Can the Eagles kick on from Wembley?

MARTYN SADLER, the editor of League Express, pays tribute to a club that has enjoyed some remarkable ups and downs throughout its history.

Sheffield Eagles have had some tough times since that glorious day in 1998 when they defeated Wigan 17-8 at the old Wembley Stadium.

I can remember their skipper that day, Paul Broadbent, still walking around the stadium with the Cup in his hands when it was virtually empty.

I’m sure he would still have been there if someone hadn’t forced him into the dressing room.

So it was great for the Sheffield supporters to see their team triumph at the new Wembley in the 1895 Cup Final.

It was a shame the game couldn’t be played before the Challenge Cup Final, but I suppose we can say it was better late than never.

But I did feel sorry for the 5,000 Widnes fans who travelled to Wembley to support their team.

Widnes have been one of the great clubs in the post-war era, and they desperately need someone to take control with the financial strength and a knowledge of Rugby League to make them great again.

I’m sure that is not an impossible dream.

The game itself was a tremendous one, with some fine tries, including the one scored by Corey Makelim for Sheffield that we featured as our League Express Try of the Week. The Challenge Cup Final may have been exciting, but it didn’t feature any tries that we as exciting as Makelim’s.

The question now is whether the Eagles can take advantage of their Wembley triumph and kick on to secure for themselves a more prominent position in the Steel City’s sporting landscape.

I was a university lecturer in Sheffield for 20 years and I was there when the club was formed. They played their first match against Rochdale Hornets and I was there commentating on the game for the club with my good friend Mick McGowan, as the Eagles triumphed 29-10. The previous day the club’s inaugural sponsor had gone bust, but somehow under the guidance of Gary Hetherington, who was the coach, a player and the chief cook and bottle washer in those days, it managed to survive. The club was helped by a fortuitous draw against Leeds in the John Player Special Trophy competition that put just enough money into the coffers to see out that first season.

Eventually, however, the club went from strength to strength and gained promotion to the old first division. I still recall being at Bramall Lane when they defeated Widnes in 1989, just a week after the Chemics had defeated Canberra Raiders in the World Club Challenge, with a crowd that was close to 10,000 being in attendance.

Soon after that they moved into the Don Valley Stadium, which was both a blessing and a curse. It was a modern facility that looked at first as though it would be a great home for the club. But it was an athletics stadium and the pitch was so far away from the spectators that it proved difficult to generate an atmosphere and the club struggled to draw in new fans.

But then of course there was that victory over Wigan in the Challenge Cup Final in 1998, with Mark Aston winning the Lance Todd Trophy.

But the Eagles for some reason were never able to capitalise on that success to establish themselves in the city. Gary Hetherington had sold his stake in the club in 1996 and the new owner didn’t have either the deep pockets or the inclination to drive the club forward. Unfortunately the club’s Wembley success didn’t translate into higher attendances.

At the end of the 1999 season, with the club losing significant amounts of money, it merged with Huddersfield as Super League slimmed from 14 to 12 clubs. The merger was really the death knell of the Eagles, however, although Mark Aston was immediately involved in efforts to revive the club in Sheffield, which he did successfully.

The next trauma for the club was when it lost its home ground, the Don Valley Stadium, at the end of the 2013 season. For the next four seasons the club was nomadic, playing its home games mainly in Doncaster and Wakefield, while its supporter base dwindled. But almost miraculously under Aston’s coaching it managed to hold on to its position in the second tier of British Rugby League.

And now the Eagles have become the first winners of the 1895 Cup at Wembley, defeating Widnes Vikings 36-18 in a fine match last Saturday.

So will the Eagles be able to take advantage of their second Wembley win to raise their profile and get their Olympic Legacy Park stadium finally completed?

The World Cup will be coming to Sheffield in 2021, which I hope will also raise the Eagles’ profile, and I would love nothing more than to see a big event also coming to Sheffield in 2020. Perhaps that could be the Magic Weekend, or the Challenge Cup semi-finals double header.

With so many positive things happening in the city of Newcastle, it would be wonderful to see Rugby League’s profile also rising in the Steel City.

On this week’s RLBackChat show, which goes out at 5.00pm on Thursday, Eagles coach Mark Aston is one of our guests, and I discuss with him the club’s prospects in the modern era.

If you’ve read this article this far, I hope you’ll tune in and see what Mark has to say.

Follow @MartynSadler and @RLBackChat on Twitter