Wembley winners Sheffield Eagles face an uncertain future

IN some respects, winning at Wembley is the easy part.

Winners: Sheffield Eagles celebrate winning the 1895 Cup final at Wembley.

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Don’t miss the Gareth Ellis column from Wembley

For newly-crowned 1895 Cup champions Sheffield Eagles, the real challenge is turning last weekend’s victory over Widnes Vikings into a lasting legacy.

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Eagles’ previous Wembley success, when they shocked Wigan Warriors to win the Challenge Cup 21 years ago, proved a false dawn.

The hoped for explosion of interest in rugby league in the Steel City never materialised and within two years the original club had merged with Huddersfield Giants, being replaced by a new semi-professional side based in Sheffield.

After leaving the now-demolished Don Valley Stadium, their base since 1991, in 2009, Eagles played at Bramall Lane and Owlerton Stadium before moving out of Sheffield to share facilities with Doncaster and Wakefield Trinity.

The club returned to their home city, at Olympic Legacy Park last year, but the venue in its current state is barely fit for semi-professional sport and a long way below the criteria needed to host Super League matches.

As founder of the club and current coach, Mark Aston believes Eagles have a bright future, but that depends on proposals for a new, modern facility at the existing site coming to fruition. He said: “The last few years have been tough, we have been out of the city and our (1895 Cup victory celebration) was at a pub, not a stadium.

“That’s where we are at, we need the council to get on the bus and get behind us and deliver what they promised, which is a stadium. We need a stadium, we’ve been saying it for long enough now so let’s get it built. We have won at Wembley, we are back in the city, give us a stadium.

“In 2021, there’s a World Cup. We have got three years to get the club back up and viable and then people will get behind it.

“If we have got the right stadium and the right facilities, corporately and fan-wise, we will get people back with the quality of rugby we showed (on Saturday).

“Once we get the stadium, who knows what can happen? We can build the club again.”

Though last weekend’s team included players brought in from West Yorkshire and further afield, it was the inclusion of some home-grown talent which gave Aston the most satisfaction and hope for the future.

“Four who played on Saturday have come through my system: Paddy Burns and Greg Burns from Hillsborough Hawks, Blake Broadbent, who was on our scholarship, and Ryan Millar, who came from Birmingham,” Aston pointed out.

“I am immensely proud of that. We set out on this journey to give a kid a dream of playing professional rugby league.

“In my wildest dreams did I think I would give them a chance to play at Wembley? Not particularly, but it just shows the kids of Sheffield are as good as any other kids.”

Unlike the one-off Plate final in 1997, the 1895 decider was played after the Challenge Cup showpiece. By the time it kicked off, 25 minutes late, most of the 62,717 crowd were heading for home. That and the indifference shown to the tournament by some of the teams taking part has raised doubts over whether the competition will continue next year.

Aston, however, is keen for an opportunity to defend the trophy. He said: “How can you not want it to succeed when there’s a final at Wembley?

“They’ve just got to look at the structure; let’s not play midweek games, but the prize is something money can’t buy.

“It is about how many people can say they have played at Wembley, won at Wembley, scored a hat-trick at Wembley? That is special.

“What I spoke to the players about before the game was writing your own story and being part of the history of this club. They are all part of it now.”

The spirit of 1998 was very much part of Eagles’ 2019 success story. Aston was man-of-the-match in the Challenge Cup conquering of Wigan, playing alongside alongside his current assistant-coach Keith Senior.

John Kear, who masterminded the biggest upset in the competition’s history, presented Wembley shirts to the new generation, along with another of the 1998 side Paul Broadbent whose son Blake played at the weekend.

Aston said: “Somebody asked me which is the biggest one? They are the same, they rank as important as each other.

“I am blessed I have had two chances, as a player and a coach, to come to Wembley – and I am two out of two.

“I am so delighted for everyone involved with the club.

“It has been a tough few years, but it just shows, if you keep believing and keep doing the little things well, what you can achieve.”