It will obviously have escaped no Sunderland fans’ attention that they should’ve been making the trip down to Gigg Lane today in their droves to watch their side do something as simple as play a game of football against another club. The reality is that won’t happen this weekend, and not for the next seven months (at the very least) for Shakers supporters.
It feels like a lifetime ago that Bury were expelled from the EFL, but in reality, it’s not even four months. Even in that time frame however, the effects have been dramatic on the town - footfall is down, many small and medium businesses are struggling, and some of the local watering holes have had to lay off staff as a direct consequence. As much as some aspects of the town have improved in the last decade or so, there still isn’t that much reason for someone outside of the area to visit at the weekend without football taking place, and certainly not in large numbers.
For me personally as a fan and as a writer, the ramifications have also been sorely felt. As the name of my site heavily implies, I don’t live in the area (and I haven’t for quite a while). I moved across from Bedfordshire to the Forest of Dean just after Bury were promoted against all odds back in May. Prior to then, I was stuck in a boring office job, my self-esteem and optimism for my ‘career’ lower than zero. Other than my son, the only other thing that helped was writing articles for my blog, which I did with almost every spare minute of free time I had, including an untold number of lunch breaks at work.
I’d set up my blog in 2017 just after my dad died of pancreatic cancer as a way of compartmentalising my grief, and he’d always said I had a way with words. In truth, I’d been ignoring what I was good at for years, so I decided then to do something about it.
To cut a long story short, my blog started getting a semblance of recognition, including from the club itself. Ryan Lowe of all people rang me in January to invite me to Carrington to do some interviews with him and some of the players, and I sometimes would get messages from staff, asking me for certain stats. This was prior to the massive problems under chairman Steve Dale being exposed to the world at large; I and many other fans had thought at the time he’d been working to reverse some of the madness that had taken place under previous owner Stewart Day.
In any case, those interviews never happened, and things started to deteriorate at the club very quickly as is well-documented. That promotion was badly tainted, and I’m pretty sure I was the only nominee in the room at the Football Blogging Awards at the Etihad Stadium who sincerely believed they wouldn’t have a club to support in 2019/2020.
All the plans I had for this year have gone out of the window, including starting a podcast about the club. I even had an offer to write the match previews for the website. I was the researcher for Bury on the Football Manager series - you can only play as them if you use the editor. A very small aspect of the new reality in the grand scheme of things, but even that little bit of exposure has gone by the wayside.
I’ve fought extremely hard to keep depression from resurfacing, and I found it very difficult to sleep in the days and weeks before the expulsion itself occurred.
Obviously, this isn’t all about me. There are many who have it worse - some of whom where Bury Football Club was their entire life; those that lived for the weekends and Tuesday nights where they could socialise with friends and family and have a moan about the team without having to ruminate on whether all of that would be taken away from them.
As things stand, the club still exists, but pretty much in name only. Earlier this week, one infinitesimally small chunk of the vast debt has been paid off by Dale to avoid liquidation (even now, it isn’t 100% clear what his motivations are for still being in situ).
Parallel to that, there’s an attempt by an ‘entrepreneur’ called Robert Benwell to buy some of the assets if/when liquidation does occur, giving fans a 10% stake in the new club (and it wouldn’t be Bury FC - that’s really important to note; he isn’t able to pay off the football debts, so in the eyes of the FA, it can’t be the same club).
Parallel to that, there’s an attempt by a consortium to try to salvage the original club and stadium, although it should be said that none of said consortium were attendees at a very fractious meeting last night around the future of football in the town. Such is the size of the debt and complications around the stadium that it would be next to impossible to pull off.
For me, the most realistic option is to press ahead with a true, fan-owned phoenix club. The application has gone into the FA and the North West Counties League (probably in tier nine) in time for 2020/2021. The vast majority of fans voted for the new entity to be majority fan-owned, and perhaps just as importantly, any profits made running it would go back into the club, and hopefully have far more community involvement in the process.
⚪️ STATEMENT: Our New Name - Bury AFC ⚪️— Bury Phoenix (@BuryPhoenix) December 18, 2019
Coinciding with our application to @nwcfl, the chosen name as voted on #bythefans was declared as part of this process
⬇️Please find our statement below on the details⬇️
https://t.co/xuBmvcCn8T#BuryAFC #forthefans #phoenixrises pic.twitter.com/FEFJEoZwmV
How does any of this relate to Sunderland, you might be thinking? I freely admit that I hadn’t been keeping a close eye on developments at other clubs since expulsion, other than being keenly aware of just how badly the Black Cats are doing, especially since Phil Parkinson has taken charge.
I, like many neutrals, thought Stewart Donald would be a badly needed breath of fresh air for the club. I listened to all the podcasts featuring him in the early months of his ownership, and they certainly seemed to back up that assessment.
The aim was to get promoted back to the Championship at the first attempt, and that almost happened under Jack Ross (putting aside the tactics and ridiculous number of 1-1 draws!).
From the outside looking in, the investment Donald was seeking made it seem as though he hadn’t accounted for promotion not being achieved; more pointedly, there doesn’t seem to be the necessary level of assurances for a medium-term plan being attainable, and the way in which two board members have resigned mid-season citing ‘personal reasons’ paints its own picture.
One lesson fans of all clubs should take from the demise of Bury is to scrutinise the owners far more. A handful of Bury fans did just that not long after Stewart Day ‘was the only option to save the club’ in 2013, but it was just that - a handful, and Day slammed them as ‘keyboard warriors’ in a statement on the official website at the time. I only became really conscious of it when the winding-up petitions started in earnest three years later, and even then, I got push-back from many fans, getting called all the names under the sun. That pattern repeated itself when I said Dale had to get out of the club.
Forever Bury, the Supporters’ Trust, were rendered totally feeble by Day in the early part of his tenure, and their leadership were far more concerned about running a successful beer festival once a year than scrutinising the club. Thanks in part to that, no match today is the end result. Sunderland fans must transmute their almost unrivalled passion for their city and club into forensic scrutiny of the club at the very least.
The EFL have demonstrated that they are not fit for purpose - negligent in Bury’s case, inconsistent with Bolton Wanderers and Macclesfield Town, and now doing their damnedest to prevent a breakaway by Championship clubs, for which the blame would squarely fall at their feet, especially over the stadium sale/rent fiasco.
Lads (and Ladies) fans, in exchange for listening respectfully to whatever Stewart Donald says in the near future, must step up measures to get the answers they need. I for one am dismayed at the direction domestic football is going in England, and the worrying parallels that are starting to emerge on Wearside with what happened in south Lancashire.
The only true custodians of football clubs are the fans - businesses they may be these days, but the decisions they take effect the communities in ways very few others can.
That’s why it’s vital to hold them to account in lieu of being able to call the shots. I don’t want anyone else to suffer the same fate.