I GET in at half past seven in the morning. Some days, I’ll cut the pitch one way, the next I’ll cut it the other, just to keep the stripes on. Occasionally, l’ll mark it out.’
Mike Curtis is the groundsman at Bury Football Club. There will be no match played this weekend on the piece of grass he lovingly preserves. Or the weekend after. Or the weekend after that. He is, to all intents and proposes, tending to a metaphorical grave, and praying for a resurrection. The club, at 134 years old, was read its last rites again just this week.
‘It is like a bereavement. I feel worse now than when my dad died,’ says Curtis. ‘This is like a slow death. He had a heart attack and died straight away, but this is just prolonging… prolonging. Every single day, every single week, every single month.’
Make no mistake, Bury FC is Mike’s family. He has worked here, in various roles, for 33 years.
His mum Joan for 47. His sister Lynne for 30. His grandfather Bill Gorman played for the club before the outbreak of World War II.
‘I’ve been called institutionalised. It’s all I’ve done since school. It’s all I know,’ Curtis adds. ‘Grandad is buried 100 yards from the ground. I go past him every now and again. He gets to see me. I get to see him.’
There are not many people left at the club. A dozen, tops.
‘One or two are off sick. Some people take it differently, don’t they? Stress-wise. And not being paid for two months doesn’t help,’ he adds.
Our conversation is not about blame or retribution. Those fingers were pointed clearly and correctly long ago. No. This is just an honest account of the emotional damage caused by the traumatic demise of a football club. And Mike is just one of many.
‘I’ve not looked at the fixtures since we got kicked out. I’ve not watched any football or anything,’ he says.
‘Recently, it was in a Sunday paper. In black and white — “Bury against AFC Wimbledon. New date to be confirmed”. F***ing hell. Why still keep printing things like that? It is soul destroying, but you just get on with it and you look forward to spending the weekend with your kids.’
Curtis has missed just one home game since he first crawled under a turnstile at Gigg Lane.
‘Bristol City in 1989. I remember it well. I was best man at a wedding. I could have killed him,’ he says.
‘It was wrong. I spent my 40th here, and my 30th here and also my 21st here, working.’
Talking to Mike is like being in a washing machine of emotions. I can genuinely hear his heart breaking, the emotional stress in his voice. Yet, there is an unbreakable resolve and an undying love which so often drowns it out. Several times, as I find myself willing back a tear, he leaves me crying laughing.
‘My wife Helen were a day late with baby,’ he recalls. ‘We were playing Crawley at home. I’m kitman then. I got a phone call at 5.30pm from her. “It’s coming! It’s coming!”. I was like, “You’ll be reet. You’ll be reet”.
‘I’m sorting kits out in the dressing room. It needs done. Andy Bishop, our striker, says, “you better **** off right now! Go on **** off!”
‘So, I race back, and she’s in downstairs toilet, legs akimbo like. Just as Millie’s head starts popping through, the ambulance crew walks through the front door. Of course, I came back Sunday morning and finished the kits.’
Not one syllable of that last sentence surprises me. So, what does Mike daydream about as he tidies the stands that now weep in deafening silence?
‘Normality. That’s all I want. All my mum wants. All my sister wants. It’s our lives. It’s engrained in us.
‘Happiness is watching Bury, win or lose, in whatever guise that is.’
So, no big spending and five-year plans then?
‘’B*****ks to that! It has nothing to do with promotion and winning cups. It’s about camaraderie. It’s about meeting your mates, before and after the match.
‘My brother-in-law comes, he looks after my son. I’ve met thousands of fans. It’s all one family. It’s about being part of something that you’ve grown up with and you love. It’s about my grandad and my two kids.
‘You couldn’t bottle it. Sometimes it’s so hard to describe. It’s just. It’s just. It’s just your life, isn’t it?’
So, Mike will continue to cut the grass one way, and then the other.
‘And the leaves. When the leaves start falling, they kill off the pitch. That has to be done. I have to keep the pitch clear of leaves.’