As fans return, could Sheffield United pinch this bright idea from a rugby league legend?

After discovering his friend, mentor and fellow coach Tony Smith has been piping crowd noise into training sessions to help his players prepare to compete in front of spectators once again, Sheffield United’s caretaker manager Paul Heckingbottom has identified another challenge facing sports teams as social distancing restrictions imposed during the Covid-19 pandemic are relaxed.

Monday, 17th May 2021, 5:40 pm
Updated Monday, 17th May 2021, 5:41 pm

Speaking ahead of tomorrow’s Premier League fixture at Newcastle - the first time United will have performed to an audience since December - Heckingbottom admitted he was intrigued by the tactic Smith has been employing at Hull KR, as rugby league also gets ready to welcome back its fans.

Although he confirmed United have so far resisted the temptation to do something similar - “We shout loud enough as it is” - Heckingbottom admitted he has been exploring ways of preserving the same clear lines of communication he has enjoyed with his squad inside empty stadia.

“From a coach’s point of view, probably the only plus point of everything being so quiet is that the players can hear you all the way through,” Heckingbottom explained. “Often, it’s almost impossible to get a message across and so you have to look at doing it in different ways - using different methods and tactics - particularly if it needs to be relayed quickly or immediately.

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LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - MAY 16: Paul Heckingbottom, Manager of Sheffield United celebrates victory with Jack Robinson of Sheffield United following the Premier League match between Everton and Sheffield United at Goodison Park on May 16, 2021 in Liverpool, England: Gareth Copley/Getty Images

“So that is something we;ve been considering, because I don’t know how much noise the number of fans that are being allowed back into St James’ Park will make, but it will be much louder of course than if there were none.”

“I’m not going to go into the exact details of how you usually get your point across,” he continued. “Because usually they involve bending the rules a little bit, so that’s why we never really talk about it.

“I’m really interested to learn what Tony has been doing there though. It’s a good idea, to be fair and it doesn’t surprise me because Tony is always coming up with different ‘takes’ and things like that.”

After their paths first crossed at a League Managers Association workshop - where Smith had been hired to give a presentation - Heckingbottom invited the Australian to spend time in Edinburgh during his spell in charge of Hibernian.

Having taken over United on an interim basis in March, when Chris Wilder’s five year reign came to an end, Heckingbottom has been unable to save them from relegation but has promoted several members of their Steelphalt Academy youth programme through the ranks. Daniel Jebbison, aged 17, celebrated making his full PL debut at Everton on Sunday by scoring the only goal of the game.

“It’s going to be great to get back out there in front of supporters again, genuinely I can’t wait.” Heckingbottom said. “You go to all these top grounds, against top players and top managers, and you may as well be on a park pitch. You could be anywhere because there’s no noise or anything. It’s just not the same. It’s going to be brilliant to have people back in.”