Everyone with a Twitter account agrees about the expulsion of Bury Town from the Football League. Something must be done!
Fans, MPs and journalists want:
tougher rules about club owners
more monitoring to stop clubs being run badly
spread the money around more fairly
oh, and an independent inquiry
and, um, give more power to fans.
Forgive me for not joining the chorus. You see, I was saying all this nearly three decades ago. I believe I was actually the clever clogs who coined the term “the blazers” to deride the old duffers running the game.
But what I thought and spouted then was arrant tosh – just as most of what has been written and broadcast about Bury (and Bolton), and 99 per cent of the chuntering on Twitter, is glib nonsense.
Let’s go through that list of what everyone thinks should be done to stop another Bury happening:
Tougher rules about owners.
The EFL’s much-mocked owners’ and directors’ test (formerly known as the “fit and proper person test”) is a 4,000-word document. It is comprehensive and stringent. It is far tougher than, for instance, the similar test applied by the Charity Commission to people who run charities.
Steve Dale, cast as the villain in the Bury story, would have been stopped from buying the club for a quid in December 2018 if the test had been applied. But the EFL didn’t know about Dale’s purchase of Bury until it had happened.
And if the EFL had blocked his takeover retrospectively, Bury would have gone out of business straight away. He was only able to buy the club because it was teetering on the brink of bankruptcy.
I understand why people want to believe that the EFL leadership and staff are all useless – because if that were true, it would be easy to solve the problem of failing football clubs: just get better folk in at the EFL.
I used to think all football administrators were senile, but I have come to understand that I was being extraordinarily arrogant. The folk I got to know at the EFL are good people. None of them is stupid or indolent. I couldn’t do better than them, and neither could any of those demanding: “Something must be done!”
More monitoring of clubs to stop them being run badly.
Stewart Day, the Bury owner before Dale, did some good things at Bury. He tried hard, for instance, to develop their academy. But his building business ran into trouble and he had no money left to put into his other failing business: 134-year-old Bury FC.
So he used the club’s stadium, Gigg Lane, as surety against loans for the club. It was a desperate move, but it was neither uncommon nor illegal. And how else could he raise money for the club? He couldn’t borrow against future ticket sales, because crowds were so miserably low.
Bury didn’t publish their accounts after May 2017. That was against EFL rules and against company law.
But if the EFL had stepped in and punished Bury – by docking points or imposing a transfer embargo – they would have hastened the club’s demise.
The Bury story isn’t about a failure of monitoring. It’s about a company failing to comply with monitoring procedures and then just failing.
Spread the money about more fairly.
There is a superficial appeal in the idea that some of the dosh sploshing about in the Premier League should be used to save clubs like Bury.
But the rules of both the EPL and the EFL prevent clubs from giving each other money – and for good reason. If, say, Manchester City were to give Bury a few million, that would be palpably unfair to other clubs in League Two. And it would encourage other chairmen to spend irresponsibly if they thought a wealthy neighbour might bale them out.
In fact, Manchester City did try to help. They let Bury use their old training facilities at Carrington for a peppercorn rent.
An independent inquiry.
There will be one. I expect a Parliamentary Committee will huff and puff with self-righteous indignation. Perhaps some good ideas will emerge. Perhaps not.
But no inquiry will find an answer to the underlying issue, which is this: companies sometimes go under.
Give more power to the fans.
Hmm. Let’s think how that worked out at Notts County. The supporters’ trust saved the day when County went into administration in 2003. They ended up with 60 per cent of the shares. Six years later they sold them to Quadak Investments for £1. Sven Goran Erikson was appointed manager, Sol Campbell signed, and there was a plan to be in the Premier League in five seasons. The trust did their due diligence, and were persuaded that Quadak were backed by Middle Eastern royalty.
They weren’t. So NCFC didn’t make it to the Premier League. They went into the Conference instead, all because the supporters’ trust had allowed themselves to dream.
And so what is the answer? What is the something that needs to be done?
Well, this week I got into a small twitter spat with a Villa fan (as you do).
Immodest as ever, I invite you to read our exchange:
Him: A Premier League team losing to a League 2 team is an embarrassment.
Me: Nope. I’m still enjoying winning the EFL at your place. Tonight was a run out for our resssies.
Him: And when this season ends, your club will be back where they belong in the Championship while we will remain among the elite. Spending a ludicrous £1m after being promoted, small club mentality that is.
Me: How tragic, as football mourns Bury, that you measure ‘ambition’ by the amount of dosh a club spaffs up the wall. Tell Bury fans that this morning. #ncfc ambition is to show the game doesn’t have to be like that. Invest in kids and coaching: harder and braver but infinitely better.