Mike Farnan, Sheffield United's Group Executive Director, describes the club's sponsorship deal with the Malta Tourism Authority as a "unique partnership". Kevin Azzopardi caught up with the marketing guru whose previous employers include Manchester United, Parma and the Jordan F1 team.

It has been trumpeted as a unique partnership and Sheffield United have gone to great lengths to demonstrate that their association with the Malta Tourism Authority is much more than an ordinary sponsorship.

Aside from visitmalta.com logo on the Sheffield United shirts and extensive MTA branding at Bramall Lane, the Blades' first-team squad had a short training camp here in March and also opened the doors of their facilities to national coach Dusan Fitzel and other Malta FA officials last season.

Hungarian club Ferencvaros, owned by Kevin McCabe, the Sheffield United chairman, also played a friendly here against a Malta FA selection in February.

These initiatives went some way towards dissipating the initial scepticism about this sponsorship and prompted the MTA to extend their deal for another two years.

Sheffield United are pleased that their efforts to generate more exposure for Malta are paying off but they don't intend to sit on their laurels.

Their 2009 pre-season training camp here this week reflects Sheffield United's determination to maximise the value of their partnership with the MTA which, according to Mike Farnan, the Group Executive Director, shows the affinity between his club and the Maltese.

"For us, this (MTA sponsorship) is a very rounded relationship," Farnan told The Sunday Times.

"What started as a sponsorship has now developed into a strategic partnership. We've been trying hard to drive awareness for Malta in a very difficult economic climate. It's like a fishbowl and everyone is screaming for a bit of space.

"We're working hard with people like Sam Mifsud and Josef Formosa to create a strategy and generate more interest in this country."

Around 400 Sheffield United fans are expected to descend on Malta for a week of 'fun, sun, football and music' with the Isle of MTV concert at the Granaries on Wednesday offering an added attraction to holiday-makers.

"We started this sponsorship late last year, just days before the start of the season but the exposure for Malta during this period has been great," Farnan continued.

"Over one billion people viewed the Championship play-off final between Sheffield United and Burnley at the end of last season. This is the richest game in the world and Malta got tremendous exposure.

"They say the proof is in the pudding. You don't have to be a Sheffield United fan to realise Malta's potential. Sheffield Wednesday, our greatest rivals, have seen what Malta has to offer and they're sending their team over as well."

Sheffield United may not have the same global appeal as Manchester United but their project appeals to Farnan.

"The reason I joined Sheffield United is because they have the most unique business globally," Farnan explained.

"I was running my sports agency in Spain when I got a phone call from Kevin McCabe, the Sheffield United boss asking me if I would be interested in working for the club.

"Initially I said no but he convinced me to meet him. He described his plans for Sheffield United and I was fascinated. In fact, we're about to launch a new international project called Blades World which will involve the four clubs owned by McCabe.

"We are creating a database of all the clubs and their connections and this will give Malta access to their markets."

At this point, Andy Daykin, Sheffield United's Corporate Director, revealed that the club have adopted Malta's Community Chest Fund as their chosen international charity for next season.

Farnan also emphasised Sheffield United's desire to maintain their good relations with the Malta FA.

"We have established a very good rapport with the MFA and Dr Joe Mifsud (the MFA president)," Farnan said.

"We've invited the Malta U-21 squad to come to Sheffield and play a friendly against Trinidad with the blessing of the English FA. The MFA have told us that they are considering our invitation.

"Perhaps, few people know that we were the instigators of the move that saw John Hutchinson pledge his international future to Malta. Hutchinson plays for Central Coast Mariners in Australia, one of the clubs owned by McCabe."

Since their relegation from the Premier League in 2007, Sheffield United have been pushing hard to win promotion but have failed to reach their target so far.

Last season, they had high hopes of regaining top-flight status but their dream was shattered by Burnley.

From a marketing point-of-view, the Premier League offers a whole new world of opportunities.

"The Premiership is the holy grail," Farnan said.

"For us there is no second best, we have to get back into the Premier League. It is the ultimate prize for any football club.

"This year was a knockback for us. We had a run of 17 games unbeaten going into the play-offs but we lost in the final. I don't want to see Wembley again unless it's in the final of the FA Cup. We want to win promotion and there has already been investment in some new players."

The Blades have completed the signing of Kyle Reid, formerly of West Ham United, and Lee Williamson from Watford.

Shifting his attention back to Sheffield United's Malta training camp, starting tomorrow, Farnan said that it was Kevin Blackwell, the team manager, who wanted to return to Malta in pre-season.

"Kevin told us that he'd like to come back to Malta for the team's pre-season," Farnan said.

"He really made our choice to bring the squad back here. In the ideal world, we would have a Maltese player in our first team.

"Justin Haber is part of the first-team squad and I can tell you that in his first year with us, he was a sensation in the way he fitted in.

"Justin has come into a Premiership set-up and subsequently improved himself as a goalkeeper. The thing with him is that he's competing with Paddy Kenny, who is Ireland's no.1 goalkeeper and the experienced Ian Bennett."

Mifsud interest

In October last year, McCabe told The Times that Sheffield United were keeping a close eye on Michael Mifsud who at the time was on the books of Championship rivals Coventry City.

The 28-year-old striker is now a free agent as his contract with Coventry expired at the end of last season.

Farnan hinted that the Blades might revive their interest in Mifsud.

"I have a meeting with Michael Mifsud and Carly Barnes (his representative) next week," Farnan said.

Mifsud joining the Blades would further enhance the bond between the club and Malta which is nonetheless expected to become stronger over the next two years, especially if Sheffield United reach the promised land... the Premier League.

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