In a hostile, combustible derby at Gigg Lane on Monday, Bury bumped up against a bigger and stronger Bolton Wanderers side whose 2-0 win lifted them to second in League One after last season’s traumas of relegation and administration.
Bury’s old ground, home throughout its history since 1885, hosted an 8,007 crowd, including 3,141 from Bolton, in seats that still bear the fading names of people who chipped in money to save the club from near-insolvency in 2001.
Now Bury are owned by a Blackburn-based property developer, Stewart Day, in whose tenure millions have been invested in manager David Flitcroft’s team, losses are being made, a series of loans taken out mortgaged on Gigg Lane, and winding up petitions issued. The latest, last week, is the third this year brandished by Revenue & Customs, chasing unpaid tax on what must now be a substantial wage bill.
In a statement, Day and his board depicted the latest winding up petition as an irritant, and also an illustration of the need to progress with their stated aim of leaving Gigg Lane and building a new stadium.
“HMRC appear ... to be intent on winding a football club up and, sadly, as a result of this we have dealt with a number of petitions in recent times, more often than not for tax which has just fallen due for payment,” the statement said, adding that the owed tax is “less than a month old” and will be paid.
“This incident re-enforces the need to press ahead with the proposed ground relocation, so that we are not solely reliant on the club as the primary revenue source.”
Supporters, though, whose memories are seared by “living the dream” overspending and a near-catastrophic administration 15 years ago, are uneasy. The spending on proven lower division performers bore fruit with promotion from League Two in 2015 but it has been achieved with waves of borrowing. Two years ago, it emerged that Day’s company, SG Sports Management, had taken out a loan at 10% interest a month, 138% a year, which Bury football club was guaranteeing.
There are now five outstanding mortgages on Gigg Lane for loans taken out by the club, with two registered in the last fortnight for £500,000 tranches, apparently at 12% annual interest, from an internet-based investor-lending company, Moneything.com. The second of five expected loans from Moneything.com totalling £2.4m was suspended after the winding up petition was issued, but then registered on Friday.
Bury’s most recently published accounts, for the year to 31 May 2015, revealed a loss in that promotion season of just under £3m, pushing accumulated losses up to £8.4m. Creditors were over £5m, including £3.7m secured, presumably on Gigg Lane, Bury’s one major asset, sited within the criss-cross of terraced streets where police separated some rival fans snarling at each other on Monday night.
The accountants who audited the figures expressed concern about Bury’s financial health and the assurances given by Day, stating that they “indicate the existence of a material uncertainty which may cast significant doubt on the company’s ability to continue as a going concern.”
Late payment has not just afflicted the club’s relationship with Revenue & Customs. Supporters, many of whom are well-informed about the club’s situation, have seen with some dismay a series of debts pursued by unpaid creditors to county court judgments. In the accounts, Day and the vice-chairman, Glenn Thomas, stated their company, SG Sports Management, was supporting Bury’s ability to remain in business by making a £7.5m credit facility available. However, last month SG Sports Management was dissolved and struck off the companies register.
In a response to detailed questions from the Guardian about the club’s financial situation, Thomas did not explain why SG Sports Management has been dissolved. He said the facility is now provided by a different company of theirs, Mederco (BFC) Ltd. Day uses the Mederco name for other towns and cities too, where his business now is developing student flats. The Companies House register for the Bury company shows that its accounts are 13 months overdue, and it was renamed Mederco (BFC) in March.
Day and Thomas make the case that old, atmospheric, hemmed-in Gigg Lane, although in sound condition, is unable to make money from corporate facilities or hosting events, and that they are working with Bury council to identify a new site. A new stadium, Thomas said, is intended to be part of a larger development including a hotel, offices and conference space which the Bury area lacks, enabling the club to earn more revenue than just on matchdays.
Yet there is little detail about how the cost of building a stadium is to be funded, particularly given the millions already being borrowed against Gigg Lane. Thomas said: “All the funds invested to date have been generated by maximising the assets of the chairman [Stewart Day] and utilising his property dealings to create an asset value, to then invest within the club, and is part of the long-term plan to secure a significant investment to take the club to the next level.”
Day has supported Flitcroft, appointed manager in December 2013, to sign players of a calibre aimed at raising Bury to the Championship and so, it is planned, increasing interest in a town where support drains to the Manchester clubs a handy Metrolink journey away.
The players signed are a mix of youth, including Zeli Ismail, a right winger signed from Wolves in the summer, and experience – the captain, former Barnsley and Huddersfield Town centre half Antony Kay, signed from MK Dons, is now 34. After an excellent start to the season, defeat to Bolton was Bury’s fifth in a row in the league, and they have fallen back to 11th.
The supporters trust, Forever Bury, which was formed during the 2001 crisis and maintains a working relationship with the club, still appreciates Day and Thomas for buying the club in 2013 when it had fallen into difficulties again. The trust’s chairman, Dave Giffard, says he regrets the club’s low credit rating and winding up petitions, but understands the case that to be viable, Bury need to build a new stadium.
Dominic Martinez, representing a group of concerned small shareholders, said he values Day’s investment in the team and a youth system that has produced good players including defender Matty Foulds, who was sold to Everton in January.
“In general, supporters are still grateful to the owners for coming in in the first place, but given memories of the crisis in 2001-02, there is understandable alarm at the losses, loans and another winding up petition being served on the club,” Martinez said. “We do not like to see the good name of Bury dragged through court cases for non-payment of money owed, and want more transparency about the finances.”
In response to concerns, Thomas said: “Without sounding arrogant, if there wasn’t investment of over £7m to date, there would have been no Bury FC three years ago. Bury FC was closing down with no takers. The fans would have lost the club and as such we have had three and a half years more than many had hoped; 95% plus of fans are behind the club and the chairman – where is this negative worry from?”
He said the owed tax will be paid, some of the debts that led to county court judgments had been disputed, and they expect the 2015-16 accounts to show reduced losses, of £2.5m. As things stand, though, the petition to wind up Bury, 131 years old this year, is still due to be heard on 21 November, at the high court in London.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010