There was a countdown clock on the Sky Sports News screen, ticking away the hours and minutes remaining in the lives of Bury FC and of Bolton Wanderers. The English Football League (EFL) had set both clubs a 27 August, 5pm deadline to conclude takeover deals or face expulsion, and for the rapacious animal of 24-hour sports news it was an opportunity too good to miss. Tick, tock, tick, tock: the death of a 134-year-old football club, recast as televised entertainment.
In the event, Bolton were saved; a buyer was secured at the 11th hour. Bury were less fortunate. After months of uncertainty, of players not being paid and fixtures not being fulfilled, time was up: a two-time FA Cup winner flicked out of existence by the cold fingers of the market. Like many clubs, third-tier Bury had been driven to the wall by a succession of owners. Unlike others, it was unable to pull itself back from the brink.
The sad demise of Bury and the similar parable of Bolton, a Premier League side less than a decade ago but now staring at relegation to the fourth tier, are part of a wider pattern. More than a quarter of clubs in the EFL – the three divisions below the Premier League – have faced bankruptcy or winding-up petitions in recent years. Each, naturally, has its own tale of woe, its own history of mismanagement and overreach. But the broader narrative is unmistakable: all across the industrial north-west, the small-town clubs that once formed the bedrock of English football are sinking.
The north-west has a fair claim to be the cradle of the game in this country. Half the teams that made up the first ever Football League in 1888 were from Lancashire. The north-west has won as many league titles as the rest of the country put together, plus more than a third of all FA Cups, and its influence can be felt even further afield. A guy from Blackburn organised the first ever international football tournament. Dynamo Moscow was set up by Lancastrian millers in the 1880s. A Scouser, John Alexander Brodie, invented the goal net.
The history of the Premier League has been shaped by its north-west clubs: first Manchester United, and latterly Liverpool and Manchester City. But this dominance masks a graver underlying trend: where once the big Manchester and Liverpool clubs were complemented by a healthy cluster of smaller neighbours – Blackburn, Bolton, Blackpool, Oldham, Wigan – one by one these satellites have fallen in stature.
English football’s balance of power has shifted south. Nine of this year’s 20 Premier League teams hail from London or the south coast. Clubs such as Watford, Brighton and Bournemouth have flourished partly by dint of their proximity to the capital, making them more attractive to overseas signings. Only Burnley, with a squad drawn overwhelmingly from Britain and Ireland, continue to defy gravity. Elsewhere, the industrial north-west is strewn with husks.
Rumours abound of who might be the next Bury. Bolton appear safe for now, but Oldham and Macclesfield are said to be struggling with wage payments. Morecambe and Blackpool have spent much of the last few years on various forms of financial life support. This isn’t purely a north-west phenomenon – Leeds, Coventry, Portsmouth and many others have all known financial strife in recent years. But the concentration of small clubs in the region, squeezed by the giants in their midst, has generated a uniquely potent cocktail.
Competing with the likes of Manchester United and Liverpool for fans, sponsors and young talent is hard enough when you’re being run well. Alas, this hasn’t always been the case. Bury’s owner Steve Dale had been associated with 43 other liquidated companies. Bolton’s former owner Ken Anderson took over a club in dire financial straits in 2016 yet still saw fit to pay himself £525,000 in “consultancy fees” in his first year. Enticed by the riches at the top of the game, and enabled by years of inadequate regulatory oversight, a generation of inadequate owners has been allowed to run cherished clubs into the ground.
But this is a tale whose origins go deeper than the game itself. And in a way, the decline of north-west football fits neatly with the decay of small-town industrial Britain, the extinguishing not just of vital services by a decade of government cuts, but of something less tangible: community, dignity, hope. Both Bury and Bolton have long since been swallowed up by Manchester’s sprawl, their local councils subjected to vicious economies, their affairs ignored by a largely metropolitan, London-based media.
For decades, football acted as a bulwark against all this: knitting these small towns together, restoring some of their former esteem. This was why it was once believed that football clubs were too precious simply to be allowed to fail. The reason, too, why England has an unusually high number of professional clubs – more than 100, around double that of Spain, Germany or France. The fall of Bury, the first team since Maidstone in 1992 to be expelled from the Football League, is evidence that these old orthodoxies are swiftly dissolving.
What of the wider game? Where do the Burys and the Boltons of the world fit into the future of football, a sport being stretched and riven by the forces of globalisation and rampant capitalism, by the increasing concentration of money and power in the hands of a gilded elite? The following days provided an answer of sorts: as the people of Bury mourned their club, the sports news schedules rolled on in search of new pleasures: the Champions League draw, Arsenal vs Tottenham, Rangers vs Celtic, the closing of the European transfer window. It had, as it turned out, simply been a good week for Bury’s bad news.