Our hero of the week: a Hillsborough crusader & Bury battler

Date published: Friday 30th August 2019 10:38 - Matthew Stead

Who’s this week’s hero, Johnny?
This week’s hero is a writer who works for The Guardian. His job is to take the lid off football’s septic tank and peer at the grotesque miasma of effluent that is all too often the reality of English football’s finances.

A native of the northwest of England, he attended Bury Grammar School and thus his work peeling the layers of deceit, dishonesty and dystopia behind the collapse of Bury FC this week, as every week, while thorough and forensic, was also very much heartfelt.

He has been writing and researching such pieces for many years and is absolutely the go-to man for investigative football reporting. A man of impeccable work ethic and dedication to uncovering truths, one imagines him working in a dark room with one bright light, digging through data, mole-like, unravelling the businesses of the many and various dodgy characters that seem to orbit football like a persistent and choking sulphurous gas.

He has also written four excellent books: The Football Business: Fair Game in the ’90s? (1998); The Beautiful Game?: Searching the Soul of Football (2005); Richer Than God: Manchester City, Modern Football and Growing Up (2012); The Fall of the House of Fifa (2017)

That’ll be David Conn, then.


What have they done to deserve this then?
When he was named Sports Journalist of the Year in the Press Gazette British Journalism Awards in 2013, the judges said: “He delves beyond the glitzy veneer of modern football to hold the game’s gilded elite to account.” And that says it very well.

He’s this week’s hero because in the last week alone there are 11 stories about Bury and Bolton by David on The Guardian website. His detailed analysis of the byzantine wranglings over the club’s finances, how it was sold for a pound, the history of the man who bought it, and what happened to the debts and the assets are not just pieces in the jigsaw but the entire puzzle. You come away from this feeling as if you know pretty much everything there is to know. This is what our man does and has been doing so successfully for a couple of decades.

His work, aside from being admirable in the detail and depth he goes to uncover truth, is also brave and gutsy. You need serious stones as well as rigorous intellect to do this kind of work because peering under the sheets of often rich and powerful people can make you a lot of enemies and attract the opprobrium of people whose opprobrium you might not wish to attract because they can make your life difficult or less pleasant. It also lays you bare to be attacked by the fans of clubs who have drunk deep from their owner’s polluted Kool-Aid, and being sent out to fight their master’s battles. And that can put a cramp in any decent person’s day, too.

You don’t lift the lid on corruption and incompetence without upsetting people, so you need to be fearless and have a real drive for truth. David has that in spades. What distinguishes his writing isn’t just the detailed research – though obviously, it is that too – but that it always comes coupled to a sense of social justice and an understanding that these matters are not pure finance, not just cold numbers on a spreadsheet; these are people’s lives, their livelihoods, their history and culture. He understands that football is part of the collective soul and that respect is constant in how he tackles matters.

His 2009 article which detailed the bereaved Hillsborough families’ continuing campaign for justice prompted the then-Labour ministers Andy Burnham and Maria Eagle to press for all official documents relating to the disaster to be released. He received a standing ovation from the families when the inquest found in their favour. That’s how important the work he does is.

Personally, I also love that there is an air of moral and political judgement that lights a fire under his writing, such as this from a piece last week:

‘Today, the ruins of Bury FC expose the wider vulnerability of its surrounding town and many places like it around the country on the brink of Brexit: a disruption engineered by politicians who never took the bus to school, apparently incubating extreme ideologies for a country from which they were always kept detached.’

Such quiet but fierce anger is profound and needed in these days when the dominant political paradigm is dishonesty and deceit.

His ability to distill and cogently express often very complex financial dealings is second-to-none. To give you just one example from this week:

‘At Bury itself, loans now up to £3.7m, secured on Gigg Lane, were taken from an outfit called Capital Bridging Finance Solutions, based in Crosby, with 40% commissions paid to still-unnamed third parties as introduction fees. The publicly filed documents state that Capital in turn mortgaged Bury’s ground to a company registered in Malta, whose own lenders for the deal were eight companies domiciled in the offshore tax haven of the British Virgin Islands. Perhaps you have to know and have been to Gigg Lane, a football haven amid terraced streets just off Manchester Road, to feel in your guts the ludicrous nature of such house-of-cards economics.’

I love how he sets the facts into their proper context so that we do not get distanced by cold numbers, rather we see how they play out in our real lives and what the consequences are for actual people.

When interviewed on the radio, one gets the impression that he is a very modest man but equally one who knows the weighty importance of his work all too profoundly. I mean, this is serious stuff. That he is tasked by his editors and newspaper to undertake this kind of laser-like dissection of football clubs and those involved in them, as well as the administrative structures and people who assigned to govern them, should be joyfully celebrated.

When so much newspaper media tries to sell us vomit as if it is food, when so much is devalued, cheap, nasty and outright dumb, David is a very big counterweight: a beacon of light which helps reveal the grotesque and mutant creatures that like to live in the dark shadows that big money brings.

An old blues guy, Blind Alfred Reed once asked in a song “How can a man stand such times and live?” One of the answers today is ‘because of people like David Conn.’


Media reaction?
The widespread sorrow at the demise of Bury has been notable but frankly, when it comes from those who promulgate and proselytize the Premier League and their horrible financial model that is at least as guilty for the current state of affairs, it rather sickens your guts.

Sky, who history will define as one of those most in sin and least bothered by the fact, in a way entirely commensurate with the values which brought us to this point, presented a countdown to the demise of Bury as though it was transfer deadline day and not the collapse of a great civic institution, choked to death by the cold, dead hands of a ghoul. Indeed, it almost seemed to be parody with a Jim White impersonator being a little too Jim Whitey to be quite convincing.

The contrast to David’s pieces in recent days about the cub, the finances and all the people involved could not have been greater. The standards he sets are so stellar, so intellectual and rigorous that some other coverage looked positively goofy and cartoonish by comparison.


Anyone grumpy about it?
When David comes for you, armed with knowledge of that which you thought you had hidden, or made difficult to find, it must make for uncomfortable reading. But then some of the worst protagonists in the Bury saga are clearly impervious to criticism and must have ice in their veins to do what they’ve done. No appeal to morality or better nature is going to have any impact on those with neither.

But at the very least, David’s work means they have not got away with this scandal without the story being told and without who they are and what they have done being publicly shown. While they may feel no shame, at least they will feel the consequential karma. Let’s hope it is of the instant variety.


What the people say
Over the years, many supporters have had good reason to thank David for his research into the misdeeds done in the name of their football club and they have not forgotten. He has thousands of readers who quite simply trust him. He is widely seen as the gold standard against which all other football journalism is judged.

Caroline Barker, the broadcaster, got in touch:

“For football’s sake I wish I didn’t have to talk to David as often as I do. The work he has done and continues to do makes football question itself and holds those in perceived positions of power to account. He is priceless, at every level of the game.”

Guardian writer and editor Sachin Nakrani said the following:

“A journalist who combines the tenacity of a pit bull with the heart of a midwife. Also, a really, really nice bloke.”

And Craig Kline, whistleblower, data scientist and former assistant director of football at Fulham, added:

“David is excellent. Reported fairly on my allegations last fall, listens, dealt with me honestly, even tweeted my twitter account. This done under substantial threats from criminal owner aiming to gag me. Football people favouring reform know David Conn helps.”

And now to your feedback…

‘Dogged yet caring,
Big stories don’t get buried
Beacon for us all.’

‘Where being first has become more important than being right, and the truth secondary to the story, David Conn has maintained the highest levels of journalistic/personal integrity. His reporting on Hillsborough shows a level of endurance and commitment I’ve not seen anywhere else.’

‘The respect I have for him as a journalist is such that, in a chaotic social media world, a post from him will make me stop, click and read regardless of subject matter. That is something you earn and, having never met him, he can only have done that through the power of his work.’

‘An old school investigative analytical and tenacious journalist who happens to turn his focus on football. We are lucky to have him!’

‘Proof that solicitors can be more than corporate fee earners. The CSI of football writing and pride of east Manchester.’

‘Most important journalist working in football today. Seen him speak a few times. His description of Chuck Blazer on a mobility scooter was like standup. Not just the money stuff but Hillsborough too. Hero.’

‘Fundamental point for me is he clearly identifies with fans, and stays close to the various ridiculous stories across a whole range of different clubs. He’s the only national journalist I would rely upon to give a faithful account of events at my club. #hcafc’

‘He responds to every email he receives – he was generous in offering a response to a question I had for my dissertation on his time setting up the National Football Museum in Preston. He has time for everyone, no matter how trivial a request may be.’

‘Bury and Bolton fans owe him a debt for his superb work in recent weeks. As it often felt the mainstream media had forgotten all about us, David kept the spotlight on our plight. I can only hope his reporting will give future rogue owners pause for thought.’

‘There was a piece that David wrote about Leicester’s funding, a season before they won the league. It hadn’t been touched by anyone else since because it doesn’t fit the narrative. We need more Davids shining a light on the darker side of the game.’

‘Will always hold him in the highest esteem for how he reported on two Liverpool stories; the forced purchasing of housing around Anfield by the club, and the Hillsborough inquiry, his reporting of which was heroic.’

‘He was the Roy Keane of the York University first team back in the mid-80s.’

‘The Guardian Fiver always calls him “Proper Journalism’s David Conn”, being tongue in cheek about how absolutely brilliant he is.’

‘I always approached any article by David about Leeds with dread and intrigue. I knew it’d be bad news, but also unbiased and accurate. He did so much good work in those years,  I actually sent him a message saying “thanks for all your work, I hope you never write about us again!”.’


What does the future hold?
While there are good journalists and writers working every day in football, I doubt any could go up against our man and be judged superior. He is at the pinnacle of his profession working in a field that he has largely had to himself for years – possibly because, in essence, it’s just really, really hard work compared to writing about, say, Manchester City’s midfield.

I believe a revolution is coming to football and sooner than many might imagine. The game is so financially lopsided, at once groaning under the weight of its own humongously bloated corpulence, while others starve in penury. It can’t go on like this, nor should it be allowed to.

However, we will have to bring about the revolution ourselves. No-one is going to do it for us. We will have to be proactive and righteous. So we shall need warriors with grit, soul, integrity and serious balls to both bring down the old orthodoxies and to help guide us to a better, more fair, more progressive and inclusive future.

There is none better than DC.

When the history books of this footbaling era are written, his name will be the one in the largest typeface as a man who made a difference. A big difference. Cheers, David. We owe you so much. Football owes you so much.

John Nicholson


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