Cathy Long has had a varied and interesting career in the football industry, with many more ideas and projects planned for the near future. Having worked at the Premier League for 15 years and providing consultancy services for a number of organisations, Cathy gives an insight into her successful career and offers her advice to those looking to pursue a role within the industry.
No! I remember being at school and somebody getting work experience at Liverpool Football Club and everybody actually felt a bit sorry for her. We didn’t really know what people did behind the scenes in football back then. It was in the 80s and football wasn’t necessarily seen as a ‘career’.
I got interested in the politics of football because of Hillsborough – not so much an interest in wanting to work in football - but an interest in what was happening behind the scenes. That disaster affected everyone I knew - everyone in Liverpool really - and it made me realise how much was wrong with the industry. I joined the Football Supporters’ Association (FSA) and started campaigning because they were doing some really important work in trying to get their views across. I believe, that broadly speaking, such a tragedy happened because fans were not being listened to. Fans’ views were not being taken seriously and so they were being treated in a certain way. For me, my sense of justice has always been to not let it happen again and you can only not let it happen again, if you recognise why it happened the first time.
But I ‘fell’ into football really. I was working in music and somebody asked me to help out with focus groups when the Premier League first started. It was to look at fans’ views on all of the proposed changes. I ran some of those focus groups and that was my first paid position in football.
My first job in football though was volunteering in the Hillsborough Appeal Shop on a Saturday. I then moved into campaigning. After that, I worked for the FSA on Euro 2000 and then for the Home Office on their working group for disorder. Through much of this time, I was also freelancing for the Premier League and the Football League on the focus groups.
I freelanced with them from 1993 to 2000 and then they said, ‘Look, we need somebody to come in and run all of this’. I actually said no a few times because I was enjoying the freelancing but then I realised it was something I wanted to do so in 2001, I said yes. They didn’t have anybody doing any form of customer service work really – it was all very new.
Nowadays, fan engagement feels like it has always been there and it can be a career but nothing existed when I first started. Contacting all the clubs and trying to get them all together to share best practice was really tricky initially because there was this element where clubs felt they had to be competing and not share their ideas. Some clubs wouldn’t even send representatives to the meetings! I had to try and explain that yes, while you will be giving away one piece of information, you are also going to get nineteen pieces of information back. There were even occasions where I would have to visit Chief Executives of clubs and explain that we really needed them to be on board because we needed everyone to play their part. It eventually just became normal for everyone to attend those meetings and be part of the network.
I think one of the nicest things I hear from people is that they really miss those meetings and events when their club has been relegated from the Premier League. We created such a nice atmosphere and a helpful network.
Yes. Since I left the Premier League, I have freelanced and one of the reasons I wanted to do that was because I wanted the opportunity to learn new things. However, one of the challenges of freelancing is that people aren’t really that interested in what you can learn, they just want to pay you for what you already know.
I did a lot of work with Tottenham Hotspur on their transition to the new stadium, which was a really good experience. Everybody was learning about how to operate a big stadium and it was a really valuable experience because now, for anyone that is looking to open a new stadium or new stand, I have a good idea of what to do and what not to do to be able to help them.
I have tried to vary my consulting work too – I will look at supporter engagement but also diversity and inclusion projects. I set up the Equality Standard at the Premier League and so now when I see news such as Kick it Out’s deal with Sky Sports, it is amazing that it has progressed so much.
But really, what differs when you are consulting with clubs as opposed to working full-time with one, is that you are not really part of the family.
I think both. I like working for myself and having that freedom but it is nice to freelance for a club that makes you feel like you are a part of the team. You know that you are not part of the team really, as you are there just to do a role but it is nice to feel as though you are.
The idea came from the long days and hours that I have spent in control rooms, along with all the steward briefings I have attended. When I was at the Premier League, we spent a lot of time looking at the operations of the London Olympics – their stewards and volunteers had such great PR and we wanted to emulate that within football. We did a big piece of work around the differences between the two stewarding operations and the conclusion we came to, was that better engagement was needed in football. From there, we decided that we wanted to improve the briefings and inductions that were given to those staff and ensure they were managed well and that they felt engaged with their work. Sometimes, I don’t think we give people enough information to be able to do customer service well. We spoke to a lot of stewards too and it just felt like an area that everybody involved with it wanted it to improve.
What is particularly interesting about this platform though, especially looking at jobs within football, is the impact it can have given the current circumstances. I believe there will be a lot of change and a high turnover of staff in football, especially those frontline staff. We just don’t know whether those staff will want to return given how this year has been. I think a lot of people have had time to think about their life and what they want to do and may decide that they do not want to return. There may also be others who are slightly nervous about returning to such a role because of health reasons. A lot of venues that we have spoken to for our research have confirmed they are concerned about how many people are going to return to their role. They would then have to look at a whole recruitment project, as well as advanced training for both new and existing stewards because new measures and regulations exist due to Covid-19. There are going to be a lot of challenges ahead.
When I first started working for myself, I set up Two Halves which was very much Sport Consultancy. However, I then ended up involved in a number of community projects because I realised that what I was doing a lot of the time was bringing groups together, whether that was football fans with the police, or football fans with their clubs. Essentially, I was bringing groups around the same table, that while they had their differences, they did share something in common to be able to work together. That may have been the shared love of the football club or wanting an event to operate safely.
So wearedevoted.org came about because it was marrying those two areas together – the community side and the football side. It probably started when I was involved in work around the Grenfell Tower tragedy. We looked at how that disaster impacted on the community and I realised that the two areas (community and football) could come together. It’s all about local communities and campaigners needing to work with their local council, similar to how football fans need to work with their clubs even though disparities will exist and there isn’t always a fondness for the leadership. Given that experience in football, I was approached by the local council to assist in facilitating relationships with their communities.
The sports and events work has now been merged into Aposto and the community work has been separated into an area of ‘not for profit’ initiatives.
They have all been a bit of a labour of love. When I worked on Passing Rhythms – the book we published on the transformation of football – we were working in the 90s when things were really changing. It seemed like it was a rapid change at the time too. It was an academic book where I interviewed a lot of people and we looked at all different aspects of fandom: the culture, the music – I interviewed a lot of musicians. We ended up using that work for another book, The Miracle of Istanbul.
It is a timely question though as I was thinking about this recently because I previously interviewed Gerard Houllier. It was all about Liverpool and the transformation that happened there and his role within it. He was lovely and so helpful.
But going back a step, The Miracle of Istanbul came about because after Liverpool’s amazing comeback. John, who we had worked with on the Passing Rhythms book a few years before, had a phone call from the publisher asking if we could write a book about it and could they have it in six weeks! I did a lot of editing and support work on that particular project given my role with the Premier League at the time.
I am currently working on a book about fandom – about being a fan. It will include my own journey and experiences as a fan and as a season ticket holder on the Kop.
It is. It can be quite funny when somebody tells me about an initiative at a club and I already know about it because I helped facilitate it!
But implementing initiatives such as the Visit Football Assessment has been great to be a part of because it has really helped to transform this area. Another example is the Accessible Stadia Guide (Cathy co-wrote) which at the time, was to be seen as best practice. It is now seen to be the minimum standard. I get a lot of satisfaction with that particular project because I know that supporters can go to games because that standard is in place.
But I have always been grateful to be able to still attend games as a fan. Quite often I speak to people working in football clubs and they are not able to do that because the work has changed the sport for them. I haven’t found that but I think it’s because I have worked for clubs in a consultancy role as opposed to working on a permanent basis.
I have done some work with the EFL but it was a long time ago. I do have an interest in such work though as I think there is an opportunity to learn and there is also some interesting work happening in those clubs. As a starting point, those clubs have to work harder to bring supporters in.
I think what I would really like to do though, is to build a sense of community between those clubs, like we did within the Premier League. There is a lot you can do that doesn’t involve money – it isn’t all about funding. For me, I think creating value for those clubs is important and feeling a sense of community between your group of counterparts whether it be SLOs or Ticket Office Managers, is really helpful. Sometimes your job can be lonely because often you may be the only person in a whole town that is doing your job. For example, if you are a Ticket Office Manager at the football club within that town, there will be nobody else doing that role. So who do you talk to? Building up trust between personnel at clubs is really important.
On this subject, one initiative I did implement was to change the induction process for promoted clubs. Previously, they would be called into a Premier League meeting and pretty much just be told what they needed to do. But I, with a senior team, wanted to go and visit those clubs to see how they operate and what their environment was like. We explained what we do and how we could help them get through the crazy time of promotion. I think it made a real difference.
The highlights are probably those things that don’t sound that exciting but they are those initiatives that have made a change to how football operates – initiatives such as the Accessible Stadia Guide. Pushing those projects through and being able to change rules has been nice to be a part of.
The £30 Away Ticket Initiative was great too – helping those fans that you knew were really struggling to afford away tickets.
Strangely though, I haven’t really thought about all the highlights – I am usually asked about the challenges I have faced! However, I think the most fun part has been working with all the clubs and seeing the community build. It is a real highlight to be able to see people work together and to be at a point where clubs consulting with fans is the default position. I can see a real shift from when I first started working in football; now there is a constant expectation for fan consultation.
As a fan, a football highlight would be winning in Istanbul and of course the Premier League but in saying that, it was a bit of a lowlight not to be able to be there to see them lift the Premier League Trophy! They will just have to do it again this year!
I think the other key highlight I have as a fan is that, with my friend Andy, we were the first people to arrange the card mosaics on the Kop. There wasn’t anybody else doing it in the country at the time but we persuaded Rick Parry and the Safety Officer to let us do it. It was brilliant.
I think I have probably overcompensated at times and I always made it clear I was a Liverpool supporter. But I think sometimes there has been an element of supporters being a little suspicious about it because of those times I have had to be critical of a club. Those criticisms would only ever be through me trying to help them and/or stop them from doing something wrong.
I think working at the Premier League rather than for a rival club is very different though. Also, it was obvious I was a Liverpool fan by the written work I was involved in so I suppose I just thought it was best to be upfront about it. If anything, knowing I was a fan and a season ticket holder, perhaps helped in gaining that respect from other fans because they knew I had a good insight into the game and was involved in supporter projects, such as the mosaic cards on the Kop.
In saying that, I am sure there are some clubs who may not want me to work with their fans because I support Liverpool and from my side, I would perhaps agree because it wouldn’t be particularly credible to do so. I would always help fans and clubs where I can but I think there are particular roles and projects in which it wouldn’t be credible to do so if you support their rival club. So yes, it may be limiting but at the same time, it was myself that imposed the limiting by being open so I don’t feel aggrieved about it.
I think it’s actually an area that isn’t well served in terms of training and education – it could be better. I would love to implement courses on how the industry works for those people who are new to it. To implement cost-effective ways of helping people who are new to a role.
I think speaking to people within the industry is really important though. As much as courses can be great, picking up the phone to people who are in the same role will be a big help. Informal mentoring happens a lot and I would always advise people to join those free organisations, such as Women in Football. There are Safety Officer and Ticket Office networks too. Most of those groups are free to join, or they have free mailing lists.
Source: Women In Football
I learned a lot from going to conferences and listening to speakers from all different areas of the industry. I would also advise people to look outside of football, look particularly at those sports that have to work harder than football to sell tickets. You can find those sports carry out some amazing initiatives.
I think it is important to know that you can learn a lot without having to part with a lot of money. I have been involved in many conferences and webinars that have either been free or I have paid a small fee for. I have never spent a lot of money on conferences and I have heard some great speakers that I was able to reach out to afterwards.
Kick it Out also have a lot of really good resources, as do Level Playing Field.
Languages are also really important so I would recommend learning a language. A colleague of mine I believe, can speak seven languages with five of those being fluent. When he delivers sessions in other languages, I am in awe of his ability to do so.
It’s actually really interesting to see the changes that are being made now – I think Sanjay Bhandari (Kick it Out Chair) is doing a great job. I was the Premier League representative on the Board so when I left the PL, that role stopped too.
I didn’t want to leave that role at Kick it Out and I offered to stay as an independent. However, they didn’t have space for any independent trustees at the time. I still keep in touch with the group though and often speak with Sanjay.
Don’t hesitate to contact people and say ‘I like what you do and I want to work with you’ because there are times where that approach works. Have passion and be proactive but also make sure you tell them what you can offer that they may not already have. It isn’t always about being passionate for the sport, it is about your specific skills or area of expertise that can make a difference to a club or organisation.
Also, contact people at the right time – timing is everything. You won’t always know when it’s the right time but you will know when it’s the wrong time. The wrong time is matchday or when the club is in a crisis…and the close season isn’t a quiet time!
But you never know if and when people are looking for somebody with your skills so asking the question on vacancies can be really helpful.
Make it clear you can contribute.
Building the technology platforms and systems which can be used globally is the key focus. Our target really is to have the system and training in every arena, venue and sports club. My passion from the beginning has always been safety and so we want to help make arenas safer and the spectator experience better.
It’s an exciting time for this project.
Interviewer: Sascha Gustard-Brown
Sascha is highly experienced within the area of Supporter Engagement, having held the positions of Head of Supporter Engagement at Luton Town Football Club and Supporter Liaison Officer at West Ham United. She is currently working on small supporter engagement projects in sport and freelance writing in football.