At least Bury’s opening match of their League One season against MK Dons being suspended saves one person from embarrassment. The club is currently under a registration embargo, blocking them from signing players. The official website lists one first-team goalkeeper, five defenders, three midfielders and three strikers. You’d feel pretty forlorn if you were the one squad member that found themselves on the bench. Probably time to find a new club.
As a new EFL season dawns, several of its clubs are in disarray. Bolton Wanderers will start the season on -12 points and with only seven first-team players contracted. Coventry City will play at Birmingham City’s stadium, forced out of their own city for the second time. A group of Macclesfield Town players are taking the club to court over unpaid wages. At numerous other clubs, including Oldham and Charlton, relationships between supporters and owners are frosty at best and mutinous at worst. There’s nothing quite like the warm glow of a new campaign.
But nowhere sums up decay, farce and ignominy quite like Gigg Lane. On Monday, the EFL confirmed that it could not permit Bury to fulfil its first fixture given the lack of confidence in the club being funded throughout the season. The EFL has been accused of weak governance – more on that later – but produced a punishment of some significance.
Bury’s owner, Steve Dale, stands charged of failing to provide proof of funds as part of a takeover that was completed back in December 2018. Eight months later, he has still not proven that he can pay the £1m due in accordance with the club’s company voluntary arrangement and the £1m owed to football creditors. The deadline has twice been extended, but no more. Dale responded with his own statement that accused the EFL of ‘ignoring the facts’ when making an ‘incendiary statement for no gain to anybody other than to discredit Bury FC and it’s [sic]board’.
But Dale is the owner who cried wolf. When players released a statement in May to reveal that they had not been paid in 12 weeks and begged the owner to sell, Dale posted a 1,300-word statement on the official website. Lowlights included accusing staff of ‘causing all this unpleasantness with their internet troll accomplices’ and ‘garnering there [sic]last chance of 5 minutes of perceived fame before they are removed and long forgotten’, telling those staff who refused to leave the club without pay of ‘draining a dead corpse’ and complaining that the creation of food banks to help staff was ‘disgraceful propaganda’.
Alongside that verbal diarrhoea came a stark admission from Dale, one that sits at the crux of the Bury Problem. In a paragraph headlined ‘wages’, the owner admitted that ‘everybody needs to be paid but the Club cannot afford the level of employees it has’.
Dale bought the club for £1 from previous owner Stewart Day, whose attempts to halt Bury’s financial decline were similarly unsuccessful. Day’s grand plan was to take out loans including one secured on Gigg Lane at an annual interest rate of 138% from a company called Cash4Assets Ltd. There is no doubt that Bury needed a new owner.
But not this owner. The reality is that a loophole in EFL regulations allowed Dale to complete a takeover without proving his funds adequately. In a normal takeover, the EFL are notified in advance and can block a takeover from being completed. But in the case of Bury, the EFL were only informed after the shares were transferred and so could only ask for the relevant proof after the event. That proof has never arrived, leaving Dale as the sole director and owner but with the EFL effectively refusing to recognise his authority.
That leaves Bury in suspension: The governing body won’t allow the club to participate in the league until those funds are proven, and Dale says he has done all he needs to do. The EFL are right to stand firm to protect the credibility of its competition, but there is an impasse.
This is where the EFL must share some guilt, or at least acknowledge the perplexity of the situation. The Bury case offers persuasive evidence – and many supporters were already convinced – that the Fit and Proper Person test is itself unfit and improper for purpose. It disqualifies in cases of bankruptcy and criminal convictions for dishonesty, but has evidently still allowed rogue owners to slip through the wide holes in the net.
In June 2018, then-EFL chairman Ian Lenagan proposed additions to the test that would act against owners who failed to meet the standards expected of them through ‘persistent serious acts’ and ‘conduct clearly damaging to the standing and reputation of the wider profession’. But by that stage the damage has usually been done. If there is indeed provision to de facto remove such owners, the process is long and painful and will usually result in the club being pushed further into the mire.
If a governing body has powers of punishment, it must have the power to cut off the problems at source. Prevention is better than cure, but punishing Bury now constitutes neither. The punishment is both appropriate and inappropriate. It merely makes the club’s route back to redemption more difficult and gives unideal owners more resolve to dig their heels in and fight against perceived injustice.
The EFL must answer some difficult questions, either internally or – preferably – in public. This is not intended to lambaste them, merely to provoke discussion on how we better protect social institutions from rogue owners. Why were Bury allowed to sign players last season when the club had little hope of paying them? Why was Dale allowed to transfer shares and take his position when he had made no proof that he had the funds? What does that say about the strength of the FaPP test? And why were Bury allowed to gain promotion with a significant unfair advantage by signing players that weren’t paid and, by the admission of the owner, never likely to be?
As ever, it’s the club, its supporters and the local community that suffer most. Promotion should be a joyous occasion. The beginning of August is supposed to be a time of great excitement and hope. The only uncertainty should surround the potential on-pitch performance of your team.
For Bury supporters, uncertainty has become their norm. They don’t know when or if they will be able to watch their team again, and how long their grand old club has left. A 125-year stay in the Football League is under serious threat. A club is being Bury-ed in the dirt.