Following news that Sheffield United have recruited four voluntary Supporter Liaison officers (SLOs) for match-day work at Bramall Lane, we spoke to John Garrett the chief SLO at the club to find out more about their work...
FSF: Why has the club taken the decision to appoint SLO assistant for match days at Bramall Lane?
John Garrett: As primary SLO match days should be one of the best and most effective times to interact with supporters and source the information that is vital to us to improve the overall experience and line of communication between the terraces and offices at the club.
My other roles within commercial and operations make this virtually impossible, so the additional colleagues that we brief prior to the game and then de-brief at the end give just that. The early de-brief also means the info is “hot” and action can be taken on matters very quickly.
FSF: Where did you come up with the idea? Do you think other clubs will pick this up?
JG: I try and encourage interaction with all fellow SLOs - we should talk more, especially on a more local basis.
Doncaster Rovers do something similar. I think that for the role to be taken seriously the energy it brings adds more credibility to the idea. Once we get over the usual “no toilet paper, seats wrong colour” mentality and educate people into realising the four are here to help effect change I am sure we will take big steps forward.
I think that, particularly if the main SLO is internally appointed, other clubs should look closely at the idea. It can only make the role easier and more productive.
FSF: How important was it for Sheffield United to find real fans to fill the roles?
JG: Vital. A case of poacher and gamekeeper in many ways. I believe that, although you can easily not support a club and work there as many do, to be taken seriously in any such role being a credible fan really counts.
The pleasing thing is the quality of those that came forward - such a wide range of backgrounds, skill sets and life experiences. The age range was also interesting - the youngest being 18, the oldest 70-plus. Each of those appointed brings something completely different, but all want to make a difference for the right reasons.
FSF: How long have you been in the SLO role at Sheffield United? And what was your background before that?
JG: I have performed the role for three years. The directive came at a time of change at the club behind the scenes. We wanted to take the idea seriously as opposed to just adding a title to a job to keep people happy.
I'd been club liaison officer before, as well as being player liaison officer for many years, so it was viewed as being a natural thing for me to do.
I come from a long line of fans - my granddad was born in 1858 and was watching United in the early 1890’s, my Dad came along in 1925 and my brother in 1950 - when i arrived 18 years later there was never a shortage of willing bodies to take me to games. Both were involved in the supporters club, so I grew up round the club and that environment. I also attended home and away, so I was known to the club before I joined as a member of staff nearly 20 years ago.
FSF: How important has supporter liaison work been to the relationship between the club and the supporters?
JG: I strive to make it more relevant, but it still has its challenges.
Our official supporters' club is fragmented to say the least, but is gradually beginning to pull itself together and move forward.
We have very open and accessible owners, and the big frustration is fans bypassing staff and going straight to the very top of the tree to get what they want instead of through the correct channels.
In an ideal world all customer issues, in my opinion, should be channelled via the SLO as it makes sense to be in the loop at every point in the process. That said, I hold and attend regular forums both at the club and out on the road, and the feeling now is that supporters have more of a voice should they wish to actually use it. Interestingly, the independent boards that seemed to be the speakers corner for so long are not as strong, so we seem to be getting an increase on the face to face connection that we seek.
FSF: Is there any particular piece of work or case you’ve resolved that you’re particularly proud of?
JG: If the result so far has been just actually getting the different groups actually talking then that in itself is a victory.
We had got to a place where it was like Monty Python’s Life of Brian, you know, the Judean People’s Front versus the People’s Front of Judea. Ridiculous. I have always maintained that the strength of the supporters is via “One Voice”- you can always achieve more with clarity and that will always be my aim as long as I carry the title.
The SLO role, like commercial sales, is easy when you have won and slightly more trying when the team is on a losing streak.
FSF: How can fans get in touch with the SLO team at Sheffield United?
JG: My contact details are on the website [Editor's note - the FSF website has contact details for all 92 league clubs] and printed in each programme - I encourage contact via social media and all SLO’s have a mobile phone supplied by SUFC. I have a good relationship with the two independent sites who canvass feedback for me and we also use in house media to keep the project very much in the eye of the public at all times
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Thanks to Rich Jacques for the image used in this article. Reproduced here under CC licence.