Challenge Cup: Sheffield Eagles boss Mark Aston on ‘special’ Wigan Warriors upset and Super League ambition
Saturday’s Challenge Cup final will bring back happy memories for everyone connected with Sheffield Eagles, but none more so than head coach Mark Aston.
A veteran of almost 400 games for the club as a player, Aston was man of the match when Sheffield famously beat Wigan Warriors in the 1998 final in one of the competition’s biggest-ever upsets - and still gets goosebumps thinking about it.
He remembers the build-up like it was yesterday, but the “crazy” celebrations after less so.
"It was unbelievable,” he says, “it just shows you what you can achieve when you believe and want something that much.
"That’s what we had on that day, they were never beating us.
"I can’t remember the next three days, it was euphoria.”
Aston’s pal and one-time Eagle Daryl Powell will attempt to pull off an upset of his own with Castleford Tigers against strong favourites St Helens at Wembley this weekend - and how they could do with the spirit of 1998.
The Eagles boss is making the most of a free weekend with a holiday in Majorca, but plans to find a bar to cheer on the underdogs.
"I grew up in Castleford so I’ll be interested to see how they go,” he adds.
“Daryl is a very close friend of mine. I always want them to do well, I want Daryl to do well, I have lots of fond memories there.
"It would be great for the town and for Daryl, who’s put a lot of hard work in there.”
‘Tubbs’ also has fond memories of the last time Cas won rugby league's most prestigious knock-out competition in 1986 and cheered the players during their open-top bus tour.
He had the chance to play professionally for them but turned it down in favour of a move to South Yorkshire, which began an association with Sheffield Eagles stretching five decades.
"As a young lad I had other options, I was a Cas lad but it wasn’t right for me. Everyone wants to sign for their hometown club but I wasn’t confident.
"One of the sad things is that I left for 18 months. I would love to be a one-club man but it wasn’t to be.”
Given the Sheffield’s fall from grace and exiled status, what keeps him going after all this time?
"The love for the club,” he answers.
"When Gary [Hetherington] signed me as a young player he gave me an opportunity and Sheffield became home.
"I have been a part of it for something like 33 years, it’s something close to my heart.”
With the city set to host an England fixture during the Rugby League World Cup this autumn, as well as several wheelchair Rugby League World Cup fixtures, an undiminished Aston, now 53, sees a brighter future ahead for the sport in Sheffield.
"We need something to kickstart people coming back and having another look at us and hit the ground running off the back of that [the World Cup],” he says.
“Our dream would be to fetch Super League back to Sheffield. A lot of hard work needs to be done but anything is possible.”
Sheffield Eagles will need to channel the spirit of 1998 to realise those ambitions - and who better to do that than Aston?