Every year when we announce the FSF Awards the Men’s Player of the Year trophy gets the most attention - but the awards also give us an opportunity to champion less celebrated work that happens off-the-pitch.
The Supporter Liaison Officer (SLO) of the Year award is one such category, where we highlight the best examples of clubs working with their fans around the country. This year Wigan Athletic’s Ian Wadsworth and Jason Taylor were jointly awarded the prize – the first non-Premier League SLOs to win it.
Previous winners of the award include Anthony Emmerson at Stoke City, Chris Waters at Sunderland and Jonathan Waite from Tottenham Hotspur – all of whom are examples of how good supporter liaison work can be carried out.
“It’s really nice to win,” Jason said. “It’s one of those jobs that isn’t widely known so it’s nice to be recognised.”
Ian and Jason were appointed as the club’s joint SLOs back in 2013, taking on the work as volunteers and developing the role almost entirely themselves.
“In the first seven months we really struggled,” Jason told us. “But we began to get a feel for it after speaking to the lads at Doncaster Rovers and other SLOs through the FSF’s network.”
Ian added: “Before we were appointed as SLO here the role was actually an add-on to the HR manager’s job.
“Having two fans in the role has helped, we’ve learnt a lot from linking up with other SLOs and the club’s communications with supporters over the last few years has improved a lot.”
Since taking on the role the pair have introduced a number of positive changes, most notably securing an overhaul of the catering on offer at the DW Stadium.
“We had a lot of complaints about the quality of the catering,” Ian said. “It was like something from the 80s.
“Despite the feedback the catering firm weren’t willing to improve things, so we spoke to the club and supporters which has led to significant improvements.”
“The club listened to fans,” Jason said. “And they’re now offering a lot more – bringing in wines, ciders and real ales.”
Beyond catering Ian and Jason have established a Female Fans Focus Group to better understand the needs of women at the match and have become a regular point of contact for fans at both home and away games – taking queries from supporters, contacting opposition SLOs, helping fans with travel and much more. They even helped Latics fans stranded on coaches on the M6 get to the match at Swindon away.
Despite their hard work, the pair believe the football industry needs to do more to promote the concept of SLOs.
“Supporter liaison work is improving across the country, but there’s still a long way to go,” Jason said. “Too often when you’re trying to get a hold of an SLO before a match you’re told ‘Oh, it’s the ticket office manager’ or ‘so-and-so’s doing that this week’. You can never get a hold of them.”
Ian added: “I think recognition of the role is improving and SLO work is growing, but it varies a lot club-to-club.
“For example, some clubs still have the chief executive listed as their SLO, which obviously isn’t workable.
“It’s a role that needs to be taken much more seriously by clubs and we think they’ve got to have a fan representative involved.”
Both are lifelong Wigan Athletic supporters, something which they feel has benefited them in their role, giving them a natural feel for the needs of the match-going crowd – but what advice would they give to a newly-appointed SLO?
Jason said: “It’s a very rewarding job. You do listen to a lot of criticism but it’s not all about taking flak.
“I would say don’t try to do too much too soon. Don’t try to impose a vision of how you think everything should work straight away.
“It takes time to figure out what’s best for you and your supporters.”
Ian added: “My advice would be to get in touch with other SLOs, see what they’re doing and get along to the FSF’s SLO meetings.
“It does take a lot of drive and sometimes you’ve got to push your club to make sure it’s not just a tick-box exercise.”