Tuesday, 23 Jul 2024

Dave Messenger – Supporter Liaison Officer and Disability Access Officer at Watford FC

Dave Messenger is a dedicated professional who serves as the Supporter Liaison Officer and Disability Access Officer at Watford FC. His remarkable achievements in the field have earned him recognition from the Football Supporters’ Association (FSA), including the prestigious SLO of the Year award in 2019. In this role, Dave offers valuable insights into his experiences and career in Disability Access, making this article a must-read for those interested in pursuing a similar career path in the industry.

How did Dave start working in the football industry?

Dave’s journey into the football industry took an unexpected turn. After working in the medical devices industry for several years, he found himself at a crossroads when the company centralized its operations. Taking advantage of a summer break, Dave stumbled upon a vacant SLO position at Watford FC. Intrigued by the opportunity, he decided to apply despite initial doubts. As the selection process progressed, Dave grew more passionate about the role and realized how well his interpersonal skills aligned with its requirements. What started as a serendipitous moment turned into a fulfilling career.

Transitioning to the Disability Access Officer role

After initially joining as the SLO on a one-year contract due to Watford’s promotion, Dave’s responsibilities expanded as the club committed to improving accessibility. Recognizing the need for a Disability Access Officer (DAO), they merged the two roles into a permanent position. Dave seamlessly transitioned into the DAO role, leveraging his expertise in communicating and collaborating with supporters. It became evident that improving disability access was not just about physical infrastructure but also about understanding the unique needs of diverse supporters.

Equal importance across football levels

The DAO role is crucial across all levels of the football pyramid. Disabled supporters have long been an underrepresented group, and it is vital for every club to have someone dedicated to enhancing their experience. While there may be budgetary limitations in lower leagues, improving provision doesn’t always require significant investments. It requires creativity and an open mind to find practical solutions that benefit disabled supporters. While Premier League clubs face greater scrutiny in this area, inclusivity remains equally vital at all levels.

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Effectiveness of designated events

Designated fixtures and initiatives like Level Playing Field’s Week of Action and the Stonewall Laces campaign garner attention and support throughout the season. However, Dave emphasizes the need for continuous efforts rather than relying solely on these events. Watford FC actively supports various projects and groups throughout the year, such as sponsoring the participation of the Proud Hornets (an LGBT-affiliated group) at Pride events. The focus should not be solely on designated days, but rather on consistently improving inclusivity and recognizing the ongoing work of clubs.

Promotion of initiatives

Increased media support from football organizations could amplify the impact of disability access initiatives. However, Dave believes that the lack of resources in supporter services poses a challenge. The individuals working within the Premier League and English Football League are dedicated and hardworking, but senior members of these organizations must invest in expanding this area. Greater resources would enable consistent promotion of the work being done throughout the year, ensuring that disabled supporters receive the attention they deserve.

Skills for a DAO/DLO role

Listening and maintaining an open mind are essential skills for success in a DAO/DLO role. It is crucial to approach meetings with supporters without preconceived notions, allowing their unique needs to guide the dialogue. Dave cites an example of collaborating with a supporter to improve adjustments in a disabled toilet. By building relationships and truly understanding the requirements of disabled supporters, DAOs/DLOs can create matchday experiences tailored to individuals’ needs. Active listening and creative problem-solving are the foundations of effective disability access management.

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Developing knowledge and understanding

Working in the football industry has significantly expanded Dave’s understanding of disability issues. While he acknowledges that skills development is always ongoing, his knowledge has grown exponentially through daily interactions with disabled supporters. One area that has particularly expanded his insight is autism. The implementation of the Sensory Room Project at Watford FC has allowed him to empathize with the challenges faced by individuals with autism and their families. These experiences have shaped his perspective and deepened his commitment to equality and inclusion.

Creating Watford’s sensory room

Inspired by the sensory room established at Sunderland FC, Dave spearheaded the project to create a similar space at Watford. Recognizing the club’s history as a family-oriented organization, he wanted to push beyond conventional family-focused initiatives and cater to supporters with different sensory needs. Through research and collaboration with supporters, local schools, and other clubs, the sensory room at Watford FC became a reality. Witnessing the wonder and joy on a child’s face upon experiencing the sensory room for the first time is a constant reminder of the importance of inclusive facilities.

Proud initiatives and continuous improvement

Dave finds immense pride in the improvements made to disabled facilities at Watford FC. The number of wheelchair spaces has increased from 35 to 150, with a majority now at elevated levels. The club has also introduced additional provisions such as easy access spaces, seats with extra legroom and armrests, and audio commentary headsets for visually impaired supporters. Furthermore, the website has been enhanced for accessibility, offering a virtual tour of disabled facilities to ease concerns for first-time visitors. These initiatives, along with the sensory room, collectively demonstrate the club’s commitment to improving the matchday experience for disabled supporters.

Inclusivity for away supporters

Dave recognizes the importance of extending inclusivity to away supporters as well. He actively communicates with counterparts from opposing clubs to share information and ensure visiting fans have access to necessary facilities. For instance, Watford FC invited away supporters to participate in the audio commentary conference calls organized for behind-closed-door matches. By addressing specific needs and providing a positive experience, Watford FC aims to create a welcoming environment for both home and away disabled supporters.

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Challenges and highlights

The past year has presented challenges for Dave, particularly as the team’s on-pitch performance declined. Balancing the SLO role during times of unrest can be demanding, but Dave remains dedicated to serving supporters. He also mentions the difficulty of managing supporter expectations when a head coach is sacked. Nevertheless, his unwavering commitment to equality and inclusion keeps him focused on his responsibilities.

Among his career highlights, Dave cherishes receiving the SLO of the Year award. This recognition not only acknowledged his hard work but also held a deeper significance. His mentor and friend, Jonathan from Tottenham Hotspur, previously won the same award. Winning in Jonathan’s memory reinforced Dave’s dedication and the impact of his achievements.

Advice for aspiring football industry professionals

Dave advises aspiring football industry professionals to persist in pursuing their dreams. Breaking into the industry can be challenging, necessitating an open mind and adaptability. While transferable skills are valuable, the fast-paced nature of football requires individuals to be flexible and prepared for the dynamic nature of the industry. Dave also encourages aspiring professionals to gain experience in various clubs and organizations before honing in on specific areas of interest.

Future aspirations

Although he remains open to new opportunities, Dave is content with his role at Watford FC and aims to further develop it. His focus is on bringing supporters back to the stadium, improving their experience, and implementing ideas that were halted by the pandemic. While he may consider pursuing opportunities related to discrimination in football, he is primarily committed to continuing the impactful work he does at Watford FC.