Sheffield Eagles 'will be dead and buried in a month' without city support

Sheffield Eagles win the Challenge Cup at Wembley in 1998.
Sheffield Eagles win the Challenge Cup at Wembley in 1998.
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A year ago Sheffield Eagles were flying high, with a new stadium on the cards and a stylish season-ending victory over Wakefield Trinity Wildcats at Bramall Lane.

But 12 months later the rugby league club is homeless and in crisis, with just a few weeks before it 'ceases to exist', according to director of rugby Mark Aston.

Sheffield Eagles director of rugby Mark Aston.

Sheffield Eagles director of rugby Mark Aston.

"Everything was going in the right direction," said Mr Aston, remembering the famous result. "There was a new stadium coming, we had a full time squad. Twelve months later and we are in a precarious situation because our investor wants to quit."

He added: "If people were helping him he wouldn’t walk away. At this moment in time he’s not getting the support he needs.

"If we don’t get someone in in the next month, Sheffield Eagles will be dead and buried. Where can we play? What can we do?"

The future of the Eagles, who emerged as a phoenix club following an ill-fated merger with Huddersfield Giants in 1999, has been uncertain since the closure of Don Valley Stadium, their home of more than 20 years, in 2013.

Sheffield Eagles players celebrate on the pitch.

Sheffield Eagles players celebrate on the pitch.

Since then the club has played its home games in various places, from Owlerton Stadium to the Keepmoat Stadium in Doncaster, ending up this past season at Sheffield Hallam University Sports Park.

A proposed new stadium as part of the £55m Olympic Legacy Park, on the former Don Valley site, has always been reliant on investment from the Eagles. Work on an all-weather community pitch at the site is due to start in October. But Mr Aston claims a lack of support from the city has put investors off the stadium project and placed the club in jeopardy.

"We were led to believe it was sorted out and we just needed to bring in an investor," he said. "But the investor got pacified. He got let down. It broke the camel’s back."

The first investor proposed a hotel development on the back of one stand, with the Olympic Legacy Park to deal with funding for the remaining three sides of the stadium. But according to Mr Aston, that promise disappeared, leaving the investor with cold feet despite the club's return to a full-time operation this season.

Sheffield Eagles at their former home, Don Valley Stadium.

Sheffield Eagles at their former home, Don Valley Stadium.

"Once the Olympic Legacy Park wasn’t delivering any part of the stadium the first investor walked away and left the club in a bit of a problem," he said. "He was funding the club."

Chairman Ian Swire helped fund the club until the end of the current season, and a second investor came on board in May this year, with bold plans for a £42m green power plant alongside the stadium development. But Mr Aston says this deal is also in danger of falling through.

"The second investor has been passed from pillar to post and at this point in time he wants to walk away," he said.

This leaves the club still in need of a takeover to survive, but struggling to attract investors due to the uncertainty over the stadium. The Eagles ended their time at Sheffield Hallam University Sports Park with a 22-38 loss to Dewsbury Rams on Saturday.

The proposed Olympic Legacy Park in Sheffield.

The proposed Olympic Legacy Park in Sheffield.

Mr Aston was the star man on one of the brightest days in the Eagles' history, as part of a team that defied the odds to win the Challenge Cup at Wembley in 1998.

But he said the club was now in a 'pretty dark place'.

"Are we the city of sport? Who said so? Who wants to put that stamp on us? These people are the people that are responsible at this moment in time," he said.

"We are in the middle of a battle that’s going on between a couple of groups in the city.

"We talked about setting up a centre of excellence for rugby for both codes. We talked to community groups, universities, schools about being part of this system.

"The thing we have always done is to give a kid a dream. While we are doing that, we work on health and wellbeing.

"We do it because it’s the right thing to do.

"Seventeen years ago we stood united with the fans to keep this team alive in Sheffield.

"I’m going to have to sit down with the players and say you need to look elsewhere. I can’t look them in the eyes and say stay here if there is nothing here.

"We fought and we clawed to start it. Now they want us to fight again. We are fighting against the city because we haven’t got its support."

Sheffield Council's cabinet member for culture, parks and leisure Mary Lea said: “The council has worked closely with the Sheffield Eagles in recent years but we have never been in a position to offer financial support to the development of a new stadium.

“We have however secured funding for the wider redevelopment of the Olympic Legacy Park, including a state-of-the-art pitch which is designed for both community use and professional rugby and will be available from early 2017.

“The redevelopment of the site has been widely praised and will be an asset for the whole of Sheffield. The development of a suitable stadium for this site has always required investment from the Eagles and we will continue to assist them with this as far as possible.”

Legacy Park Ltd is the firm created to develop the Olympic Legacy Park. Project director David Hobson said: "The delivery of the 3G community pitch, which will be capable of hosting rugby league and rugby union, is on programme with work due to start on site this October.

“The facility is expected to be complete early next year ready for students from UTC Sheffield Olympic Legacy Park campus and Oasis Academy Sheffield to use. The community pitch will be available for public use from April 2017.

“We will continue to support the Sheffield Eagles as they work up proposals to play at the Olympic Legacy Park in the future.”

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