Maidstone United and August 1992 used to be the answer to the quiz question on who the last Football League club who went bust. Aldershot, five months earlier, suffered the same fate and added confusion to the answer.
Before that, long before being the punchline for an advert for milk, it was Accrington Stanley, original members whose expulsion came in 1962, before total collapse in 1966.
“It couldn’t happen here” is the idiom by which the Football League, or EFL as it these days branded, appears to have runs its affairs. Clubs might run into financial problems, but where there was a will there was a way.
Saviours could always be found.
Such laissez-faire thinking ought to be brought to halt by the sad demise of Bury, and the last-minute rescue of Bolton Wanderers, another original member, by a consortium including the Pink Floyd drummer Nick Mason.
The EFL has come in for righteous criticism for allowing Steve Dale, someone who admitted in a BBC interview he had never even realised Bury had a football club before picking up the business, to take over a distressed asset and further strip it down.
— Darren Cleary (@RadioCleary) August 28, 2019
That attitude of being alright, Jack, take a look at our stack, to bastardise Floyd’s Money, also ignored the fate of many of its former members. The names of Kidderminster Harriers, Rushden and Diamonds, Boston United, Stockport County and Halifax Town will be familiar to anyone listening to James Alexander-Gordon or Jeff Stelling down the years.
Each of them have suffered financial crisis and reformation of some sort since being demoted from the #EFL72 as Bury’s demise no longer allows the hashtag to be.
The expectation is that Bury FC will one day rise as a phoenix club in the style of AFC Wimbledon, another enterprise whose fans were let down by the Football League or indeed Accrington Stanley, the club of the same name to that fallen original member and now punching above its weight in League One.
Those clubs have achieved self-contained success through careful management and with a passion that the shysters allowed to take over struggling community assets have no interest in mustering.
And for many, it will take that elemental force to survive. Few who paid any attention to Bury’s demise would expect that the next Football League club to seize trading will be 27 years hence. Bury was left to the vultures after struggling to live with the economies and finance of modern football.
It was in 1996-97 that teams from Greater Manchester won every division in the league, from Manchester United the Premier League, Bolton the old First Division, Bury the Second Division and Wigan Athletic Division Three. Macclesfield Town, just beyond the outer fringes of the conurbation in Cheshire, won the Conference.
The next season, Bury beat Manchester City, heading down to the third tier and the lowest ebb in their history, and stayed up by four points and five places. In eighth place were Stockport.
It was a high watermark for both those clubs at either end of the cityscape.
“Big Red” and Big Blue” as the BBC Manchester broadcaster Jimmy Wagg used to refer to them, became global superpowers. Even if United are lolling in the doldrums, their return to power is just a few decent decisions away.
The rest, including Wigan, who had a moment in the sun, tailed away, with Stockport dropping to the Conference North in 2012 and Bury now in the abyss.
One of the features of the Bury/Bolton downfall has been the frequent suggestion that City or United might have done something to help their neighbours. The rules prevent donations to other clubs, though City, to their credit, had allowed Bury to use their former Carrington training ground on the proviso it was well maintained.
That agreement, which saved Bury £350,000 per annum, was reneged on, as the facilities fell into disrepair.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer offered help in the dying days of Bury, whose Gigg Lane ground hosted United’s reserve fixtures for years in the past, but the die was cast by then. The reality of having stadia of 76,000 and 55,000 on the doorstep, plus TV matches on tap, has slowly strangled the rest of football in the area.
Bury’s gates were healthy in the last years of its existence – this was a club that gained promotion from League Two last season – but that was still not enough in the modern football world.
The trickle-down effect of huge wages in the top division has been to increase them lower down.
Even if a club like Bury was increasing its match-day revenue, it was still operating at a loss, even with TV money and the payments that the Premier League sends down the league. And when those involved in a club are taking money out of a club that makes no money then a club’s existence is in danger.
Financial rules for League 1, where Bury formerly resided, state that wages cannot exceed 50% of normal revenue, but can be 100% of revenue if covered by the owner via equity investment.
That has opened the gates for all types of hare-brained schemes, especially for clubs of higher regulations.
In the Championship, perennial promotion hopefuls Derby County were able to declare a pre-tax profit of £14.6m after selling their Pride Park stadium to owner Mel Morris for £80m, just as Aston Villa and Sheffield Wednesday have done in order to meet financial fair play regulations.
The average rate of wages to revenue in the Championship was 115% in 2018, ranging from 56% to over 200%. It is by no means a sustainable model.