Two years on, Bury supporters fight to reunite fanbase for chance to reclaim Gigg Lane
"It’s not about remembering the injustice of us being in this situation, it’s that we’ve a genuine chance to get a happy ending..."
Over the course of a few weeks in August 2019, the camera crews and reporters were a regular sight on the main car park outside Gigg Lane. Bury FC, the proud old football club that had called the ground home for over a century, were in trouble, facing expulsion from the Football League.
Owner Steve Dale had missed a series of deadlines to either provide the EFL with evidence of the club's financial viability or conclude a sale. Patience had run thin and eventually ran out when a proposed sale to C&N Sporting Risk collapsed. After 125 years of continued membership, an EFL board stripped Bury of their Football League status - plunging the fanbase and local community into new depths of uncertainty.
The outside of Gigg Lane's main stand became a shrine in the days that followed the news. Scarves, flags and shirts with 'RIP Bury' messages scrawled across them were fixed to railings. Supporters gathered, some even shedding tears. This sorry tale and what it said about the direction in which English football appeared to be heading was big news, generating headlines across the world.
But then, as weeks and months passed by, Bury's story gradually faded from view. Other news - admittedly, of far greater importance than the plight of a stricken football club - took precedence. Compared to the coverage the club's demise received in those desperate days of August 2019, what followed barely cast a ripple in the media.
"The anger and the bitterness has never gone away," says Harry Pickup, a lifelong supporter. "We’re frustrated that it’s gone quiet now, that the football world has been allowed to forget about what’s happened to Bury.
"We were grateful for the national coverage at the time but as soon as the expulsion happened it felt like people switched off and attention was turned elsewhere."
The club - or the shell that remained - finally entered administration in November 2020, over a year on from their ejection from the Football League. This week came the news that Gigg Lane, two years on from hosting its last competitive game, had been put up for sale by the administrator.
Understandably, given the recent history, there are concerns amongst some Bury supporters that this could spell the end of the famous old ground as they know it. Others, however, see it as an opportunity to reclaim it.
Pickup is one of a band of supporters behind Est. 1885, a movement also comprising of legal experts, former club directors and local business owners. Working alongside Forever Bury, the supporters' trust, they are seeking to unite the club's fans as part of a bid to return Bury FC to Gigg Lane.
"The key point here is that Bury FC has not gone out of existence," Pickup explains. "It’s still very much alive, despite what people might say or think. It just doesn’t have a league to play in.
"With the ground for sale, the situation is now in our hands as much as it’s ever been. We've got a golden opportunity to unite and secure the return of Bury Football Club to where it belongs. We want to reclaim what's ours."
Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham has already backed calls to preserve Gigg Lane as a place for Bury's football team to play. Est. 1885 and Forever Bury are keen to build on this momentum, but both stress that healing the ruptures that have opened up amongst the club's fanbase in the past two years are imperative in moving forward.
Bury FC's expulsion from the Football League saw some supporters form a new club, Bury AFC. They now play in the North West Counties Football League Division One North, ground-sharing with nearby Radcliffe FC for home games. Despite providing fans with an opportunity to continue watching a team from Bury in the absence of their team, the decision to create a new club has not been a universally popular one. While there is an appreciation amongst most that the new club was formed with good intentions, there are some who believe its presence weakens the fight to return Bury FC back from its spell in the wilderness.
This has led to some animosity towards those behind Bury AFC. Approached for comment about their position on the potential sale of Gigg Lane earlier this week, one representative from the new club declined, explaining they did not wish to exacerbate any existing tensions.
"I've got a lot of sympathy with the people at AFC, as I do with all Bury fans," says Pickup. "This situation is unprecedented and there was no guidance on how to grieve for the club after what happened.
"We appreciate some people wanted to set Bury AFC up in the gap where we had no football. People missed being on the terraces with their mates and Bury AFC has been great for that and keeping the fans and part of that community alive. Ultimately, these divides have come about because people who care deeply about something are trying to find a way to fix it."
Ryan Hampson, a board member for Forever Bury, echoes these sentiments.
"It’s heartbreaking," he says. "To go through what we went through, being so united in trying to save the club, to then see these divides. It’s really tough for us all.
"Personally, I have no problem with the concept of Bury AFC and I know why people wanted to do that. My only issue is the timing. Had they not been set up when they were, perhaps a lot of things wouldn't have been mixed up between the two club identities and there would be more force behind us getting Bury FC back if we were all in this together."
There is an acceptance from both Hampson and Pickup that there is a complicated tangle of matters to unpick if Bury FC is to return in anything like the form it once was. Both are firmly of the belief, however, that an opportunity has now presented itself and that the first step in realising the dream is to set aside any differences that exist within the fanbase and focus on the bigger picture.
"Unity is key, here," says Pickup. "Whatever has happened in these last two years, we need to remember all that we have in common and all the we’ve been through together. There's a chance here to show local councillors, to show potential investors, that we are united as one and will support our club when our stadium is bought and returned to us.
"We have to believe that is possible and work towards that. It’s not about remembering the injustice of us being in such a dismal situation, it’s that we’ve a chance to get a happy ending."
"The thing is," Hampson adds, "we're all Bury fans. We all used to stand together at Gigg Lane.
"For me, this is about remembering that and also seeing what the last two years have done to people.
"There’s a lot of people who have been through some really dark times not having Bury FC in their lives. Going to the club, the social club, having that connection. It’s all been ripped away from us and that hurts.
"Now that we've got the chance, we've got to show everyone that we can pull together.
"Imagine what it would be like if we put everything behind us and got Bury FC back at Gigg Lane.
"What a day that would be, us all back there, together, with our club back where it belongs."