Bury and Bolton Wanderers crisis: What next for the EFL?

By Andrew AloiaBBC Sport
Bury fan stands at the gates of Gigg Lane
Bury failed to start life in League One after being promoted from England's fourth tier last season

Bury expelled one day, Bolton Wanderers battling to avoid extinction the next.

Major financial problems have wrecked one club, left fans of both devastated and sent communities reeling. Football in England is left to deal with its highest-profile autopsy in a generation.

"We need to learn some lessons," said English Football League executive chair Debbie Jevans just hours after Bury were kicked out League One.

Sports Minister Nigel Adams says it is "right they closely review the processes at Bury", which culminated in "a very dark day for English football".

Damian Collins, who chairs the Digital, Culture, Media and Sports Committee, said they will discuss how to "review the role of the football authorities in this crisis".

To find out what might actually happen next, BBC Sport spoke to a national fans' organisation and a leading football finance expert, who described the issues at Bury and Bolton as just the "tip of the iceberg".

Is an inquest needed?

Bury, who were expelled from the Football League on Tuesday, and Bolton, who were saved from liquidation less than 24 hours later, have endured difficult times in recent years.

Last December, Steve Dale purchased Bury for just £1 from Stewart Day, who left the club with debts which contributed to interested bidders C&N saying they pulled out of a last-ditch takeover because of "insurmountable" financial challenges.

Under the cloud of financial troubles last season, Bury went on to secure a remarkable promotion to the third tier - despite players frequently being paid late and the Professional Footballers' Association having to step in to provide assistance.

Bolton, meanwhile, had been in administration since May and have found themselves in court at least once a year since 2015.

In 2017, a company which owned more than a third of shares in the club was wound up - and that was after former owner Ken Anderson had reportedly been paid £525,000 in consultancy fees.external-link

Despite their issues, both clubs played on. Or they did until teams could no longer be fielded and the EFL was forced to act to try to preserve the integrity of the competition.

Ashley Brown of the Football Supporters' Association (FSA), a national fans group that has lobbied for greater regulation of owners and club finances in recent years, said "unless something is done to help, then other clubs will follow".

"In the last few years these sorts of problems (insolvency events) haven't been particularly common and to see Bolton and Bury happen at the same time is tragic," he told BBC Sport.

"But what we have to realise is that these problems have been allowed to develop over a number of years and a number of events have been able to take place that has meant their survival hangs by a thread.

"You can no longer brush this under the carpet."

The EFL is already undergoing a governance review,external-link which Jevans has previously said will look at "what the league needs to focus on to address the well-documented challenges of the recent past".

Dr Rob Wilson, a sport finance expert at Sheffield Hallam University, believes the "short-term" reaction should be an independent review.

"It might even need to be at government level," he said.

"I'm not a fan of government intervention, because I don't think they have any right to get under the skin of football, but these are community assets and you need to look after them a bit better."

How wide is the problem?

As a business, football outside England's top flight is difficult.

In the Premier League, 12 of 20 clubs reported profits in their latest accounts, with a combined surplus of £304m. For the 72 clubs below the top flight which makes up the EFL, 75% of clubs recorded losses, with a combined deficit totalling £388m.

The Premier League's latest three-year broadcast deal is worth more than £5bn, while the EFL's came to £595m over five years.

Fans say Bury is a 'club, not a team' and a place to escape to 'something different'

Although the struggles of both clubs have come into sharp focus in League One, 12 months ago Bury were embarking on life in League Two and Bolton were preparing for a season of struggle in the Championship.

Wilson says 20% of clubs in the EFL "are just not sustainable".

"Bury and Bolton are the tip of the iceberg," he said. "The bottom line is that there has been bad decision making.

"Regardless of what the motivations were (at Bury), the fact they have got themselves into such a financial mess is because they have made poor financial decisions for a period of time."

Is there an impact on other clubs?

With Bury expelled from League One, every club will play two games fewer and host one game less.

In England's third division, that comes as a financial blow.

"The attention is rightly on the situation at Bury right now, but if you are one of the other clubs in that league losing whatever your average gate is, then that's not good for a club that struggles for finances anyway," said Wilson.

"It is not like they can go out and sign a new commercial deal or new sponsorship, those gate receipts are often the lifeblood of the clubs. They would have budgeted for it as well.

"It raises all sorts of issues - season ticket prices would have been set out as we play 'X' amount of home games a year, so that is what a season ticket is valued at. Do all the clubs in the league now refund a proportion of a season ticket to their fans, or do they say 'guys and girls, we have one less fixture this year'?

"Then there is the secondary spend as well - all the spending on a matchdays at the ground, not to mention all the local businesses that benefit from it as well. You start adding all those lost pounds up on a matchday and it's quite significant across the league as a whole."

What reform is needed?

The FSA says it has been in discussions with both the Football Association and EFL about a number of reforms, from the owners' and directors' test and need for greater financial transparency to fan engagement and 'heritage' protection for clubs and their assets, such as stadiums.

Several months after Dale took over at Bury, it was revealed he did so without full approval from the EFL.

Bolton owner Anderson was disqualified from being a company director for eight years in September 2005 but was still allowed to take over the club.

"What has happened to Bury and Bolton is something that can happen to any club at any time," said Brown.

"Clubs change ownership on a regular basis. You might find yourself with an owner that manages to get your club into trouble."

Away from Bury and Bolton, the sale of stadiums by Derby County, Sheffield Wednesday, Aston Villa and Reading to help them comply with spending rules in the Championship have also provided cause for concern.

Then there are the ongoing issues at Coventry City, a club owned by a hedge fund who no longer play in the city they represent but at St Andrew's, home of Birmingham City.

In League Two, Macclesfield Town, one of a number of clubs in the EFL who have struggled to pay wages, were taken to court by players over the late payment of their salaries.

But it is the plight of the Shakers and Wanderers, Wilson believes, which should now prompt major change.

"Tear up the rule book and start again," he suggested.

"The case has had so much profile because we've had a couple of clubs in the same situation, the time is right for the EFL to say they are going to review all procedures for fit and proper persons, on due diligence and what we expect from a regulatory point of view.

"Transparency is key to all of it."

What could be done?

Wilson says greater scrutiny of club finances can help deal with issues, with a move towards the German licensing system, in which all teams have their "economic performance" and a range of other requirements assessed on a yearly basis.

The Bundesliga website saysexternal-link the system "ensures that no club from the top two tiers would find themselves in a situation of being unable to complete a league campaign due to financial deficiencies".

Bury, by contrast, failed to even start their season.

"Each club needs to submit a much more robust business plan in order to get their golden share for the upcoming season," said Wilson.

"It includes a very clear budget that talks about financial position and performance because it is no good looking at financial accounts as they are always 12 months out of date.

"In England they should be forecasting that through their management accounts, which they can do, and submit that to the EFL for consideration.

"The EFL has got to do some regulatory work, regardless, to protect the integrity and the future of their member clubs."

Meanwhile, FSA wants to see a structural change in professional club football, with the FA playing a key role while the influence of owners is checked.

"What we need is an element of independent regulation in football and, when we talk of independence, it is independence from club owners," said Brown, whose role at the FSA is focused on governance issues and working with fans of crisis clubs.

"The problem with reform has been that to get significant improvements in governance, those rule changes need to be voted for by the very club owners themselves.

"We've always felt the Football Association should do it, that they should create a new organisation under their control.

"We do feel that control should remain within football but, if the FA fails or refuses to do this, then maybe we have to look at government support or have some sort of government watchdog as you see in other industries in this country."

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