Sheffield Eagles flying high once again with nod to past glory

THE last time Sheffield Eagles won their opening four league games Mark Aston was just taking on the role of goal-kicker.

ON THE UP: Coach Mark Aston has rebuilt Sheffield and seen them make their best start since 1986. Picture: JPress

Considering he is now 51 and retired 16 years ago as the club’s most prolific player, with almost 1,000 goals to his name, it demonstrates just how long ago that was.

Legendary Aston is Sheffield’s long-serving coach with more than 500 games racked up in charge of his beloved Eagles.

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As well as the obvious high of famously lifting the Challenge Cup in 1998 he has faced plenty of difficult times with the South Yorkshire club yet always manages to see them fly again.

Mark Aston in the Wembley bath after Sheffield's Challenge Cup final success over Wigan in 1998.

It should, then, perhaps be no surprise they have started 2019 so well even though they were fighting the threat of relegation to League 1 for much of last term.

Sheffield began with a 64-10 rout of Swinton Lions, followed up with a 24-22 success at Barrow Raiders before beating Bradford Bulls 24-10.

After their fixture with Widnes Vikings was postponed due to their opponents’ financial crisis Eagles vanquished Batley Bulldogs 44-16 on Friday, meaning only big-spending Toronto Wolfpack stand above them in the Championship table.

It was 1986, when the club was just two years old and owner Gary Hetherington doubled as coach, that Sheffield last recorded such an impressive start, beating Mansfield Marksman, Keighley, Fulham and Dewsbury.

Speaking to The Yorkshire Post, Aston said: “A few people have reminded me of this. It was one of those games back in ’86 when I first had a go at goalkicking.

“Roy Rafferty was out injured, I did it instead and I remember it didn’t go too well. But it was similar to what we’re trying to do now; we got good people in, people who wanted to play for Sheffield Eagles, who loved the environment.

“They were passionate and wanted to make the best of their ability.

“Gary (Hetherington) did that in the early days with people like Mark Gamson and Daryl Powell and we have something similar to that again.

“We had it a few years ago when we won back-to-back Grand Finals (in 2012 and 2013) and we’re building once more. The boys have been great. We worked really hard coming into pre-season and it shows what hard work, togetherness and spirit can do.”

In direct contrast, this time last year Sheffield were in dire straits when they lost their opening seven games. They recovered to finish eighth before transforming the squad for 2019.

“I got to meet everyone before they came in, which was a blessing after the last couple of years,” explained Aston, who saw the club hit financial problems after an ill-fated switch to a full-time operation in 2016. “We set the tone in those meetings – individual ones – and it shows. We’ve added some steel. I know... Sheffield and steel.

“The last couple of years have been tough as there’s not been many players around, but this year there has.

“I do like to meet players and get to understand what makes them tick – what their strengths and weaknesses are – and they were real honest straight-talking sorts of meetings. Then I went away, had a think about it and put something in place.

“I didn’t get that opportunity last year, but these are good people; over the last couple of years we haven’t had the sort of people that Sheffield Eagles have always prided themselves on.”

Fittingly there are some familiar names as well with ex-Batley Bulldogs second-row Joel Farrell – son of Aston’s former Eagles team-mate Anthony – and youngster Blake Broadbent, whose father Paul lifted the Challenge Cup on that famous day at Wembley when Aston won the Lance Todd Trophy.

“It’s nice to have some people in with a bit of history with the club like Farrell and Blake Broadbent who has come from nowhere in the last 12 months,” continued Aston, whose side head to Featherstone Rovers on Sunday.

“Then there’s experienced people we’ve had before like Patch Walker and Jimmy Davey plus others who have played together over the years as well.

“Everyone’s been saying we haven’t had a pre-season and we won’t be ready. But we worked hard in training and it shows sometimes you don’t need friendlies if you get the right group in.

“Against Bradford we also had four kids playing that came through our system. We’re immensely proud of that. I’m sick of seeing clubs kill kids’ chances of playing. I’m distraught with how the game is letting kids fall away and I’m here to develop them. I enjoy that part of coaching but we have a nice balance, too.”

No one expects them to go on and earn a return to Super League just yet, but with this latest renaissance, and Sheffield United’s Bramall Lane hosting an England 2021 World Cup game, the Eagles continue driving the sport in the Steel City.