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May 28, 2019

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European Nights: Celtic’s SLO through American Eyes

The Supporter Liaison Officer role is a dynamic, busy, and exciting position at any football club. However, Celtic FC supporters are known across the world for being up there with the very best.

In this SD Europe Exclusive avid football supporter, and former president of the Seattle Sounders FC Alliance, Paul Cox, gives you a behind-the-scenes look at the realities and responsibilities of the Supporter Liaison Officer at Celtic FC.

I traveled in February from Valencia, Spain, to watch the UEFA Europa League match between Valencia and Celtic. Two of Europe’s big and grand clubs, at one of Europe’s famous stadiums, Celtic Park.

As an American living in Spain, I find myself in awe and thankful that Valencia (our home of three years) was in the UEFA Champions League and the UEFA Europa League this season. As a long advocate of better fan involvement in football clubs, I was even more lucky to spend time before, during, and after the match as the shadow of Celtic’s Supporter Liaison Officer (SLO), JP Taylor.

JP and I had met at an SD Europe conference on SLOs earlier and he was gracious to welcome me to Glasgow and have me follow him around, to see what the SLO tasks entailed for him.

The overriding emphasis for SLO training is communication. While various clubs implement the role in ways that sometimes vary, the element that is shared by all, is that an SLO is a fan and supporter. This brings that unique perspective inside the club’s operations and the SLO serves as a direct line of communication between the club and its supporters.

As Jock Stein, first manager of a British side to win a European Cup said: “Football without the fans is nothing.”

JP met me at the end of “Celtic Way” and we went into the stadium. It was just about perfect timing, as it was a few minutes prior to the pregame operations and security briefing.

The room had Celtic’s various operations, stewards, and security staff, as well as a police liaison and other club officials. They covered the types of things you’d expect: briefing on VIP attendees (the UEFA president came to the match), plans for the away fans’ security, and the level of the match’s security risk designation.

The briefing leader asked JP about the ultras’ plans for the evening, and JP told them that they had prepared a couple of overhead choreos and which sections they would be displayed in. Notably, nobody asked JP about the subject or text/art of the displays. They also asked if there were anything unusual that they should know from the SLO, and he answered no.

Again, the emphasis is clear communication, with respect for the SLO’s role as an advocate and representative of the supporters and ultras. It impressed me how the security guys didn’t expect the SLO to be a “snitch”, but rather approached him as a partner in having a good, safe match for all of those in attendance.

Afterwards, we went to JP’s desk and hung out for a while before the match. I talked quite a bit with JP’s co-worker, the Celtic Disability Access Officer, Alexis Dobbin. Alexis described Celtic’s efforts to increase access for those fans with disabilities; in many of the older stadiums, it can be a challenge because they were not designed for easy access.

Celtic has found creative ways to help improve access and allow all their fans to enjoy the match experience.

As the gates opened, JP took me around to see the access for the fans with limited mobility, such as users of wheelchairs, walkers, and crutches. Alexis worked with the folks to check them in and provided some supporters with blankets to keep warm.

JP and I then went out to observe how a new layout of gates and fences were affecting  fans and supporters coming up “Celtic Way”, in conjunction with the arrival of VIP guests. He was constantly talking with supporters, checking in to see how things were going, what problems did any of them note (if any), and generally looking at things from a fan’s eyes to see how the club could improve the fan experience.

The match was great. We spent it in the midst of the ultras, in the safe standing section that has been a huge hit in Celtic Park. JP was again in SLO mode: chatting with people, seeing how things were going, and of course a few had some problems that they brought to him and he would work out for them.

Post-match, JP wound up sitting down and talking with a couple of the ultras’ leaders as the crew cleaned up their tifo, banners and flags. I learned through observation, that SLO’s often don’t work a standard “shift” at work. Rather, they have to be on call and available to chat when the situation arises.

It was great to see him keeping that precious line of communication open. The ultras know that in JP, they have a solid advocate within the club who is working to ensure that their needs and desires are taken into account, and likewise the club knows that they are getting a different and extremely valuable perspective from a fan’s point of view.

Thank you to SD Europe for facilitating the SLO program and to JP Taylor, Alexis Dobbins, and Celtic Football Club for being such gracious hosts. I hope to bring the SLO concept back to the United States to help strengthen the fan and supporter experience within our own clubs.”

Paul Cox is now living in Valencia and was one of the founders of the Seattle Sounders Supporter Trust in the United States.

Curious about the SLO role, SD Europe, or supporter involvement? Get in touch with the SD Europe team via our Contact Us page. Read all the latest news about LIAISE here. Follow SD Europe on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram for more updates!  

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