As Barnsley secured their place in this weekend’s League One play-off final last Friday, beating visitors Bolton Wanderers 1-0 at Oakwell to complete a 2-1 aggregate win, two women in the directors’ box shared an emotional moment.
God bless you, Jean ❤️ pic.twitter.com/TAFwZWdKRj
— Barnsley FC (@BarnsleyFC) May 20, 2023
Jean Cryne (on the left in the tweet above) is a familiar face at the South Yorkshire club. The wife of Barnsley’s former owner Patrick Cryne, who sadly passed away in 2018 at age 66, she shares an emotional bond with the club her husband had followed all his life and stepped in to save when they were on the brink of folding in 2003.
The woman whose arm is placed warmly around her shoulders, in contrast, is newer to Barnsley fans.
Julie Anne Quay is an Australian-born businesswoman who moved to New York more than 20 years ago. Quay is a leading name in the fashion world, having founded the global pop culture, fashion and music brand VFILES. And since last May, Quay has been able to include the role of ‘Director of Barnsley Football Club’ on her impressive CV.
Initially, it seems like an incongruous fit but, more and more, we are seeing an intertwined relationship between fashion and football. David Beckham and more recently Jack Grealish and Leah Williamson are but a few of the footballing superstars who regularly feature in campaigns for brands such as Gucci, Armani and Adidas. But at boardroom level? In the third division of English football? In Yorkshire? Not so much.
“There’s three global languages: fashion, music and sport. And we can all speak them,” says Quay, whose daughter Penelope played football for Australia at youth levels until injury curtailed her sporting career (she’s now a musician, releasing music under the name Penelope Q).
“I’m a crazy sports fan. My husband and I had been looking to be a part of a football club for a while when this opportunity came across, and so we took it.”
It was 2017 when Quay and her husband Matthew Edmonds became part of a small group of investors in Barnsley. For years they went under the radar, watching the games from their home in New York (thanks to multiple subscriptions), following Barnsley as they bounced between the second and third divisions.
Last season, they watched Barnsley finish bottom of the Championship, resulting in relegation back into League One. It was the third time it had happened to Barnsley in nine years.
Just 12 months after they had competed in the play-offs for promotion to the Premier League, losing 2-1 on aggregate to Swansea City in the semi-finals, the club were down in the third tier once more — and in a dark place. There was major unrest, both in the stands — where only 5,000 fans were planning to renew their season tickets — and the boardroom.
“I’ve been watching from a distance for a long time,” Quay says, “but when the club got relegated last year it was like, ‘OK, hang on…’”
That boardroom underwent a considerable transformation — co-chairmen Paul Conway and Chien Lee left, while directors Dickson Lee and Grace Hung also stepped down. Indian businessman Neerav Parekh took over as chairman, while fellow holdovers James Cryne (Jean’s son), Khaled El-Ahmad (also chief executive) and operations director Robert Zuk were joined on the board by Cryne and Quay.
It is about as diverse a group as you will find in the 72 boardrooms of the EFL’s three divisions, with Quay’s background bringing an entirely new perspective and fresh way of thinking to the question of how best to run a football club. The years she spent watching from a distance convinced Quay her knowledge and experience from her day job could cross over into the game.
“I realised that football clubs are brands — the biggest brands in the world,” she says. “My experience has always been in building brands, be it fashion brands or artists. I look at Barnsley as a 136-year-old brand, with incredible history. Not only that, one with a thriving community that can drive it and that believes in it. If you’re a fashion brand, you’d give your whole hand to have that.”
Quay works closely with El-Ahmad, who smiles when he says her perspective is one that “challenges. Why she and I click so well is the narrative that everything is possible. It’s added to the dynamic of us being like a start-up — one under a 136-year-old brand”.
This is where Quay comes into her own.
“We try things. We follow a full, agile methodology,” she says. “We apply all these start-up techniques. With merchandise, we did a partnership with Fanatics (the online manufacturer and retailer of licensed sportswear). It’s all drop related. It’s not like, ‘Here are your things for the season, here’s your scarf…’ It’s about following trends: ‘This is what our local fanbase will want, but look, this is what our global fanbase will want’.
“The goal is to build this club into a global brand and put the town on the map.”
This month, Barnsley announced that for the first time in their history, they are launching a professional women’s team, to begin play next season. It was, says El-Ahmed, one of the first things Quay raised when she came aboard as a director.
While some clubs can spend years mulling over such a decision, Barnsley acted quickly. El-Ahmed spoke to Fulham, Brighton and Manchester United about their approaches to their women’s teams, had meetings with the FA, the local council and existing women’s sides in the area before deciding on the best approach.
“We wanted to explore starting as high as possible,” El-Ahmed says. “But it wasn’t possible (to go straight to the top-flight WSL or even second-tier Championship, for example). So the best way around it was to connect with what was already done in our community trust, which is Barnsley’s Ladies.”
That side have just won promotion to the fifth level of the women’s game, so that is where the new Barnsley FC team will start next season (There’s also Barnsley Women’s Football Club in the fourth tier, who are a totally separate outfit).
It is one instance where Quay’s desire for “agility” has been thwarted, and you can imagine it will not be the last.
She would also love to be let loose on the kit the women’s side will wear (“Have you ever put on a women’s football kit? It is really hard to look good in that. The shorts are the wrong length…”) but knows she will likely hit “rules and regulations” when it comes to doing so.
For now, she is content to have been part of the redesign of the shirts for both Barnsley’s teams, men and women, next season. “Our kits will talk to you,” she smiles. “We had a fantastic designer design them. They’re going to be amazing. And for the play-offs, one of our players Devante Cole, who’s also a designer, designed casual tunnel wear for the players.”
The diversity in Barnsley’s boardroom (including three women, with club secretary Eleanor Dobson also present) is something the club are very proud of — and something that marks them out from the majority. “It’s quite fascinating,” says El-Ahmad, “for somewhere that is perceived as a mining town that voted for Brexit and is probably one of the whitest towns I’ve ever been in to have a football club that is driven by a very minority, proud and loud group that thinks nothing is impossible.”
Being in male-dominated spheres is nothing new for Quay, but at the start of this season she was horrified to hear a section of Barnsley fans singing a discriminatory chant towards a female member of staff with an opposing team.
“It was ‘Show us your titties’,” she says. “And quite soon after that happened, we had a fan forum. It was a transfer window and so all the fans wanted to talk about transfers. I was in town, so I sat up there and they were like, ‘What about this?’, and ‘What about that?’.
“And I said, ‘Well, let’s talk about “Show us your titties.” Let’s have a conversation about that.’ Immediately there was just silence. Because I’m not coming from football, my method is to (take it) head-on. ‘If you wouldn’t say it to your sister, your mother, your wife, your niece, any of your female friends, then do not say it. And I’m really upset that you said that. These are the kinds of things that I personally cannot tolerate at all’.
“I was really pleasantly surprised at how much all of the coaching staff, the male people in the office, Khaled, stood up for that and said we cannot tolerate this. But it was a big learning experience for me. It was horrible.”
Quay admits it took a while for Barnsley fans to warm to her. “I am who I am. And that’s it,” she smiles. “Fans at the very beginning were… it was very difficult. But now I’m in chats with multiple fan groups, and I actually learned from them. They’re teaching me.”
The steepest learning curve she’s faced over the last 12 months has been about timing — knowing when her ideas are likely to get a receptive audience: “It’s about seeing everything that’s going on, understanding where my place is and then choosing the time when what I’m suggesting can be the most well-received.
“The hardest thing is knowing when to speak up, when to listen. As any professional that’s in a new environment, that’s a good challenge to have.”
Before this season started, Quay and her fellow board members met for dinner and discussed where they thought Barnsley would finish. The consensus was between 12th and ninth (their budget is between 10th and 12th in the 24-team division).
Instead, they came fourth and are now 90 minutes, against Yorkshire rivals Sheffield Wednesday at Wembley on Monday, away from a third promotion from League One in eight years.
It is an outcome almost as unexpected as finding a New York fashionista in the boardroom.
(Top photo: George Wood/Getty Images)
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