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  • Bolton and Bury are two of England's most traditional clubs, and they've both been left fighting for survival amid dire financial woes. What does that say about the future of the community clubs?
By Jonathan Wilson
August 27, 2019

What is football for? Why do football clubs exist? Those are questions that have perhaps never felt more pertinent than they do now, when the superclubs, groaning with the ennui of their own perpetual success, lobby for a superleague, while two of England’s most traditional clubs, Bolton Wanderers and Bury, around since 1888 and 1894, respectively, are fighting grimly for survival.

It’s easy to be naïve or romantic about this. Many of the early clubs were founded with noble aims, to give the local youth or members of a profession access to sport and competition. The ideals of Muscular Christianity, which saw robust physical exercise as a positive in its own right, a means of toughening the spirit, were never far below the surface. But the clubs who dominated the league in the early days–Preston North End, Aston Villa and Sunderland–did so by buying top-class Scottish professionals. Liverpool and Chelsea were founded by the owners of stadiums specifically to attract paying spectators. Since the coming of professionalism and perhaps before, money has underpinned the game.

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And of course no club has a divine right to exist. If a club overextends itself to the point of bankruptcy, then there is a time when the financial last rites have to be read. It does nobody any good to keep terminal cases on life support forever. It is one of the cruelties of the current regulations that football creditors have to be paid first: when a club goes into administration, the people who miss out are often local businesses–caterers, decorators, coach firms–and the St John’s ambulance service.

But while acknowledging all of that, all the grim realities, the specific failures of directors and chairmen at Bury and Bolton, the weird complacency and inertia of the authorities, there is a fundamental point at stake.

Bolton and Bury have each represented their communities for more than a century. They are those towns’ projection into the world. Ask somebody what they know of Bolton and, although it’s possible they might mention Fred Dibnah, the steeplejack who used to present history programmes on television in the 1980s, or comedian Peter Kay, far more likely is that they speak of football, of Nat Lofthouse and victory over Manchester United in the 1958 FA Cup final, three months after the Munich air disaster; or of Frank Worthington’s impudent sock-down brilliance of the late 70s; or of Sam Allardyce’s implausible legion of Jay-Jay Okocha, Youri Djorkaeff and Ivan Campo a quarter of a century later. Ask of Bury, and people may know about the fabled back puddings, but mostly they will know of a lower division club that, until Man City matched its feat this year, was the one side to win an FA Cup final 6-0, doing so in 1903.

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This is what the grand old clubs become: for all the frustration of the decades, for all the mismanagement and the feckless players, the costly refereeing decisions and the moments of misfortune, they are repositories of folk memory, they are the souls of their communities. They are employers and draw people to towns that are otherwise obscure, left behind by the retreat of manufacturing, and their disappearance would mean job losses both direct and indirect. But there is a sense in which the symbolic impact of the death of a club might be even greater.

But where in the modern world is there a place for such vessels? Many of the superclubs represent their communities in only the loosest sense–and even those who do make efforts to embrace the locale can often seem worryingly tone-deaf and exploitative, as Liverpool’s attempt to trademark the word “Liverpool” shows. They are global brands, owned by foreigners, managed by foreigners, staffed by foreigners and supported by foreigners–they just happen to play in England, Spain or Germany.

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Put in that framing and the loss of the local in the face of an assault from globalization starts to sound like part of a far broader conflict taking place in Britain and beyond. How can the two be reconciled? How can we enjoy the benefits of football’s global reach–the brilliant players, the drama, the spectacle–without sacrificing the emotional core that makes football matter in a far more profound way than whose name actually gets engraved on the trophies?

Perhaps we can’t. Perhaps it is a straight choice between the two. But if it is, history tells us wealth and power win and the community clubs will go to the wall. If that is true, it is tragic.

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