Bury FC’s struggle for survival, narrated by updates from BBC Sport as the story unfolded hour by hour, is one that might be replicated in many other towns and cities. Local football clubs have been part of the fabric of the community, something that has always been there, but rising costs have placed a large question over their continued viability.
Perhaps the issue is more than one of cost, or one of the promotion of the Premier League to the detriment of the finances of lower league clubs. Perhaps there are deeper questions to be answered; football was a matter of faith of dreams and in a hard-nosed, material age, are there still people who are prepared to commit significant parts of their lives and incomes to following a team who will never win major honours and give their supporters bragging rights in the pub?
The English poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge once wrote:
“. . . It was agreed, that my endeavours should be directed to persons and characters supernatural, or at least romantic, yet so as to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith”
Football supporters have had an irrational fondness for the characters they have followed on the pitch week by week. By the standards of those at the top level, where a single player may earn as much in a month as a lower league club might pay its entire staff in a season, the players they have followed may be mediocre mid-table journeymen, whose prospect of ever playing on the international stage is very remote, yet they will be invested with extraordinary talent and aspiration by the supporters of the club.
Given the dominance of soccer by a handful of big clubs, and a realisation that the majority of clubs have no prospect of winning anything, being a football supporter seems to accord with Coleridge’s ideas concerning the “willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith.”
What else other than a willing suspension of disbelief would prompt tens of thousands of people each week to attend matches involving clubs whose prospects of silverware are minimal, clubs for whom avoiding relegation is deemed a success. The triumph of Leicester City in 2016 is the exception that proves the rule, after one season of variation, the handful of clubs who have dominated English soccer for more than twenty years was re-established.
There are grounds that are full every Saturday, there are others where the empty seats are plentiful. It demands an act of faith to commit oneself to following a club who will never be triumphant at the top level and how many people are still willing to make such a commitment? Bury’s promotion to League One last season was a huge triumph for the club, but among those whose diet of football comes through a satellite dish, how many noticed?
Coleridge talked about “poetic faith,” if Bury, and other endangered clubs, are to survive they need to inspire a poetic response among supporters, to encourage them to believe in their team. Clubs like Bury can offer community, identity, tradition, a sense of place, personal engagement, shared joys and sorrows, moments that are local and personal, moments that cannot be experienced through a satellite dish.