Bury at a crossroads over historic merger but fans remain hopeful of homecoming

Bury is a town divided. Factions are heading for a big decision on whether to merge to create one harmonious club after years of bickering over the future of football in the town. From the outside marrying a thriving phoenix club and the ground which was home to Bury FC would seem like the perfect romantic ending, but with views entrenched the process has become fraught. The final decision will have major ramifications in the town and could change fan ownership forever.

Two groups will vote on the merger: Shakers Community Society (SCS), who founded and look after the long-term sustainability of the fan-owned phoenix club Bury AFC; and Bury Football Club Supporters’ Society (BFCSS), who have, with the help of private investors and government funding, purchased Gigg Lane, the original club’s intellectual property and memorabilia.

They went off in separate directions to do what they thought was right when Bury FC were expelled from the Football League in 2019, creating division in the process. Bury AFC brings a loyal fanbase and BFCSS a number of benefactors who will add funding. A new elected board will make club decisions if the merger is agreed, bringing together fan ownership, private finance and government funding.

Bury council has been very supportive of the merger and has put up money to help smooth the process. “Senior men’s professional football needs to come home to Gigg Lane, and this is not only a golden chance but the best chance to make this happen,” Councillor Charlotte Morris said.

It is difficult to let something go that has brought so much joy. Fans were taken to Gigg Lane as children with their parents, creating an everlasting bond. People within all factions of the merger have a plethora of memories – for better or worse – and they will hold onto them, but to make new ones, coming together is seen as the best solution. BFCSS have worked valiantly to ensure 134 years of Bury FC history is not lost. Although the company exists on a business level, it does not operate as a football club and has no affiliation with the Football Association. An application made to the Northern Premier League was rejected.

Since the demise of Bury FC under Steve Dale’s ownership, phoenix club Bury AFC, was created and won promotion to the North West Counties Premier Division in their first full season. At Bury AFC’s current home Stainton Park, shared with Radcliffe FC, there is the refreshing sight of a living, breathing football club regularly attracting four-figure crowds.

“It would be a bigger tragedy if the merger did not go through than the club dropping out of the league in the first place,” Darren Bernstein, an SCS board member, says. “The fans have come together and recreated what we had, to a certain extent, and some might say they are engaged in it more because it’s community focused. If the vote does not go through, we have no one to blame, except fans arguing among one other. We would almost lose everything again. It would be tragic if we throw all the work of a lot of people away just because of infighting.”

Gigg Lane was vandalised when vacant and required plenty of work to get it ready to host football once more. It has been used as the backdrop to a BBC drama and a legends charity match in honour of the Bury icon Lenny Johnrose – his recent death has sharpened minds about what is truly important in the town – but has not hosted a competitive men’s match for far too long.

Volunteers cleared rubbish and started the works to restore it, and a merger would result in men’s football returning to the ground in the 2023-24 season. If the merger goes through an application will be made to change the name to Bury FC, ending one of the key sticking points for BFCSS objectors who believe a team by any other name would not be the same as their previous love.

“It would be absolutely magnificent to see football return,” Math Pickup, a BFCSS board member, says. “There would be a huge sense of relief after all the hard work we’ve been doing, there would be a sense of joy seeing football come back to Gigg Lane, which should be happening and it’s a travesty that it hasn’t been happening. It would be wonderful to see the fanbase come back together and be reunited and, for the community, it has lost part of its soul not being there. It would be a huge boost for the town, community and local businesses. There can only be positives.”

To have a professional team back in Bury – and eventually the Football League – would be a great boon for the town. The council recognises the positives that come from full-time football, and what has been lost in recent years, and has arranged £450,000 of funding to assist making the ground a hub for the local community. The idea that football can be positive for the community is at the heart of the council’s thinking. Gigg Lane would be relaid with an artificial surface, to allow use by locals, while a sensory room and tennis courts are planned for the site.

Businessmen, including Bury fan Peter Alexander, who lives in America where he has made money in cybersecurity, are willing to help fund the club. This would be the first club model of its type, having fans and private investors coming together, backed by its local council and central government, for the good of the town and community. If they can prove this concept works it could be an important moment in football club ownership. Bury will, sadly, almost certainly not be the last club that needs to start again, but they can be the phoenix flame to light the way for others.