10 March 2023

Sheffield Eagles find new home to roost after rollercoaster ride since cup glory

10 March 2023

Snow-bound Siddal feels a long way from the sun-drenched Wembley turf upon which Sheffield Eagles fashioned arguably the greatest of Challenge Cup upsets by sinking unbackable favourites Wigan a quarter of a century ago.

But when, weather permitting, the Eagles begin their latest odyssey in the sport’s oldest knockout competition at the home of the National Conference League amateurs, in a game that has been delayed by 24 hours to Sunday, they will do so amid an air of optimism that has scarcely been felt since those heady early days of success.

Having survived near-bankruptcy, an unpopular merger, and a nomadic existence during which they called countless South Yorkshire venues their temporary base, the Eagles finally flew home for keeps last year when they marked the opening of the Olympic Legacy Park with a win over Widnes.

For Eagles head coach Mark Aston, a near-constant throughout the club’s “rollercoaster” 39-year wingspan, it marked the most positive twist in a decades-long fight for survival that often overcame more improbable odds than those he faced when he masterminded the 17-8 win over John Monie’s men.

In those days, scrum-half Aston was his side’s 30-year-old lynchpin, and was rewarded with the prestigious Lance Todd Trophy for man of the match after his contribution to the Eagles’ victory, which arrived only three years after their debut in the sport’s top flight.

“Winning the cup that year felt like our destiny,” recalled Aston, now 55 and as committed as ever to the club whom he first joined shortly after it was first established by current Leeds chief executive Gary Hetherington in the old Division Two in 1984.

“Each game as we got closer to the final, we picked the game we wanted and it came out of the hat – Castleford at Castleford in the quarter-finals, Salford at Headingley in the semi-finals.

“It’s crazy to think the club was only 15 years old at the time and we achieved what we did. It is every young player’s dream to be a full-time pro and to go to Wembley. Getting in that big bath at the end, that so many famous players had been in, it’s a memory nobody can ever take away.”

Just two years after featuring in the first match of the bold new Super League era, when they were beaten in France by Paris St Germain in March 1996, the Eagles could have been forgiven for assuming that having made another indelible mark on the game’s history, they were here to stay.

But as they cavorted home up Wembley Way, little did they know that their problems were just beginning. Within a year they were being cajoled towards an unpopular merger with Huddersfield in order to ease financial woes, prompting Aston to split and form a phoenix club of the same name.

Aston admits he takes as much if not more pleasure from the subsequent successes of the regenerated side, played out against a backdrop of almost constant moves after their former home at Don Valley Stadium was demolished in 2014, than from the Wembley triumph with which his name will remain synonymous.

Back-to-back Championship Grand Final wins in 2012 and 2013 were followed in 2019 by the club’s return to Wembley for the first time in over two decades, where they beat Widnes 36-18 to win the inaugural 1895 Cup for non-Super League sides.

“Since Don Valley got knocked down it’s been a bit of a rollercoaster with plenty of adversity and challenges, but like anything in life, you have got to learn to get stronger from them, and that’s what we’ve done,” added Aston.

“We’ve been on the road, we’ve been in and out of Sheffield, and it’s been difficult, on and off the pitch. For that reason I have to say the successes we have had since, reaching the Grand Finals and going back to Wembley, rank very close to what happened in 1998.

“After everything that happened, nobody gave us a cat in hell’s chance of getting back there, but at this club we always find a way. And we went back that day and gave four kids who had come through our system the opportunity to play at Wembley, and that meant so much to us.”

There was one further hammer blow in store for Aston, when his club felt they were left with no option but to dismantle their thriving youth set-up after failing in their bid to secure tier-two academy status from the RFL.

Amid all the other setbacks, he admits it was probably the one that cut deepest: “Losing our academy broke my heart. We were judged on how many players went on to play for England, whereas I was judging it on how many kids we left with a smile on their face.

I made a promise to our fans that we would get back to Sheffield and to have our ground now is fantastic. We've got somewhere we can call home and we will never be out of the city again. Throughout everything that happened to us, I never lost that dream

“Of all the things that have happened in my career, that was the biggest smack. But again, we are up and running again. We have got 25 players on our wheelchair team, 30 on the women’s team and 25 on our learning disability team.

“Sheffield is a massive city, and we showed during the World Cup, when they brought England back for the match against Greece at Bramall Lane, and with the success of the wheelchair competition, what kind of appetite this city has for the sport,” added Aston.

“I made a promise to our fans that we would get back to Sheffield and to have our ground now is fantastic. We’ve got somewhere we can call home and we will never be out of the city again. Throughout everything that happened to us, I never lost that dream.”

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