Visitors to Bramall Lane will have noticed that, earlier this summer, the famous old stadium got a brand new look.
Gone were the posters bidding supporters welcome with banners advertising The Hualing Group, a major conglomerate from Ürümqi in northwest China, emblazoned across the walls of the South Stand instead.
Few people will have been surprised. After all, a delegation from Sheffield United had visited the city, recognised by the Guinness Book of Records as being the most landlocked in the world, 12 months earlier. But I wonder if this makeover is merely part of a run-of-the-mill sponsorship agreement or is the first step towards something potentially much more lucrative.
United and China go back a long, long way. Kevin McCabe, co-owner of the League One club, has done plenty of business in the People’s Republic and was surely the driving force behind Sheffield’s decision to enter a twinning arrangement with Chengdu. The capital of Sichuan province, 1279 miles away from Ürümqi, was also the home of Chengdu Blades, one of several foreign ‘sister’ clubs United acquired at the time, before being sold. In 2009, they also opened a youth academy there with Britain’s deputy consul-general, Bora Milutinovic and even a former world gymnastics champion all on hand to inject some extra razzmatazz.
Chinese money has been flooding into English football for the past few months while, closer to home, major infrastructure projects in the city are also being funded by hitherto unknown companies including, of course, The Hualing Group. Liverpool and Leeds are rumoured to be next on the Middle Kingdom’s hit list. Intriguingly, just like Sheffield, they also lie on the proposed HS2 rail route which is known to interest Chinese investors. The same goes for Aston Villa, Wolverhampton Wanderers and West Bromwich Albion who have been acquired by the Beijing based Recon Group, Fosun International from Shanghai and Guangzhou Entrepreneur Guochuan Lai in recent months.
Last month, it was announced that Liverpool City Region had signed a memorandum of understanding agreement with Inner Mongolia. Hohhot, located in the Chinese autonomous region, is set to become the country’s first ‘football city’ in a national programme, directed by President Xi, that aims to create 20,000 football schools.
Bai Xiangqun, Inner Mongolia’s vice-governor, said Liverpool has “strong heritage and great experience in this area” when the deal was confirmed. Sheffield, home of the world’s oldest club, the oldest ground and, as United followers know, the first place ever to stage a floodlit match, has plenty of both too. Eleven years after Bramall Lane made its play for China, I wonder if China will soon contemplate some sort of play for Bramall Lane.