BURY, England -- The bailiffs turned up to collect the treadmills from Bury's training ground last Friday. Considering that the League One team's players had been paid six weeks' wages by the club over the past six months, there was no surprise among the squad to see the debt collectors take away the most basic of equipment, but it was a grim warning of what was to come. "The bailiffs took the anti-gravity treadmill, too," Bury defender Tom Miller told ESPN FC as he waited for news on the club's future.
"It's all a bit of mess, to be honest."
Friday, Aug. 23, was D-Day. Bury, formed in 1885, had a 5 p.m. deadline to find new owners if they were to stave off expulsion from the Football League (EFL). They were given one final extension following the emergence of a bid and optimism rose that the club could be saved, but at 11 p.m. on Tuesday, the axe fell after a proposed takeover collapsed.
"I'm all over the place," a Bury player told ESPN FC following confirmation of the club's fate. "I've got no money coming in now and my missus is pregnant. I'm f----d."
Welcome to life away from the Premier League. This is League One, English football's third tier, two promotions away from the self-styled "most exciting league in the world" and where an increasing number of clubs are struggling to pay the bills.
Bury, FA Cup winners in 1900 and 1903, are the first club to be kicked out of the league since Maidstone United in August 1992 after being unable to escape their financial tailspin and with Premier League riches barely trickling down to the lower leagues, Bury may prove to be the tip of the iceberg. Bury's training ground, which they have used rent-free from Manchester City, the facility's owner, is a five-minute drive to Manchester United's Carrington training centre, but they may as well be worlds apart. And just over 12 miles from Bury's Gigg Lane stadium, their home since 1885, the story is threatening to be similarly bleak at Bolton.
Bolton Wanderers are a founding member of the Football League in 1888 and were a Premier League club as recently as 2012. The four-time FA Cup winners have been given 14 days to resolve their own financial difficulties and, on Wednesday, it appeared that they have: it was announced that they have been sold.
Their next home game, on Sept. 8, was supposed to be against Bury, but it will not happen. The match had been dubbed "El Brassico" by supporters. In these parts of northern England, "brassic" is slang for having no money to live or pay the bills, so it was an appropriate tagline for a meeting between two financially crippled neighbours.
A Premier League club between 2001 and 2012, Bolton suffered successive five-goal losses against Ipswich Town last Saturday and Tranmere Rovers the week before.
Against Ipswich, Bolton's players wore a store-bought kit that is not even available to purchase in the club shop because nobody is prepared to offer them a kit deal or pay to sponsor the shirts. When Ipswich scored their third, the giant scoreboard inside the University of Bolton Stadium stopped showing the score, perhaps to save the four 17-year-olds playing for the managerless team the psychological scars of seeing the scoreline in big neon lights.
"Credit to the fans," said Jimmy Phillips, Bolton's caretaker manager, after the game. "They were outstanding for us. They've turned up and got behind the players, but patience is running thin."
Patience, hope and certainty. All are in perilously short supply right now.
Bury and Bolton both started this season on -12 points, the penalty applied by the EFL for entering administration (a legal mechanism that allows insolvent companies to continue trading while facing serious cash-flow problems). The action was due to mounting debts and the inability of each club to pay their creditors.
Businessman Steve Dale bought Bury for £1 last December from Stewart Day, but the club's debts were not cleared and wages for players and staff have not been paid in full for over six months. Local companies have also gone unpaid and the club's financial situation was deemed so grave by the EFL at the beginning of this season that they were blocked from playing competitive fixtures until they were able to prove that funds were in place to complete a full campaign.
They've not been able to play a single game.
"It's been a nightmare," Miller said. "[We've been] training all week and not having a game to focus on at the end of it. The lads that are still here decided to go out to the pub after training last Friday, just to let off some steam."
Dale has been vilified by fans for failing to secure the club's future, but a proposed takeover by C&N Sporting Risk collapsed on Tuesday, 75 minutes before the EFL's 5 p.m. deadline, leaving Bury at the mercy of the League's board.
"We've had enough of this," said Dave Giffard, chair of Bury Supporters' group, Forever Bury, as the fans waited in hope for an unlikely saviour. "It's been years since we've had a stable club and that's what we want. We want to build a solid community club here.
"As a Trust, we've spent £36,000 to date on legal and consultancy fees, working separately from the club to try to save it. We've dealt with about a dozen prospective buyers but I say that loosely because a lot of them have just been sharks circling around." (Even in the hours after Bury's expulsion, one consortium claimed to have the funds available to save the club.)
At Bolton, where senior players went on strike in April over unpaid wages, owner Ken Anderson appeared to have struck a deal to sell the club to Football Ventures last Friday. But that collapsed on Saturday morning, prompting the administrator to threaten liquidation this week unless a deal was done by 5 p.m. Tuesday: the same time as Bury's moment of truth.
Bolton were given an extra two weeks to find a solution, and subsequently have, but Bury had used up all of their chances, with the EFL withdrawing their membership of the league due to "repeated missed deadlines, the suspension of five league fixtures, in addition to not receiving the evidence we required in regard to financial commitments and a possible takeover not materialising."
On Wednesday, roughly 100 people gathered at Gigg Lane following the club's expulsion. The groundsman turned up on time for work but with no need to cut the grass.
Following a summer of financial turmoil at Bury, after winning promotion from League Two in May, the club had just four players on permanent contracts by this Tuesday. One of them, 29-year-old defender Miller, has spent the past month recovering from an injury which he attributes to the cash-flow problems that have left Bury on the brink of liquidation.
"I fractured the fifth metatarsal in my foot," Miller told ESPN FC. "It was down to the pitches at the training ground being so hard because they haven't been watered or looked after. Some of the other lads have suffered back problems for the same reason.
"The ceiling tiles in the dressing rooms are hanging down from the roof and the swimming pool has only just been cleaned up, because that was in a real state. But we've trained since July 1, keeping going for when we can play again."
It is not just Bury and Bolton who have been living a hand-to-mouth existence in English football's lower leagues.
Sol Campbell, the former Arsenal and England defender, left his job as Macclesfield Town manager in early August after not being paid for four months. Oldham Athletic called Bury to ask for 16 parking spaces ahead of last season's League Two meeting because they were in debt to the bus company and had asked their players to drive themselves to the game.
Yet Bolton's plight is perhaps the most shocking. Between 2001 and 2012, they were an established Premier League outfit and qualified for the Europa League twice, where they defeated Atletico Madrid and drew with Bayern Munich in the Allianz Arena. Players such as Youri Djorkaeff, Nicolas Anelka and U.S. midfielder Stuart Holden were all signed by the club.
"They were great days," former striker Kevin Davies told ESPN FC. "The club employed the best people around and we regularly beat the likes of Manchester United and Liverpool. The situation now is incredibly sad."
Under manager Sam Allardyce, Bolton were lauded as an example to all clubs of a similar size below England's elite. Allardyce brought in cutting-edge ideas, employing experts such as psychologists, data analysts and even an eye-muscle coach well before Premier League rivals adopted similar methods. He built a "War Room" at Bolton's Euxton training ground, with the temperature designed to be at the optimum level (18 degrees Celsius, 64 degrees Fahrenheit) for clarity of thought, and his players used a cryotherapy chamber to boost recovery from injury.
Bolton slid out of the Premier League in 2012, relegated by one point to the Championship on the final day of the season following a 2-2 draw at Stoke. Had they not conceded a 90th-minute equaliser at home to West Brom a week earlier, Bolton would have escaped. As post-Premier League finances began to take a nosedive, the Euxton complex was sold to Wigan Athletic for £2m, despite over £10m of investment in the facility, as the fire sale began in January 2016, long after the cryotherapy chamber had been turned into a storage cupboard.
The Premier League is now a distant memory at Bolton, where manager Phil Parkinson resigned last week. His sudden exit came two days after the club called off their home game against Doncaster Rovers, citing "welfare concerns" over the teenage players being forced to shoulder the burden of playing professional football for the crisis-ridden side.
Reality bites hard, and the pain has been felt by many of the club's staff, some of whom had to rely on food banks last season due to their wages going unpaid for over a month. One sponsor, a local pie-making company, has offered free food to staff on matchdays this season in a gesture of solidarity.
"The club still owe me six weeks' wages," one club employee told ESPN FC. "I haven't got myself into debt yet, but it's been tough and I had to use the food banks, like a lot of the staff here. Everton donated towards it and Preston sent over £2,000 worth of vouchers for Sainsbury's -- so football has rallied round for us. But it's been really tough for everyone, especially those who experienced the good times in the Premier League."
Despite the financial hardship endured by many at Bolton, there remains a sense of togetherness among the staff. One employee has secured a job at Manchester City, but with Bolton struggling for staff who could work the Ipswich game, she gave up a free Saturday to do her old job for nothing.
Bolton's story is different to Bury's. Bankrolled by Eddie Davies, a Bolton-born fan who amassed a multimillion-pound fortune by manufacturing thermostats for kettles, the ride to the top was a story about living for today and hoping that the Premier League prize money continued to roll in. But relegation in 2012 triggered the financial meltdown, with Davies cutting off his funding while he sought a buyer. When he sold the club in March 2016 to former player Dean Holdsworth and Switzerland-based former football agent Anderson (who was disqualified in September 2005 from being a company director for eight years after eight of his companies went bankrupt), Davies wrote off £197.9m in loans. That left the new owners to deal with the remaining £20m of debt owed to other creditors.
Bury, on the other hand, has skated on thin ice for too long. Until the early 1990s, the club was given special dispensation by the EFL to kick-off at 3.15 p.m. on Saturday because the Gigg Lane Social Club did not close until 3 p.m. and kicking off at that time, like everybody else, would diminish takings at the bar. In 2001-02, fans collected money in buckets before games in order to keep the club in business while in December 2012, they were placed under a transfer embargo because of financial problems.
Sources have told ESPN FC, however, that Bury's highest-paid player last season was earning £8,000 per week, with the average League Two wage less than £1,500 per week, making their situation perhaps inevitable. To place the overspending into greater context, Wigan Athletic won League One in 2017-18 with an average weekly wage of £5,385, the highest in the division.
Miller, who signed a two-year contract in June 2018, admits it has been tough.
"The PFA [Professional Footballers' Association] have helped out for four months, but they've only paid us half our monthly wages on interest-free loans. It all has to be paid back if, or when, the club pay us what we are owed," Miller told ESPN FC. "When we won promotion last season, we earned a £200,000 squad bonus, but none of us has been paid any of that.
"A lot of the lads have left and signed for other clubs. I've had a couple of offers, but I would have to relocate and financially, it's not something I can consider at the moment."
With Bury hopeful of playing their first game of the season, at home to Doncaster this Saturday, the club asked for volunteers to help clean the seats at Gigg Lane ahead of the weekend. On Monday, they tweeted an appeal for help, as there was just "one man in a van" who was clearing rubbish away from the stadium. Over 400 turned up on Tuesday to help clean the stadium, but it proved to be a heartbreaking late show of support from a community about to lose its football club.
"The effect it will have on the town is much bigger than simply losing a football club," David Jones, leader of Bury Council said. "The town's DNA, the whole economy, businesses that are supported by this club will be devastated. I shudder to think what the long-term prospects will be."
Bury's fate has prompted calls for a change in the way football does business. Andy Burnham, the Mayor of Greater Manchester and a previous Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, spoke at Gigg Lane last week about the need for the game to change at every level.
"The game does need to have a look at itself when just a couple of weeks' wages in the Premier League could keep a proud old team like this [Bury] in business for a year," Burnham said.
"The football family needs to come up with a better solution and start regulating money and business interests in the game much more directly. I've long argued for a statutory regulator for football and I think it is still needed because football has never stood up to the financial vested interests in the game."
Perhaps change will only come now that a club as historic as Bury has gone under. But is that too high a price to pay?
"I earned £100 a week when I played for Bury in the 1980s and the faces you saw back then are still going to games now," Jamie Hoyland, the former Bury midfielder, told ESPN FC. "I went back to Bury last week and one of them said to me, 'This is my community. I see the same people at every home game, the same faces, yet I don't know where they live. I only see them at Gigg Lane.
"If the club closes down, I'll never see them again. That's what it means."