Paul Whitaker meets a Supporter Liaison Officer at Borussia VFL 1900 Monchengladbach, Thomas ‘Tower ’Weinmann.
When UEFA president Michel Platini unveiled plans for the new Club Licensing and Financial Fair Play Regulations, the English media predictably concentrated on those rules that would impact on Premier League bank balances. Yet almost unreported was Article 35 of the Regulations, that stated ‘football clubs will be obliged to have an Supporters Liaison Officer in place for the start of the 2012/13 season to ensure a proper and constructive dialogue between the clubs and their fans’.
William Gaillard, a UEFA senior advisor to Platini, stated that supporter liaison “is all about relationship management. It’s about giving supporters better opportunities to enjoy themselves. Clubs need to look at supporters in a different light and view them as people who can contribute. Without supporters there is no modern football, only entertainment”.
So what is a Supporter Liaison Officer or SLO? What would an SLO do at both the club and at matches? Would they just tow the UEFA and club line or would they have the supporters interests at heart? Where did the idea of SLO’s originate? What qualifications do you need to be an SLO? As with any questions about the best working practises for football clubs and their supporters, I would have to look to Germany for the answers.
Coincidentally, I recently travelled from Monchengladbach to Koln for the Rhine derby fixture in the company of Thomas “Tower” Weinmann, who also just happened to be a full-time SLO for Borussia VFL 1900 Monchengladbach. Although the day began quizzing Tower about being an SLO at the Bundesliga club, I arrived outside Koln’s Rhine Energie stadium talking Fanprojekts, €120 adult season tickets and German football fan culture in general.
Hello Tower and many thanks for taking time to answer my questions (in English!). I will start with an easy question. Who or what is a Supporter Liaison Officer?
It is a question I am always asked most, as the ‘job’ of an SLO is new and unknown. Even though the role started at several Bundesliga clubs in the 1980/90s, there are still only about 60 people employed in Germany, as SLOs. That is out of a population of 80 million. I am one of three SLOs (my SLO colleagues are Thomas ‘TJ’ Jaspers and Jan Ruoff) employed at BMG.
I am a ‘Supporter Liaison Officer’, ‘Fanbeauftragter’, ‘Fan-Liaison-Officer’, ‘Supporters-Attendant’, ‘Supporters-Coach’ or however you will call my job. On the one hand I have to keep the interests of the BMG supporters and on the other hand I have to keep interest of club and the German Football Federation (DFB).
This sounds like a very difficult balancing act, keeping both the fans and the club/DFB happy.
It is working successfully at BMG, but only because we work very carefully on the borderline between these two worlds. A good friend of mine in Liverpool once said to me that my job is very hard to handle because I’m sitting on 2 horses and that I always have to keep them together. When you lose one of your horses you fall down or you ride only on one horse and the SLO job is over.
I do care about club and the league interests. But, first I am the lawyer of the fans and a fan/supporter myself. The three SLOs at BMG all come from inside the fan-base. We have major contact with all protagonists and to know how a fan in his club scene feels. It is much easier for the fan-base to respect me personally because of my history as an active supporter.
How long have you been an active supporter at Borussia VFL 1900 Monchengladbach?
I have been a ‘Borussen’ or BMG fan since 1973 when the club won one DFB (German FA) Cup, three Championships and two UEFA Cups. My first match as an active supporter at the Bokelberg (BMG’s former stadium) was in 1980 and since then the club has only won the DFB Cup in 1995. I have seen two relegations and two BMG stadiums. Off the pitch I became an active supporter of the independent Fanprojekt Monchengladbach in 1992 and became a member on the committee of the Fanprojekt Monchengladbach in 1994. Since 2003 I have been SLO of the club and Secretary for the Fanprojekt Monchengladbach.
In the first years of my job in the BMG Supporters club I only had one view: the fan and the fan taking care of their club. Since I began work for the club as a SLO I won two different views of the same case. My boss, the club’s chief executive always tells me:“What is good for the club is good for the fans”. My reply is always: “What is good for the fans is good for the club”.
So whose side do you take for example, when there are problems between supporters and the police at a match?
It’s absolutely necessary that we do not have anything to do with Security and Stewards or Volunteers on the first view. It is essential for me that everyone at the club, even the players and officials know that SLOs are no ‘fireworkers’ you can call when it is burning. Like “Oh my god, our fans behave like that or this way! We don’t want it!. Do your job and stop it!”. This doesn’t work.
The SLOs are necessary to prevent situations no one wants to see and to prevent that it comes to a point of no return. The SLOs are not security or police officer who should go into the situation. The jobs of the SLOs are ‘just’ to prevent that those situations could come. For that the SLOs are the MAIN COMMUNICATOR between all protagonists in and around the club and our job is all the time to stay in contact with everyone to talk and to share information.
How should SLOs’ keep in contact with the fans and club/league?
The SLOs mainly want to achieve a brilliant and funny atmosphere between our fans inside and outside the stadium without violence, discrimination and political abuse. There are 3 main ways to achieve this goal:
With SERVICE: The SLOs have to stay in contact with the fans only to serve them with everything they expect from the club. These include fans having access to player autographs, posters, photos and so on. The SLOs are also participate with many decision processes at club. Press conferences, media work, catering, sponsoring, merchandising and fan-club administration.
With SECURITY: The SLOs work together with the main police and club security members to sort out the troublemakers from the fan-base without being an agent of the police and security. Just a support to protect the whole fan-base from security measures which are made only for 1% of the fans. We participate in security meetings and workshops and are involved in deciding about stadium bans for supporters.
With COMMUNICATION: Talking, talking, talking. In any direction, all day long and all over the week with every protagonist of the game. The SLOs reports to the club on the actual situation at the fan-base and within the fans actual feeling for how the fans behave. At BMG, this is achieved with monthly reports to the club secretary and a yearly meeting with club board to inform them of any tendencies in and around the fans. This is very important that the club understand the fans.
The SLOs also serves the fans as much as possible with necessary information around BMG, the match day, the tickets, the ways to the games, meeting points, behaviour advises and information about security measures for the particular game.
Many football supporters reading this may think you have the best job in football?
Regarding these main issues of my work as a SLO, most people do think “Wow, what a job! He has transferred his hobby to his work! Cool!” This is true. Its a dream come true for every fan or supporter to be so near to your club, to the players, the idols of the past.
But you should not forget that many people are jealous and envious on your “success”. So you should have a strong back to handle the verbal attacks you’re receiving. This is mostly in the anonymous Internet forums discussing about you and how you do your job, especially now I am “being paid like other officials of the club”. Or “Not one from us anymore” or “Plays the music he is paid for”. Don’t underestimate this aspect.
On the one side the club wants something from you and on the other side the fans expect something from you as well. This could be too much for sensitive people! Many of my colleagues quit the job not very long after they began it.
So how have you lasted being an SLO since 2003?
When you work as an SLO you lose your hobby. You have to seek a new one that you can find a mental compensation. Otherwise you can’t work in this field for a long time I suppose. Also the job of SLO is not just about passion and interest. You have to be very idealistic as you are maintaining the special fan culture of your club, which is very important to me. The German Football Association (DFB) gave out a guideline years ago, which is nearly the same today and should be read as the main goal any league expects from the SLO:
“A SLO should work with all the fans which have a strong personal and emotional link to the club and do support their club I good times and bad times!. To maintain the special fan culture of the club has to be one of the highest goals for the SLO.
The SLO has the job to care about all fans and fan-base of the club, to support and guide them in working together with delegates from the fan-base or Supporters-Club and has to increase it to a level the club wants to. Anyway he has to influence on the behaviour of the fans!
He has to take any measures to increase the number of fans, to support the fans in being proud of their clubs and support the fan in being active themselves!. On the other hand he has to do everything what’s in his might to avoid aggressions, violence or misbehaving of the fans in the club and with fans of other clubs around a game. On this issue he has to integrate matchday actions and work as well as the work day by day”
Can you explain more about the ‘fans being active themselves’?
It is essential for the SLOs to organize the fan-base so that the fans themselves care about their problems on their own and implant a 100% self regulation. It is not good if club or league work like a teacher and tells the fans what they have to do and what they shouldn’t do. You have to support the implantation of a strong self-organization in or outside the club with own rules and hierarchy.
How is this achieved at Borussia VFL 1900 Monchengladbach?
The supporter liaison work has been up and running at BMG for more than 20 years. BMG were the first club to employ an SLO and this was before it was a criterion laid down by the German Football League and German Football Association.
Helmut Grashoff who was at club for 30 years as first manager and then on the club board, was the first to place his faith in the ability of the BMG fans to ‘police’ themselves. Even back in the 1980s, Helmut made the “Von Fans Fur Fans” or “By Fans for Fans” our motto and this is the principle cornerstone of BMG’s supporter liaison efforts today.
In 1983 several BMG supporter clubs joined together to form a ‘syndicate’. 1986 saw the first edition of the fanzine “North End”, appear. In 1988 BMG supporters established the independent Fanprojekt Monchengladbach or FPMG and Theo Weiss became the first full-time SLO in 1989. This laid the foundation for the stable system built upon the ‘dual-pillar principle’ that still applies at BMG today.
At BMG we the three full time SLOs organize everything around the first liaison ‘pillar’ of 800 official Fan-clubs and 20,000 members. The second ‘pillar’ is our organization of external liaison work by the FPMG. This not-for -profit project is based at the FanHaus (http://www.borussia.de/english/borussia-fans/home-matches/supporters-clubhouse.html) which serves as a network and meeting place for supporters. Over the entrance to the FanHaus is “By Fans for Fans” motto. The FPMG ( www.fanprojekt.de ) is the mouthpiece of all BMG fans against club, the league , the police, the stewards and the media.
How is the FPMG funded?
Fan projects at other German clubs are normally funded jointly by the German Football Association, the local council and the club. We are proud that the FPMG is only funded within the club and its supporters. The club gives €50,000 per year. There are also annual subscription fees of €36 from each of the 5,000 FPMG members and finally revenue from the sale of FPMG merchandise. The FPMG operates with 5 paid employees and 40 supporter volunteers.
What are benefits of joining FPMG?
The club offer reduction on season tickets to stand on Borussia Park’s Nordkurve. €165 for club members and only €120 for FPMG supporters club.
A season ticket at top flight german football club, that costs just €120? For how many matches?
17 Bundesliga matches.
Compare that to £580 for 23 matches on North stand, Leeds United and £170 for 20 matches at Nethermoor stadium, Guiseley AFC in Blue Square North! For economic reasons, I imagine that the club would not be keen on having a large terrace section at Borussia Park?.
When we moved from Bolkeberg, the BMG supporters were involved with the Borussia Park stadium design and I am happy to report we have 14,500 standing on the Nordkurve. Borussia Park has a stadium capacity of 54,000.
So are the other 39,500 seats for VIP and Corporates, a rich foreign owner or leveraged debt, to subsidise these cheap standing season tickets?
No we only have 2500 Corporate seats. The club is 100% supporter owned and we have no debt problems.
Are BMG supporters involved in setting season ticket prices?
No. Ticket prices are only determined by the club. It is a whole calculation of a business plan including seats, tickets, sponsorship and television.
So at BMG, the cheap standing areas that provide the great atmosphere are subsidised by the Corporate/VIP section, sponsorship and television income from the armchair supporter. At the same time German football clubs can still compete in latter stages of European club competitions, do not rely on leveraged buy outs or rich foreign owners AND carry on producing talented youngsters for your successful national team.
So what else do you get for your €36 (through joining FPMG)?
Discount on drinks/food at the FanHaus and on merchandise at club shop; discussion evenings with club players and officials; guidance and counselling for personal problems, support and mediation if you are in dispute with councils, police , stewards etc. If you are under 16, you can also join our youth club. You also get discounted travel on trains and buses to away matches and access to away tickets, which is our most important way of keeping in contact with the fan-base.
The SLOs and FPMG has ‘control’ of away tickets?
Yes. The FPMG gets approximately 1500 away tickets from the club, for self organized distribution by supporters themselves. We also sell tickets to home sections of the ‘hardcore-fans’ through distribution by the supporters club and the SLOs for the official fan clubs. The distribution of tickets by FPMG over the SLOs and the Supporters club, is the only realistic chance that every fan who goes to every game has to stay in good contact to the Supporters club, because otherwise he risks the right to lose the right of buying away tickets. The SLOs and the FPMG have the possibility to know every member of the so called ‘fan-scene’ and if everyone is well known under each other the risk of being violent is very low. And for the fans its good to know that there will be no game he wont get a ticket because its sold out.
We have strict own rules written down by fans themselves and these are called Borussen-Kodex (www.borussenkodex.de). The BMG fans have to accept measures to increase the security around a game an accept rules to take care on each other. No one from ‘outside’ tells the supporters how to react. Only the SLOs and they themselves tell each other what to do! This is why BMG is successful in producing that ‘brilliant and funny atmosphere between our fans inside and outside the stadium without violence, discrimination and political abuse’. This is why the SLOs have to be the link between the Supporters Clubs, FPMG and the fan-base and the security people. We are like TROUBLEMANAGER around games and are necessary to have a good communication between every people working for the fans around a game.
What particular work do the BMG SLOs do before, during and after a game. For example the away game at FC Koln on 25/11/11?
Before the game, we collect information from the police about the most secure travel arrangements to Koln. This game has the highest security risk so careful planning is needed for our organized supporter trains and buses.
Organized Supporter Trains? So do you telephone German Federal Railways (DBahn) and say “hello, I would like to book a train for next Friday. Please can it be on platform… at Gladbach station for 3ish?”
No. DB and the police plan the trains. They want to have us as much together as possible.
Who pays for the supporter trains? The club?
No, it is the DB and police. For the Koln match, they will organise two trains and we will advise supporters on FPMG website the departure times and platforms.
Before the game, we will also collect information from FC Koln club (not the police) about restrictions on supporter displays and choreography. Nothing is allowed at this particular game because of pyrotechnics last time (and this time). Also we will not take our mobile fan embassy to Koln, for obvious reasons!.
On the day of the game, the SLO/FPMG workers will join supporters on car, organized bus and organized trains to Koln. Until shortly before the game begins, we will stay with our fans just at the entrance of the away section. We have short contact with police and security from the away section. We also have short contact with SLO from FC Koln.
How do you get on with Koln SLO?
What do you do once the game starts?
Once the game begins we stay INSIDE the away section in between the BMG fans (standing or seating terrace). We will temporarily go inside the stadium to prevent and to prohibit verbal and physical conflicts among the fans and against stewards or police, or even the Koln fans. But, please remember we are not Stewards. Just a communicator with de-escalation methods and a mediator between fans and stewards or police.
At half time we have communication with BMG fan-base and chiefs of security , police and SLO colleagues.
After the game, we stay near the away section entrance, communicating with BMG fans. Watching and taking care on the fans on their way home to Gladbach from the stadium.
So how did your day go at Koln as a BMG supporter and an SLO?
As a BMG supporter we won 0-3 and went to the top in Bundesliga (for one day only).
As an SLO everything was also fine apart from an incident on the first organized supporter train to Koln. The police allowed too many BMG supporters onto the first train, causing overcrowding. The BAHN made the mistake that this
crowded supporter train had to stop at each station, even though nobody could get on the train or wanted to get off. This was senseless and only angered the fans crowded on the train. During the journey to Koln, the emergency brake was also pulled and the train was allowed to stand as the train driver had to go through the carriages, looking where the emergency brake handle was pulled. This took too long in the too filled train and one carriage had its windows smashed. There were also reports from some BMG supporters who travelled by coaches of having ‘Derby-Hats’ (Green and white hats sold to BMG supporters especially for the Koln match) stolen, when they had to walk through Koln fans, to get to away section.
There were no arrests of any BMG supporters at the game. This was good because this game is our highest security risk.
Many thanks Tower for patiently answering my questions (in English). Please can I end with a couple of general questions about German football culture. The tradition of supporters waving big flags on the pitch before kick off?. Do they represent different supporters branches?.
No, it isn’t a tradition at BMG because this has nothing to do with fan culture in our point of view. It is just theatre!.
The famous denim waist coat or Kutte. Why do they originate from?.
They are seen less today and only with older supporters. The fashion originates from biking gangs in the 1980s.
Do you have a British Members club at BMG?
Yes. There are about 40 members of ‘British Borussen Fan Club’ and a few go out regularly to watch BM matches, home and away. There are also a growing number of British supporters who have a past link with BMG or who have been introduced to BMG who now go out to at least one game or maybe even two or three a year.