Rise of the Phoenix: Bury AFC the Latest in Growing List of Fan-Owned Football Clubs

Bury Fans Begin New Phoenix Club

Since the demise of Bury FC, culminating in the club being expelled from the EFL, a group of devoted fans are working hard to ensure the town of Bury has a football club. This month it was confirmed that Bury AFC will begin competing in the North West Counties Football League in the 2020/21 season.

Bury AFC becomes the next in a long list of British clubs that have been under fan ownership. Swansea City, Portsmouth, FC United and infamously, AFC Wimbledon are just some of the many clubs which have recently or are currently under fan ownership. Success amongst these clubs have varied, but AFC Wimbledon will be the inspiration. The Dons rose from the tenth tier all the way up to the third tier in just fourteen years.

By starting again, in the tenth tier of the English football pyramid, Bury fans now have the chance to have a voice in the running of the club, with the strapline for the news club being “By the Fans, For the Fans”.

A Long, Painful Wait For Football

It has been eight months since Bury fans have seen their club play, when they secured promotion to League One with a 1–1 draw at Gigg Lane against Port Vale. Events could not have got worse ever since. Losses were piling up and in the last statement of full accounts in 2017, they were up to £3million.

By the summer, owner Steve Dale had been accused of asset stripping the club and entered the club into a CVA (Company Voluntary Agreement). The EFL gave multiple deadlines for Mr Dale to prove he could pay the club’s debt, however, this evidence was not provided, thus Bury were expelled.

The effect on the town has been profound. Peter Taylor, owner of Bury FC blog, “Bury Me In Exile”, spoke to me about the dreadful effect that the lack of football is having on Bury.

“Putting aside the low proportion of the town that actually went to see them play, there were still many small and medium businesses reliant on the club’s continuing presence.”

“Pubs near the ground have been amongst the worst affected, with some cutting staff numbers severely as a result. Others would’ve hoped to have new or renewed commercial arrangements with the club, whilst many other sole traders and small businesses are out of pocket because of the debt the club are still in.”

Bury fans mourn the loss of their football club. Credit: Dave Howart/PA

Looking Towards the Future

Representatives of Bury AFC are being thorough when answering fan questions. Quite clearly they want to be the antithesis of Steve Dale, who is often portrayed as a liar and the enemy of the fans. The phoenix club claim “Fans would subscribe for shares in the community trust, and in turn the community trust would hold 51–100% of the shares in the Ltd Company football club.” This is how they believe the fairest way of distributing the ownership of the club, whilst avoiding rich ‘charlatans’ being the custodian.

When asked about ambitions for the future, the club did not get carried away. They have lofty long term ambitions, which include a return to the EFL in time, and perhaps a dream return to Gigg Lane, where they claimed: “Where there is a will, there is a way.” Simply, the aim of the club is to bring a football club back to Bury.

Due to Bury’s absence, there are only 23 teams in League One, meaning that each week, one club goes without a fixture. Bury AFC take advantage of this. Each week, the club reaches out to the fans of the club who Bury were supposed to play, asking for any donations to the club as a sign of solidarity. Fans tend to oblige to this by spending money that they would otherwise spend in the pub on a matchday.

When asked about the new phoenix club, Peter Taylor added: “We as fans of the sport are more and more keenly aware of the corruption, deceit, and ridiculous inconsistencies riddling English football from the very top, not least because of negligent governance by the three main bodies. It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity.”

Following in the Footsteps of others

As alluded to, Bury AFC are not the only fan-owned club. There are a plethora of fan-owned clubs in English football, and quite a number of those are Phoenix clubs too. Chester FC are one of those, forming in 2010 from the ashes of Chester City FC.

Keith Butler is a season ticket holder at Chester and has been there from the very start of the club’s formation. He recounts these times and it is very reminiscent of Bury. “Crowds were very low and there was a negative atmosphere around the club.”

“There were demonstrations against the club’s Board and management and once it looked like there was nothing we (the fans) could do to avoid going bankrupt”.

Ten years after the turmoil that Bury is in now, Chester are flourishing. Battling for promotion from the National League North, the feeling is good around the club. Fans have a sense of belonging at Chester, as well as the success of quickly rising through the leagues.

Butler commented on the Bury, adding: “ I would say good luck, enjoy it, but realise it is going to be a long process and don’t expect miracles. At Chester, there was some conflict between people who wanted the club to rise up the leagues quickly and those who wanted to focus more on the community aspects of the club, building a youth team, working with local schools, etc. a similar situation could arise.”

The story of these other phoenix clubs should be a signal of hope. There is a potential future for Bury to have a family-friendly, fan-owned football club without the risk of being hoisted into oblivion by reckless businessmen. The tale of Bury will be a major part of English Football, just like AFC Wimbledon, just like Chester. The fans want it to be their football club, not a business.

This article was originally written in January 2020.

Football Journalist