Dave Messenger fulfils the role of Supporter Liaison Officer and Disability Access Officer at Watford FC. While his SLO achievements have been recognised by the Football Supporters’ Association (FSA) – Dave was awarded SLO of the Year in 2019 – he has kindly put his SLO ‘hat’ to one side and instead focuses on his experiences and career within Disability Access. Having worked at Watford FC since 2015 and overseeing a number of projects and initiatives for disabled supporters, this is a fantastic insight for those looking to pursue a career within the industry.
It was a bit of a strange path. I had worked within the medical devices industry for years and my last role was in inventory management. The company ended up centralising at their European headquarters and they made redundancies at their other offices. I was at a bit of a loose end because I had been in that industry for a while so I just decided to take the summer off and think about work again once it was over.
Watford had just been promoted and I saw this SLO vacancy pop up. I thought it was interesting and there were skills that they needed which I knew I had but I didn’t really think too much about it. But then I had a phone call from a friend asking whether I had seen the role and had I thought about applying for it. So, I thought about it and eventually decided to go for it. I didn’t think I would get the role but once I was one of the last two candidates I realised how much I really wanted the job.
Source: Watford FC
Before that, I had never thought about working in football or seen it as a career option but it was the right place, right time and I think it was just what I needed after spending so many years in a completely different industry. Also, I realised how well my interpersonal skills would transfer and work within the role.
I would never have been interested in the role at another club though – it wouldn’t have occurred to me to look at that type of role. Now that I am in the industry, I wouldn’t necessarily say that is still the case because I don’t agree that SLOs/DAOs have to be supporters of the club that they work at.
Yes, I did. I was initially hired on a one-year contract for the SLO role as, due to Watford having been promoted that season, they were required to have an SLO in place. Quite quickly after that though, the commitment to accessibility was launched, which all the Premier League clubs signed up for to say they would ensure their stadiums would meet the medium requirements set by the SAG (Safety Advisory Group). It was at that point the club knew they needed to hire a Disability Access Officer so they combined the two roles and made it into a permanent position.
It all happened very quickly and I had only just touched the ground with the SLO role. In saying that, there is synergy between the two roles so it has worked well. Initially, I think the DAO role was going to fall into the category of stadium facilities but it quite quickly evolved into being something that was more about communicating with supporters. Yes, we knew we needed to improve the provision within the stadium but we also needed to know how we could improve it. The only way to do that is to speak with those supporters who it will affect. It isn’t just about the number of wheelchair spaces available in a stadium; there are a number of disabilities to consider and you need to know how best your facilities can be improved for all of those supporters. Disability Access is a much bigger picture than what was first thought.
I think the DAO role itself is important across all levels of the football pyramid, definitely. Every club should have somebody working to improve the provision for disabled supporters as unfortunately, they have been an underrepresented group for far too long. With the Premier League making the commitment regarding accessible stadia too, it gave everyone a ‘push’ to do it too. It is critically important.
There will of course be less money to spend in the lower leagues but you don’t have to spend a lot of money to improve provision. It is a role that takes an open mind and a creative mind to be able to do it well – to work out how facilities can be improved without spending half a million pounds on installing additional wheelchair spaces.
But the difference between the Premier League and English Football League is that at the highest level, there is greater scrutiny for clubs in this area, which makes sense as the PL want to be ahead of the curve. That doesn’t mean it is any less important outside of the PL though.
There are a lot of people in DAO/DLO roles that are doing fantastic work and sometimes the work in League One and League Two is better than what some are doing at Premier League level and that’s probably because they have had to be more creative with it, rather than rely on funding.
It’s interesting because it’s great to be involved but it almost asks the question of what we are doing for the rest of the season. These areas are being worked on and supported all year round. As an example, regarding my SLO role, we supported the Proud Hornets (LGBT affiliated group) at Pride. We paid their entry fee so they were able to have a float and they were able to have wristbands so their members could attend the event. Projects like that happen all the time and it is a real balancing act because we don’t do these things for publicity but at the same time it is important to recognise that the support from clubs is there.
I think if you have to sit there waiting to be told about those days or weeks of action then you are not doing your job correctly. Those events should be there to highlight all the work the club has been doing throughout the year, not a reason to do work in the first place.
I think it comes down to a lack of resources within the area of supporter services. Those working for the PL and EFL are working really hard and doing a fantastic job but the onus is on the senior members of the leagues’ and governing bodies to invest and expand the area so that they have the resources to assist with such promotion all year round.
We are currently running Hornets at Home. This week I have been setting up calls so that supporters can speak with former and current players during this difficult time. Some of the supporters haven’t been out of the house for months because they are shielding and the 15-20 minute calls are great for them – it really helps lift their spirits.
Being able to listen is really important. You need to be able to have an open mind when meeting with supporters, rather than going in with a mindset of ‘I think I already know what this person needs because I have a little understanding of their disability’ because invariably, that won’t be the case.
I met with a supporter recently regarding adjustments to the disabled toilet closest to his seat. We are going to make changes that will help him, without taking away those facilities that other disabled supporters may require when using it. I have been able to build a relationship with this supporter and I ensure I listen to him and understand his needs so that his matchday experience is the best it can be.
Having the ability to listen and then creatively find solutions to what you have been told, I believe, are the two most important skills.
I wouldn’t necessarily say skills have been developed but my knowledge is light years ahead of where it was when I first started the job. Everybody thinks they have an idea on what disability is but you don’t really have an understanding of it, not really. Being able to interact with disabled supporters on a day-to-day basis has changed my understanding completely and having the right attitude and knowledge around disability issues, has been far more important than developing any particular skills.
One example is how much my knowledge on autism has developed. Through the Sensory Room Project that was implemented at the club, I now have a really good idea about the challenges that a child with autism faces and what it means to be a parent of a child with autism. I have met with many families who have different requirements for the sensory room and I have been able to make little tweaks to the set-up to help them.
It came from the work that we had seen at Sunderland FC (they had installed a sensory room after working with supporters Peter and Kate Shippey (MBE). This is widely known as The Shippey campaign). The Shippey family had made contact with them regarding their son who wasn’t able to enjoy his matchday experience. I saw that work and thought about how Watford have always had this history with being a family club – they were the first club to have a family enclosure and family terrace in the 1980s. I felt like we were almost resting on our laurels with that and I wanted us to be that forward-thinking club who should have a sensory room for those supporters who need it.
I visited Sunderland to do some research, as well as speaking with the Shippey family; supporters and local schools who had invested in sensory areas. We learned a lot through that process and the club were completely supportive of implementing the room. I am incredibly proud of the work that went into it.
It’s been nearly four years since the room opened but I will never tire of seeing a child’s first reaction when they go into the sensory room for the first time – that sense of wonder that they wouldn’t be able to experience if that facility wasn’t available.
Aside from the sensory room, the general improvement of the facilities has been great to be a part of. It was very much a team effort but I am proud to have been involved with it.
When I first started in the role, we had 35 wheelchair spaces, with the vast majority of those being pitchside. We now have 150 wheelchair spaces with the vast majority of those being at elevated levels. The only supporters who are pitchside are the ones who have chosen to be there because they like to be close to the action and they enjoy the view. Previously as a wheelchair user, you had no choice as to where you could sit when you came to a game at Watford FC but now you have choices and I am incredibly proud to have played a part in that.
We now have extra wheelchair spaces, spaces with easy access, seats with extra legroom, seats with arm rests, spaces we use for Soccer Sight commentary (audio commentary headsets)... We have actually started to do the audio descriptive commentary for the behind closed-door matches. We set up a conference call facility so supporters could still dial in and listen to the commentary. Little initiatives like that have gradually developed into an overall improvement of the provision we have
We have also made the website more accessible; we have a virtual online tour of all of our disabled facilities so anybody who is coming to the ground for the first time can look at our facilities online and hopefully remove the understandable concerns that disabled supporters may have when they attend a football match.
I always try to speak to my counterpart in the lead-up to the match to be able to send through information. We have also invited away supporters to join us at the audio commentary conference call we have been running for the games behind closed doors. It’s been great that we have had away supporters use that service.
In terms of matchdays, I often visit the wheelchair positions in the away end and make sure that those supporters are happy with the facilities and to see if there is anything further we can do to assist them. I think it is really important to not forget away fans and to ensure they have good facilities. If they have a poor experience, they won’t come back.
The last year has been difficult. I came into the role on the back of promotion to the Premier League and then we had four seasons of safety which didn’t involve a relegation battle, as well as reaching an FA Cup Final – it was all sweetness and light. But last season, and probably so far this season too, it has been challenging because things haven’t been going well on the pitch. I think with the DAO role, it’s perhaps not so challenging because there is always that constant requirement and need for the club to be supporting the area of equality and inclusion but with the SLO role, when the team isn’t getting results, it’s a lot more challenging. Hopefully things will improve soon…
When we sack a Head Coach, that can be difficult to manage with supporters sometimes too. But we had four managers within the season we got promoted!
Being honoured with the SLO of the Year Award was huge for two reasons. The first was that it was nice to have that personal accolade for all of the hard work – the sensory room was a big part of it. The second reason was because of Jonathan at Spurs*. He was a great friend, role model and mentor and just one of those people that you could always pick up the phone to for advice. It didn’t matter how busy he was, he always made time to speak to you. He was a great person and so to follow in his footsteps and win the same award that he had won, was huge for me. To see somebody who is so fantastic at their job and win that same award, was lovely for me.
I would say to people to keep pursuing it if working in football is something they really want to do. It’s a hard industry to get into – you have to keep working at it and almost find a niche way of getting into a club or organisation. Also, keep an open mind on where you want to work; don’t just fixate on one area or one organisation because if you really want to work in football, you need to get your foot in the door before focusing on anything specific.
You also need to be aware that while you will have skills that are transferable to football, the industry is so fast paced that you have to ensure you are ready to ‘ride the waves’ of it all. It is so results driven and a bit of a mad industry to work in so just be prepared for that.
I will never rule anything in, or rule anything out. People often ask me if I would ever work for another club and while I wouldn’t dismiss the idea, I am happy and comfortable with my role at Watford so I am not actively thinking about my career in the future. For now, I just want to further develop the role I have and get our supporters back in the stadium. From there, I want to continue working on improving their experience and hopefully implement the ideas we had before the pandemic hit. It will be great to get back into that because it feels like a bit of a hiatus at the moment.
In saying that, the DAO and SLO roles have given me a good understanding of the discrimination that exists within football so I think, maybe I would like to do something within that area. But again, I am not actively looking for that opportunity. At my age I am not particularly career driven!
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.
Note from Sascha
*Jonathan Waite was the SLO of Tottenham Hotspur and sadly passed away in 2018. Along with Dave, I also had the privilege to work with him during my time as the SLO at West Ham United. He was an incredible support for many SLOs within the Premier League and he is missed daily by many people within the football industry.
He was a friend, colleague and mentor to many.