From the depths of despair to Wembley – How Sheffield Eagles have overcome hurdles to secure cup final appearance
As the countdown to Sheffield Eagles’ first trip to Wembley in 21 years continues, head coach Mark Aston has admitted how close he came to turning his back on the sport.
The Eagles secured their trip to the capital thanks to an 18-2 victory over Batley Bulldogs last month and will take on Widnes Vikings in the final of the 1895 Cup on Saturday, August 24.
But Mr Aston, who has now been coaching the Eagles for 12 years, has revealed how he almost walked away from the club during troubled times in 2016.
The Eagles had just returned to playing full-time in a bid to return to Super League.
But they were dealt a major blow when the club – who pride themselves on developing talented youngsters – were forced to disband their academy, following a decision by the sport’s governing body Rugby Football League (RFL) to not grant them ‘tier-two academy status’.
Reflecting on that year, the Eagles boss said: “I could have walked away from the game and never looked back.
“How anybody in their right mind can disband a performance structure and take away the kids’ dreams, they’re not the people that I’d associate myself with. We had to let a hundred kids down and break their dreams. A lot of those kids walked away from the game.”
It was a turbulent period for the Eagles to say the least, when they were forced to move out of the Don Valley Stadium back in 2013.
The Eagles were living season-by-season between 2014 and 2017, when they played at four different stadiums, including as far away as Wakefield and the attendances took a real hit.
But they have come a long way since returning to the city last year.
Attendances have been on the up since they played their first match at the Olympic Legacy Park (OLP) last year, and on-the-field performances have improved too.
The club are now just one win away from doubling their points tally from the previous season and then there’s the small matter of the Wembley trip in a fortnight’s time.
The feel-good factor seems to be back at the club, and this year, they have taken many by surprise by challenging for a top-five finish.
Financially, Sheffield Eagles cannot compete with the likes of Championship rivals Toronto, who have a £2m salary cap, and Toulouse who are full-time – but the margins on the field have reduced.
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Mr Aston said: “We’ve had a great year and we want to finish it off with more victories. If we don’t finish in the top five this year, then that has got to be the aim for next year, hasn’t it?
“I’ve said it all along – you develop success, you build a club from the bottom. You build a team just the same as you build a house. If I had all the money in the world, I wouldn’t change my philosophy.
“We’ll fetch in players that want to play for Sheffield Eagles and want to be part of a culture that we’re trying to build here. It won’t be the superstars, it’ll be the people that we think fit, for the purpose we require.”
While excitement builds among the club and its loyal bunch of fans, there are still issues lingering in the background, including the chances of developing the Olympic Legacy Park.
Mr Aston said: “It was supposed to start in March. It hasn’t started yet. I think it’s supposed to start in September, let’s get our fingers crossed and hope that happens, because we need it. We had a press conference in 2013 saying we were going to get a rugby stadium for rugby league and rugby union and a Centre of Excellence for rugby.
“It’s six years old that now, we’re still waiting. The club is getting fined heavily by the RFL for substandard facilities. Unless you’ve got a good umbrella, you’re going to get wet down at the OLP.
“I believe the lease hasn’t been signed yet. So, if there’s anybody out there that wins the Euro Millions Lottery – come and buy me this piece of land and build me a stadium.
“If there isn’t some building work started shortly, I would imagine that the Rugby Football League will be asking some serious questions.”
Mr Aston said the stadium development was ‘crucial’ to his dream of seeing Eagles playing in the Super League – rugby league’s top divison – once again.
He added: “I want to be in a new stadium – that is built for us and not promised – that we can call home, because that generates fans and sponsors.
“We can get the people of Sheffield to get behind us, because the one thing in all the years that Sheffield people have never had – they've never had that stadium that I would class as a rugby stadium.
“When the stands are built – and you’re stood and you can touch and feel the players, more or less, and feel every collision and the impact – I think we’ll start generating fans and that’s something that we need to do to make the club self-sufficient.
“If we do that then we can be successful again, everybody has dreams and why not, one day, can Sheffield Eagles be back in Super League?”
Mr Aston called for the support of the city to get behind them for their big day on August 24, adding: “We’ve come back into the city, we’ve put Rugby League back on the map. We’re at Wembley, to become the city of sport again would be great. But we need everybody to get behind us.”