In the 1991 season I went to two football matches. The first game I attended was in my hometown, at Gigg Lane, Bury versus Wigan Athletic. It was an undistinguished game in the old Third Division which ended in a 1-1 draw. Then, later in the season, at the invitation of a friend whose house backed onto the ground, I went to the return fixture, Wigan versus Bury, which also ended in an undistinguished 1-1 draw. It was cold and it rained and I ate an awful pie at half time. This was football just before the advent of the Premier League and a long way from its glamour.
I loved both games. I loved the rain, the cold, the ramshackle grounds and the awful pies. Now, Bury has gone and Wigan is in peril. This is a story of administrative incompetence which might even be described as corruption. It is a story of inadequate owners and rules governing football that are by no means fit for the purposes they are meant to serve. But, more than that, much more than that, it is a story about place and local identity.
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The demise of Bury is a tragedy of financial chicanery and regulatory weakness, “a joint enterprise crime” as the now deposed Labour MP for Bury North, James Frith, put it. The chicanery was practised by two unsuitable owners. The incumbent, who has drawn the ire of the fans, is the property speculator Steve Dale, and he certainly deserves some of the opprobrium he attracts. The real villain of the piece, though, is Dale’s predecessor Stewart Day, who used Bury to load up debts which he tried to finance by building accommodation blocks for students. One of his deals had an annual compound interest rate of 138%. Within weeks of selling Bury to Dale for £1, Day had lapsed into insolvency.
Day’s deals were done with suffocating and damaging complexity. He took Gigg Lane, the lovely little ground which had been gifted to the club by the Earl of Derby in 1922, and used it as security for a loan of £3.7 million from a company called Capital Bridging Finance Solutions. Day then in turn mortgaged the club to a company registered in Malta whose own lenders were eight companies domiciled in the British Virgin Islands. The residual loans started to accrue interest at a rate of £1,500 a day, at which point Day scarpered. Bury was left in the hands of Dale, who has been associated in the past with 51 companies, 43 of which went into liquidation. Despite his many promises that the club would not disappear, Day has presided over the collapse of Bury as a going concern.
The football authorities cannot be let off the hook either. There has clearly been a failure of oversight by the regulators. Dale’s takeover of Bury was subject to almost no scrutiny by the English Football League (EFL). It was obvious that he did not have the money to keep the club afloat — that was the speculation among fans from the start — but the EFL procedures for making him prove he had were lax to the point of barely existent. Day was allowed, for example, to appoint himself as the sole director of the club, with no executive board and no oversight. Bury is paying the price of this lack of vigilance on the part of the authorities.
The sad story of Wigan Athletic has some of the same sorry elements. Wigan have collapsed into administration amid rumours — which were cited by Rick Parry, the chairman of the EFL — of a connection with gambling. Once again the procedures of the EFL look woefully inadequate. The mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, and the Wigan MP and shadow foreign secretary, Lisa Nandy, have written to Parry to demand the EFL conduct an investigation and also to ask why Wigan’s new owner, Au Yeung Wai Kay — a mysterious real estate and commodities investor based in Hong Kong — had been approved by the EFL a matter of days before the club fell into administration.
The same complexity of dealing that did for Bury is evident in the case of Wigan. The club was owned for a long time by Dave Whelan, a former player and local retail magnate. He sold out to the International Entertainment Corporation (IEC), which then sold Wigan for £17.5m only five weeks later to a consortium which included Au Yeung. The takeover was announced on 4 June and Au Yeung, said he was “excited to join the Wigan Athletic family”. Last week Au Yeung took overall control and the family fell apart.
IEC, which is based and listed in Hong Kong, is registered in the Cayman Islands and operates a hotel casino complex in Manila, the capital of the Philippines. The chairman and 56% owner of IEC, Stanley Choi, is a businessman but also a high-stakes poker player. The rumour doing the rounds, which Parry cited when, unknown to him, he was being recorded, is that a large bet was placed in the Philippines on Wigan being relegated. Now that the club has been given a 12-point penalty for going into administration, relegation is more than likely. Whatever the truth of the gambling story, this is the tale of a club that has gone from local to global in quick time and with consequences that could be devastating.
As in the case of Bury, the EFL has a lot to answer for. It approved the initial takeover by IEC and that by Au Yeung. The EFL’s rules only require the prospective owner to show that they have the money to fund a club. They do not have to furnish any proof that they actually intend to do so. As soon as Au Yeung took over, the directors of Wigan indicated that the club needed an injection of £6m. It quickly became clear, to the obvious shock of those directors, that the money would not be available.
Wigan are, at least, still playing — which is more than can be said for Bury. Gigg Lane is a ghost ground at the moment, a sorry monument to memory. There was a time when I measured out my life in Bury football matches and every picture I see of the old place brings back memories of childhood and of people.
I think of my mother’s reports of watching Colin Bell captain Bury as a teenager in 1963. I remember my grandfather proudly telling me that he knew Alec Lindsay, the local boy who was signed for Liverpool by Bill Shankly. It was a brush with celebrity like we had never known, apart from the fact that John Forrest, the Bury goalkeeper, used to join his dad in delivering coal to my grandparents’ house. Then there were the great games, the very best of which was beating First Division Middlesbrough 3-2 in the third round of the FA Cup in 1976.
Wigan doesn’t quite have the heritage of Bury. Although the club was formed in 1924, it was not elected a member of the Football League until 1978. Wigan is a rugby league town, really. But that is not to say that the club does not matter a lot to its fans, because it does. A football club is a focal point of town pride and there was no moment prouder than in May 2013, when Ben Watson scored the goal that beat Manchester City and won Wigan the FA Cup. Perhaps this doesn’t quite match Bury’s greatest ever moments – beating Southampton 4-0 in 1900 and Derby County 6-0 in 1903 to win the FA Cup twice — but it was a big moment. Searching for a team to follow, my son — who wanted to annoy all his friends who supported Chelsea — decided he liked the Wigan badge and adopted them. Father and son must be a jinx. First my club goes under and then his looks as if it might follow.
It seems fitting, to the supporters of Bury, that this season has been abandoned in what was, back in 1991, known as the Third Division. It seems right that no season should be completed that does not include Bury. But next season the programme will be completed and Bury will still not be there.
Maybe there is little commercial sense in having football clubs in every one of the old Lancashire mill towns. Yet football clubs, though they have to pay their way somehow, are not really businesses. The Deloitte’s Annual Review of Football Finance recently showed that, last season, for the fourth time in seven years, clubs in the Championship – football’s second tier — collectively spent more on wages than they earned in revenue. The chair of the House of Commons culture committee, Damian Collins, has proposed a sensible plan under which government aid would be forthcoming for clubs in return for them submitting to a tough new watchdog called the Football Finance Authority.
These stipulations are vital precisely because football makes no great financial sense but makes a great deal of emotional sense. There is not much else in former mill towns that entices 4,000 people to come out for a collective endeavour every other Saturday afternoon. This is why these clubs really must rise again.
The names and the histories of Bury and Wigan belong to the town, not to a fly-by-night property speculator or a Hong Kong real estate broker. This is also a clue to what has to happen next. As hard as it is to do, the fans of Bury need to let the club go. Wigan has not quite reached that point yet and let’s hope the club can be wrestled from the hands of its asset-strippers. But in Bury, change is now stirring. A phoenix club is being created, to capture and resume the idea of Bury Football Club. The Bury Times carried an advertisement in recent weeks for a manager, so it is not too late to apply.
The template here is Wimbledon. When the old AFC Wimbledon was taken off by its owner Sam Hammam to Milton Keynes, the understandable reaction from the fans was to stay and fight. Yet those who led the creation of a new club, which is now in the football league in its own right, say that the pivotal moment was when they accepted that the old was not coming back and got on with the task of creating the new. Bury Football Club was a treasured local asset and it will be again. If Wigan follows Bury into oblivion it too will have to rise again. One day perhaps the two teams will meet in the FA Cup final and if they do, I will be there.