on average crowds of around 3,800 – it paints a bleak picture of the current financial situation.

Admittedly there has been some considerable income in the form of the sales of academy graduates Matty Foulds, Jacob Bedeau, George Miller and Emeka Obi, however not of such a substance to warrant the spending that has occurred.

Day has recognised the need for income to subsidise their heavy spending, and has plans to demolish their current home in favour of a move to a new stadium nearby, alluding to Gigg Lane’s inability to generate earnings away from match-days as a major reason for his search for a new abode. Yet this is a ground that holds a capacity of near-12,000, however only attracts an average crowd of just over a quarter of this. Some may argue that they should try to increase attendances first and earnings will improve too, such is the inextricable nature of both. They also remain one of the few clubs to possess individuality and character within their residence, unlike many of the concrete-jungle stadia being erected by clubs up and down the land, and it would be a crying shame if yet another charismatic stadium was to be destroyed in the name of greed.

And what about those who were promised their names would adorn the seats of the famous old ground as a gesture of good will for the part they played in help keeping the club afloat? Seemingly cast aside in the yearn for success. It could well be argued that Day is doing something to try and increase revenue within his club, which of course should be applauded; many would also point out that had he not squandered high amounts in his myopic quest for immediate prosperity then they may well be in a position much more favourable for long-term affluence anyway.

Furthermore, the year 2016 saw the club ordered with four HMRC Winding-Up petitions, all for unpaid tax, and whilst all were later cleared it caused discontent amongst many of Gigg Lane’s hardcore. They had seen their club – this long-established club, members of the Football League since 1885 and FA Cup winners in 1900 and 1903 – go down this road not once but twice; they could not see it happen again. There were five outstanding mortgages on Gigg Lane at this point – two registered within a fortnight – and it also emerged that Day’s company, SG Sports Management, had taken out a loan at 138% interest a year, guaranteed by Bury Football Club. County court judgments have been forced upon the club’s name – including two in as many months since February of this year – as a result of their continued failed payments, a further reminder of the financial insecurity that has, sadly, become commonplace at the club. A quote that perfectly summarises the shockingly regular manner of CCJs given to the club comes in the words of vice-chairman Glenn Thomas. As said at a recent fans’ forum, they are ‘Just business’.

And to compound matters, the high spending has even caused regression on the pitch. They lie bottom of the league, nine points adrift of survival with only ten matches left, a task that is surely too challenging, with many of the big names coming in for fierce criticism throughout the campaign. Their lowest trough was surely the depressing 0-3 home loss to National League side Woking in an FA Cup first-round replay, the levels of performance deemed so shocking that many long-term fans highlighted it as the worst they had ever seen, prompting chants of ‘You’re not fit to wear the shirt’, and ‘You’re only here for the money’. Day himself issued an apology, citing the lack of ‘fight, passion and desire, attributes that I, as chairman, expect the players to give when wearing the shirt of Bury Football Club’ as his main gripe.

Lee Clark left his role as manager on 30 October with the club languishing second-from bottom of the table. The man appointed to takeover the challenge: Chris Lucketti. A club legend with over 200 appearances in a Bury shirt during his six-year spell at the club between 1993-1999, the script was seemingly written. The returning hero comes back to his old haunt, waves his magic wand and further enhances his fabled status by guiding the side to safety, moving him to immortality within Shakers folklore. As many within football know, magic wands are extremely sporadic. Lucketti was sacked after two months, failing to win any of his ten league games in charge. The fabled warrior falling, tarnishing his legacy and retreating with his tail between his legs.

Discontent has begun to fester within the stands at Gigg Lane as a result not just of their battles against the drop in the previous three seasons but also their constant chopping-and-changing of players on the pitch.

During Day’s tenure at the club, a period of four-and-half-years, the number of players used in each season stands as so: 48, 33, 41, 38, 41. There is little if any connection between the club, its players and the community, feelings of rancour developing from fans as a result of the continued stream of new faces taking their place in the starting eleven each week.

The aforementioned ‘star’ names came with the aim of a place in the Championship; there is precious little chance of many wishing to stay for a slog at promotion from the basement tier. Many are barely into long-term contracts, and with the wages they command termination will come at a hefty cost. With finances already in the the doldrums, the removal of such players off the books will likely exacerbate monetary issues.

Make no mistake, despite many being disillusioned, anxious, unassured by the path that Day has taken the club, there is still after all a genuine feeling of gratitude within fans for how he saved the club in its time of need, as without him they would not have a team to support now.

However, many will point towards his footballing naivety and inexperience as the main factor in the plight they find themselves in, having put short-term triumph ahead of long-term sustainability. They have gone full circle from the time of Day’s appointment. And with survival looking increasingly harder as the weeks tick by, the expiration of time within his well-publicised plan will surely see them finish up where they started.

“All I am asking is to be judged on the way forward and ask for your ongoing support. The quest for Bury FC is to now secure the best possible players within our five year plan.” Those words will hit hard with the Shakers faithful, who recognise they are no further advanced as a club on the pitch, and barely improved off it, than at the time of Day’s arrival.

With time up on the plan, finances still appearing glum, the financial reputation of the club having barely improved within the footballing world, a return to the fourth division needing a near-miracle to be prevented and the prospect of having to rebuild the squad – again – many will question just how successful Day has been. Yes he gave the club another chance of survival, and that must always be appreciated, however he explicitly stated he wished to be judged on what happened from that date forward. If that is the case, his tenure at the club cannot be judged positively.

Many have long resigned themselves to taking their place back in the fourth division for the start of the forthcoming campaign. This was supposed to be the season in which their main aim was finally achieved. Instead, it has turned out to be the one in which has taken them back to square one.

Bury supporters are much like a vast amount of lower-league fans: they can excuse a lack of talent; not a lack of passion. Commitment, dedication and desire for the badge in which they hold so dear to their hearts are a given, and when they see players who obviously do not care, who do not care about having the opportunity of which thousands would give thousands for – ironically, probably of the amounts many of the players currently pick up per week- they rightfully turn on them.

Performances have improved in recent weeks under the tutelage of caretaker-manager Ryan Lowe, however survival still seems nigh-on impossible.

A shining light in an otherwise dark, dark season has been the return of academy-graduate Miller on loan from Middlesbrough. The 20-year-old has displayed that fight, desire, heart-on-his-sleeve commitment that fans crave, leaving it beyond doubt that he deeply cares for this club. When you factor into the equation the fact that he has scored five goals in eight games – goals that have gained eight points for his team, roughly a quarter of their overall tally for the season thus far. The juxtaposition of Miller’s ardour and devotion to the cause alongside others’ lack of enthusiasm and zest has increased fans’ love for the young attacker whilst simultaneously heightening their contempt for some of Miller’s teammates.

Fans have, however, long passed the anger stage with the general situation regarding their club. For it has now reached a point even further down the line, an emotion felt by a multitude which they could never have imagined they would hold for their Mighty Shakers – apathy. For many they now do not care what happens. The club they fought for, put their hands in their pockets for thousands of times and gave everything they could to see its continuation bears paltry meaning to them.

“Stewart has identified a new team of individuals to work within the club to make sure that the historic financial perils will never be faced again… Bury Football Club needs the ongoing support of the local business community as well as the tremendous fan base that has been left frustrated for so many years.

Sadly for Day, the club, and most of all the fans, these undelivered aims represent failure, a stark indicator as to what has not happened during his occupancy at Gigg Lane. He has not taken them any further within the timeframe he laid out, and whilst they may no longer be moribund off the pitch, they cannot claim to be further advanced on it. And for now, one of the last few clubs who stand as a beacon of the traditions of English football appear to be following the trend of many within modern football, as they head towards further decline.