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I feel like I’ve lost a best friend”

One lifelong Bury fan on his anger, sadness and – ultimately – pride, following his beloved team’s expulsion from the Football League.

Bury FC are known as the Shak­ers”. It comes from the 1892 Lan­cashire Senior Cup final and Bury’s chair­man-man­ag­er JT Ingham’s rous­ing pre-match team talk: We shall shake em, in fact, we are the Shak­ers.” They must have been inspir­ing words: not only did Bury win, but the nick­name stuck.

Two years lat­er, Bury was elect­ed to the Foot­ball League. They remained there for a proud 125 years until around 11pm on Tues­day, when they were uncer­e­mo­ni­ous­ly boot­ed out by the Eng­lish Foot­ball League, hav­ing not secured a buy­er or proven that they could pay off cred­i­tors.

The League One table now has only 23 teams. One club has been wiped, with no more than a cur­so­ry one-line expla­na­tion for the record books. But that doesn’t tell the sto­ry and the heart­break of the Bury fans.

I feel like I’ve lost a best friend,” says near­ly-life­long sup­port­er Rus­sell Pritchard. I went to see that best friend every Sat­ur­day, home and away with my son. I trav­elled the coun­try with my best friend. I drank with my best friend. I cheered and sung for my best friend. I loved that best friend for 35 years and it’s just been buried. On a Sat­ur­day, I just feel at a loss.”

Pritchard’s first game was Bury’s cen­te­nary match against Man­ches­ter City, in the 1984 – 85 sea­son. He doesn’t remem­ber the score, but that doesn’t mat­ter to him. As an eight-year-old going to see his local team for the first time with his next-door neigh­bour, he fell in love. He’s had a sea­son tick­et ever since.

There have been so many highs and, of course, some awful times too. But win­ning 1 – 0 at Man City [in 1998] is a big high­light. both clubs’ for­tunes have changed mas­sive­ly since then. I remem­ber Wat­ford away in 1997: we need­ed a draw to win pro­mo­tion to the Divi­sion One [now the Cham­pi­onship]. Dean Kiely saved a late penal­ty for us, secur­ing us the point we need­ed. We went to the night­club in town to cel­e­brate, and he came along with the rest of the team. A lot of the play­ers used to know the fans, it was a real community.”

Speak to Bury fans, and the word com­mu­ni­ty“ comes up a lot. Absorbed into the Greater Man­ches­ter area, the town sits nine miles north of the city and the two foot­balling jug­ger­nauts, Unit­ed and City. For Bury fans, it may as well be a galaxy away. With a town pop­u­la­tion of 78,000 – which could near­ly fit inside Old Traf­ford – and with a pletho­ra of foot­ball clubs in the region, aver­age home gates last sea­son were only 4,000. But Pritchard explains that those 4,000 aren’t just a ded­i­cat­ed bunch – they’re extend­ed family.

I’ve been to fans’ funer­als and chris­ten­ings. One of my friends got mar­ried on the pitch. He brought a pic­ture of his wed­ding day from 25 years ago for an inter­view with Sky. Bury FC is a com­mu­ni­ty. It’s a day out, around the coun­try. You see fans in ser­vice sta­tions, town cen­tres, pubs. You bump into them in town mid­week and chat Bury.”

It’s a cama­raderie that’s only grown giv­en their club’s plight. Busi­ness­man Steve Dale bought the club for £1 last Decem­ber from pre­vi­ous own­er Stew­art Day, who bor­rowed mil­lions to pay overblown play­er salaries as part of a five-year plan to get Bury into the Cham­pi­onship – one rung below the holy grail of the Pre­mier League.

For­mer Pre­mier League strik­ers James Vaugh­an and Jer­maine Beck­ford were signed and hand­ed big wages – but the gam­ble didn’t pay off. In the 2017 – 18 sea­son, Bury end­ed up going down instead of up, begin­ning their last – and like­ly their final – sea­son in League Two, the fourth tier of Eng­lish foot­ball. How­ev­er, amid finan­cial tur­moil, it proved to be one of the Shak­ers’ finest cam­paigns in recent times – and one of the most mem­o­rable for the Pritchards.

In the 35 years I’ve been sup­port­ing Bury, last sea­son was one of the best. We only missed three games last sea­son – home and away – and became friends with the man­ag­er, Ryan Lowe. My son, Archie, is only ten-years-old and he was get­ting to spend time with the play­ers around the coun­try and meet his heroes.

On one of our away trips, we were hav­ing break­fast at the team hotel in Exeter. One of the play­ers went to me, Rus­sell, can you have a word with the gaffer? I need to get back to Bury ear­ly this evening for my girlfriend’s 21st.” I called Ryan, he said no prob­lem. We won 1 – 0 and I drove him more than 250 miles back up north in time for the party.”

Bury end­ed up win­ning pro­mo­tion back to League One at the first attempt; an achieve­ment made all the more remark­able giv­en the first team end­ed up being owed 12 weeks’ wages. Pritchard recalls when he first realised the club was in seri­ous trouble.

I was good friends with the staff and they were telling me they still hadn’t been paid their March wages: the grounds­man, the kit­man, the kitchen staff. One night, a few of them went into the board­room, ask­ing when they were going to be paid.” He explains that Dale, faced with accu­sa­tions of asset strip­ping, failed to pro­vide them with answers. He just went into him­self and nev­er came back to the club.”

Dale had claimed he would get the club out of debt and make it self-suf­fi­cient. How­ev­er, in April, he placed the club back up for sale amid a wind­ing-up peti­tion launched in the High Court – the bid was dis­missed in July once Dale put for­ward a com­pa­ny vol­un­tary arrange­ment to creditors.

With­out assur­ances cred­i­tors would be paid, the EFL hand­ed Bury a two-week notice of expul­sion from the league. An eleventh-hour takeover bid col­lapsed on Tues­day, lead­ing to Bury becom­ing the first league team to be expelled since Maid­stone in 1992.

Many Bury fans think that the EFL didn’t car­ry out enough strin­gent finan­cial checks before approv­ing Dale’s pur­chase. Pritchard argues that it’s the fans who are pun­ished for a bad busi­ness deal. The EFL bad­ly let us down – yet we’re the ones who suf­fer. It was Day who cre­at­ed the mon­ster, bor­row­ing a huge amount of mon­ey, plung­ing us into debt, sell­ing us on for a pound to some­body – anybody. 

The club could’ve gone bust there and then, so instead of due dili­gence, the think­ing was, We have a sav­iour, get him in.’ But this isn’t a nor­mal busi­ness they’re play­ing about with – it’s a foot­ball club with 135 years of his­to­ry. They’re play­ing with people’s emotions.”

No foot­ball means no busi­ness for Bury – mean­ing like­ly liq­ui­da­tion. Pritchard explains that the ram­i­fi­ca­tions go beyond the club. The town will suf­fer. We’ll see places close down. Pubs, chip­pies, cafés, hotels – busi­ness­es with a guar­an­teed match­day rev­enue – will struggle.”

Then, there is the Gigg Lane. Pur­pose-built for Bury in 1885, it’s one of the world’s old­est foot­ball grounds. The demise of Bury wouldn’t just affect the town and the com­mu­ni­ty – but a part of foot­balling his­to­ry. On Tues­day morn­ing, before the prospec­tive takeover col­lapsed, vol­un­teers cleaned the ground in prepa­ra­tion for Bury’s home game against Don­cast­er this week­end – a fix­ture that will now nev­er be played.

Pritchard lives just two miles away. He was at all the protests and eleventh-hour meet­ings to save his club, and fears for Gigg Lane’s future. There was one gen­tle­man cry­ing his eyes out. He said to the grounds­man, I know we’re not allowed in the ground, but my brother’s ash­es are buried here. Do you mind if me and my dad just go in?’ They went onto the halfway line and cried for half an hour.”

He explains that a poten­tial phoenix club would have to pay off a £3.7m loan against Gigg Lane – or face hav­ing to play non-league games out­side the town. The local MP has said there’s a covenant, mean­ing the ground can only be used for sport. But mon­ey talks and there’s not enough hous­ing. So, once the news dies down, it’ll be a ques­tion of upset­ting 4,000 foot­ball fans or build­ing on [the] green­belt and upset­ting the rest of the town.”

Any faint glim­mer of hope was extin­guished on Thurs­day when the EFL dis­missed a £7m bid made by Brazil­ian bil­lion­aire pas­tor Gus­ta­vo Fer­reira – despite it being made before their 5pm cut-off. The EFL claims Tuesday’s dead­line was exclu­sive­ly for the orig­i­nal bid­ders, C&N Sport­ing Risk – it effec­tive­ly tolls the death knell for the two-time FA Cup winners.

Pritchard shares the frus­tra­tions of many. How can you let 135 years of his­to­ry come down to bureau­cra­cy and a self-imposed dead­line? If you have the oppor­tu­ni­ty of sav­ing it, why not at least try?” He cites the finan­cial strug­gles of Bolton and oth­er low­er league clubs. If it can hap­pen to Bury, it’ll hap­pen to oth­ers. It’ll cre­ate a domi­no effect: You’ve done it to us, why not them?” Clubs, far removed from the Pre­mier League, will fold all over the country.” 

It all begs the ques­tion: what will Pritchard, his son, and thou­sands of oth­er Shak­ers do every week­end with­out their beloved side? Archie was inter­viewed live on Sky the oth­er day. He said, Please, please just help us. I don’t know what I’m going to do on a Sat­ur­day anymore.’ 

It’s been his life for the past few years, mine for 35 years – we don’t know any different.”

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