t is almost 12 months since Bury were expelled from the Football League and the blows keep coming. On Friday, the Football Association confirmed the club’s application to join the National League had been rejected, a decision ratified by the FA council and based on factors including “financial resources, ownership and insolvency status”.
There is no way back yet for the two-times FA Cup winners under the ownership of Steve Dale. It is 15 months since Gigg Lane last staged a competitive game, a 1-1 draw with Port Vale that doubled as a celebration for Ryan Lowe’s fine team winning promotion to League One. They never would make the step up as debts left by the previous owner, Stewart Day, precipitated the devastating crash of a 134-year-old football club.
But not of a football town. A recovery is under way and Friday brought confirmation of the momentum behind it as well as the latest setback for Dale. Within an hour of the FA’s statement, the board of the newly formed phoenix club Bury AFC announced shirt sales for their inaugural season had hit the 1,000 mark.
With 300 people invited to have their names on the club’s first shirt for an extra £50, the take-up has been as important to those behind Bury AFC as the extra revenue. Fans are genuinely part of the fabric. “People are chomping at the bit to get involved,” says the Bury AFC chair, Chris Murray. “After what has happened over the past 18 months people need to be able to enjoy a game of football again.”
A simple but essential truth. Bury AFC were formed from the ashes of Bury FC thanks to the work of 300 volunteers. In recent weeks they have appointed a manager, the former Sunderland and Leicester winger Andy Welsh, agreed a groundshare with the Northern Premier League club Radcliffe and secured a place in the pyramid, the 10th level, in the North West Counties League First Division North.
Murray says: “We wanted to be fan-owned and to avoid what happened with Bury, so set up Bury AFC as a community benefit society. Members pay subscriptions on a monthly or yearly basis and it is one member, one vote. We launched around Easter time with a target of 250 members before we kicked a ball but we already have 750.
“The response has been brilliant and it gives us a good starting point. We have worked hard to put different sections of the club in place – a commercial team, a media team – and are all volunteers. We have lost a few fundraising events because of Covid but we’ve had a phenomenal response to shirt sales, attracted decent sponsors and had innovative merchandising ideas.
“Covid has obviously set us back. We had hoped to be playing pre-season friendlies by now but it was announced on Thursday that the league was not going to be back until October. I’m frustrated because fans are not in the ground and we are a new club. We are eager to get going.”
Murray worked briefly for Bury during Day’s ownership. “A bad time,” he says. As a director of Phenomenal Group, a social media, marketing and advertising agency based in Bury, he was initially asked to promote a fundraiser to help either Bury FC under new ownership or a phoenix club. He was later elected to AFC’s community benefit society board and football board. Murray says: “I got into this hoping it would put pressure on Steve Dale to sell the club and we could go back to being fans but then over time you see it’s not going to happen and we have to carry on.”
Unlike other phoenix clubs such as AFC Wimbledon or FC United of Manchester, however, Murray insists Bury AFC were not born out of protest. “Not in my eyes,” he says. “We never wanted to be a rebel club or to create a team when there is already a club functioning perfectly fine. But there is not. If the club was saved and bought by new owners we always said we would step down, but that is not the case.
“It has been 12 months without football so we created this club for people to fall back in love with football. We want to be something that is good for the town and for the local economy and something that can grow. If we are in the EFL in 10 or 12 years’ time as Bury AFC then it is mission accomplished, but the priority is to get a team in position for our first season.
“Eventually we would hope to create an academy, fund ourselves by developing and selling players and buy Gigg Lane. We know it will be a long journey but we know we have set up for the right reasons.”
One initiative that underlines Bury AFC’s commitment to their town is the plan to bus supporters the three miles to Radcliffe’s stadium. “So fans can drink in the pubs around Gigg Lane as they used to and the pubs don’t lose income,” Murray says. “Our long-term objective is to play at Gigg Lane and in the meantime we want to support the local community and local businesses.”
Murray accepts not all fans of Bury FC warm to the idea of a phoenix club. Forever Bury, the Bury FC supporters’ trust, is continuing its search for a buyer to replace Dale and remains intent on preserving the historic club at Gigg Lane. “We would put everything to a vote among our members to decide what happens if Bury are saved,” says Murray, who was vice-chair of Forever Bury for a few months.
“I understand what they are trying to do and they understand what we are trying to do. Some are receptive and others don’t want to even think about Bury AFC until or unless Bury FC are liquidated. We know we won’t get everyone on board straightaway but everyone is welcome.”