“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.”