Bury Football Club was founded in 1885, formed by the merger of the Bury Wesleyans and Bury Unitarians Football Clubs. For context, that’s closer to the American Declaration of Independence than to the present day. With two FA Cups and a historic First Division title, whilst not a footballing goliath, Bury nonetheless constitutes a quietly important part of English football’s unparalleled history.
Sadly, after 134 years of existence and 125 continuous years of Football League membership, they were expelled earlier this month and are seemingly doomed to insolvency and expiration. The painful demise of Bury Football Club was no accident, it was an execution; a state sanctioned killing at the altar of example. A football club assassinated by its owners, with both the Football League and the Government bearing witness to the execution, not protesting, but facilitating.
Footballing governance and finance is as murky as it is monotonous, but, there are some clear lessons to be learnt from this tragedy. The ‘Owners’ and Directors’ Test (‘Fit and Proper Persons Test’) is clearly inadequate. Football Clubs deserve a special legal status, not merely that of a business, but one that recognizes their value as community institutions and historical artefacts. The annual publishing of unredacted accounts should be mandated, a 50+1% ownership rule should be introduced as in Germany, meaning the fans – the true owners of any football club – have VETO powers over financial decisions. Finally, a regional footballing bank– akin to a miniature IMF or World Bank – should be created as a rescue agent of last resort.
Nor is it a coincidence that Bury and Bolton constitute prime examples of ‘left-behind towns’. The demise of their football clubs – historic community institutions, cornerstones of local identities – is symptomatic of wider socio-economic decay that besieges towns across the north of England. These places were once at the beating heart of the Industrial Revolution, now – ravaged by Thatcherism and its legacy – they are nowhere-places. It follows naturally, that both Bury and Bolton voted Leave in the 2016 EU referendum.
Football need not go the way of politics, in order to preserve English football’s unique historical legacy both tribalism and corporatism need to be shunned in favour of compassion, consensus, and collectivity. The alarming quandary that the plight of Bury FC leaves the football community with is this – how many more football clubs need we lose before political and legal action becomes palatable?