This weekend, Coventry City are without a league fixture. This isn’t because we’ve been eliminated from the FA Cup early, it isn’t because of Sky playing jiggery-pokery for the purposes of their TV schedule, it’s because on 27th August, Bury were expelled from the Football League.
As a club that is in a state of crisis itself, there cannot be complacency that what happened to Bury couldn’t happen to us. Perhaps the biggest learning from the Bury situation from any football fan is that the nature of football club ownership in this country renders fans largely powerless to prevent rogue owners running their football club into the ground.
Bury are a club that lurched from crisis from crisis. Former owner, Stewart Day – who racked up the debts that precipitated Bury’s final, terminal, crisis – took over the club following relegation to League Two in 2013 months after the club had been under a transfer embargo due to financial difficulties. Similarly, SISU became owners of Coventry City as a result of the club coming close to liquidation in 2007.
The problem with the current regulations is that is nigh-on impossible to tell the difference between a bad owner and a good owner at the time they purchase a club. There is very little framework that governs what an owner can and cannot do once they are in charge. Someone who appears to be a saviour may well have motives that only become apparent over the course of time.
Fans can protest, boycott matches, appeal to politicians, do whatever they feel is in their power, but ultimately, they are not the decision-makers at their clubs. Given the lack of financial viability that many football clubs operate with, it means that the fates of the clubs we support are governed by the whims of people who have an entirely different sent of motivations and emotions towards the clubs that we adore.
Last Time We Met
The last meeting between Coventry City and the most recent guise of Bury, came back in February 2017 while we were on an interminable path towards League Two with an uncertain future ahead.
In one of Russell Slade’s final games of his disastrous spell in charge of the club, a Bury side that had been revitalised under the management of Lee Clark eased to a 2-1 victory with a dominant first-half performance. Goals from James Vaughan and Tom Pope rendered a second-half rally thanks to a rare Stuart Beavon goal in vain.
How Did They Reach This Point?
As mentioned earlier, that Bury found itself in another financial crisis over the summer wasn’t out of the ordinary for the football club. Attracting crowds to Gigg Lane while Manchester United and Manchester City are within an easily commutable distance has been a huge challenge. The club was often in a Catch 22 situation – needing to show ambition to attract fans, but needing fans to fund ambition.
Previous owner Stewart Day arrived as someone willing to speculate to accumulate, talking big about getting the club into the Championship and funding some big names on, reportedly, eye-watering salaries given the club’s attendance figures. Their most recent season in League One saw the club splurge on the likes of Jermaine Beckford, Jay O’Shea, and Chris Maguire but with a bad manager in charge in Lee Clark, the squad looked imbalanced and unmotivated and were relegated from the division in a meek fashion.
Struggling to shift the high earners from the squad, League Two football further exacerbated Bury’s financial burden with the eventual promotion that they won doing little to address the perilous situation that the club was now in off-the-pitch, with players going unpaid for the final few months of the season.
During the previous season, Stewart Day sold Bury for £1 to a man named Steve Dale. 43 of the 51 companies that Dale had been associated with had been liquidated, but at the time, there was reasonable hope that Dale would set in place a new era of financial responsibility at Gigg Lane.
It is still not clear quite what Dale’s motives were for the club, he allowed almost the entire promotion-winning squad and coaching staff to walk out on the club after delaying, or not even paying, wages. The club spent much of the summer battling a winding-up order, delaying it under the promise of an imminent sale (which never happened), then entering a Company Voluntary Agreement (CVA) to pay off its creditors with just over two weeks remaining until the start of the season.
Despite a number of bellicose statements from Dale on the club’s website, Bury were unable to convince the EFL that they were capable of fulfilling their fixtures for the upcoming season. After having their games in August postponed, they were issued with a final deadline and there was hope that a takeover could finally be completed by a group known as C&N Sporting Risk.
Having taken a closer look at the club’s books, C&N pulled out of the deal. It has emerged that an eye-watering mortgage had been taken out on Gigg Lane during Stewart Day’s ownership of the club – which had funded much of the lavish spending – that made any takeover deal unsustainable to finance.
Bury were expelled from the Football League, although there were appeals for more time after another deal linked to a somewhat mysterious Brazilian pastor was submitted just after the deadline. Those appeals were refused.
Bury still technically exists as a football club, although as it doesn’t have any fixtures to play, it has no way of funding the CVA that had been agreed in July, thus it seems a formality that the club will be liquidated.
There are appeals for Bury to be allowed into League Two for next season if a takeover of the club can be agreed in time. While it wouldn’t technically involve changing the number of teams promoted or relegated from the divisions, it would effectively involve the 23rd place League Two side choosing to relegate itself to allow a financially mismanaged club a second chance.
Given the scale of the club’s debt, a ‘phoenix’ club – i.e. a new club that looks and feels like Bury – seems the most viable way forward. Securing ownership of the club’s Gigg Lane home is an important hurdle to overcome to ensure a sense of continuity from one Bury to the next, but there will inevitably be a section of fans of the old Bury for whom the new one just won’t feel the same.
How we stop this happening at other clubs is slightly beyond the scope of this article, although tougher regulations on football club owners while they are in charge of clubs seems obvious. The actuality of that happening depends on the owners themselves choosing to put themselves under tighter regulations, which, depressingly, seems highly unlikely.