THE complex picture surrounding the future of football in Bury was laid bare in a heated meeting where supporters were presented with three plans for the Shakers.

With around 400 fans inside a packed Elizabethan Suite, it was revealed by Dave Giffard, chairman of supporters’ trust Forever Bury that a consortium was looking to complete a solvent sale of the stricken club which is saddled with around £4 million of debts.

Supporters also got the chance to grill Robert Benwell about his plans to buy Gigg Lane, either out of liquidation or by way of repossession from current owner Steve Dale - still in full control of the club after a winding up petition brought by HMRC was dismissed by the High Court ­- and set up a new club.

Chris Murray, chair of the Bury Phoenix leadership group was also on hand to outline their long-term vision and insisted that their work was as a “last resort” to ensure there was a team for fans to support come August of 2020.

There were no further details of the consortium’s proposal, labelled ‘Plan A’ and believed to be involving people local to the town, owing to a non-disclosure agreement.  

The meeting was fraught, especially with supporters exchanging differing views amongst themselves from the floor, but the top table did agree that the consortium was the preferred option for all involved.

“I hoping Plan A is the most likely outcome,” said Benwell.

“I can’t really say much about it, I am privy to some information but that would be the best outcome for all the fans and Bury.

“I’ve talked to the consortium and they’ve said they are making progress.

“It’s quite complicated their plan but it does work, they just need to get certain parties to agree.  

“We don’t want to jump the gun yet. We want to give them time but we can only give them so much time before we have to submit applications.”

Murray agreed: “Every Bury fan will hope that option A is the bit that goes forward.

“It goes forward in its current format, it saves Gigg Lane and we have Bury Football Club with the two stars above its crest as FA Cup winners. That is what every Bury fan wants.

“But it depends on what Steve Dale does, what happens with the CVA, there’s so many things that go into it that we are unsure what will happen and which option will come off.

“I get that we are option C as the phoenix but we’ll just crack on doing what we’re doing and look to work our way to getting the next application in to help another football club grow next year.”

The phoenix group have already made their application to the North West Counties League, tier nine and 10 of the football pyramid, with a view to groundsharing with an undisclosed club from August 2020.  

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Benwell told supporters that he had £600,000 of his own money to pay off a percentage of the Capital Bridging Financing mortgage on Gigg Lane and invest in the club but admitted following the meeting that he had not shown proof of funds to Forever Bury, who would have a 10 per stake in the new club, Bury AFC, the phoenix club having also chosen the same name.  

He said he had an agreement in principle with Capital Bridging, not bound by a formal contract, with £4 of every ticket sold, Benwell not ruling out prices of around £15 in the North West Counties, helping to pay the interest on the remainder of the mortgage.

Previous owner Stewart Day mortgaged Gigg Lane with the company for £2.5 million at an interest rate of 138 per cent but Barnsley-born entrepreneur Benwell insisted however he had made a breakthrough with the company whose hold on the ground has been a sticking point for several potential buyers in recent months.

It has been valued at £3.8 million but the 35-year-old said negotiations “over six or seven weeks” had seen the asking price lowered.

“I can’t go in to how much the deal is but it’s nowhere the figures that have been quoted,” Benwell said.

“The £3.8 million was a price when they had a league club.

“The price has changed on circumstances, I don’t think there’s many people looking at it now it’s not a league club.

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“The risk is for them, if I don’t take it, the phoenix don’t take it, the consortium fails, that sits there a number of years, the value on it decreases.

“It’s agreed in principal with liquidation in mind. Now (with the High Court verdict) we need to go back to them and see if that’s still the deal if we repossess.

“It’s not gone to solicitors yet, it’s just before that stage. There’s a deal in theory and then it will go to the solicitors.”

“There’s no full contract.”

He told the media after the meeting he had a background in online marketing before moving into web hosting and online publishing with companies Optimal Hosting and R5, which later became RBS Global Trading Ltd company, respectively.

The former was dissolved in 2016 with accounts two years prior showing net assets of £57,715. R5 stopped trading in 2009 but was brought back under a different name in 2016 so Benwell could access the remaining money in its bank account.

During the meeting Benwell had insisted fans should not be concerned about the number of dissolved companies he had been involved in as none had gone into liquidation.

He maintained to supporters, burnt by what has happened to their club under Dale and Day, that his intentions for the club were good, insisting he would put the ground into a trust under his children’s names and reduce his 90 per cent stake over time so it ultimately became a fan-owned club.

“It’s a question of me wanting to get involved in football and Bury is at a point where I think I can help and think I can contribute to that,” he said.

“If it was just about money, I wouldn’t be getting involved in football.

“If people take shares they wouldn’t be paying me they would be paying the club.

“In terms of me getting any money back it would be me taking a profit.

“I would take dividends, other investors, like fans or local businesses, would take dividends.

“It might be 10 or 15 years before I get my money back but that’s the risk I’m willing to take.”

Despite strong support for the phoenix movement in the room, Benwell believes his plan around the home of the Shakers is gaining momentum.

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While focusing on Gigg Lane he did concede under questioning from fans that in order to meet FA application deadlines he may have to put forward another ground for any new club before switching it at a later date.

“If I get Gigg Lane and set up a club there will be a lot of fan involvement to bring people on,” he said.

“Without Gigg Lane you’re going to get the attendances, you’re not going to get the sponsorship.

“Gigg Lane pays for itself but it needs to be secured.

“From what I’ve seen tonight and what I’ve seen online, a good majority of fans want Gigg Lane and have accepted my plan.

“There is a small minority who want the phoenix route and the fan-owned route.”

One obvious solution would see Benwell and the phoenix come together but he says as things stand there are barriers, with one member of the group, speaking from the floor, taking issue with his statement that those working on the new outfit were unwilling to comprise.

“They want 51 per cent on day one,” he said.

“What I would be doing it putting my money in and handing all control to them.

“If they don’t run it well my money is gone, the idea is that over time fans own the majority of the club. It gives me a chance to lay the foundations and make sure it’s going to be run well.

“Even if the fans own the club I could manage and run it as chief exec without taking a wage.”

Bury Times: Chris Murray, right, helped organise the Bury Legends game in OctoberChris Murray, right, helped organise the Bury Legends game in October

Murray admitted dialogue between the two parties had been limited but felt more talks would be beneficial for all involved.

“I think it was interesting to listen to Rob and hear what he had to say.” he said.

“I’ve met him once before, didn’t really have much chance to chat to him when we first met.

“I think it should be something that we look to work together on, if it’s feasible.

“We can sit down and have a conversation but it all depends on what he wants to do.

“It would good to get around a table with him and see what we can do.”

The atmosphere left some in the room concerned that the fan base may be becoming increasingly divided but Murray believes that is only natural after a testing few months for the Shakers.

“It’s a very emotive time for fans,” he said.

“I said on social media beforehand that I didn’t want people coming for an argument or placing blame, but it’s understandable that people have different opinions.

“We’d all be boring if we had the same opinion. Different opinions are fine and I took on board some of the points people said about what they’d do if Steve Dale was still in charge of the football club.

“I gave my opinion personally but I’m not speaking for all the other volunteers or every Bury fan as to what they should do.”