AS Sheffield Eagles prepare to mark their 1,000th game, head coach Mark Aston insists the club’s growing youth system is one of its greatest achievements.
Renowned for their shock Challenge Cup final win against Wigan in 1998, when scrum-half Aston was man-of-the-match, Sheffield’s odyssey since its first fixture against Rochdale in 1984 has certainly been eventful.
The latest milestone is marked in suitable fashion when they face Featherstone Rovers at Doncaster – their nomadic existence has been one of the club’s many obstacles overcome – on Sunday.
A draw would be enough to claim a top-four finish in the Championship, at Featherstone’s expense, and catapult them into the Middle Eights against Super League’s bottom quartet with a shot at promotion then available.
Returning to the top flight, from where the Eagles essentially disappeared in 2000 after an ill-fated merger with Huddersfield Giants, is their key objective and Aston, who led the new South Yorkshire club out of those ashes, said: “This is a significant landmark in the club’s history – which is 30 years and admittedly not a long time.
“But I’d like to think we’re getting there in establishing the game in a different county.
“The big significance for me, though, is the scholarship, the academy and the pathway created for young players from this area.
“We always said we’d do this and give something back to the city while giving a kid a dream.
“We’ve got those kids coming through now and one of them – our captain Mitch Stringer who started out at Hoyland Vikings in Barnsley – will make his 299th game for the club this weekend.
“Another prop of ours is Eddie Battye who comes from Barnsley, too, while we’ve got lads like Corey Aston and Connor Scott who’ve come through, as well.
“We were challenged three years ago and told our academy wasn’t good enough. It was a bit of a kick in the teeth but I think we’ve proved it is and I’ve had phone calls from other clubs saying we should be proud of it. I know I am.”
Aston, who first joined Eagles as a player in 1985 and until recently acted as chief executive, oversaw a stunning 32-30 win against fallen Super League giants Bradford Bulls last weekend.
“We were 30-6 up against a full-time Bulls after 63 minutes and completed at 92 per cent,” he said.
“It was one of the best Sheffield displays I’ve ever been involved in. We’ve made massive strides but the boys have raised the bar now and must maintain that against Fev’. The top-four is not rubber-stamped yet – and I like things to be rubber-stamped.”