SHEFFIELD EAGLES are a club and a team who never say die.
Since winning the Challenge Cup 21 years ago they have been part of an ill-fated ‘merger’ with Huddersfield Giants, revived as a stand-alone club, seen their Don Valley Stadium base demolished and spent years living an itinerant existence inside and out of their home city.
Championship Grand Final victors in 2012 and 2013, a move to full-time status in 2016 proved a disastrous mistake and they spent much of last year fighting to avoid relegation.
What was never a huge support base has dwindled to a hardy few hundred and, though now back in Sheffield at Olympic Legacy Park, their stadium is barely fit for semi-professional sport.
Yet still Eagles dare to dream and, for a couple of hours at Wembley, they were back on the big stage and proving, as they have done so often in the past, when it comes to a major occasion they can never be written off.
Trailing fallen giants Widnes Vikings 12-0 in the all-Championship 1895 Cup final, played after the Challenge Cup showpiece, Eagles displayed impressive determination and no little flair to drag themselves back into the game before soaring away to a 36-18 victory with a dominant second-half performance.
A former Leeds Rhinos academy player, Aaron Brown has been a major influence for Eagles since joining them from Dewsbury Rams last autumn. His hat-trick of tries was at the heart of Saturday’s triumph and Brown described being a Wembley winner as an “unbelievable” feeling.
“It is surreal just to walk out there,” he reflected. “To get a hat-trick was absolutely mad and I am absolutely made up.
“I am in dream world, on cloud nine. Not many people get a hat-trick at Wembley and I have managed to do it.”
Brown described the 80 minutes’ action as “a bit of a blur”, but admitted: “It was a tough game, Widnes have a lot of good players, they have just come down from Super League and they are still full-time.
“Our boys stuck in there, our forward pack laid the platform and we took it to them. In the second half we kept our composure better, we upped our completion rate and our kicking game was very good.”
Despite his huge contribution, Brown was not even shortlisted for the man of the match honour, chosen by a public vote and named after now retired BBC commentator Ray French.
The award was won by Anthony Thackeray, another lower division stalwart who moved from Featherstone Rovers at the end of last season. Also nominated was Joel Farrell – son of Anthony Farrell, a former Eagles player and Wembley winner with Leeds Rhinos in 1999 – along with Widnes’s Danny Craven and Harrison Hansen.
Thackeray cancelled a holiday in Spain to play at Wembley and revelled in sweltering conditions more conducive to lounging on a beach than running around a rugby pitch.
After Brown had got Sheffield off the mark, Thackeray stole the ball from Jack Owens and raced 70 metres for a try out of the blue to help wipe out Widnes’s early lead which had been established through tries by Hansen and Chris Dean.
Patch Walker improved both Eagles’ first-half touchdowns, but a Tom Gilmore try and Owens’s third conversion gave Widnes, who lost Hull-bound hooker Jordan Johnstone to a serious facial injury early on, an 18-12 interval lead.
Three tries in the first 14 minutes after half-time, from Farrell, Brown and Corey Makelim, transformed that into a 10-point Eagles advantage and Brown’s hat-trick score made the game safe five minutes from time. Walker kicked three more conversions and a penalty as the hooter sounded, after missing with two similar attempts.
Mark Aston, man of the match in the Challenge Cup final triumph against Wigan Warriors 21 years ago, is now a Wembley winner as a coach as well as player.
His assistant is another member of the 1998 side, Keith Senior and their team-mate Paul Broadbent’s son Blake was among Saturday’s substitutes.
Aston said: “It is special, I am so proud of the players and what we have done this year.”
He insisted: “We had to show a lot of character out there because we were under the pump a bit.
“At 12-0 down maybe the occasion got to us a little bit, but then they settled into the game and the second 40 minutes typified what we are about: hard working, honest and committed.”
Sheffield Eagles: Guzdek, Millar, Hellewell, Brown, Blackmore, P Walker, Thackeray, Pick, G Burns, Tagg, Davies, Farrell, Makelim. Substitutes: Davey, Broadbent, P Burns, Mason.
Widnes Vikings: Owens, Hatton, Gelling, Shepherd, Ah Van, Craven, Gilmore, E Chapelhow, Johnstone, Cahill, Hansen, Dean, B Walker. Substitutes: J Chapelhow, Leuluai, Norman, Wilde.
Referee: C Kendall (Huddersfield).