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They wanted to revive one of the country’s oldest football clubs. But they had very different ideas
‘It’s a mess. There’s a real culture war at play’
By Jack Dulhanty
“It’s like their net is covered with a pane of glass,” grumbles one fan. A pin reading “football is my religion, Gigg Lane is my church,” is pinned to the collar of his jacket. I’m sat a few pews down, in the main stand in a reserved seat that I’m assured has been empty for years, watching Bury FC take on Squires Gate in the North West Counties Premier Division.
The fan isn’t wrong. Bury are missing chances left and right. At times, it looks like someone is shifting the ball from the net via telepathy — it just won’t go in.
It’s a cold, moonless Tuesday night. There are some 2,720 fans in attendance, speckling the almost 11,840 capacity stadium. Two stands are empty. You can hear the players calling to each other and in the floodlights you can see the steam coming off their shoulders. Bury’s captain is marshalling two of his teammates farther up the pitch but I can’t make out what he is saying. He is a centre back and his name is Tom Moore.
Now, if in, say, mid-2020, you told a Bury FC fan they’d one day watch Captain Tom Moore play centre back at Gigg Lane, the layers of confusion would be all-consuming. Because that Captain Tom Moore was still lapping his garden, Gigg Lane was padlocked and Bury FC actually no longer existed as a going concern.
And, in some ways, Bury FC still doesn’t exist. As I have learned in the past few weeks, in its current form, the club isn’t a single entity it’s the product of an uneasy alliance between two sets of fans that — to put it lightly — don’t see eye-to-eye.
It’s a story that offers a fascinating insight into how a group of people with the same sporting allegiance and the same undying love for one of the oldest football clubs in the country can splinter when things go wrong. “It’s sad really”, one fan told us last month. “What should be a model for the future of football club ownership in the UK is quickly becoming a car crash.”
Two sets of fans, two sets of ideas
So let’s rewind a little. After Bury FC was kicked out of the Football League (the name for the three divisions below the Premier League, in which most of the country’s professional football is played) in 2019 due to financial mismanagement — Steve Dale, the club’s last owner, bought the club for £1 and by the end of his reign had failed to pay players — two sets of fans emerged, with two different sets of ideas.
Bury FC was founded in 1885 and is one of the town’s most important institutions. Local people take a lot of pride in it. In fact, before one match in 2019, 400 fans turned up with buckets and mops to help a depleted staff clean the ground. The game didn’t go ahead, because that day happened to be the same one they were kicked out of the league.
After the expulsion, one group, called the Shakers Community — Shakers being the fan nickname for the club — huddled in a Conservative club three streets from Gigg Lane and decided to start a new team, Bury AFC. They knew they would have to start right from the bottom of the footballing pyramid again but that seemed like it was worth it to bring football back to Bury. They agreed to share a ground with another local club, Radcliffe FC.
The second group, the Bury Football Supporters Society, set about buying the rights to the Bury FC name and the club’s assets, including what they see as its spiritual home: Gigg Lane. They wanted to reclaim what was left of the club from its previous owner and did it with the help of benefactors — many of whom are long-term fans, some who have, over the years, remortgaged their homes to support the club.
Another, smaller group of fans, Est. 1885, worked with local Tory MP James Daly to secure government funding, which would be given to the Bury Football Supporters Society. In 2021, the department of levelling up pledged £1 million to match donations made by the benefactors. At that time, it is understood around £650,000 was put in, doubling that with government money is what made the purchase of Gigg Lane possible. But the terms of the agreement said that the purchase of Gigg Lane could only be complete to facilitate the return of Bury FC. It also stipulated some sort of arrangement with AFC, who by then were an established team. The most obvious option was a merger.
There had already been considerable disagreement among the two groups before the merger became a possibility. Some parts of the AFC people didn’t want to return to Gigg Lane, and were disinterested in the attempt to get Gigg Lane back.
Shakers and the Supporters — let’s call them that for ease — eventually merged, in May this year. It made perfect sense: one group had a team and no ground, the other had a ground and no team. Both groups had supporters, both groups were supporters.
The merger allowed the return of Bury FC to Gigg Lane, an ecstatic occasion for the town and its local community. But very soon after publishing a story about that history day, Mill readers started to get in touch to explain that things were not all well. As one reader wrote to us in September: “The positivity and hope of that first match has been replaced by bitterness and despondency.”
People have been banned from the ground, suspecting that the rival faction was playing dirty; there has been quarrelling and abuse in social media groups; and behind the scenes, a political struggle for which group would take control of the club has taken hold. Some fans think the two factions are at risk of tearing apart the very club they fought so hard to reunite. “It’s a mess and may seem like a storm in a teacup,” says one fan. “But there’s a real culture war at play that could potentially threaten the club’s existence again.”
‘There’s a culture war at play’
The differing priorities of the two groups are one root of the conflict. The Shakers, who started Bury AFC, feel they kept the team alive by keeping the footballing tradition going and giving the people of Bury something to follow.
But they are often termed “rats” because they fled the sinking ship that was Bury FC to start a new club. The Supporters, meanwhile, feel they salvaged it from its watery grave. They stayed true to the authentic Bury FC, the one that started in 1885, and fought to retain its home ground.
“There’s a culture war at play between a regressive group who want to control the club and recreate the bad, old days and another faction who want to create something focused on the needs of supporters and the wider community,” says one AFC-aligned fan.
I get the sense that the Supporters see the Shakers as ungrateful upstarts, and the Shakers think the Supporters (plus the benefactors) are parochial fuddie-duddies who want the old days back. “Their main motivation always seemed to be getting their seats back at Gigg Lane,” one of the AFC lot tells me. “They didn’t really have a plan for what to do after that.”
The Supporters and the benefactors, obviously, dispute that. Gigg Lane became fan-owned in February 2022 and was the sum of a huge amount of work. By the end of the year, the first vote was held on whether the two supporter-groups should merge. It seemed like a no-brainer, but it didn’t go through. Despite the Shakers (those are the ones who kept the team going under AFC) voting overwhelmingly in favour, the Supporters (the ones with the venue and the trading name) didn’t. Instead, in February this year, they filed to enter their own team into the league, but it was rejected because of concerns around the business case.
The Shakers point to this as evidence that the Supporters are the ones who are against a merger and therefore the problematic branch of the club. But the 63% of Supporters did vote for a merger, just short of the 66% majority required. They then worked hard to get a second merger vote over the line, which they claim the Shakers resisted.
In June 2022, £450,000 had been pledged by Bury Council, in the event of the merger. When a second vote came around in May this year, it came with the knowledge that a failure to merge would mean losing this funding and also Gigg Lane, seeing as the government money was contingent on returning Bury FC specifically to the ground. And so it went through.
Under the agreement, half the club would be owned by the merged fans — under a new group, the Football Supporters Society of Bury — and half by the benefactors. But, the club’s board seats would be tipped four to three in favour of the fans, so they always have ultimate control. It was something of a shotgun marriage, and few at the ceremony expected it to flourish.
An interim board was established for the Football Supporters Society of Bury with four members from each merged group of fans, plus a secretary. The decisions it was making were meant to be “meagre” but during its reign, it established another board, the football board. People on the Supporters side say this board is dominated by people from AFC — “they’ve frozen us out”.
Then the football board fired the club’s manager, Andy Welsh, last month. “That means that 50% of the members haven't chosen those people who have actually sacked our first manager and appointed the new one,” says one source close to the benefactors.
Smaller squabbles have also piled up, between individuals on the ground and online. At one game, matchday programs were locked in an office because they made reference to AFC. “This was at, like, half six,” remembers one Bury FC employee, “people were coming through the gates.” After a set of anonymous Twitter accounts launched a campaign of abuse against other members, a selection of people involved with the club — including Jon Walsh, the team’s kit man — were banned from the stadium, accused of being behind it.
Walsh says the bans were reversed soon after. “It was a heat of the moment thing,” he told me recently, a symptom of two groups who, while under the single banner of Bury FC, haven’t fully integrated. Both in terms of their ideas for the club’s future and in a literal sense. Currently, the Shakers have a lease agreement with the Supporters to play at Gigg Lane. “As it sits at the moment,” says Walsh. “You still have a football club and a ground organisation, and they don't sit as a single entity.”
As part of the merger agreement, the benefactors said they would put in another £300,000 post vote, again, to be matched by the government as part of its levelling up agenda. Once the interim board was established, the Shakers said they wanted the money. They put a deadline on it for the end of July. The benefactors said that money had to be earmarked for specific building projects, not just given as cash to spend freely.
The interim board members agreed this was a breach of the agreement members had voted on. But people on the side of the benefactors argue this was mostly being driven by the Shakers-aligned board members. This is what has ultimately suspended the full merger of the club, because the Shakers — via the interim board — kept hold of the football club, listed under Bury Football Club (2019) Ltd on Companies House. The Supporters only had the stadium.
That has led some on the Supporters side to feel that Bury FC is just Bury AFC rebadged, because they still ultimately run the team. It feels to them like a bit of a coup. The stadium, and the group that own it, still aren’t getting money from tickets, because that’s going into the football club account, seemingly managed by the Shakers.
‘Who knows what is going to happen’
Phil Young, the chairman of the Shakers, has been a lightning rod for criticism in Bury Facebook groups — mostly for not seeming very engaged with all fans, despite his prominence in decision-making. “[Phil] seems to be a divisive figure because he’s not a continual presence,” one insider told me at the game on Tuesday. “He doesn’t live local, and it was always this: ‘oh, he’s not a Bury fan, he’s never been to Gigg Lane.’”
Last Thursday, a board was elected to govern the merged supporters society. Young is amongst those elected, joined by a board that is majority Shakers, taking seven of the nine seats. Under the new board, the true merger of the club can begin.
But the board being dominated by the likes of Young and his peers is concerning to those on the side of the old Supporters group and benefactors, who suspect he will disregard them. Thoughts on the board election vary hugely depending on which camp you’re asking. “In my mind,” says one Shaker about Young, “I couldn’t think of a better person to lead.” One Supporter just despairs: “Now they [The Shakers] have won the election, who knows what's going to happen.”
In the past, Young has made it clear that he has a more forward-facing vision. “I don’t feel that we’re just trying to recover what we lost,” he told The Guardian in a feature about Bury AFC. “Our role is to be a true community club.” (I asked if Young was around at Tuesday’s match but he couldn’t be found. I’ve since been told he is on holiday).
But that’s the rub — what is a community club? What is a club? That’s what Bury FC, and its new board, will have to figure out for itself. Many involved say the conflict should now be in the rearview mirror, and was really just a product of a sudden and disorganised merger by people who are, at the end of the day, volunteers who had never been in charge of a merger. In the fog things got a bit messy, now things should be steadier. It won’t surprise you to hear most of the fans feeling this way are Shakers. The Supporters, a minority on the board, still seem quite unmoored by it all.
There is also another, much larger constituency of fans, who shouldn’t be ignored in all this courtroom intrigue: the ones I bumped into at the match, who either couldn’t understand the disputes narrated above or thought the infighting was ridiculous. They felt it was the preserve of keyboard warriors who didn’t come to games. They were just happy to be watching football again.
The guy I sat next to in the main stand said he had been watching Bury FC for 50 years — “hang on, that can’t be right because I’m 53, it must be 40”. He was there with his dad and sat in the seats assigned to their old season tickets before the club collapsed in 2019. He didn’t watch AFC (at least not in person, he watched a few livestreams), but he has nothing against them, nor did the politics of the merger interest him.
“Think about it like this,” Adam Ingram, the club’s media manager and one of the early members of AFC, tells me. He holds out his hands to signify a spectrum. “You have these militant fans at either end who are the ones arguing on social media”, he says, hands out at the far ends. He moves closer to the centre: “then you have the ones who are interested in the merger and see it in one way or another.” And then he cups his hand in the middle: “then you have all the others, who just want to be able to come and watch Bury.”
It feels, at times, like the conflict between the Shakers, the Supporters, the Benefactors, exists far above the head of the average fan. On the surface, a very old football club collapsed, and then rose from the ashes and back into the arms of an adoring fanbase. And yes, it was messy. The kaleidoscope was shaken and the pieces were in flux before they began to settle again.
It’s also a story that shows how chaotic things can become in the volatile, emotional world of fan culture when the thing that is holding everything together — the club itself — disappears. What happens in a footballing vacuum.
Last month, when a board election was suspended because of a data leak (fans trying to out each other for having multiple memberships at different addresses and therefore multiple votes), conflict seemed at its peak. But standing in the stands at Gigg Lane on Tuesday, you don’t really get that impression.
After full time (it ended 1-0 to Bury, that pane of glass was moved aside for Benito Lowe, a lithe striker and fan-favourite, in the middle of the second half), I went to the 1885 lounge, a members bar under the main stand. Sat in a semicircle, around a TV wired via a hole in a ceiling panel, was The 1885 Club. They’re an unofficial group of about 30 long-term fans who have been watching Bury FC for decades.
I ask them how they feel about the merger and the recent infighting. “I think it’s petty, it’s pathetic,” says Gaz, whose dad is holding court on the other side of the semi circle, and has been watching Bury for about 50 years. “They need to bang their heads together.”
Most of The 1885 Club members I speak to didn’t watch AFC. “I went once but it did nothing for me,” says John, who is 67 and started watching Bury when he was 11. “I just wanted Bury at Gigg lane.” He said 2019 was a particularly bad year for him. His wife died, his father died, and Bury FC was expelled from the football league (oh and his favourite takeaway also moved to Whitefield — “God, I miss that takeaway”).
Ultimately, when it comes to the drama surrounding the merger, he couldn’t care less. He just wanted something to do on a Tuesday night and a Saturday afternoon; he wanted to be able to see his friends and watch football again after four years without it. And now, he’s got that. The question over the next few months will be: can Bury’s new board keep it that way?
This piece has been amended in parts, after some details of our reporting were highlighted as inaccurate or unclear:
In the original story, it wasn’t made clear that the Bury Football Club Supporters’ Society bought Bury FC’s trading name, not its playing name.
The original story inaccurately reflected when local government funding was made available to Bury FC, this has been amended.
The original piece said only certain interim board members, those aligned with the Shakers group, said the benefactors broke term agreements. This has been amended to reflect that the all the interim board agreed on that point.
The original piece said that, to many at the club, Phil Young was its “de facto boss” this was removed after it was pointed out that it undermined Bury FC’s democratic structure.