Historic English football club Bury no longer exist after the collapse of a last-minute rescue bid. Such a situation is difficult to imagine in Germany and highlights the downside of recent calls for outside investment.
Outside Bury's Gigg Lane home on Tuesday, early morning hopes turned gradually to early evening tears, anger and disbelief. Following the collapse of a last minute deal that looked set to save the club on the outskirts of Manchester from liquidation, its 134 years of history and 125 years of membership of the English Football League (EFL) came to a close.
The club have been kicked out of League One (the third tier of English football), and the division will now contain 23 teams instead of 24. Six miles west — and sitting in that 23rd spot — Bolton Wanderers, a club with a grand history who only dropped out of the Premier League in 2012, found a last-minute buyer on Wednesday but were just days from facing the same fate.
The teams' stories differ in a number of details, but both involve a sorry web of questionable financial dealings, systemic failures of the EFL, and the clubs, unpaid players, and staff and creditors left out of pocket. They also both involve deeply unpopular owners. In Bury's case, the man in question is Steve Dale, who bought the club for £1 (€1.10, $1.22) last December to save it from going insolvent before asking for a fee of around €2.2 million from potential buyers despite failing to clear its debts and pay players and staff. Dale has liquidated the vast majority of the multiple businesses he has owned but was still deemed an appropriate club owner by the EFL.
The asking price put off many buyers, and a late bid that looked to have pulled the club back from the brink fell through shortly before the 17:00 deadline after the potential buyers uncovered a number of difficulties, including the mortgaging of the ground. "Our position is not a condition of the strict timeline they [the EFL] have put in place, but reflective of the systemic failings of a football club over a number of years," said the C&N Sporting Risk group.
Impacts felt far and wide
Bury captain Neil Danns, one of only a handful of players still registered with the club when the news came through, spoke of the impact Dale's ownership has had on the club and the broader community.
“This should never have happened. If you thought you could not move this club forward in a positive way you should never have taken over because you’ve literally destroyed lives, because that’s what this football club meant to so many fans,” he told British radio station Talk Sport.
Those fans, however deep their connection with the club, are essentially powerless. Unlike Germany, where the 50+1 rule means supporters must own a controlling stake in their club through their membership, English football has long courted investors. Ownership by wealthy individuals has become the norm, with billionaire foreign owners now commonplace in the Premier League. At the top end, that investment, some of it from questionable sources, has bought success — both European finals were contested by English clubs last season — but many feel that the cost of competing, both moral and financial, has become too high.
But there are an increasing number of voices in Germany who prefer the English model to their own, arguing that the country's clubs can only compete with the best in Europe if 50+1 is relaxed or abolished, in an attempt to make clubs attractive prospects for outside investment.
Changes proposed by prominent figures
Among them is Martin Kind, the Hannover 96 president who attempted, unsuccessfully, to be granted an exemption from 50+1 in order to take full control of the club. Jordanian investor Hasan Ismaik has attempted to pull off a similar deal at 1860 Munich as the club, who have won a Bundesliga title and reached a European final, slipped down to the fourth tier before their promotion to the third division last term.
Kind and Ismaik are far from alone in their stance, Bayern Munich chairman Karl-Heinz Rummenigge voiced his opposition to 50+1 last year.
"I hope that the DFL will release clubs from this rule," he said. "Every club should decide for themselves whether they open their doors for investors, how they open their doors or whether they do at all." RB Leipzig coach Julian Nagelsmann echoed that perspective, saying "traditional clubs must try to use their status to motivate investors," while Arsenal's German goalkeeper Bernd Leno called the opposition to investors "stupid".
While a move towards the English model would, in the minds of these men and others, allow German sides to be more competitive in the transfer market and on the European stage, most matchgoing fans would be vehemently opposed to any such changes.
Two sides to the story
Further afield, the German model is increasingly coming to be regarded as more democratic and a way to keep clubs closer to the communities they are supposed to serve. England women's coach Phil Neville, whose late father worked at the club as a director and whose mother resigned as club secretary last week, gave the BBC just one personal insight into how important those community ties are.
"To consider today they might not have a football club, for me it's so upsetting," the former Manchester United and England player said. "My mum is devastated. She resigned on Friday because she couldn't work with the current ownership. Common sense has to prevail. One man cannot stop one football club, which has hundreds of years of history, going out of existence."
Sadly for the Nevilles, those left out of work and out of pocket and the fans of Bury, it seems one man can stop a football club, in England at least. German football may do well to consider the fates of Bury and Bolton as well as those of Manchester City and Chelsea.