What happens when a club disappears and is regenerated? Is it the same club? That could be something Bury fans have to deal with soon, but there is hope for them…
Bury are circling the drain. Their fixture against Gillingham was postponed this week, the fourth game of the season to be called off as owner Steve Dale still has yet to satisfied the EFL that, well, he has any money. They currently have only six players, Paul Wilkinson is nominally their manager but is essentially overseeing a small fitness club at the moment as players train with little purpose, while they have already been given a 12-point deduction for entering a company voluntary arrangement (CVA) earlier this year.
The best case scenario is they start a League One season dozen points behind everyone else. Even if they get that far, it will be a miracle if they do anything but limp to relegation, but in reality the prospect of something much worse is becoming more and more likely.
The club’s staff put out a statement on Monday asking – no, ‘imploring’ – Dale to accept what they believe to be a “very good” takeover offer. But unless Dale – or whoever owns the club by that point – can provide evidence of a credible financial plan by August 23, Bury will be expelled from the Football League.
“We don’t care which league we’re in.”
“We just want a club to watch.”
Bury FC are yet to play this season due to financial difficulties – and are bottom of League One with minus 12 points.
They’ve been given until 23 August to avoid expulsion from the Football League. pic.twitter.com/FIuDXUv9O2
— Channel 4 News (@Channel4News) August 13, 2019
What will happen after that, nobody really knows. All they can do is take pointers from what has happened in the past.
The good news, if you can call it that, is that football clubs simply don’t disappear like normal businesses. The last Football League club to simply be liquidated and not reappear in some form was probably Thames AFC, who had only been in existence for about five years anyway, finished bottom of the Football League in 1932 and decided not to seek reelection, the club’s directors simply deciding not to bother competing with nearby West Ham.
Other clubs have gone out of business, but have reappeared in some form or another. Most notably Aldershot, who stumbled out of existence in 1992 but now Aldershot Town play in the National League, and Darlington, who went up in a puff of George Reynolds’s hubris smoke in 2012 but regenerated shortly afterwards.
These clubs reappear because they are community assets, and because a small group of dedicated people recognise that it would be colossally damaging for them not to be there. Not that setting up a ‘phoenix’ club is an easy business, of course.
“We were left with nothing,” Terry Owens, who was the first chairman of the reformed Aldershot Town, tells the Totally Football Show. “And I mean zilch. We had no manager, we had no ground, we had no players. We had nothing, other than hope.”
After three periods of administration, the club were dissolved in the High Court in March 1992 and the local council put padlocks on the gates of the Recreation Ground, leaving Owens and his consortium to somehow cobble together a club from scratch. They did so, but Owens admits it came at some personal cost, “taking his eye off” his own business away from football.
We were left with nothing. And I mean zilch. We had nothing, other than hope.
It was a similar story at Darlington. There’s always a sense that, because so many clubs enter administration or get into financial trouble but something is ultimately worked out, that the worst won’t happen. The ‘it’ll never happen to me’ mentality that leads people to neglect going to the doctors.
“It was a game against Barrow where we really thought: this might be it,” says Wayne Raper, former chair of the Darlington Supporters Trust, who stepped in to salvage the club in 2012. “25 years of supporting the club my father had introduced me to…
“The administrators were running the club day-to-day but in the interests of the creditors. If we wanted the club to survive we had to mobilise ourselves and find someone to take over the running of the club.”
That turned out to be them, and Darlington are still run by the Trust. Because the former version of the club were actually kicked out of the Football Association for failing to agree a CVA, rather than merely going out of business, they were prevented from treating the new club as a continuation of the old.
Which raises an interesting, if slightly nebulous question: are these new clubs, or a continuation of the old? Is it possible to feel the same way about this team, who might look the same as the one you’ve been supporting for your whole life, but technically aren’t? Do emotions and history automatically transfer?
“Initially, no,” says Raper. “I think the reason it felt so different is we had to move away from Darlington. We had to play in Bishop Auckland.
“The first game we turned up there in a league we’d got no experience of, five divisions below where we’re used to playing, a bunch of new players and we were playing at a 2,000 capacity ground five miles out of town. There were a lot of people who said at the time ‘No, this is it for me, this is the end of Darlington and this is something else.’
“The first game we played as Darlington 1883, I was watching and just thought ‘I feel no emotion for this team.’ It was really strange.”
Owens felt slightly differently. “I’m one for remembering the past, and the past people that served in the football club,” he says. “The club was born in 1926, so in my opinion we resurrected the club without forgetting the past. It’s a continuation if you like, of the old club, but under the auspices of Aldershot Town FC.”
I was watching and just thought 'I feel no emotion for this team.'
The other question is how becoming involved in the running of their clubs impacted on their fandom. Raper says it initially didn’t change, but as the practicalities and responsibilities became more stark, he felt differently.
“You then stop enjoying the football on the pitch quite as much, because you’re worrying about how many people are coming through the turnstiles, in order to balance the books, to pay the players’ wages etc. It’s a very different scenario than just turning up as a fan every week.”
For Owens though, it went the other way. “The club became deeper than just in my blood. It got in my bones. I suppose I was one of the proudest men in the world, because I was chairman of the local football club that I had supported since I was ten.”
Neither men are involved in the running of their clubs now, but they retain an obvious pride that, along with many others, they helped salvage vital parts of their local communities.
Alas, as human beings simply do not learn and roundly ignore the old maxim that those who forget history are doomed to repeat it, mistakes have indeed been repeated. You would think that a club like Aldershot would be the last to get into any sort of financial scrapes given what has come before, but some of Owens’s successors have not heeded lessons quite carefully enough.
The club became deeper than just in my blood. It got in my bones.
“History has shown that politics can kick in, egos can kick in,” he says, “and some of the past chairmen have been carried away and overspent again, putting the club back again into financial trouble. In the last four years, the club has accumulated losses of anywhere between £800,000 and £1million.”
Remarkably, Owens says they have never approached him for advice or guidance. At least in part thanks to their money issues, Aldershot were technically relegated last season, finishing fourth bottom of the National League but, ironically enough, thanks to the much more stark financial problems of Gateshead, they were reprieved.
It’s also worth noting that Gateshead themselves are a phoenix club, formed in 1977 after the disappearance of Gateshead United. Who only emerged after the original Gateshead AFC went bust in 1974. What has been done will be done again, there is nothing new under the sun.
But the important point is, there remains hope. Bury as we currently know them might go out of business next week, but where there is a will for these things, there will still be a football club.
You can listen to the latest edition of the Totally Football League Show here, and even better, you can subscribe here. If you wish to reproduce any of the material in this article or from the podcast you are very welcome to, but please credit The Totally Football Show and include this link.