By Simon Evans
MANCHESTER (Reuters) – A day that began with the heartwarming sight of fans young and old sprucing up Bury’s Gigg Lane ground in the hope of a match on Saturday ended in tears and despair as the 134-year-old third tier club was expelled from the Football League.
After a takeover bid fell apart just hours before a 5 p.m. local deadline and following an evening of rumours, with hopes of a last-gasp new bid, a communique from the Football League (EFL) at 11:06 p.m. ended the North West club’s 125-year membership of the world’s oldest professional soccer league.
It was, said EFL executive chair Debbie Jevans, “one of the darkest days” for her league.
The same could be said of the North West town which will now be without a club and the local MP Ivan Lewis vowed to take on the soccer authorities, saying he would “leave no stone unturned to get this decision reversed. The fight goes on.”
But with the EFL already explaining how their decision would impact the fixtures list and relegation places, the only way back for Bury looks to be through a new club working its way up from the semi-professional ‘non-league’ structure.
While questions will be asked over the role of Bury owner Steve Dale, his predecessor Stewart Day and the club’s finances, the disappearance of a club with such a long history also raises broader questions about the state of English soccer.
At the same time as announcing the end of Bury as a league club, the EFL gave Bolton Wanderers, another North West club with a more illustrious past, two weeks to complete a sale to a new owner or face the same fate as ‘The Shakers’.
Bolton were a Premier League club just seven years ago and played in the UEFA Cup as recently as 2008 with a team featuring several well-known internationals.
No club has been expelled from the league for 27 years but there is now the risk of a second such departure in just 14 days with Wanderers, four-times FA Cup winners and the club of one of England’s finest players Nat Lofthouse, in danger of becoming the biggest to vanish from the professional game.
The North West is one of England’s traditional soccer heartlands and Bury is less than 15 miles away from the stadiums of two of the richest clubs in the world — Manchester City and Manchester United where individual player’s have earnings that dwarf the entire budgets of lower league clubs.
From the unrivalled wealth of the Premier League to the modest clubs of the fourth tier League Two, England is unique in having 92 fully professional clubs in the four divisions.
But some have questioned whether the search for the promised land of Premier League riches is undermining sensible management of lower league clubs.
Andy Holt, chairman of Accrington Stanley, who slowly climbed back to the professional game 44 years after financial trouble saw them fall out of the Football League in 1962, said there are money troubles across all the divisions below the Premier League.
“They are losing fortunes in the (second tier) Championship. 400 million pounds a year. You can go down the list, clubs losing absolute fortunes,” he told Reuters recently.
“We have got to be able to get our house in order, the amount of clubs that are up for sale and their owners tell me how much they are losing, year in year out, and they can’t find a way out of it.”
Not surprisingly, the EFL, as a governing body, is coming under fire for not effectively vetting those who take ownership of clubs with their ‘Fit and Proper Person Test’.
“This Fit and Proper Person Test, who does it? Clearly it does not work,” said League One club Fleetwood Town’s manager Joey Barton, a former Premier League midfielder.
“Bury and Bolton are historic clubs and they have been absolutely sabotaged.”
The fate of those clubs is sure to now prompt a deep debate across English soccer and one that is likely to look at more profound questions than administrative protocol.
“The Premier League is a billion pound global successful business,” said Lewis.
“And there is not enough money that goes from that and into the lower leagues and grassroots football”.
(Editing by Greg Stutchbury)