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Rising from the ashes – a year with phoenix club Bury AFC

Player Liam MacDevitt gives us an insight into the setting up of a brand new football club in Bury, which has divided opinion in the town

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Ciaran Varley
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“Everyone's going through a difficult time and there's football back in Bury, so why not be a part of that journey?” says Bury AFC striker Liam MacDevitt. 

In August 2019, 134 years after they were established, Bury Football Club were expelled from the English Football League after the EFL found that the club were unable to pay off creditors. Under owner Stewart Day, the club had run up massive debts. Businessman Steve Dale bought the club for £1 in 2018, but the financial woes continued.

Bury's expulsion left locals without a team to watch, and local pubs and takeaways without matchday punters. That’s until a group of fans, with no prior experience of running a football club, set up a new team: Bury AFC.

The BBC spent much of the past year filming their attempts to bring football back to the town.

Chris Murray, who previously worked in marketing, is the chair of the new phoenix club.

“I don’t want my kids to grow up without a team to support,” he says in the film.

Recently, the newly formed club played their first game in the North West Counties League First Division North, which is the 10th tier of the English football pyramid (six below where Bury FC played in League Two).

Twenty-five-year-old MacDevitt - who also presents for the BBC and CBBC - is one of the players on board.

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“When I heard that there was a phoenix club forming, led by fans, I just dropped Andy Welsh, the manager, a message,” he tells us. “I couldn’t believe another club had been allowed to get into that position. It means so much to so many people.” 

MacDevitt, who started his career at Yeovil Town and played for a brief time with Stoke City, tells us that he was excited about the Bury AFC project, despite having options playing in higher divisions. 

“I had to consider that I wouldn’t be playing at the level I’m used to playing at, but the pros of the project definitely outweigh that,” he tells us. 

The team’s manager, Andy Welsh, who previously played in the Premier League with Sunderland, describes the formation of the club by saying in the film: “It was a dream. Now it’s a reality.”

He had three weeks to pull a team of players together.

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MacDevitt gives us a bit of an insight into what that was like.

“We didn't even have training kits when I arrived,” he says. “You don't normally start with 16 brand new players either.”

The motto of Bury AFC is: "By the fans, for the fans." Unlike Bury FC, the phoenix club is 100% owned by fans, who can become voting shareholders of the Shakers Community Society through a £5 monthly subscription, which allows them to influence the future of the club.

This was one of the things that attracted MacDevitt.

“One of the things I know that a lot of effort and time went into was the crest and the kit and consulting with fans to make it feel authentic and part of their community,” he tells us. “So, for example, the home kit’s got the names of all the first members on the back, which is incredible.” 

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In the film, Murray explains how quickly membership caught on.

“We said, if we got 250 members in the first six months, then we’d be happy,” he says. “We’ve got 325 people signed up – we’ve done it in seven days.” 

However, not everyone in the town is on board. Some staunch Bury FC fans do not back the formation of the new club. In the film, Murray elaborates on some of the criticism he and the other board members have received.

“We’ve been called rats, thieves, losers,” he says.

Before Bury FC were expelled, fan Joy Hart protested against the ownership of the club by handcuffing herself to the stadium, Gigg Lane. Her father, Les Hart, is a Bury legend and has a stand at the ground named after him. She’s a sceptic.

“I have nothing against the phoenix club,” she says in the film. “There is only one Bury Football Club – let me stress that.” 

MacDevitt tells us he doesn’t see it as "new Bury vs old Bury". 

“I'm sure it's different to watching a gaming in the Football League,” he says. “The pitches aren't great, you might have to stand up to watch and the ball might spend a bit more time in the air, plus there might be the odd dog around the side of the pitch, but it's just football in Bury and, if you care about that, then I don't see why you shouldn't get on board with the pilot.”

Of course, one of the massive challenges for Bury AFC has been trying to get things organised during the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

MacDevitt is frustrated by this: “I think the most important part about being in a community club is that you see faces and you catch up with your friends over a pie or a pint," he says.

It remains to be seen when football can resume with fans as normal. In the meantime, MacDevitt wants the town to back the phoenix club.

“Bury FC might never return, but why not support and be part of being building something yourself? For me, it's a no-brainer.”