This Friday my hometown faces the very real possibility of losing its only professional football club. Barring a miracle, Bury FC will be expelled from the EFL and 138 years of history will be consigned to the bin.
The two-time FA Cup winners – and joint holders of the biggest ever FA Cup final victory – will join the likes of Chester City, Hereford United, Rushden & Diamonds and Darlington as examples of how reckless ownership can destroy a community institution. It will leave many people in the town with a void in their lives, a lifelong passion passed down from generation to generation will be gone in an instant.
I grew up in Bury and would regularly file through the turnstiles of Gigg Lane to see legends like David Johnson and David Nugent rattle in goals past Vauxhall Motors or watch them being royally bodied by Notts County, The Shakers brought together a generation of kids of my age wanting to support their local club.
Sunderland themselves enjoyed a famous night at Gigg, smashing the home side 5-2 to win promotion – a night that is immediately brought up when you mention who you support to a Bury fan. And, come midnight on Friday, these memories may be all that Shakers supporters have left.
Bury’s plight – along with Bolton Wanderers, Coventry City and Leyton Orient – are a cautionary tale to supporters of every club in the EFL: this could happen to you.
Adam Warburton is a lifelong Bury supporter, his Dad, Barry has a brick bearing the family name displayed in the Cemetery End and even had his wedding reception at Gigg Lane social club. The story he recounts of Bury’s fortunes should be a warning to fans at every side lower than the Premier League’s top six.
When former Bury owner Stewart Day arrived at the club in 2013 harbouring ambitions of taking into the Championship with a shiny new stadium, there was obviously huge optimism. Finally, supporters thought, this was going to be the new dawn the regularly troubled club would need and maybe their dreams would come true but there were quiet concerned voices.
“From the very beginning there was a group of fans who questioned where the cash was coming from, questioned Day’s motives and were generally massively skeptical,” Adam explains.
“The problem always was that for every supporter who was looking through the accounts (the few that were available) online, scrutinising and questioning what he [Day] was doing, there were 100 supporters ‘enjoying the ride’ or, even worse, calling, belittling and bullying the fans who had put their heads above the parapet.”
Most supporters will freely admit to being guilty of turning a blind eye to what’s going on behind the scenes when the team is performing well on the pitch. There were probably not too many discerning voices at Prenton Park in May 2015 when Tom Soares’ strike confirmed their promotion to League One.
The common football fan tends to be, even if they don’t like to admit it, an optimist and dreams of seeing their side become the best in the land. They secretly hope a billionaire on a white stead will roll into town and take them to the promised land. This mindset can lead some to opt for neutrality when a fellow supporter points out that something might not be right, or, as Adam explains, vehemently dismiss any criticism outright.
Bury’s situation highlights that supporters should not be afraid of questioning the stewardship of their club. At Sunderland we have witnessed how mismanagement can have catastrophic consequences and only when it was too late did supporters decide to take action and attempt to do something about it.
Sunderland’s current status is far removed from the likes of Bury, Bolton and a host of others scrabbling to keep their head above water, but skepticism is seen as treachery in certain quarters of our fanbase. Legitimate questions and concerns are deemed as an attempt to rock the boat or sew the seeds of negativity when the squad continues to win on the pitch.
When the EFL seems to give the green light to pretty much anyone wanting to own a football club, it’s more important than ever before that fans are ready and feel comfortable to ask the difficult questions without being vilified by fellow fans. Without wanting to sound all Kum Ba Yah about the situation, but this is something we are all in together, it is a shared passion that no-one wants to see disappear.
Whether it is Manchester United supporters not renewing their season ticket in opposition to the Glazer takeover in 2005, Newcastle fans taking the difficult and drastic step to boycott home matches or Charlton Athletic fans throwing miniature pigs on the pitch in protest to their owners – we need to be united and have a healthy dose of skepticism to ensure we’re not the next bad luck story.
On Friday, Adam and Barry Warburton may not have a club.
The moments they shared watching Bury will be just that. They will not be able to write anymore chapters, they won’t be able to shed tears of joy at another promotion, they won’t be able to grumble about a dodgy refereeing decision in Stanley Con Club and they won’t be able to hear the tinny tannoy boom “come on you, Shakers!” again.
“I desperately hope something will happen before Friday,” Adam says before adding with an air of futility and exasperation. “I’ve honestly no idea whether something will.”
If there are any lessons to be taken from Bury’s plight is that supporters need to be constantly vigilant because, you never know, it could be you one day.