We continue this series of interviews to celebrate the 10 year anniversary of the development of the Supporter Liaison Officer (SLO) role. SD Europe is delighted to share what is now the fourth edition of ‘SLO of the Month’, where we speak to SLOs from across Europe about their role and experiences.
This month, we had the pleasure of speaking to Celtic FC Supporter Liaison Officer John Paul Taylor who provided an in depth insight into his experience at one of Scotland’s top clubs.
JP keeping busy during an away game at AEK Stockholm.
What are some of the achievements that you have had in this role at your club?
‘I think the biggest achievement was being part of the team that helped Celtic become the first major Football Club in the UK to introduce safe standing. The initiative has been a huge success and as well as providing a safer alternative to standing in seated areas it has helped re energise the atmosphere at Celtic Park. The project had a number of contributors including our Stadium and Safety Managers but importantly we had the buy in of fans and fan groups who helped in developing the Stewarding and Matchday Plans which essentially helped get the project over the line. Being part of the process to drive this initiative forward was hugely rewarding and whilst it was a joint effort between a number of agencies I do think driving the process on from within the Club was a major factor.’
What would be your view on more clubs embracing SLOs?
‘SLOs are an important part of Football Clubs these days, it’s important that fans have an inlet where they can express their views and raise concerns they may have about what’s going on at their Club. It is however important that fans are aware that the SLO is not a decision maker and cannot set Club policy but they can make the people who run the Club aware of what’s going on within the fan base from a positive and a negative perspective and provide information which helps shape Club policy. The SLO has an important role to play on match days and can offer a perspective to fans, police and stewards which help deliver a positive match day experience for everyone. My own view is that all Clubs should have an active SLO.’
Do you work in a dedicated SLO team? How many SLOs are at your club?
‘I work on my own to an extent although I have a colleague who is employed as Disability Access Officer so I assist on this front also but largely I’m working on my own with the assistance and co-operation of the other departments within the Club. In many cases I will look at what the issues we face are and will then raise this with Club’s Senior Management where appropriate as well as the Department Head of whichever area of the business it relates to.’
Which personnel and groups are you in liaison with as the SLO?
‘All Departments within the club, as well working with all the match day agencies such as police, safety, stewards the host Club (for away games) along with our own fans and fan groups. My role reports directly to the CEO so I am in regular contact with the senior team as well. Ultimately as SLO you are sat in the middle working with all agencies that contribute to the running of the Club and match days.’
What kind of tools do you use to communicate with the fan base? Meetings, dedicated communications channels?
‘Probably the best way for me is through my Twitter account, it allows for the opportunity to get a message to a huge number of fans very quickly. It’s also very helpful as it can be utilised in dynamic situations which are constantly changing so I find it essential. Other ways are generally through face to face meetings, group meetings and fan forums. As most SLOs will say, communication is key to the role and you always have to be available for fans.’
What kind of help can you give fans give through your daily activity? What do you think are the areas where fans can contribute to the match experience and safety?
‘On a daily basis I receive between 100-150 emails as well as Twitter notifications. Within these there are all sorts of questions and requests, in the main it’s a case of taking time to try to explain Club policies or in the case of complaints raise these on behalf of the fan(s) involved in order that you are able to get a response and where possible a satisfactory outcome. Having a sound knowledge of the Club and its policies is naturally a benefit as you can answer a lot of the questions readily without delay.
On top of the direct communication there is liaison with internal departments as well as operational planning meetings for forthcoming matches, these allow you to understand the match day plans, get the required permissions for match day materials and communicate all of this which ultimately should make match day run smoothly for everyone. There are of course occasions when it doesn’t run smoothly so being on hand allows you take a complete view on what has gone on and follow up with proposals to prevent a repeat, this is something we have encountered lately and we have subsequently been able to meet with the Clubs involved and agree positive outcomes for fans.
In terms of fans contributing to the match experience and safety, I think that in the main it’s about following the advice of stewards and safety advice relayed by the Club. Matches are carefully planned with the primary objective being the safety of all supporters, I don’t think there is any one thing other than to adhere to the guidance and advice provided by those responsible for hosting the match as this is likely to make for a safer and more enjoyable event for everyone.’
What are your short-term and long-term goals in your role?
‘My goals are simply to be successful within my role and hopefully provide a service to our supporters which benefits them. As a fan I’m constantly looking at how we can improve and make things better for fans although it’s not always easy. As I highlighted previously SLOs are not decision makers, so whilst there may be things I think we can improve on that view may not be shared by others so you have the internal challenges which most people working within a corporate structure face however you have to remain resolute and not be put off when things don’t go your way. Longer term I’d like to develop a wider group of SLOs within the Club, I still think there is a need and although I wouldn’t think there would be the need for them all to be Full Time I do believe that there are more projects we could be involved in with more resource freeing up time to think more strategically.’
What actions are you looking to take to engage fans and further make a difference?
‘I think this ties into the previous response but a larger team with some younger fans getting involved would be something I’d envisage. I think there is more we could do on social media so it’s important to keep the next generation of supporters engaged so that would be the next logical step I reckon.
The issue of pyrotechnics is one which remains high on the agenda and whilst we are all aware of the rules when it comes to the use of pyro at matches it doesn’t feel like it’s something that’s going to go away. With that in mind I believe there has to be some thought on how football manages this issue in a safe manner, clearly fines are not a deterrent so I believe there has to be a new approach to this, naturally we can never advocate unsafe behaviour but if the problem persists despite the current penalties it feels like it needs to be tackled in a different way. I’m sure fans and the Football authorities throughout Europe can see that pyro use is on the increase so it would be good to be part of a process which seeks to find a safe and satisfactory solution which works for everyone.’
What do you think has been the main benefit of the implementation of SLOs in Scottish football?
‘From what I can see the introduction of SLOs within Scottish Football has given fans a better opportunity to engage with their Clubs and in many respects gain a better understanding of how their Club works. In most cases there are reasons why Clubs operate in a certain way which may not be obvious, I think that the SLOs are now able to provide explanations and rationale which may have been missing for fans in the past.
I also believe that SLOs have been beneficial in supporting plans and proposals from active fans on match days thus helping to improve the atmosphere at matches with drums and flags, corteo and choreo thus making it more attractive particularly for younger fans who want to be part of the terrace culture of the 60s, 70s and 80s. There is no doubt that fan culture is changing and that this is not always seen as a good thing by some, SLOs are now challenging decisions on behalf of fans and long may that continue.’
You can follow JP on Twitter here.
Miss last month’s ‘SLO of the Month’? Read it here.