Sheffield United: The whirlwind set to hit Bramall Lane on Sunday

Last month, midway through what proved a successful training camp in Portugal, Kevin Cookson summoned Sheffield United's players to a meeting in their coastal bolthole.

Friday, 16th August 2019, 13:36 pm
Updated Friday, 16th August 2019, 16:00 pm
Kevin Cookson is Sheffield United's head of media: Steve Ellis

The session, organised by the club's long-serving head of media, was attended by every single member of Chris Wilder's squad. It was designed to remind them that Terror Tuesday, the most gruelling date on their pre-season schedule, was not the biggest challenge they would face over the next week or so.

"You saw the difference in terms of the interest when we travelled over there," Cookson said, casting his mind back to United's first official engagement since winning promotion from the Championship. "Whereas before, there'd be a couple of journalists coming over the cover what was going on, now there were television crews as well. Everyone wanted interviews and there were people doing feature programmes too."

The visit to the Algarve proved a gentle introduction to the circus which, when Crystal Palace travel to South Yorkshire on Sunday, will descend upon Bramall Lane for the first time in 12 years. Talking about football should, on the face of it, be relatively simple if you earn your living from the game. But the sheer scale of the intrusion, the volume of engagements top-flight professionals must perform, means those without past experience can feel a little overwhelmed. Forewarned, Cookson reckoned, was forearmed.

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Fortunately, when he took to the stage to begun his presentation, he had an ally in the audience. Phil Jagielka, back with United following more than a decade at Everton, could echo Cookson's message about the storm coming his mates' way.

"The Premier League has moved on beyond all recognition since the last time we were in it," Cookson said. "It was big then and it's even bigger now. It's not a case of wanting to do things, it's a case of having to do them for the rights-holders and everyone else."

"The great thing for me, when I was planning my talk, was that Jags had just come back and he's been a part of it over there (Goodison Park) all the way through that period. So he could really back me up. Jags could really echo what I was saying about how the demands were going to explode.

"He's been brilliant for me, a real help. Because he's experienced all this and seen it grow. Jags has been at the centre of it all the way through."

Kevin Cookson (left) briefs The Star's James Shield on the changes to Bramall Lane: Steve Ellis

Although it might sound strange, the work of Cookson and his department can make a tangible difference to United's results on the pitch as Wilder's team attempts to plot a course towards survival. With revenues from domestic and overseas television subscriptions fuelling the competition's growth, broadcasters demand rather than request behind the scenes access. If organised badly, it could impact upon focus. And distracted players, given the scale of the challenge facing United, will be no use to Wilder over the next nine months.

The meeting with Palace, who like United began their campaign with a draw, also serves as an opportunity to showcase the £5m makeover the hosts' stadium has undergone.

Some aspects - such as the cashless kiosks, refurbished family areas and improved signage - is easy to spot. Others, particularly those relating to VAR, the media or performance analysis, less so. For instance, cameras have been placed in all four stands as part of a new player tracking initiative. The press box has been extended to 100 seats and two purpose built TV studios created, plus five post-match interview stations. The floodlights have also been upgraded, with a Stadium FX system - which provides the capacity for visual lightshows - installed.

"These are all necessities," Cookson said. "Everything we've done media-wise, that's all part of the criteria you have to fulfil. We already had a great modern stadium and we overhauled it the last time we were in the Premier League. The fact we've had to do all of this as well now, well, that shows how much the interest and the organisation has grown since then."

Kevin Cookson has spoken to Sheffield United's players about the differences: Steve Ellis

SO WHAT HAS BEEN IMPROVED?

*VAR system installed.

*Cameras for player tracking system in place.

*A new 100 seater press box, including television ports and hardwire internet.

Kevin Cookson admits media demands have skyrocketed in the Premier League: Steve Ellis

*Media suite for 70 people, including desks, a working area for photographers and a stage for interviews.

*Improved gantry for broadcasters.

*Two television studios creaters, one in the John Street Stand and another near The Kop.

*Post-match television interview areas increased from one to five.

*Seats in both dug-outs increased.

*LED floodlights erected and also a special effects lighting system.

*A refurbished club superstore and merchandise warehouses.

*Artificial grass flooring in the Blades Hub.

*Improved family section in the John Street Stand.

*The cricket pavilion clock, now on show outside Legends of the Lane, restored to full working order.

*New digital signage above refreshment kiosks and improved till systems.

*Toilet areas for supporters either completely refurbished or improved.

*Digital ordering system installed in executive boxes and hospitality areas overhauled.

*Work undertaken to make access more efficient.