‘Football has an ownership problem’, read Reading FC fans' banners these past months. This is the story of one club who went beyond the brink, and came back to life, as told by its goalkeepers.
Tuesday 27th August 2019 marks a dark day in the history of English football. At around 11pm, the EFL announced that then-League One side Bury had their membership withdrawn, meaning that they were the first team to be expelled from the Football League since Maidstone United in 1992.
The events that surrounded this proud Greater Manchester side stunned the football family. It started with the club being sold by Stewart Day to Steve Dale for just £1 and ended with the EFL being forced to postpone matches at the start of the 2019/20 season.
At the time, James Holden was part of the youth set up at Bury FC and he explains what it was like back in the summer of 2019.
Recalling the events, Holden explained how “We definitely knew that there were problems at the club but because it had been so long since a club had actually gone under, I suppose we thought a white knight would come in to save the day.
“The season before was successful on the pitch but the first team players naturally became frustrated when wages didn’t get paid. At the end of the season the first team staff and players all moved on and there was the hope it might give some of the academy players their opportunity.
“When the EFL stopped the club starting their fixtures the following season it became harder to see how the situation would be resolved without the club being expelled.
“The staff all remained positive and tried to get us to concentrate on the football but even the academy was prevented from playing.”
That week in late August 2019 will sadly live long in the memory of everyone connected with the club as they fought to save it.
It began with the EFL giving the club an extension to their final deadline as a company called C&N Sporting Risk looked to buy the club. It gave supporters hope that they would be starting their season finally and they headed down to Gigg Lane to help get the place ready for the upcoming fixture against Doncaster Rovers.
However, at 3pm on Tuesday 27th August, C&N Sporting Risk pulled out of the deal, leaving the league no option but to withdraw the membership of Bury.
It had been an emotional rollercoaster for everybody involved at the club; fans, staff and players.
As Holden remembers, the players took themselves to the pictures to get away from it all.
“I found out about the club being expelled from the league on the news,” said Holden.
“There were those of us in digs and the night of the deadline we decided to go to the cinema to take our minds off it.
“We came out and shortly after it was announced that the owner hadn’t deposited the money the EFL had demanded in order for the club to start the season.”
The club being expelled from the EFL meant that those players left at the club were free to find new employers, and Holden headed south to Berkshire.
He joined then-Championship side Reading and praised the efforts of the staff left at Bury in helping him and others secure their moves.
He said: “By the end I was glad that the uncertainty was over although a bit unsure what lay ahead.
“The staff were brilliant in trying to find new clubs for the academy players. I was lucky to have a few offers and quickly got sorted with Reading so for me I went from a Category 3 to a Category 1 club with a pro deal included.”
Looking back on those final days with Bury, Holden said: “I’d already had an experience in football that had made me realise that player welfare was seen as a tick box rather than something the clubs or the EFL took seriously.
“What I realised after this is that the people you are around matter. I was really lucky that the keeper coaches, Kris Dixon in the academy and Adriano Basso, were brilliant with me.
“I learnt so much from them and they made sure I was sorted out. Whilst it wasn’t a great experience it definitely made me stronger.
“I’d seen and experienced things that some pros would go through a career without seeing. I’m probably aware more than most that this is a business.
“The academy was run by some really good people who all lost their jobs and the work they had done in building a structure that was the envy of much bigger clubs was destroyed overnight.”
While the players left and were able to find new clubs, the same cannot be said for the fans who are the lifeblood of any lower league club.
They were also left with a conundrum of what to do. Try and get what remained of Bury FC off the owner and revive the club, or launch a phoenix club and start again at the bottom?
Supporters were split, and it caused a rift as in October of that year, a group of Bury fans called Shakers Community formed Bury AFC.
They applied to join the North West Counties League - the 10th tier of English football. Unable to play at Gigg Lane due to Dale still owning the club, they ground shared with neighbours Radcliffe FC.
Their first season which was the 2020/21 season was brought to a premature end in October due to the continuing Coronavirus pandemic.
However, ahead of the new season starting in the summer of 2021, goalkeeper Jack Atkinson joined the club.
“I was in transition between clubs and we had just come out of Covid.
“I wanted to play in England if I had the opportunity.
“I actually was on a trial at Chester at the time when Bernard Morley and Anthony Johnson were there. They were offering me to go out on loan to Bury, I played a couple of games in preseason.
“Bury then offered me a contract to play for them permanently, they did not want a loan deal because they weren’t sure on recalls etc. So, I decided to take the opportunity to join Bury.”
It turned out to be a great decision by Atkinson to join the new club on a permanent basis as that season they won the North West Counties First Division North which culminated in a 4-0 win over St. Helens Town to take the title.
Remembering the day, Atkinson said: “It was an historic day for the club whichever way you look at it - as Bury AFC being their first title or, now that the club has merged, Bury FC’s first title in the lowest tier of English football semi-professionally.
“It was a good experience to put smiles on some faces who hadn’t seen football in Bury or people representing Bury for quite a few years, so it was really good.”
He continued: “No disrespect to any other club in that league but doing it with Bury with kind of, not all the odds against you, but it was a brand new team.
“A new foundation if you like and it was everyone’s cup final and still is.
“It was a tough season but it was a fantastic ride. We put our all into it and it was a great experience to get my first season under my belt. Winning the league title was absolutely brilliant.”
The Shakers missed out on a second successive promotion the following season as they finished 4th in the league, but what everyone really wanted was for football to return to Gigg Lane.
By now, fan group Est 1885 and Forever Bury decided that all three parties should work together to bring football back to Bury.
After a vote to merge the parties together in October 2022 failed, a second vote took place seven months later and this time was successful, meaning that the name Bury would once again be used in competitive football.
The players who were with Bury AFC at the time were brought over to play for Bury FC, including Atkinson.
He said: “It was massive news for many people who hadn’t seen any sort of football at a level played at Gigg Lane for a long time.
“So, it was nice to be pleasing a lot of people that we are bringing football back to Gigg Lane, as well as Bury as a whole.
“It was brilliant, and we knew that the fan base was pretty much going to be doubled.
“There were new challenges, new aspirations- to go and win the league convincingly and go on cup runs and stuff like that with a massive crowd behind us.”
“We had a good pre-season, and it was going to be another history-making season and another historic day for the club.”
The support for Bury has increased since they returned to Gigg Lane with the club getting an average of 3,331 fans through the gates. They even smashed the record attendance for the league as 4,833 fans turned out for their Boxing Day clash with Prestwich Heys.
Even pre-season games, which were the first matches played at Gigg Lane in four years, attracted big attendances.
Atkinson said: “For the Bradford City game, I think there were five and a half thousand supporters. That was obviously brilliant because that was the biggest crowd I’ve played in front of so far.
“The Preston one the day after (they did a double header to really get people behind it) was similar so we had close to 10,000 going through the turnstiles for those two games which is great.
“The first day of the season, which has since been wiped from the record books, can’t change from the experience and memories made on that day.
“It was a great day, a really convincing win and a really positive step in the right direction.”
In November 2023 and after 115 appearances for Bury, Atkinson left the club as new manager Dave McNabb brought in Harry Wright and Sam Ashton.
Despite leaving the club, Atkinson still believes the Shakers will go on to enjoy even more success at Gigg Lane.
He said: “I’m sure with the infrastructure they have got, the support, and the people there, they can do something really special with that club. You look at the likes of Macclesfield, maybe there will be a similar story.
"I think for sure, if you look at the size of the club and the potential it’s got, then the sky’s the limit for Bury.”