Ten months without football: The remarkable story of Bury - who should be playing Sunderland today

“It's your religion, isn't it? It's your way of being.”

It’s easy to forget that Sunderland haven’t had a fixture scheduled on March 21 for several months.

Long before coronavirus reared its head, this weekend was a blank in the Black Cats’ calendar.

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And while supporters face an extended period without football - which is likely to become months, rather than weeks - they should spare a thought to fans of the side who were supposed to visit the Stadium of Light today.

AFC Bury has emerged from the ashes of Bury FC - who were sadly expelled from the EFL in the summerAFC Bury has emerged from the ashes of Bury FC - who were sadly expelled from the EFL in the summer
AFC Bury has emerged from the ashes of Bury FC - who were sadly expelled from the EFL in the summer

Bury haven’t played a competitive game since 4 May; a 1-1 draw at Port Vale which proved to be a premature end to 135 years of history.

For the Shakers were expelled from the EFL in the summer. Years of financial struggles, the catalyst for which were a string of unfit owners, forced the club out of business.

Their home ground of Gigg Lane now stands unused, although ground staff are continuing to ensure the pitch remains in pristine condition. Just in case.

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But for fans, there have been months upon months of free Saturday’s. A lifelong tradition gone, squandered in a matter of days.

“I've got three young kids, so your Saturday's can quite easily be filled with other things,” explains Adam Ingram, a Bury season ticket holder of almost three decades.

“I want my kids to be able to come along to the game like I did with my dad and my family. That was what our Saturday afternoons revolved around.

“I've been a season ticket holder for 25 years now, so it's part of my life to go down to the game every other weekend.

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“It's your religion, isn't it? It's your way of being. You do what you do and it's not been easy to deal with.”

Some fans have found ways to deal with it.

Bury supporters find themselves in an area crammed with other sides, meaning there are plenty of opportunities to get their football fix.

But for some, it doesn’t fill the void left by their beloved Shakers.

“There is an element and a strong element of fans who have just gone right, if it's not Bury it's not nothing,” adds Ingram.

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“I'm not interested in watching anything else. The reason I go and watch football is because of the association with Bury and that's it, and to have that taken away is...yeah.

“We all had our routines we all had our ways of doing things

“You're getting a sense of it in the last few weeks, it's just what do you do with yourself?

“There's no football at all. There's nothing to focus your attention on. there will have been an extent of Bury fans who have gone and got their football fix somewhere.

“But ultimately it's pretty drab.

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“I think overall, it's not the be all and end all unfortunately of life. Everyone will manage to fill it, but to an extent it probably won't be the the fulfilment and the joy that they got before”

So in a bid to bring back that joy, Ingram and an army of fellow volunteers are aiming to bring football back to Bury.

A phoenix club - AFC Bury - were quickly established and look set to take a place in the tenth tier of English football next season.

“Broadly, it started all on the basis that we understood the club could have been possibly days away from actually being liquidated,” says Ingram of the new side.

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“So it was like we had to take the bull by the horns and get something started because we were on a limited timeframe to make applications for a new club to start the year after.

“That was the feeling straightaway, well, if we don't get something submitted by August of this year, or get a club off the ground by this year, then maybe the thirst and the requirement for it will die off and then maybe we'd never we'd never get something going again.

“That was the feeling behind it. Literally, we were waiting for the club to be liquidated by the court process and we were in and out of the court quite a lot.

“And so that was the start of it. Then we got the application submitted in December and then that was ratified by the North West Counties League as being accepted to begin with and now we're on the list.

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“We can't sort of do anything other than that at the minute. They can't tell us which league we're going to be in but we've got a rough idea. We've been recommended to be placed in one of those leagues from the North West Counties point of view.

“All being well we will start when the new season starts at some point.”

For Ingram and dozens of others, this club was far more than a distraction from the sad demise of their former love.

It was a ray of hope. Something for the future.

“The reason behind it was that we felt that after the turmoil that we've been through, it's just you throwing yourself into something positive.

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“That was the main thing; making sure that you've got something to look at, instead of just constantly checking as to where the current football club was up to, are we going to end up playing again next season or?

“We took that sort of worry out of it. It was all like, well, let's focus on something positive. Let's focus on something that we can actively control. And mostly it's worked quite well.”

And even in these dark hours, the footballing world has not forgotten Bury.

Sunderland fans showed that earlier this season, as coaches packed with supporters diverted to Bury en route to Bolton. They parked-up at Gigg Lane and headed to the local pubs, keen to support the businesses who have lost the lion's-share of their trade after the demise of the Shakers.

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“These shows of affection towards us and this sort of outpouring of emotion to wish to help us is brilliant,” says Ingram.

“The fans coming in, visiting the pubs, they're going out of the way to do it. I think the first time Sunderland fans did it they were going to Bolton and they came to us on the way.

“And then again, Rotherham were going to Rochdale and Accrington and yeah, they are on the way, but they've got to want to come.

“It's been heartwarming to say the least, and it just shows that there's the feeling out there and the appreciation that other clubs that have been in that position as well and it could be them in the future.”