Twenty years ago this week, the Sheffield Eagles pulled off one of the biggest upsets in Challenge Cup history.
On 2 May 1998, the Eagles travelled to Wembley for their first ever Challenge Cup final, where they were expected to be wiped out by Wigan Warriors.
Having won eight consecutive trophies at Wembley, Wigan were the overwhelming favourites, and with a squad that included some of the best players in the sport, few expected to see the Warriors return empty-handed.
Captaining for Wigan was rugby league legend Andy Farrell, and in the Warriors’ backline was a young Jason Robinson, who would go on to win the Rugby World Cup with England in 2003.
On paper, Sheffield looked out-skilled and out-paced, but on the day they played flawless rugby league, taking an early lead and not making a single error until the 33rd minute.
“It isn’t always about skill, it’s about the work ethic and the togetherness of the group,” said current Eagles head coach Mark Aston, who also played scrum-half and won man of the match in ‘98.
“Wigan were the best team in the competition by a country mile, but it just shows that the underdogs can win – if they believe in themselves and they work hard for each other.”
🙌 20 years ago today.
🏆 Need we say more? pic.twitter.com/G0TpU7Ov4l
— Sheffield Eagles (@SheffieldEagles) May 2, 2018
The Eagles scored an early try in the fourth minute, and held the lead for the rest of match, finishing the game nine points clear at 17-8.
“To win a major trophy like that was huge for the club, and a lot of hard work went into it,” said Mr Aston.
“Nobody could have beaten us that day – nobody. They would have had to shoot us down dead to beat us, because we were that motivated, that set on making history for the club and for ourselves.”
20 YEARS TODAY! 🦅🏆
— The Challenge Cup (@TheChallengeCup) May 2, 2018
But no sooner had the Eagles returned to Sheffield, they quickly found themselves fighting for survival.
The Eagles had a disastrous Super League in 1999, finishing close to the relegation zone, and ending the season in financial crisis.
Attendances had flat-lined despite the Challenge Cup victory, and by the end of the season, the Eagles were facing bankruptcy.
The club would have gone under if not for a lifeline from the Rugby Football League, which wanted to reduce the number of teams in the Super League.
For a lump sum of £1 million, the RFL offered to keep the Eagles in business through a controversial merger with the Huddersfield Giants, forming the Huddersfield-Sheffield Giants.
Fearing this was the only way to keep rugby league alive in Sheffield, the Eagles accepted the offer, but fans were furious, and attendances plummeted.
“Only a few games were played in Sheffield, and they had very poor crowds,” said Liam Claffey, chief operating officer at Sheffield Eagles.
“The away strip was the Eagles home kit, and the home kit was the Huddersfield home kit.
“As you can imagine, the Sheffield fans didn’t take too kindly to that.”
— Sheffield Eagles (@SheffieldEagles) May 6, 2018
After one season, the Sheffield side dropped out of the merger, and the team reverted back to the Huddersfield Giants.
Having seen the wreckage of the Huddersfield merger, Mr Aston and his father Brian decided that, if Sheffield wanted to have a rugby league team at all, they would have to rebuild the original Eagles from scratch.
By then, the Eagles had lost nearly all their original players, but Mr Aston – as the club’s new player-manager – was determined to put together a squad.
“Those were tough times back then. I saw the saw the highs and I saw the lows, from the merger with Huddersfield to setting up the club from scratch – it really was tough,” he said.
The reformed Eagles had to start from the bottom and make their way up – a rugby league journey which, to this day, is still unfinished.
The Eagles now play in the Betfred Championship, one league below the Super League, but even though they have won the Championship twice – in 2012 and 2013 – gaining entry to the Super League is no longer a simple matter of promotion.
Instead, clubs need a Super League licence, and among the factors that prevent the Eagles from getting one is poor match attendances.
Mr Aston puts the club’s shifting crowd sizes down to its “nomadic” history, which predates even the Huddersfield merger.
“The one thing we’ve never had is a real home – we’ve always been nomads,” said Mr Aston.
“Don Valley was a home but it wasn’t ours. We played there for 20 years, but it wasn’t a rugby stadium.”
When the Sheffield Eagles was founded in 1984, their first venue was the all-standing Owlerton greyhound racing stadium, which was declared unfit for purpose following the Hillsborough disaster in 1989.
The Eagles then played at Don Valley until 2010, when they experimented with a run of home games at Bramall Lane.
In a bid to attract local fans and liven up the match atmosphere, the Eagles move to Bramall Lane was incredibly successful.
Their first game was attended by 2,871 people, three times the average of an Eagles’ game at Don Valley.
The club hoped to launch a bid for Super League-status from Bramall Lane, but had to return to Don Valley in 2012.
Since then, the Eagles have been in an almost constant state of migration, leaving Don Valley when it was demolished in 2014, and then playing at The Keepmoat Stadium in Doncaster and Belle Vue in Wakefield.
Only this year did the Eagles return to Sheffield, where they have a temporary base at the Olympic Legacy Park, in a ground-share with Sheffield United ladies’ club.
Mr Claffey says the club now has to focus not only on increasing attendances, but also on scouting for a permanent home.
“We’d love to increase our attendances and build from the new venue, but we’d also like to have a permanent home.
“Once that’s achieved, we hope our attendances will get back to where they were, and we can hopefully push from there towards the Super League.”