Bury FC: A club on the brink
At the dawn of a new season, Bury supporters are unsure when - or if - they will see their team play again
On Wednesday, three days before the new Football League season kicked off, there were barely any signs of life at Gigg Lane, home to Bury Football Club.
The large car park outside the main stand was deserted, the ticket office was in darkness and the entrance to the club's official shop - still displaying images of players wearing last season's kits in its window- was hidden behind a shutter.
Bury's League One opening fixture with MK Dons had already been postponed due to owner Steve Dale's failure to provide the EFL with evidence of the club's financial viability. Postponement of their second match, away to Accrington Stanley, would soon follow.
Confirmation of the High Court's dismissal of a winding-up petition - issued against the club over an unpaid tax bill - was received on Wednesday morning. Though a reprieve in Bury's ongoing battles, to many weary supporters it was merely a delay of more bad news to come.
"My dad, he came here with his dad. I’ve come with mine," Jon Wiggins, who has lived the entirety of his life within half a mile of Gigg Lane, told JOE. "Hopefully, I still have a club to take my kids to. We have to face the reality there might not be."
Bury are not the only club with financial troubles at the beginning of the new season - neighbours Bolton Wanderers, only six miles down the road, have faced similar problems over a turbulent summer for the Football League. It is difficult to make a case, however, that any other club faces a future more precarious than Bury.
"We’ve been rolling on from winding up petition to winding up petition for years," says Jamie Hoyle, another lifelong Shakers supporter. "But the first time we thought the club could be in serious jeopardy was in March, just a couple of months after our new owner came in."
While Bury's financial woes didn't start under Steve Dale, they have deepened since he acquired the club from Stewart Day last December.
As last season reached its final weeks, reports emerged that staff and players had not been paid. An intervention from the PFA covered the players' wages for March and April, with Bury supporters raising in excess of £1,000 in shopping vouchers and donating food to help other members of unpaid staff.
Somewhat miraculously, despite the turmoil, Bury's players clinched promotion from League Two in May. The elation it brought was a welcome distraction for supporters, albeit one that was short-lived. Since then it's become abundantly clear that surviving in League One - surviving at all - will be extremely difficult.
Creditors approved a company voluntary arrangement (CVA) in July, proposed to help settle part of the club's debts. As a result Bury will begin the season with a 12-point deduction when, or if, they finally take to the pitch. On top of this their promotion-winning squad has been decimated with several players opting to follow outgoing manager Ryan Lowe to Plymouth Argyle. Placed under a registration embargo, they have not been permitted to sign replacements.
"Last season was the best I’ve ever had watching Bury," 19-year-old Aidan Allcock tells JOE.
"The football we played was brilliant, but now half of our players are at Plymouth. We don’t have any of them anymore."
"For me personally, I'll just lose interest in football."— FootballJOE (@FootballJOE) August 3, 2019
It's the first Saturday of the Football League season but Bury won't be in action. We spoke to fans about the threat to the club's existence. pic.twitter.com/7IkfZx2CU2
"It has never felt this bad," adds Hoyle. "It’s never been at the point where we could have been wound up this morning, or we haven’t got any contracted players.
"The breakwater moment for me was when I went to Nantwich Town [for a pre-season friendly] a couple of weeks ago, and we had a teamsheet of 18 triallists. I've never seen anything like that before. My dad, who I go to games with, has never seen anything like that in 50 years of watching Bury."
At the time of writing, the supporters still don't know whether any of those triallists made it into the squad. Or when the next game will come.
Dale has ruled out a quick sale, insisting he will only consider offers when financial stability has been restored. He has also expressed his surprise at the EFL's decision to postpone the game at Accrington and remains adamant that he has given the necessary assurances the league required over finances. As the impasse continues, a third postponement, this time of the League Cup fixture with Sheffield Wednesday, could follow.
"The club feels like it’s not there anymore," explains Chris Murray. "It feels like it's no longer your club.
"I took my son to a game last season because he got some free tickets from school. He absolutely loved it so I brought him to a few more games after that. He didn’t see us lose.
"A couple of days ago he turned to me and said ‘When do we get to start going watching Bury again?' I couldn’t tell him.
"I don't know if we ever will."
The sense that Bury, a club founded in 1885, are teetering on the brink of oblivion grows stronger with every passing day.
As is the case at Bolton, at Coventry, and at many other clubs across the country, it is the local community that suffers most. There is an acceptance that it may already be too late, that things may have reached the point of no return.
"A bad season for Manchester United is maybe not getting into the Europa League," Hoyle says. "For Bury, it’s no longer existing - 134 years or history going down the toilet over a couple of million quid.
"That's what we're potentially looking at here."
"I know personally, I’ll lose interest in football if we go," says Wiggins. "I wouldn’t go and support my other local team. I couldn't."
Allcock is of the same opinion. Like all Bury fans, he has plenty of options on the doorstep to satisfy any craving to watch live football. Manchester, and two of the wealthiest clubs in the game, are within ten miles of Gigg Lane. But filling the void left behind by your local team is not so simple.
"I wouldn’t think of supporting anyone else and I don’t know what I’d do if we went," he says. "I couldn't just start going to United or City.
"You can't replace your team. Football doesn't work like that."