Bury The Hatchet: How football returned to Gigg Lane four years after Bury went bust

Bury FC
(Image credit: Getty)

Every new football season brings with it fresh hope for fans across the country. But perhaps nowhere will a set of supporters be more excited about a return to action than Bury’s. “The first game is going to be very, very special indeed,” Shakers fan Tom Pickup tells FFT ahead of the new campaign. “I can’t wait to be back on the terraces with everybody, cheering the side on again.” 

The reason for Bury fans’ eagerness? The 2023-24 season marks the club’s return to the football pyramid, four years after they were expelled by the EFL over financial mismanagement. And if that wasn’t exciting enough, the two-time FA Cup winners are also going home to Gigg Lane, which has laid dormant since 2019’s gut-wrenching punishment.

“Being back at Gigg Lane is the cherry on top for all associated with the club,” Andy Welsh, who will lead the team into their new era as manager, tells FFT. “To have all of the supporters back together, after such a fractious time, will be special.”

Fractious is an understatement. Since Bury were run into the ground under former chairman Steve Dale’s disastrous ownership, there have been two distinct factions. Those who set up phoenix club Bury AFC, representing the town in non-league over the past three seasons, and those who considered themselves loyal to a club which, since 2019, has existed only as a business entity, with no matches, players or staff. 

“It’s been so hard seeing a fanbase, one which had already been through so much heartache as the club was taken away from them in the first place, reduced to squabbling and sniping,” says Pickup, who always supported resurrecting the old club rather than starting again. “There is a lot of hurt still being carried by fans on both sides. Things aren’t going to heal overnight but, hopefully now we’re reunited, we’ll slowly see people coming together for the good of the club.” 

Fittingly, it required the two groups coming together to resurrect Bury FC ahead of 2023-24. Those loyal to the old club, led by fan group Est.1885, acquired Gigg Lane, the trading name, memorabilia and history of Bury in February 2022 but, to misquote The Lord of the Rings’ Boromir, one does not simply walk back into the pyramid. An application to enter the Northern Premier League was swiftly rejected. 

“The EFL have certain rules for clubs that have been kicked out due to financial mismanagement,” explains Pickup. “You’re not allowed to just bring in new owners and start playing straight away. That wouldn’t be deemed enough of a punishment according to the powers that be. We were told we might even need to wait as many as five years before we could rejoin at some level. It was frustrating.” The setbacks led to heightened talks over a merger with thriving Bury AFC, who had the infrastructure in place to host matches – groundsharing at Stainton Park, home of Radcliffe FC, since 2020-21 – as well as a spot in the ninth-tier North West Counties Premier Division, finishing fourth last term. 

“We were proud of what we’d achieved over the past few years,” recounts Welsh, who was appointed the phoenix club’s first manager back in 2020, pipping more than 750 applicants to the coveted role. They secured promotion from the 10th tier in their second season. “Starting off from scratch is never easy as a football club, but we’ve played some good football and helped bring parts of the community together. 

Bury FC manager Andy Welsh

(Image credit: Getty)

“We’ve given people something to cheer about. But we now felt ready to take the next step in terms of becoming a united club again. Hopefully, we’ll kick on from here as one club. It’s a massive opportunity for me and everyone associated with this football club.” An initial attempt to join forces last October fell just short of the two-thirds majority required, but a second round this May saw the motion pass with 90 per cent approval. 

The merger meant the reunited Bury could qualify for additional funding, with £450,000 pocketed from Bury Council and more than £300,000 coming from a special government levelling-up fund. That’s on top of £700,000 already promised to help turn Gigg Lane back into a community hub, after councillors recognised the anguish that has haunted the town since Bury went under in 2019. The vacant stadium was vandalised and used as a rubbish dump in the intervening years, but that has now been cleared away by volunteers, with restorations underway to return the Shakers’ spiritual home to its former glory before the start of the new campaign. 

There can be no hiccups. The united supporters voted in May in favour of making Gigg Lane the official home ground of the revived Bury ahead of the upcoming season, as well as changing the name of the merged, fan-owned entity to Bury Football Club. It was crucial to Pickup and other loyalists that the old name be kept. “We will be called Bury FC again,” he says now. “It’s more than a name. It’s our identity. The merger could never have gone through without that. Myself and others would never have gone for it.” 

Bury FC fans

(Image credit: Getty)

For manager Welsh, overseeing a new era for a club with more than 138 years of history is an exciting prospect. “There’s been a lot of background noise over the past few years but, now everyone is back together, it’s going to be an incredible atmosphere at matches. We’ll have bigger crowds, at a classic old ground, more money thanks to fans and investors and hopefully we can use that and push on.” 

That being said, Welsh is also aware of the added scrutiny and pressures that come with managing a club with a name last seen on League One fixture lists, six divisions up. “We’ll be the team every club wants to beat next season,” the former Sunderland midfielder says. “Every game will be like a cup final. We want to get out of this league. We want to get Bury back where it belongs, further up the pyramid. But we can only do that if everyone is united and right behind us from the very first whistle in August. I can’t wait to get out there.” 

Pickup agrees that togetherness will be key, after things collapsed under former owner Dale. “It doesn’t matter if it’s non-league football or higher up the leagues, we need to unite and stand behind the team,” he continues. “Ask any Bury fan, no matter what side of the divide they’ve found themselves on in recent years, having a team to cherish and support is the most important thing. It’s an escape for fans that can’t be replaced. Now, we’ll finally have a chance to stand together, sing songs, support Bury and celebrate the hard work fans have put in to resurrect the thing we hold dear.” Fans across the nation will be cheering their teams on as soon as that first ball is kicked. But, perhaps, none quite as loud as Bury’s.

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