When English football’s youngest chief executive was made aware that one of his club’s fans was suffering from mental health issues, he decided to act.
Little did Gauthier Ganaye know that his simple yet heartwarming letter, expressing sympathy and inviting the Barnsley supporter to his beloved Oakwell for a coffee, would make headlines across the globe.
The grateful fan subsequently tweeted a picture of the note along with the message: ‘best football club in the world’.
Barnsley chief executive Gauthier Ganaye has received much praise for his work
At the last count, his post had 134,000 likes and 28,000 retweets. JK Rowling gave it the thumbs up as did a host of celebrities.
Suddenly, Barnsley’s press officer was fielding calls from media in Australia, New York and San Francisco.
‘It was crazy to see the reaction,’ Ganaye reflects from his simple office underneath the Pontefract Road End. ‘It was good to raise awareness for mental health and the profile of the club internationally.’
He may be from France but the next line is straight out of Yorkshire: ‘It also doesn’t cost us any money,’ Ganaye adds.
Ganaye (left) is determined to help guide Barnsley to promotion to the Championship
The story nicely encapsulates much of what the relative youngster has been trying to achieve at the League One club since his arrival, as a 29-year-old, last year.
He wants Barnsley to get creative and find ways of punching above their own weight. Off-the-field, the club recently joined the ranks of those now offering free tampons to female supporters.
Saturday’s game with AFC Wimbledon saw live snakes (with handlers) in the family stand.
Last season a dedicated youth match saw local youngsters carry out tasks like designing the programme cover and helping the groundsman prepare the pitch.
That Barnsley appear to be ahead of the curve under Ganaye’s guidance comes as no surprise when he tells his background story.
Ganeye (far right) sent a heartwarming letter to a Barnsley supporter recently
‘I studied business law at university in Lille,’ he says. ‘At the end I did a thesis. I was always interested in football and was always fascinated why French teams never won the Champions League. I came at the end with some of recommendations which have been since been carried out – but not because of my work.’
The thesis led to an internship at Lens. ‘Clubs then were not like they are now,’ he explains.
‘There was no legal department. They had a 1.5m euro legal bill and no in-house lawyer.’
Within two weeks, the chairman had seen enough but could not hire Ganaye until he had finished his studies.
Eventually, he became the club’s legal director and was influential in ensuring Lens took lucrative sell-ons from sales of the likes of Geoffrey Kondogbia.
But it was not enough for the ambitious lawyer. ‘I knew everything about the club,’ he says. ‘I thought I could run it but we had a CEO and I’m not going to stab the guy in his back. I wanted to run a football club. In France I had a few offers but the age was always an issue.’
Ganaye heard about the Barnsley job, got in touch with recruiters and last Spring he left his family home and heavily pregnant wife in Lille and moved to a flat in Barnsley town centre.
‘We were totally settled in Lille,’ he says. ‘It was happy days there but I wanted a challenge. I’m a strong believer in if you can’t gain experience where you are you have to go somewhere else. It’s a decision I have never regretted.’
Not even when it is time to go out for food? ‘No!’ he says. ‘My wife is here now and she is the best restaurant in Barnsley!’ Ganaye’s first full season saw a takeover by a US/Chinese consortium featuring baseball legend Billy Beane, manager Paul Heckingbottom pinched by Leeds and his replacement, former Jose Mourinho aide Jose Morais, take the club down.
Minutes after the final whistle on the relegation-confirming defeat at Derby County, Ganaye sought out Morais. ‘You try to shoot the bullet as quickly as possible,’ he says. ‘You get straight to the point. He had a relegation clause in the contract so he knew. You try to do it as best as you can. Nothing personal.’
New manager Daniel Stendel, formerly in charge of Hannover, appears to have quickly turned things around.
The club have managed to keep the majority of their players and have started the season with three wins from four matches and no goals conceded under the German.
GAUTHIER GANAYE FACTFILE
Ganaye joined Barnsley as the club’s chief executive on June 12 2017
Studied business law at university in Lille
He then worked for French club Lens, where he was director of marketing and international development.
Ganaye was also a member of Lens’ executive committee and previously held several other roles at the club including head of legal and general secretary, with the latter position seeing him in charge of player contracts as well as international and domestic transfers.
In addition, Ganaye also spent time managing the football administration for Lens’ youth academy
In January this year Ganaye was shortlisted for the chief executive role at St. Etienne but he elected to remain at Barnsley
Tuesday night’s 4-0 romp at Rochdale suggested their stay in League One may be a short one, which is the aim.
‘If we go back to Championship and manage to get revenue just to Championship average and reinvest that in the team we can be very competitive,’ says Ganaye.
‘We have lots of advantages, including a small structure.’ Another advantage is the influence of Beane, who shot to fame as the genius behind the Oakland Athletics’ use of analytics to defy the odds in baseball’s Major League.
While Beane holds a relatively small stake in the club, Ganaye says his impact should not be underestimated.
‘We are in contact if not every day every few days,’ he explains of the man who was played by Brad Pitt in Moneyball, the story of Beane’s success at the overachieving Californian club.
‘Obviously he is very successful with data analysis in baseball and we feel we can transfer this to football in some aspects. He’s quite hands-on.’
From one film to another. Next month Daydream Believers, an eagerly-anticipated movie marking the 20th anniversary of Barnsley’s season in the Premier League, will premiere at the town’s Lamproom theatre.
Should Barnsley’s supporters be dreaming of a repeat? ‘One step at a time,’ says Ganaye.
‘The challenge is to get back to the Championship this season. Once there let’s establish ourselves. Then if we can raise revenue to the right level and reinvest everything on the pitch anything is possible.’