Jock Stein once said that football is nothing without fans, but it does not always feel that way. With clubs so focused on driving up revenues, the concerns of supporters are often forgotten. However, supporters should have a voice. Seven years ago, Uefa made it mandatory for clubs playing in their competitions to employ a supporter liaison officer to act as a bridge between clubs and fans, helping to improve dialogue between the two sides. English clubs have followed suit. All 91 clubs in the Premier League and Football League now have liaison officers.
As with many positive aspects of supporter engagement, the origins of the role are in Germany. Borussia Mönchengladbach became the first club in the world to appoint an SLO in 1989. Seven years later, they made the position full-time and now every Bundesliga club has at least three full-time staff in place to work with fans.
Liaison officers inform clubs about supporters’ concerns and they work closely with the police, stewards and each other to improve security around games. The Swedish League attributed a 20% decrease in crowd trouble as being partly down to the collaborative work between the SLOs and the police.
Arsenal were the first British club to appoint a supporter liaison officer, when they gave die-hard fan Jill Smith the job of dealing with her fellow supporters. Mark Brindle succeeded Smith in the job five years ago. He is a full-time employee at the club and goes to every game. Brindle is one of the few SLOs in England who travels to all the club’s away matches, although this is common practice in most of Europe.
“I act as the bridge between the club and the supporters and, significantly, I am now recognized by most fans as well as those within the club,” says Brindle. “SLOs are viewed differently at each club so, for example, we report into different people. My manager is in charge of the travel and events department, whereas many of the others report directly into the stadium management team.”
Brindle’s day-to-day focus is primarily on arrangements for the next game, which can vary from organizing displays at the Emirates to helping organize away travel for fans traveling to Baku for the Europa League final in May.
“I run all our supporters’ groups dotted around the world, of which there are 250 branches,” says Brindle. “In England those groups tend to be very ticket-based, which is not my idea of what a supporters’ group should be about, but the overseas clubs are a lot more interactive – looking after their members, providing them with information and news, and building a strong rapport with the club itself.”
Brindle’s job is not just about matchdays. “One of the more recent projects that has come to fruition is running a couple of food banks in Islington,” he says. “I also organize regular fan forums throughout the year, where they can raise any issues or problems that I then present to the club to be addressed. I am partly seen by the club as someone who can deliver ‘bad news’ in being able to soften it down a bit for the fans so they are more receptive. By going to all the supporters’ trust meetings I am in a position to put across the clubs views and vice versa.”
The job has also given Brindle some surprises. “One of the issues that struck me when I took over is that I would have to work with opposition clubs who I didn’t particularly like. But you soon fall into the realization that they are all football fans and we can share ideas. Even though they can be bitter rivals, we have a common goal to improve the experience of supporters. There’s a bigger picture.”
One of the people Brindle works closely with is Dave Messenger, the SLO at Watford. “On the Monday before our home game with Arsenal,” Messenger says. “I will talk to Mark and send him the visitors’ stadium guide as well as information about disabled access, any likely transport issues and even which pubs the away fans can go to. We will then meet at the game to check that everything is OK. On the following Monday we will have a quick debrief on what went well and what didn’t.”
Brindle say most supporters are realistic about what can be achieved, although a minority border on the idealistic. “Arsenal are such a big club that I am quite a long way down the pecking order. But, if there is an issue I want to raise with those at the top of the club, I can speak to Vinai [Venkatesham, the club’s managing director] and, as long as he’s available, he will listen and respond.”
The majority of SLOs in the UK do not have the luxury of such access. The view across Europe is that British clubs are still playing catch-up when it comes to engaging with fans, which is partly a result of the different ownership structures. While supporters are given a stake in German clubs under the 50+1 rule, fans in England are usually on the outside. As Kevin Rye, who spent 11 years working at Supporters Direct, points out: “English clubs are mostly controlled privately and the culture defined by the shareholder model.”
“Quite a few clubs in the UK are merely going through a box ticking exercise,” says Antonia Hagemann, the CEO of Supporters Direct Europe. Her colleague, Stuart Dykes, agrees: “Many English clubs view the role as an extension of customer service, which is fine as there is an element of that involved, but they are already very good at customer service and it isn’t helpful to confuse the two roles. There is a misconception that in continental Europe the role is solely linked to that of the safety officer, but there is a much broader remit in building reciprocal relationships between supporters and the clubs by encouraging an open and continuous dialogue.”
When more SLOs in the UK are given better access to the people who wield power at football clubs, then they will start to have the sort of influence enjoyed by their counterparts in Europe.
The Guardian Sport