Bury FC forced to play two games behind closed doors after abusive chants in landmark ruling

Gigg Lane
Gigg Lane will be empty for Bury's matches against Barnoldswick Town and Charnock Richard - Simon Stacpoole/Offside

A landmark ruling that could mean many clubs face tough sanctions for the behaviour of their fans will make Bury FC play two games behind closed doors for abusive chants and slurs after the club, in the ninth tier of English football, failed in an appeal to have an original penalty overturned.

The club, who are in the North West Counties Football League, will have to tell supporters that they cannot attend its next two home matches. The original punishment was announced in January when an independent commission ruled Bury FC must play two games behind closed doors after hearing evidence of widespread abuse of away fans.

The case has attracted interest in legal circles as setting an important precedent that clubs at all levels could ultimately face big penalties if supporters engage in discriminatory chants and gestures during games. In January, the Serie A club Udinese were ordered by the Italian football federation (FIGC) to play a home game behind closed doors after the Milan goalkeeper Mike Maignan was racially abused by fans.

The published written reasons of the original judgment detailed Bury fans “repeatedly shouting ‘f----t’ at an away supporter wearing a ‘rainbow’ shirt and also using the word ‘P---’ towards another person in the stand”. An appeal board has this week rejected Bury’s case and the judgment opens the door to the possibility that clubs at all levels could face sanctions for persistent abuse by their fans.

The case was brought against Bury FC by the Manchester Football Association, albeit under the auspices of the national governing body, the Football Association, because the club are in the ninth tier of the pyramid, known in football as “Step 5”. Bury FC, a phoenix club formed after the expulsion of the original Bury AFC from the Football League, are currently in the North West Counties Football League Premier Division.

The club were charged on the basis of evidence from their game against West Didsbury and Chorlton on Sept 10. The Telegraph reported in January that, according to the written reasons, published at the time, Bury FC supporters were also “making homophobic ‘waving’ (it is assumed ‘limp wrist’) gestures at away supporters”.

“Further evidence was received by West Didsbury and Chorlton FC representatives from a supporter on Sept 10, 2023 stating that she had heard Bury FC supporters use the words “spastic” and “retard” towards supporters using the disabled facilities at the ground.”

Bury pleaded guilty to the charge. It was the punishment that the club appealed against. The written reasons detailing the appeal are yet to be published but it is understood that they are likely to emerge in the next few days. The appeal was chaired by the barrister Abdul Iqbal, of Park Square Chambers, alongside Peter Clayton, of Middlesex FA, and David Mole, the Aston Villa club secretary.

“Our appeal on the sanctions for charges relating to offensive supporter behaviour in September last year, has been dismissed,” a club statement read.

“We will be required to play our next two home games behind closed doors. These are against Barnoldswick Town next Tuesday (March 12) and Charnock Richard the following Saturday (March 16).

“We are allowed to produce a live stream broadcast of the Barnoldswick game but not the Charnock Richard fixture.

“We will continue to work with the Manchester FA on tackling the serious issues that have been highlighted throughout the case. We, as a club, strive for a game which is free from discrimination and accessible and welcoming for all.”

The case was part of the FA initiative, the National Serious Case Panel, to address discrimination and abuse in the game at Step 5 level and below. Bury FC said in a statement in January that the club had seen incidents at other clubs go “unpunished” and that the punishment was “excessive”. The club said it had made “huge strides” in promoting diversity. “We are unable to completely control the words of two people in a crowd of 3,838 on that particular occasion.”

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