How demise of Bury and Bolton shows football has swiftly forgotten Portsmouth case study

It represented the screaming klaxon to stir football from its comatosed state and gasp at the perils of excessiveness.

Saturday, 31st August 2019, 10:30 am
Updated Wednesday, 4th September 2019, 12:43 am
Bury were expelled from the Football League on Tuesday evening after 125 years of continued membership. Picture: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Pompey had survived, granted a High Court reprieve and spared death-row residency, with the Football League’s golden share among the returned belongings.

The financially-ravaged club entered April 10, 2013, facing liquidation – they emerged reborn under fan ownership.

It was supposed to serve as a sobering case study on the pitfalls of reckless spending and embracing owners of indeterminable motivation.

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Yet, almost six-and-a-half years later, Bury stumbled over the precipice, while Bolton reared up at the final moment.

For Mark Catlin, the Shakers’ demise is particularly difficult to stomach.

He spent three years as the Gigg Lane set-up’s commercial director before resigning in September 2012, walking away from a club debt free in League One.

Now Bury have been expelled from the Football League following 125 years of continued membership.

Pompey’s chief executive said: ‘Obviously it’s a tragic and sad demise of a football club.

‘It demonstrates that, for clubs which overreach and overstretch, ultimately there are consequences for those actions.

‘For quite a while now, we have looked at Bury and asked “How is that being done?”. For what they were paying in attempts to progress, they have financially overstretched themselves.

‘When you see some of salaries paid to players by certain clubs, there are only two ways that can be funded – either by a wealthy owner and/or a combination of a wealthy owner and debt being added to the club.

‘Sometimes there’s clamouring for owners to pump money into clubs and, ultimately, in many cases it ends in tears.

‘A club like Bury, surrounded by so many other clubs, has a relatively small fanbase and there is a natural ceiling. However, supporters at all clubs keep wanting you to push for more and more and more.

‘Realistically, clubs have a natural order in terms of attendance and commercial opportunities. The only way to break that cycle is by accumulating debt or getting your owner to pump in more money.

‘Unfortunately that is what has happened to Bury.’

In May 2017, fan body Supporters Direct released a report titled ‘Recommendations For The Regulatory Reform of English Football’.

Handed over to the Football Association and minister for sport Tracey Crouch, it has never been acted upon. Yet two years on, its findings are still championed by the Pompey Supporters’ Trust.

Through its nine-person board, the Football League presently consults its 72 member clubs to collectively decide their policies and rules.

And it’s a structure Trust chairman Simon Colebrook doesn’t believe will ever yield the desired change in governance to ensure another Bury situation does not occur again.

Colebrook added: ‘Do we really think the 72 owners of football clubs are going to willingly change their own rules over how they operate, how they finance their clubs, how transparent their finances are and who they can sell their clubs to?

‘The chances of that happening are fairly remote!

‘The view of that report – and one the PST shares – is the Football League cannot regulate itself because the owners will not impose such rules upon themselves.

‘Somebody outside the Football League must do that, somebody to say these are the rules you operate to and this is the conduct we expect of an owner. The natural place for that to reside with is the Football Association.

‘We should have a licensing scheme for football clubs which determines they are being run in a way which is sustainable and maintains their position as community assets for the fans of that club.

‘Owners should have a standard they operate to and, to ensure this, the FA would need an independent unit which sits apart from the Football League and Premier League. They would then make these assessments and decide whether these people are impeaching the rules.

‘The right place to start is the FA. At the moment they have a very hands-off attitude when it comes to the Football League and Premier League, they let them get on with it and don’t seem to take any interest in what happens to those clubs.

‘I don’t get the impression they took a lot of interest in what happened to us, they certainly haven’t taken any interest in what has happened to Bury and Bolton.

‘But they ought to be looking after the game in its entirety by making sure the football pyramid is kept in a healthy state.’

While the appetite for improved governance has gathered pace in recent months, Catlin is adamant supporters must also play their part.

Pompey’s chief executive is concerned how unrealistic fan demands across football are driving easily-cajoled owners to overstretch financial resources in attempts to satisfy.

As a consequence, an increasing number of clubs are being pushed to the brink.

Catlin said: ‘I do think fan expectation plays a part, especially with social media at the moment, pushing owners to make irrational decisions.

‘Nowadays there's so much demand and pressure from supporters for clubs to overstretch.

‘Until we try to bring in a culture of self-sustainability, rash owners and executives will always be put under so much pressure that they’re going to make irrational decisions.

‘With our owners, we are a club which strives for self-sustainability. We are steadfast in how we want to run our club - and we believe all clubs should function that way.

‘Why should running a football club be synonymous with putting in loads of money and having to accumulate debt? I have never got that correlation.

‘We will keep working behind the scenes with the EFL, but there are owners who feel if they want to put in X amount of millions per year to have a go at getting promotion then they shouldn’t be stopped, as football club is an independent business.

‘In modern-day football there is a shared responsibility between owners, executives and supporters.

‘In their desire to achieve success, normal, sane financial rules go out the window.

‘Ultimately, the owners are driven, in many instances by supporters, to take decisions which have heavy financial implications, whether that’s in regards to sacking managers or bringing in players unaffordable for that certain club.

‘Pompey could have been Bury, but for the decision of a judge.

‘The most important thing is you have to learn, but unfortunately a lot of people have short memories.’