On Friday 23rd August 2019, North West Tonight dedicated their 25 minute slot usually reserved for regional news to the plight of Bury FC. After 134 years in the Football League, two FA Cups and five generations of supporters, the spectre of expulsion loomed large over the club. The programme ended with a montage of supporters outside Gigg Lane, who had manfully been protesting Steve Dale’s atrocious ownership in the weeks leading up to the EFL deadline, along with archive clips from Bury’s successes down the years, as locals in the town centre underlined the importance of the football club to the community, all soundtracked by Bury-born Peter Skellern’s Where Do We Go From Here.
After a glimmer of hope thanks to late interest from Consultancy firm C&N Sporting Risk, Bury FC were eventually expelled from the Football League on Tuesday 27th August, thanks to the financial mismanagement of Dale and his predecessor Stewart Day, and mounting debts that the club could not guarantee paying. It is a sad indictment on the state of English football in 2019 that such a storied institution could fall so far and so fast, though Bury’s is a tale that has been written with happier endings across the country over the past 25 years. Crystal Palace, Queens Park Rangers, Leicester City, Derby County, Leeds United and Southampton are just some of the so-called ‘bigger’ clubs that have been plunged into administration since the beginning of the money-spinning Premier League era, while the plights of fellow FA Cup winners Coventry City and Portsmouth in recent years have played out on the back pages, as both clubs creeped towards the brink of ruin before late reprieves.
At the time of writing, there is the smallest chink of light at the end of the tunnel for The Shakers, with concrete rumours that a takeover is on the table provided that Bury MPs James Frith and Ivan Lewis are successful in their bid to convince the EFL to overturn their decision to expel the club from the Football League. With no precedent in place, and still no guarantees that the club are able to clear their debt and keep themselves financially afloat for the remainder of the season, the chances of the league’s governing body reversing their decision are slim. Should Frith and Lewis be unsuccessful, the likelihood of any takeover of the club going through decreases dramatically, leaving Bury FC staring at the prospect of liquidation.
Supporters group Forever Bury have already begun preparations for the worst, and preliminary discussions around forming a phoenix club have taken place. Among the waves of condolence on social media, fans of Newport County and AFC Wimbledon have expressed their encouragement for Bury supporters to establish a new, fan-owned club to rid themselves of the mess that Dale and Day have left in their wake. But while a return to the EFL might feel light years away, there are a set of supporters for whom an enforced departure from the Football League now feels like a distant memory.
Maidstone United were the last club to drop out of England’s professional leagues without being relegated. Promoted to the old Division Four in 1989 thanks to some ‘ambitious’ overspending, the sale of their ground a year earlier to comply with Football League stadium size regulations had seen them sharing with Dartford for the following three years, a move which had caused attendences to fall drastically. In a bid to convince fans to return to games, Maidstone’s owners shelled out £400,000 to secure a patch of land in the town for a new stadium, but crucially hadn’t secured planning permission from the council.
With debts mounting both on and off the pitch, the club were forced to sell their best players in a bid to survive, simultaneously attempting to court new owners with little luck. A bid to merge Maidstone United with Newcastle Blue Star in the North East failed to get off the ground, and with debts spiralling out of control, no home stadium to play their games at, and only two senior players on their books, the club were forced to cancel their opening game of the season, before eventually resigning from the league on 17th August 1992, two days after the opening fixtures of the first Premier League season.
We caught up with author, journalist, former ballboy and lifelong Maidstone United fan Fred Atkins, whose book Exodus: Maidstone United 1988-2012 recounts the club’s 24 years without a stadium – covering their departure from the Football League, their resurrection, and the long road back from ruin – to discuss the feeling around the club at the time.
“It had been coming for so long no one was surprised. The whistle was blown in 1984, when a number of directors quit saying Jim Thompson was running the club autocratically. It was ignored because the club was, on the face of it, a success, the so-called ‘Manchester United of non-league football.’ There was no opposition when he sold the ground in 1988, because he kept the deal under wraps until it was too late to do anything about it.
“The money we got from selling the ground helped us to the Conference title, but it cost a huge amount to get the Dartford’s ground up to the standard needed for the Football League. When Maidstone Borough Council turned down planning permission for a new stadium, that effectively killed the club. Thompson had bet everything on his plan being accepted, even though there was clear evidence it would be refused.
“As there was no ground there was nowhere to congregate when the resignation was announced. There was no organisation among supporters. You can’t quantify the damage of 24 years without a football ground in the town. Dartford suffered too, as Thompson sold off their ground to pay off his debts they were left without a home until 2006.”
Within days of Maidstone United’s liquidation, a ‘takeover’ of Maidstone Invicta, a local youth team, was completed in a bid to create a new club for the local community to rally around. Contrary to the phoenix-like rise of AFC Wimbledon however, interest in the new club from disillusioned supporters was hardly fervent.
“Not many fans got behind it, that was the problem. It was badly run from the start, Jim Thompson was still lurking in the background and he’d alienated so many businesses, politicians and people who might have helped us it was impossible to get meaningful commercial interest. To be frank, it was such a low level there was almost nothing to get behind.”
Without a stadium, Invicta failed to meet the required standards towards the top end of non-league football, and were effectively relegated to the basement of English football, starting over in the Kent County League Division Four, at Level 15 of the football pyramid, and playing their games on the old Maidstone United training pitches. Better news would follow as chairman Jim Thompson was banned from football for his part in the downfall of both Maidstone and Dartford, being replaced by Paul Bowden-Brown.
With a playing staff made up from Maidstone United’s youth team, the newly-formed Invicta walked promotion from the Fourth Division in their first season. In 1997, the club took on the Maidstone United moniker once again, but a return to their former glories was still a long way off. It would take until 2001 for the Stones to reach the Kent County League Premier Division, still seven tiers below the Football League.
“If you suffer the equivalent of nine relegations at once there really is only one way to go, but it took an absurd amount of time to get back into senior football. We were almost always the biggest team in the division, right up until we hit the National League, which by then, was a division which in terms of quality and infrastructure was as strong if not stronger than Division 4 when we left it.”
By 2006, Maidstone United had achieved promotion to the Isthmian Premier League and were working on the construction of their own stadium. With limited funds available, the club had to make do with staving off relegation from the seventh tier until moving into their new home. The takeover in 2010 by Oliver Ash and Terry Casey precipitated a host of changes at the club, none of which were able to save the Stones from relegation. Better news would follow in 2012, as Maidstone United finally moved into a ground they could call their own, with James Whatman Way opening in July. Encouraged by the return of the club to the town, crowds of more than 1,500 regularly turned up to cheer the Stones on the following season, as promotion back to the Isthmian Premier League was secured via the playoffs.
Now on a roll, the resurrected Maidstone United reached the first round proper of the FA Cup in 2014, beating League Two Stevenage Borough in a replay. The Stones would go on to win promotion to the National League South that season, and achieve back-to-back promotions the following year. Twenty-four years after their resignation from the Football League and demotion to the lowest reaches of non-league, Maidstone United were finally within touching distance of a return. After three seasons in the National League, the Stones were sadly relegated last year. For Fred Atkins, there has been plenty of light and shade in the last 27 years.
“I’d say the club is better run now than it ever was in the past, but it’s also difficult to see the wilderness years as any kind of blessing. Football may have made strides since Maidstone left the Football League, but not all of those strides have been in the right direction. It’s as badly governed as ever, it’s just different. Before you had well-meaning duffers in charge, now it’s slick, corporate actors like Crozier and Scudamore.”
For Bury FC and their supporters, the message is clear. The road back will be long and arduous, the importance of ridding the club of Dale and retaining their place at Gigg Lane is paramount, but one day, in the not too distant future, you can have your club back and begin looking forwards once again.
“If I had a message for Bury supporters it would be this: Your Saturdays are going to feel pretty empty this season. After that it’ll get better.”
Thank you to Fred Atkins for giving his time to answer questions on Maidstone United’s return from football’s abyss. Alongside ‘Exodus’, Fred is also the co-author of Monty Panesar’s autobiography ‘The Full Monty’, and the novel ‘Welcome To Kent: Sorry About The Racists’.