To stop small clubs going under requires not extra cash but an independent body charged with developing the game as a whole
After death throes worthy of a B-movie murder scene and with a parliamentary committee picking over the bones and extracting embarrassing platitudes from executives of the English Football League and the Football Association, it looks like Bury FC are finally gone – kicked into hell by a succession of shady and inadequate owners and a book full of inadequate rules and regulations.
What can be gathered from snippets of information and news reports of unlikely saviours dropping out as they realise the extent of the financial debris cluttering the club is that, well, nothing can be gathered.
Bury have been stripped bare and left for dead. There is virtually nothing remaining. The stadium has been mortgaged to the hilt and eye-watering fee payments made to shady, off-shore companies using the club’s precious monies; even the car park has been sold. Opening the cupboards at Gigg Lane reveals a plethora of skeletons.
What has happened to Bury has led to a crescendo of angry fans turning on their owners – and to a stream of pundits and journalists turning on the EFL and its clubs for approving the system of rules and regulations that failed to protect Bury, nearly failed to protect Bolton and Blackpool and may yet turn out to have failed other vulnerable clubs like Oldham or Notts County.
Don’t get me wrong: I have great sympathy for Bury fans. They are the innocent ones. At least they are alive and kicking and will fight back, survive and prosper again, as Maidstone United fans eventually did after our own liquidation event in 1992.
However, I have no sympathy – and still less understanding – for the one-track weepers of crocodile tears who complain that all would be right if only the Premier League gave lower-league clubs more money. This is just nonsense. The only winners would be players, whose salaries would inflate to absorb the additional funds. Do you really think club owners would do anything else with the cash – other than possibly pocket it?
The solutions to helping the fans of League 1 and 2 and National League clubs to avoid the fallout from financial collapses shouldn’t have to depend on handouts from the Premier League, who already contribute vast sums to grassroots football and to lower-league pro football. They require new administration by an independent body, not beholden to club owners’ self-interest, and missioned to develop and protect the game as a whole.
Such a body would need to have regard for the unique depth of pro football in England, with its 115 pro clubs, and be prepared to consider creative ways of making it more efficient, sustainable, responsible, appropriate for today’s world and safer for supporters, for many of whom their football club is not just a big part of their life: it is their life.
It should consider, for example, making two regional divisions out of League 2 and National League, saving the hugely expensive and polluting journeys undertaken by clubs, extreme examples of which would include Dover travelling 400 miles to Barrow to play in front of barely a thousand fans.
And it should toughen up rules on fit and proper owners – this is a no-brainer, and one can only wonder why it has taken the Bury debacle for it to have risen this high on everybody’s agenda now. How about zero tolerance for any previous convictions or bankruptcies whatsoever?