It has been quite the arduous journey.
It’s a tired tale at this point, but, in 2019, Bury FC as the world of football knew them were suffocating under a mountain of debt, and were expelled from the EFL League One in August of that year, before officially entering administration in the next years November. It was a situation that the club seemed it may never recover from. Bury AFC almost immediately sprang up as a phoenix club, and began to follow in the steps of AFC Wimbledon, as well as helping to pave the way for future clubs who were victims of severe financial mismanagement, such as Macclesfield FC.
Bury AFC would officially take to the pitch in the 2020/21 campaign, competing in the NWCFL First Division North. Their journey to the EFL, where their predecessors had been sitting pretty, began at the Neuven Stadium, home to fellow Greater Manchester outfit Radcliffe FC. Meanwhile, their old home of Gigg Lane was put up for sale by administrators. Purchasing the ground at that time was a pipe dream’s pipe dream for AFC, but, as fate would have it, there was another group of Shakers determined to rescue the club.
Two groups, the Bury FC Supporters Society Ltd. and Gigg Lane Propco Ltd., came together to form a company called Gigg Lane Stadium Limited. It would be this company name that would be announced as the new official owners of the stadium in February 2022, and, in that same purchase, Gigg Lane Stadium Limited also got their hands on the trading name “Bury FC”, as well as all existing memorabilia associated with the club.
So that was the situation. One party, the Shakers Community, owned Bury AFC, had a team and manager, and had been playing football for 3 years. The other party, the Bury FC Supporters Society, had the name rights to Bury FC and the keys to Gigg Lane. After an initial vote to merge both companies fell through in October 2022, a second merger vote in May 2023 passed overwhelmingly, and it was made official – Bury FC would be back at Gigg Lane for the 2023/24 season in the NWCFL Premier Division, and it would be the players and management team from Bury AFC who would be wearing white and blue on matchdays.
In fact, Bury FC would be back at Gigg Lane way before the official NWCFL season got underway. As they would ahead of any other campaign, Bury went about setting up their pre-season fixtures, but the occasion of the club’s resurrection made for more significant viewing than most other friendlies going on at the time, to the point where teams much further up the English football pyramid began to take notice. The weekend of the 8th and 9th of July would be a seismic one for the town of Bury, as they would host their first 2 games in as many days back at Gigg Lane, against EFL opposition.
Their first match would be on the Saturday against League Two outfit Bradford City, managed by legendary Manchester United forward Mark Hughes. Had the day been about the scoreline, it would have made for sorry viewing from a Shakers perspective, as the visiting Bantams ran out 6-0 winners thanks to goals from Alex Pattison, Emmanuel Osadebe, Liam Ridehalgh, Matt Derbyshire, Jamie Walker, and last season’s outright League Two top scorer, Andy Cook.
Of course, the result was perhaps the least important thing that the fans took from the match. It was Bury FC at Gigg Lane for the first time in 4 years, and, as I write this, I am aware of how much I sound like a broken record, but it really does mean that much to the community. And, after attending their second game of the weekend against Championship side Preston North End, I know I’m not the only one who thinks so.
In their clash with the Lilywhites, the Shakers would again be undone by league opposition, with goals without reply from Kian Taylor, Lewis Leigh and Kitt Nelson ensuring that a very young Preston side came away with the plaudits. However, like their match against Bradford, the scoreline was not the point of this game.
Speaking to Bury gaffer Andy Welsh post-match, he said that “it was always going to be a tough game, especially after Bradford yesterday. But the main thing for this weekend was to get people in the ground, back supporting Bury FC. It’s nice to play those types of teams, and we tried to play the right way – the easiest thing today might’ve been to try and launch the ball and get it as far from our goal as possible, but that’s not the way that we want to play. There’s areas we need to improve on, but that’s what pre-season is for.”
He also described both games against EFL opposition as “a bit of a reality check as to where the club is. Yes, we’ve got a league stadium, but we’re going to have to fight and scrap, and claw our way back up through the levels.” When discussing the other friendlies that Bury have on their schedule, Welsh said that they were “still really tough tests against the likes of 1874 Northwich (which Bury went on to win 4-3 in a firecracker of a match), and then Macclesfield away, which will be a really tough game. We’re working towards wanting to play a certain way, and being really energetic, and we will use those games for that.”
Away from the pitch, Welsh also described the occasion itself as “absolutely huge for the community, for the town. We want to make sure that every single fan believes they are involved, and that they’re part of the football club, and like I’ve said since day one, it’s about us running as hard as we can on the pitch to emulate the hard work that they’ve done off the pitch to get the club back here.” This was a sentiment that would be echoed by his opposite number from the game against Preston.
Current PNE manager Ryan Lowe is a man that needs no introduction to the Bury faithful, as he made himself a fan favourite as a player over 3 stints up front for the club. He then took the managerial reigns in the 2018/19 season and got the club promoted to League One – the calm right before the financial storm that saw Bury put out of action. His appearance in the dugout for Sunday’s friendly was greeted with chants from the Bury fans who remember him so well, and he was kind enough to speak to me after the game.
“I’m glad to see them back playing in a Bury FC shirt, and at Gigg Lane. It means so much to those fans. There’s a lot of Bury fans that I’m still close with, the community is massive for them, you saw a large part of their fanbase coming out today, and that’s what they’ve got to have. They’ve got to stick by the players, stick with the manager, and they’ll be fine. It’s just a positive vibe all around now that they’ve merged, and I know I’ll be rooting for them.”
In a game that obviously meant more to the hosts than the visitors, it certainly wasn’t a wasted trip for Lowe and his young squad. “It’s obviously about match fitness for our lads, but I wanted to see them going up against a team from non-league, that are a bit rough and ready. Some of our players are used to just pretty football but when you come to non-league teams you are going to have to fight your way through battles and I was certainly pleased with the way our lads did that today.”
Lowe was also in agreement that Bury’s return was good not just for the community around the club itself, but also for the wider game. “Anyone will want to come and play for this club, because of the history and where it’s been, and to come and play at this ground every other Saturday, whether that’s the Bury players or whoever they’re up against, is massive. Once everything is sorted in this stadium, there’s probably going to be 2,500 or 3,000 fans – I’ve been here when it’s been packed to the rafters – and I know it’s non-league but Bury just want their football back at Gigg Lane and they’ve got it, and that’s what’s really important.”
As briefly mentioned earlier, Bury have since gone on to get their first win back at Gigg Lane in a pre-season friendly against 1874 Northwich, with Sajjad Elhassan’s opener sure to be a goal that goes down in the history books of the club, even if it was a 2-yard tap-in. Their first competitive game back home will be their first NWCFL Prem fixture of 2023/24 against newly-relegated Glossop North End. If any game is destined to sell-out on the opening weekend in the new NWCFL season, it’s got to be this one, and I’m sure that it will be the first of many.