Bury Football Club, founded 134 years ago, is a typical product of working-class Victorian life. The club badge features an anvil, representing metalwork, a fleece, representing wool, two shuttles, representing the textile industry, and culms of the papyrus plant that represent the paper-making industry.
The crest shows a bee for industry between two branches of the cotton plant alongside the Latin phrase ‘Vincit – Omnia – Industria’, which translates as “Hard work conquers all”.
The growth of the industrial proletariat in Victorian England brought into being many of the cultural institutions held dear by workers for generations. British workers enjoyed, followed, supported and used the same football clubs, parks, pubs, libraries and swimming pools as their grandparents, great-grandparents and even their great-great-grandparents.
But football clubs, particularly the smaller local ones, the provincial product of a now collapsed industrial society, are under the very same pressures that brought to an end the thousands of factory sports clubs, working men’s institutes and social societies that were once supported by largescale industrial society and which were a typical part of every town and city across the country.
Society in general is suffering from the unceasing quest for maximum profit. Culture, sport, and in the final analysis football, too, will be the victim of the banker, the businessman and the investor.
A basic economic law of capitalism, as Josef Stalin remarked, is the law of the jungle: the strong take from the weak. In today’s footballing world it’s the big clubs that benefit from the adulation and marketing of football.
The 20 clubs in the Premier League, English football’s top tier, made record revenue of £4.8bn over the 2017/18 season, with combined operating profits before transfers of £900m, according to an analysis by the Deloitte consultancy. These clubs benefit from multibillion-pound broadcasting deals, match day ticket sales and global sponsorship deals.
By contrast, the 72 clubs below them in the Championship, League One and League Two made combined losses of £411m over the same period, partly owing to heavy spending on players in an effort to reach the top division.
In today’s reality, there can be no escape from that rat race, the quest to crawl up into the big league. But for those that fail, financial disaster looms. Football is a business, and the very idea that a club belongs to the fans is a touching though naive bit of wishful thinking.
When Wimbledon decided, against the wishes of its London-based fans (from Wimbledon, would you believe) to up sticks and move to Milton Keynes, no amount of expensive PR could hide from the fans that the decision had been a purely commercial one. The fans had their club stolen from them – possibly a fate even worse than that of the supporters of Bury FC.
Likewise in Coventry, where an FA Cup-winning club with a proud history now plays its matches 20 miles away in Birmingham, having lost all its assets – its stadium, car parks, club house, pub and glory – to greedy chairmen, investors and capitalists.
Football as a business
For the people of Bury, the collapse of the football club has been a heavy blow. As George Galloway remarked on his RT television show Sputnik: “You could see the grief in the local population … it’s punched a big hole in the heart of the town.”
The BBC reported that locals said they “feel as if we have been tortured”.
“I would never watch another football match if Bury went out of business. Whatever happens in your life, on Saturday afternoon, we always had the anchor of the club.
“Just for two hours we could forget all those other worries and be part of the big Bury family.” (Bury FC: Anger and tears at League One club before EFL decision by Matt Davis, BBC, 21 August 2019)
What happened at Bury?
A report in the Financial Times detailed some of the financial background to the Bury tragedy. It involved the usual tale of making a buck, and featured a cameo appearance from Alastair Campbell’s son (yes, that Alastair Campbell).
“Two years after Stewart Day became owner and chairman of Bury FC, the English football club became involved in an unusual financial arrangement with a property company the businessman also ran.
“In 2015, Mederco Ltd, of which Mr Day was the sole director, entered into leases on the car park that the Greater Manchester club owned outside its Gigg Lane stadium. The spaces were then subleased to retail investors for £9,995 each, with the company offering the buyers returns of 9 percent a year for five years.
“Four years on, the 134-year-old club has been expelled from professional football, Mederco is in administration, and investors are left with car park spaces that generate no income at all, according to Companies House filings …
“Mr Day, who stepped down as Bury’s chairman at the end of last year, oversaw large losses at the club during his tenure. And other property schemes connected to Mederco, such as student accommodation developments, have collapsed into administration.
“According to a Mederco administrator’s report, the Bury car park investors should have received a total of £232,000 annually. The payments are currently about £190,000 in arrears …
“In December, he sold the club for £1 to Steven Dale, who has had a long career in the building trade, mainly through equipment hire. In an interview with BBC Radio earlier this month, Mr Dale said that prior to taking ownership of the club, ‘I didn’t even know there was a football team called Bury. I’m not a football fan.’
“In July, Bury’s creditors met to discuss the terms of a company voluntary agreement (CVA), a proposal to settle its outstanding debts, agreeing that ‘non-football’ creditors would be paid just a quarter of the £4m they were owed.
“The measure was pushed through over the objections of some groups, such as HM Revenue & Customs, the UK tax authority, because the main creditors were Mr Dale and RCR Holdings, an Oldham-registered company founded days before the CVA meeting. As the largest debtholders, they had voting rights that overrode other creditors’ objections.
“Mr Dale could not be reached for comment. He has previously declined to comment on media reports that RCR Holdings is connected to members of his family, saying: “All dealings with the CVA have been done in a correct and proper manner.”
“The CVA was considered an insolvency event by the EFL, for which it enforced a 12-point penalty on Bury before the start of the season.
“The EFL also said it did not have assurances that Mr Dale had sufficient funds to run the club, it cancelled several fixtures, and gave a final deadline of 5.00pm on Tuesday for Bury to secure a takeover or face expulsion from the league.
“Last week, the club received a takeover offer from C&N Sporting Risk, a sports analytics company part-owned by Rory Campbell, son of Alastair Campbell, the former communications chief for Tony Blair when he was prime minister …
“A person close to the talks said C&N pulled out for many reasons, but one issue was a mortgage attached to Gigg Lane taken out by Mr Day worth £3.7m. Mr Dale told The Guardian newspaper in May that the mortgage on the stadium had accrued interest at almost £1,500 a day.
“It was a heavy burden for a club already sustaining big losses. According to its latest available annual accounts, Bury made revenues of £4.66m in the year to May 31, 2017, but operational costs meant the club had made a pre-tax loss of £2.8m over the period.” (Bury finally beaten by speculative property deals by Thomas Hale, Murad Ahmed and Andy Bounds, Financial Times, 29 August 2019)
As George Galloway pointed out, such debt, though a mountain to an ordinary worker, is small change in the world of modern football. “Bury had a level of debt that was roughly speaking equal to the profits of one of Man United’s pie stalls. How couldn’t the big clubs have come to the rescue?”
Former footballer and retired football agent Barry Silkman summed up the situation neatly when he remarked to Galloway: “Football is now 90-95 percent a business; it’s only 5 percent a sport.”
Bury FC fans, and those from the wider traumatised football family, can console ourselves that in this ruthless, tooth and claw, yet crushingly liberal society, those struggling to come to terms with the demise of their cherished club are being offered mental health support sessions courtesy of the NHS (or, more likely, by some outsourced provider that the NHS fund will be handsomely recompensing).
A mental health service run by the Pennine Care NHS Trust wants to help supporters with “emotional distress or upset” following the club’s expulsion from the Football League.
“Strong emotional reactions are completely understandable,” a service manager explained. (Bury FC: Mental health support offered to club’s suffering fans, BBC, 4 September 2019)
This is the best the liberal do-gooders can offer to the victims of capitalist society, as their living standards and expectations are pushed steadily downward. According to this philosophy, since there’s no fixing the system, workers must learn to live with and stoically accept the pain it inflicts while their lives are gradually denuded of all enjoyment, dignity and meaning.
Marx and Engels, the founders of scientific socialism, had another view of the matter. They saw the working class not merely as unfortunate victims, but as a force capable of smashing the capitalist system and building in its place a socialist society, where the needs of workers would replace the need to make profits as the motive force for all production and social activity.
As a young Friedrich Engels pointed out in his groundbreaking study The Conditions of the Working Class in England: “There is, therefore, no cause for surprise if the workers, treated as brutes, actually become such; or if they can maintain their consciousness of manhood only by cherishing the most glowing hatred, the most unbroken inward rebellion against the bourgeoisie in power. They are men so long only as they burn with wrath against the reigning class. They become brutes the moment they bend in patience under the yoke, and merely strive to make life endurable while abandoning the effort to break the yoke.” (1845, Chapter 7, our emphasis)