Championship Focus: Time for Sheffield Eagles to fly again

When Sheffield Eagles step out against London Broncos at the Olympic Legacy Park on Good Friday, April 15, you’d excuse Mark Aston a moment of emotion.

The former Lance Todd Trophy winner and club icon has been at the coal face of the club’s nomadic existence since the departure from Don Valley Stadium in 2013 and he admits there have been times he wondered whether they would ever have a permanent base in the city again.

Doncaster and Wakefield are among grounds that have hosted Eagles matches in that time, but last week the club confirmed a five-year agreement with stadium owners the Scarborough Group that should see the facility ready from March.

“It’s absolutely massive,” Aston said.

“We’ve been outside the city for eight years, give or take, and it’s been a battle to keep the club alive. 

“It took me back to when we were nomads when I was a player before Don Valley was built, and I never thought we’d do that again.

“I’ve got to say that the directors, fans and sponsors have been huge for us.

“It’s been a challenge and yes, we have lost some fans and sponsors.

“But we always kept the belief that we would be coming back and when we face London in that first game it will be a significant day for us.

“It allows us to start putting foundations back in the city, and we hope and pray that we never leave again.

“Now we can start building our fan base and our sponsor base and give Sheffield something that it has been missing.”

Asked which have been the low points over the last eight years, Aston responded: “The 2016 season was a difficult period.

“We had an investor pull out just after we’d gone full-time by investing the money we’d made from making the middle eights.

“We did that with the backing of an individual, but he decided when the stadium wasn’t working that he’d pull out.

“It was hard enough going part-time to full-time anyway, because we let some absolute top end Championship players leave us, guys like Dom Brambani, James Davey, Pat Walker and Misi Taulapapa.

“We were going in a different direction, but the trouble hit and we had to go back to part-time to survive.

“We went to Bradford and got hammered by 80 points and that was tough, a low point.

“But the boys were great at the time and we survived it.

“Trust is a wonderful thing when you’ve got it, but when you lose it, it takes time to build it back up and we’re in that phase now.

“When the scholarship got taken away from us by the RFL, I could have walked away that day.

“I’d worked my socks off to put that development pathway in place and it was working – that year the scholarship won three out of six games and beat Huddersfield, which was significant for us.

“But if I’d walked away then we never would have got to play at Wembley in the 1895 Cup.”

Now though, Aston is keen to look forward to a brighter future.

“It’s going to be a rugby stadium with great facilities,” he added.

“For the first time in the club’s history we will be able to generate revenue from food, beverage and alcohol sales at the ground.

“The financial benefit of that will be massive for us. And the ground is different, because the fans are on top of the field, not like Don Valley.

“It gives us an opportunity to build an atmosphere at the game and generate an exciting place to come to.

“This year we’ve also got the World Cup at Bramall Lane between England and Greece, and we’ve just launched Sheffield’s first ever women’s team.

“We’ve also set a wheelchair team up and people ask me if we’ll start another Academy.

“What we want to do is set up a Rugby Centre of Excellence for kids that will cover league and union – it won’t be attached to the RFL.

“It took ten years to build up last time and one day to wipe out and I won’t let that happen again.

“But the move to the stadium helps everything – and it’s going to be home for us.”

The above content is also available in the regular weekly edition of League Express, on newsstands every Monday in the UK and as a digital download. Click here for more details.