Kicked out of the FA Cup and facing a fresh English Football League investigation into allegations of backdated paperwork, Barnsley’s season has been anything but boring.
The South Yorkshire side are pushing for promotion but the overall impression is one of a club distracted and divided by the break-up of the ownership group that took control in 2017 — a situation exacerbated by a dispute between two women at the club last summer.
Co-owner and director Jean Cryne, the 70-year-old widow of former owner Patrick Cryne, allegedly told fellow staff that she thought then-club secretary Eleanor Dobson, 28, flirted with the players and wore inappropriate clothes. Cryne did not deny this when Dobson, who had recently gotten married, later challenged her about them.
This led Dobson, who joined the club in 2022, to make a formal complaint to the then-chief executive Khaled El-Ahmad and their human resources manager, with club chairman Neerav Parekh also informed.
In an attempt to resolve the matter, El-Ahmad arranged a video conference call in early August between the two women during which it is said Dobson accepted an apology from Cryne.
But within weeks of that virtual meeting, the row flared up again when Dobson discovered that her complaint, which was meant to be private, had become widely known within the club. And, to make matters worse, she heard that Cryne was said to have told several people she did not know what she had apologised for and had made further discriminatory remarks about her.
Dobson went on sick leave in early November and left the club permanently at the end of December.
If that was the end of it, though, this story would just be another example of the sort of thing only too common for women who work in football, albeit with the unusual twist that this involved another woman.
But, shortly after Dobson went on leave, Barnsley used an ineligible player, Aiden Marsh, in the replay of their FA Cup first-round match against non-league Horsham — an error that led to Barnsley becoming the first team to be booted out of the competition for 17 years.
The striker had gone on a one-month loan to York City in September, with the National League side asking Barnsley if they could extend the loan a month later and use Marsh in the FA Cup.
Dobson, who received the request in her role as club secretary, emailed El-Ahmad, academy boss Bobby Hassell and first-team manager Neil Collins to ask if there were any objections, reminding them Marsh would be ineligible to play in the cup for Barnsley. She was told to give York City permission to use Marsh.
However, three days after Barnsley were held 3-3 at home by seventh-tier Horsham, Marsh was recalled from the loan early and picked to start in the replay on November 14. It is unclear who was filling in for Dobson at this time.
Barnsley won the match 3-0 but were expelled a week later. Marsh had not played for York City in the cup, so he was not cup-tied, but you cannot use someone in a replay if they were not eligible to play for you in the original tie. Horsham would go on to lose to League Two strugglers Sutton United in the FA Cup’s second round.
In a statement published on the club website, Barnsley said they had “fully cooperated” with the Football Association’s investigation into the “administrative error” and accepted the decision. They also apologised to fans, players and staff for the “regrettable error”, adding that it “falls way below the high standard we set at this club” and that a “full internal investigation” had been conducted to “ensure this will never happen again”.
At this point, El-Ahmad was meant to be finishing the season as CEO before leaving on “amicable terms” to take a similar role at MLS side Minnesota United.
But two weeks after Barnsley were ejected from the FA Cup, El-Ahmad’s time in charge was cut short, with Jon Flatman appointed as interim CEO. No comment was made by the club or El-Ahmad to explain his early departure.
If the club hoped that would draw a line under the matter, they were soon to be disappointed, as the EFL opened an investigation into the paperwork related to Marsh’s loan and recall, as well as the loan of another player, Andrew Dallas, to Scottish side Kilmarnock in September.
While nobody is suggesting this most recent investigation will result in sporting sanctions — Barnsley may not even be charged — it comes only six months after the club and former co-chairmen Paul Conway and Chien Lee were charged with multiple breaches of the league’s ownership rules.
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That case remains unresolved and it is unclear what sanction, if any, the club might face in that respect. Conway and Lee deny any wrongdoing and are contesting the charge.
But there is no uncertainty about the fact that Conway and Lee, who still hold minority stakes in the club, are at loggerheads with their former partners on the board.
Dobson declined to comment on either her complaint about Cryne or the EFL investigation when contacted by The Athletic.
But when asked to comment on the same issues, Flatman said: “Following the expulsion from the FA Cup, the board of directors made a decision to restructure the executive team. We have just appointed a new director of football and a new CEO will be announced soon.
“We strongly dispute that there have been any instances of sexism within the club. We are proud to be a diverse football club of which 40 per cent of our board members are female, 33 per cent of our workforce are female and significant investment has been placed into our women’s team, which is coached and led by a female operations team.”
The new director of football Flatman referred to is data analytics expert Mladen Sormaz, who used to work for Huddersfield Town, Leicester City and the multi-club group owned by American investment firm 777 Partners.
Barnsley are currently fifth in League One, having been relegated from the Championship in 2022. They have spent most of their 137-year history in English football’s second tier but they did reach the Premier League in 1997, only to be relegated a year later.
(Top photo: Andrew Vaughan/CameraSport via Getty Images)