The Self-Isolation Chronicles – Sheffield Eagles

1. The club made a serious attempt to sign Jonah Lomu.

Sheffield have been known for an audacious signing attempt, with their famous play to sign Greg Inglis while playing in the Championship in 2015. One that cannot be ignored is the attempt to sign All Blacks legend Jonah Lomu some 20 years beforehand, as Super League beckoned. Then owner Gary Hetherington was actively trying to lure a big rugby union name to the club, with failed attempts to land Ireland centre Jonny Bell, Scotland international Gary Armstrong and Wales’ goal-kicker Neil Jenkins, the latter of whom actually signed on the dotted line before backing out of a deal. But their biggest play in the other code was with New Zealand’s barnstorming winger Lomu. Gary and Kath Hetherington travelled to the 1995 Rugby World Cup in South Africa, to meet his manager Phil Kingsley Jones, ready with a cheque for £1million. That was to be divided over three years, with RFL chief executive Maurice Lindsay preparing to subsidise the move through funds made available by News Corp. Wigan had equally made a play, with a world record bid, while Hetherington’s future club Leeds entered the frame, a file he discovered when he became their owner. Only the intervention of a sportswear firm, believed to be Adidas, had halted Lomu’s move to Rugby League and he stayed in rugby union. The 13-man code would never be graced by Lomu’s destructive presence on the edge, with the same pulling power of sponsors seeing him back out of a deal with Gold Coast Titans in 2006.

2. They were never supposed to play in the first ever Super League game against PSG.

In a recent revelation, former Sheffield Eagles owner and coach Gary Hetherington told how the club’s iconic Super League opener wasn’t supposed to involve them. The initial make-up, when the fixtures were released, was in fact Oldham Bears vs Paris Saint-Germain for the historic night. After a phone call with Wigan counterpart Maurice Lindsay, it was decided that the Oldham name would not have had the pulling power in France. With two footballing sides who had both played in the Premier League, since it began four years earlier, Hetherington pitched Sheffield Eagles to be the travelling party. Lindsay duly accepted, with humbly supported Sheffield taking 1,500 fans to see their side lose 30-24 as the Super League red carpet was rolled out the first time. Hetherington also revealed that he had never watched the game back, until this year at the anniversary dinner.

3. Gary Hetherington ran a newspaper competition to decide their name.

After missing out on the coaching job at York, Hetherington decided to set up a club in Sheffield in 1982. Two years later, they joined the Second Division but were without a name. A competition was ran in the Sheffield Star to try a find a name. No options were given and a complete blank slate was provided to come up with their own names. The eventual winner was Darren Barker of Chapman Street, Sheffield, who picked the Eagles moniker. Hetherington would act as player-coach-owner in a varied role that year, with the likes of Darryl Powell and Mark Aston joining the club as headline acts. Both would go on to play a vital role in the rapid progress of the club, notably Aston who reincarnated the Eagles brand after an ill-fated merger with Huddersfield Giants, only two years after their historic Challenge Cup victory.

4. One of their 1998 Challenge Cup-winning squad was imprisoned for fraud.

Nigerian-born winger Bright Sodje featured Sheffield Eagles during the 1990s, becoming a fan favourite with a reputation for barnstorming tries tipped off with an airplane celebration. He featured in the run up to the historic Challenge Cup win over Wigan Warriors, in 1998, featuring in the earlier rounds in heavy victories over Leigh Centurions and Egremont Rangers. He played in Sheffield’s close 22-18 win over Salford Reds to reach the final, but missed out on selection for the Wembley showpiece. In 2017, however, the former Wakefield and Hull KR star was imprisoned for 21 months for fraud, along with footballing brother Efe and Stephen. Another of his footballing siblings, Sam, was also embroiled in the scandal as they had been found to have siphoned off cash from their charity, Sodje Sports Foundation. The presented allegations included pocketing money raised from black-tie dinners, auctions and charity football matches.

5. One of their former players was shot during a children’s party.

In 2001, former Sheffield Eagles winger David Nelson and his friend Joseph Montgomery were shot while attending a children’s party at a Leeds pub. Nelson played for Sheffield from 1989-1991 and later turned out for Huddersfield, Castleford and Wakefield, hanging up his boots in 1995. Nelson was drinking at the Wilson’s Arms in Seacroft, Leeds, when a masked man entered the establishment. Montgomery had tried to intervene but he managed to fire the gun continually. Both Nelson and Montgomery were tragically killed, as the culprit, Paul Bryan, was subsequently given two life sentences and a further 10 years for the attempted murder of Nelson’s brother, Andrew. He denied all charges during the trial that sent him to prison.