Sheffield United: ‘We don’t want to be a community club, we want to be a real community club’
The Star’s Sheffield United writer James Shield learns about some of the club’s new matchday initiatives, designed to attract the next generation of fans to Bramall Lane.
Jon Helliwell doesn't really remember his first Sheffield United match. Which, he admits, is sort of the point.
"Chris Morgan was involved. I know that much because I think we met him afterwards. But if you ask me who we were playing or what the score was, unfortunately I'l have to pass."
Part of Helliwell's brief, as United's families and juniors coordinator, is to create much more enduring memories for the next generation of fans. Rather than vague recollections of their favourite players, or bone-crushing handshakes with fearsome centre-halves, the 26-year-old wants Bramall Lane 'newbies' to experience something which lives with them forever. And persuades the overwhelming majority to come back.
Helliwell's position, created at the beginning of the season, has placed him at the vanguard of United's drive to become what Dave McCarthy, their operations director describes, as a "real community club." The 'Home Debut Scheme' falls under his remit together with other projects including the 'Magic Moments' initiative and Blades Family Hub.
"There's similar roles elsewhere in football," Helliwell continues. "But here, it's been widened and expanded. There's tons of stuff which comes under its remit. We want coming to our ground to be something really memorable for people, no matter what their age or circumstances. And because I'm United through and through, because I enjoy working with people, you could call it a true dream job."
The array of papers the two men carry into our meeting confirms it is pretty demanding too. Helliwell, a former season ticket holder, and McCarthy, another lifelong follower of Chris Wilder's side, also apologise for being pressed for time because, the latter explains, "we've got a pre-match briefing to go to."
The purpose of Helliwell's work, his raison d'être, is to consolidate United's place at the heart of the city and make their ground its destinatuon of choice. The empirical evidence suggests it is already having an effect, including beyond the team's traditional heartlands.
"When we played Bolton recently, we had a group of away supporters sign up for the home debut scheme as well as United ones. That was great to see, they had a really good time, because it should hopefully help to spread the message of what's going on here.
"The family hub is always really busy before matches and is getting busier by the week. We're hitting our targets and that shows people are really becoming engaged."
According to McCarthy, another barometer of Helliwell's impact can be found outside the stadium.
"In the family stand on John Street, one of the things that's been happening is a poster hand-out, where youngsters can get free pictures of the players. The number of kids you see at the next home match, and not just kids mind, wanting to get them autographed is huge now. There's hundreds waiting to get them done.
"A while back, the lads used to be able to pretty much sneak in whereas lately, it's been taking some of them nearly half an hour. But that's great to see, because United is about people."
Of course, as the Bundesliga's burgeoning popularity on British football terraces proves, there is an anti-corporate zeitgeist sweeping through the game. It is something Helliwell and McCarthy are acutely aware of hence, rather than summarising their work in a glossy PR brochure, they prefer to be guided by folk on the ground.
"We're always asking for feedback," Helliwell acknowledges. "For instance, there's tons of activities we put on throughout matchdays but we've also got people coming up and asking 'Can we do 'this' or 'that' which is great. If it's possible, then we will do.
"We've got Supporter Liason Officers all around the ground as well and there's lots of advice given to them. It always gets passed on."
Although there is an obvious temptation to focus on youngsters - "If you can get people through the door when they're eight, six or seven, the chances are you'll always be their club," McCarthy admits - he also recognises the importance of rewarding older fans for their loyalty. Four months ago, Frank Coulson, a 90-year-old suffering from dementia, enjoyed a kick-about on the pitch during the interval of United's game against Wigan Athletic after telling staff at his care home it was his dream to score a goal at the Kop end.
"We were delighted to host Frank," McCarthy says. "His face was a picture when he discovered that he was about to fulfil his lifelong ambition and we were made up that he had the time of his life. The fans were brilliant with him, giving one of their own a lovely reception when he was out there."
With Sheffield Wednesday also competing for people's footballing affections, the battle for hearts and minds in the city is particularly fierce. Results will always help dictate its momentum. There are financial incentives up for grabs. But, given the sport's privileged position, Helliwell says United feel obliged to try and give something back.
"We always finish the year with trips to local hospitals and hospices. This year, we arranged a collection for the S2 Foodbank as well, with almost four tonnes being donated and £1000 raised during a bucket collection prior to a game.
"We want Sheffield to be proud of us but we're proud of Sheffield, proud of where we're from and the people who live here, too."
Dave McCarthy says Sheffield United are committed to being "a real community club" rather than one which simply pays lip service to the title.
"We want to provide something for everyone," he explained, after helping Jon Helliwell, United's families and juniors coordinator, outline United's latest matchday initiatives. "We've got a lot more women coming to games now, more young girls and that's vitally important for us.
"You can call yourself a community club and actually do very little about it. But we want to be a real community club and one that truly engages with people of all backgrounds."
McCarthy, United's operations director, has helped design schemes such as the Blades Family Hub and cashback initiative, which has so far helped raise nearly £10,000 for grassroots teams and local community groups. The Hub, which includes activities such as table tennis and video games, is often filled to capacity before games.
"The whole idea is that mum, dad and relatives can come and the kids can play," McCarthy said. "We want people to be able to arrive at 1.30pm, say, leave at 5pm and get more value for their money. We want the price of a ticket to go a lot further than usual."
"Over the past few seasons we've put a lot of effort into improving the matchday experience to juniors and their families, with Jon's appointment being pivotal to that. We were named 'Most Improved Family Experience' a few years ago and now we want to become the best. We're trying to build on strong foundations."
WHO IS JON HELLIWELL?
Full Name: Jon Arthur HelliwellBorn: SheffieldRole: Sheffield United's Families and Juniors CoordinatorQualification: MSc Professional Practice in Sports CoachingEmployment Background: Programme & Training Coordinator working on sports campsSporting History: Black Belt Taekwondo, Northumbria University Tennis President, played for Middlewood RoversFavourite United Player: Chris MorganFavourite Blades Moment: Ade Akinbiyi's goal against Sheffield Wednesday in 2006Contact Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
SHEFFIELD UNITED'S MATCHDAY PROJECTS EXPLAINED:Cashback Initiative: One of United's most popular schemes, grassroots teams, schools and community groups are invited to take part in the club's matchday activities and become flagbearers on the pitch. Organisations taking part receive discounted tickets and 50 per cent cashback from those they sell to help them raise funds.Blades Family Hub: A large "community space" with free entrance where families and junior fans can take part in activities including pool, table tennis, video game before games.Home Debut: Supporters visiting Bramall Lane for the first time can sign up for free, receiving discount vouchers that can be used in the United Superstore and around the ground.Family Stand: New ideas, in addition to the usual games and quizzes, take place while members of Chris Wilder's squad also visit to area beforehand to hand out free posters and meet the fans.Captain Blade Club: Provides youngsters with the chance to become the club mascot's helper, meaning they are on the pitch when the first team players come out of the tunnel before games.