More than a club: Barnsley are leading by example

Words By Nick Miller Illustration by Philippe Fenner
September 14, 2018

You’ll probably have seen the letter by now. Back in the middle of August, a Barnsley fan called Chris Ryder got a letter from his club’s chief executive, Gauthier Ganaye. There wasn’t anything especially extraordinary in the letter on the face of things: just an offer of non-specific support, because they had noticed Ryder had been going through a hard time.

But because it had come from a football club, unsolicited – that’s what made it extraordinary. And, more importantly, that was why it meant so much to Ryder. The club picked it up in one of their regular sweeps through social media to see what was happening with the fans, which you might think was a way of checking up on them. But this was a basic act of human kindness which, in an age where football clubs often resemble slick, faceless corporations, recognised what they really are, which is social institutions.

Every club is a social institution in one way or another, but perhaps that description applies to Barnsley more than most. There seems to be a greater connection between the club and the place than many other teams, the sense that the club is genuinely intertwined with the local community, that one wouldn’t be the same without the other. That happens with many other teams, but it’s a point forced home by a film out soon called ‘Daydream Believers.’

The film, made as a passion project by fans of the club, charts the rise of Barnsley into the Premier League in 1997/98 for the first time in their history. They only spent a season in the top flight, but that was a season more than they’d ever managed before. The overriding theme of the film is partly that this was an extraordinary sporting tale, but also that Barnsley the team were good at exactly the time that Barnsley the town needed it.

“The town was on its arse,” says Liam Dyson, the film’s producer and formerly of the brilliant fanzine West Stand Bogs. “It was ten years after the miners’ strike – 30,000 jobs gone out of a population of 200,000 when the pits closed.

“Barnsley as a place was struggling incredibly to come to terms with the fact it had lost its industry. And not only that it lost its industry but it had lost what it was, a little bit. There was a bit of an identity crisis about the place.

“Then, the greatest sporting achievement in the club’s history happened at the time the town needed it the most, in terms of bringing back some hope and joy and belief.”

Even its most passionate defenders would admit that there isn’t a lot in Barnsley. There’s no top rugby team of either code, no other sports team at all of note, not many museums or similar. At one time, the mines and the football club were the town’s identity. And then, by 1993, the pits were gone. “The football club is nothing without the town, and I don’t think the town would have anything of note without the football club,” says Dyson.

That really comes across in the film. It builds up to the season in the top flight, but the real joy seems to come in the promotion season, particularly the game in which their elevation was confirmed, a 2-0 victory over Bradford. “I fainted. I actually passed out,” said one fan, while another starts crying even as he remembered that day, some 22 years later. “That day was the first day of unalloyed joy the town had for years and years and years,” said John Dennis, the club’s chairman at the time.

“When Barnsley do well, it has an amazing impact on the place,” says Dyson. “You see people walking around with a smile on their face, and coming from Barnsley feels like something to be proud of. I’ve spoken to landlords of pubs, and they’ve said when Barnsley get relegated they have to lay people off.”

Last year, the club was taken over by a consortium that included Chinese businessman Chien Lee, and feted baseball general manager Billy Beane. Only a couple of years ago, the club had a captain (Marc Roberts), a manager (Paul Heckingbottom) and an owner (the late Patrick Cryne) who were all local boys, all fans of the club. Therefore inevitably, there might be some concern that something might be lost.

But the new regime seem to recognise that the club has a crucial role in the community. The letter to Ryder is one example, as was their support for Dyson and some others when they raised money for mental health charity MIND with a walk to Derby.

But another is that they were one of the first English clubs to join the ‘On The Ball’ campaign. Launched by three Scottish fans earlier this year, On The Ball’s aims are to get football clubs to distribute free period products in the toilets of their grounds: a simple idea, but one Barnsley were quick to join.

“Barnsley were absolutely magic,” says Erin Slaven, one third of the campaign. “They approached us. They were spot-on to work with. They are just on the money, so forward-thinking and progressive, keen to hear what we had to say and involve us. They’re really keen to get involved publicly with lots of grassroots groups, and I think that says a lot about them.

“There weren’t that many clubs on board when Barnsley joined up with us, so it wasn’t as if they were just getting on the bandwagon, for publicity. I do honestly think it came from a really good place.”

Obviously Barnsley are not perfect. Obviously plenty of other clubs do charitable work and so forth, and are integral parts of where they’re from. But in many respects Barnsley are what football clubs should be, a community institution, something that people can be proud of. And people are.

“The club has changed massively over the last 20 years,” says Dyson. “But it still means the same amount to people. If the club can continue to be successful, we’ll start to see some of those [glory] days again.”

Daydream Believers is out soon. You can order the DVD, and find out all about it, here.

You can follow On The Ball here.

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