Head coach of Sheffield Eagles Mark Aston tells Chris Coates about the club’s turbulent history, his pride in securing a permanent home for Sheffield rugby and the push to get more local young people engaged in sport.
Despite hailing from Castleford originally, it would not be an overstatement to describe Mark as ‘Mr Sheffield Eagles’, having spent almost his entire playing and coaching career with the club and holding the Eagles record for most games played and points scored.
Mark’s affinity to Sheffield was strengthened when he stepped in to keep the Eagles in the city after the original club was merged with Huddersfield Giants in 1999, a move he claims was ‘destined for failure’.
“The idea was that the home games would be evenly split between Huddersfield and Sheffield, but it was never going to work. It would be similar to putting Wednesday and United together.
“It was like sticking a dagger in my heart. We had a fans’ forum and over 1,000 people turned up who were strongly against the idea and wanted their own club. I had to step in for those fans and ensure that the Eagles stayed in Sheffield.”
Re-establishing the Eagles in Sheffield was a brave move, but it wasn’t long before the Huddersfield Giants dropped any mention of Sheffield in their name, effectively allowing the ‘new’ Eagles to continue representing Sheffield rugby.
Mark said: “We only got back into the Championship because Bramley folded, leaving a free spot for us to take. We also had to agree not to take any payments for TV coverage which were significant for a club of our size, so that was a real kick in the teeth. But we got up and running and we survived, which was a remarkable feat in itself.”
As a director and head coach of the newly formed Eagles, Mark began establishing an academy for the club to bring through the best young rugby players in the Sheffield area.
“We wanted to work with the community to develop our own players and allow local kids to make their dreams a reality. We set up a performance structure that we always wanted, established an academy and offered scholarships, and by 2012 we were running six different teams of varying age groups and abilities,” said Mark.
Sadly, the academy was closed by the Rugby League amid concerns that the Eagles were not a viable club to have such an extensive range of teams and scholarship programmes. This began a downward spiral that led to the Eagles playing away from Sheffield for eight years.
“I had to tell 150 kids that the dream was over, which is probably the worst thing I’ve ever had to do in my life,” Mark added.
When Don Valley Stadium was demolished in 2013, the Eagles were left without a home stadium, triggering a nomadic existence which saw the team playing everywhere from Wakefield to Doncaster. Being forced to play outside of Sheffield was an immense challenge and a threat to the Eagles survival.
“We are indebted to our main partners who stuck with us, especially the likes of GRI Group who never withdrew their support throughout all the adversity,” Mark said.
“I’m so proud that we managed to stay alive because a lot of clubs would have gone under if they had to play outside their home town for so many years, but we made it through.”
In April, the Eagles will play their first match at a brand-new purpose-built stadium at Sheffield Olympic Legacy Park. The site is also home to the Sheffield Hallam University Health Innovation Park, including the university’s Advanced Wellbeing Research Centre and National Centre for Excellence in Food Engineering.
The stadium is set to provide a range of sponsorship opportunities for local businesses, with everything from advertising boards to matchday sponsorship and hospitality.
Mark said: “The stadium is massive for us because it means we will be able to attract bigger crowds to our games and lure back those who stopped watching the Eagles when we had to play outside of the city.
It will be fantastic for the fans to watch the Eagles in a stadium which has primarily been built for rugby.
“The opportunities it is going to bring are huge – we will be able to generate additional revenue for the club through things like selling food and drink. We are grateful to Evogo, who have sponsored our kit for the 2022 season, and there are plenty more sponsorship opportunities Sheffield businesses will be able to take advantage of and get their name out there while supporting local rugby at the same time.”
With their new home secured, Mark’s focus is now turning to giving people from all walks of life the chance to play rugby league and start rebuilding a pathway to professional rugby in the spirit of the one he established a decade ago.
Work is now underway with The Eagles Foundation – the charity linked to the club which aims to harness the power of sport to make a positive impact on individuals’ lives in the Sheffield City Region.
The Eagles Foundation works to create opportunities for young people to get involved in sport – through the schools coaching programme, the work with Community Rugby League Clubs in the city, or through other non-competitive opportunities such as Touch Rugby League and X-League.
Mark added: “Alongside my own career achievements, the proudest thing I ever did was give a kid a dream through the academy and scholarships. There are at least 40 professional rugby league players who came through our academy.
“We have now established a women’s Eagles team and our first ever wheelchair rugby team, so with the help of the Foundation we are starting to put things back in place but it’s a building process and it’s going to take time.
“We have always wanted to develop performance structures for girls as well as boys and that inclusivity is going to form the backbone of everything we do. I want to set up a Centre of Excellence for rugby and there’s scope to set that up. The aim is to eventually have all our teams competing at the highest level in Super League.
“Unity is strength – that’s something I talk about a lot and if everyone is pulling in the same direction, we can help this club take that next step.
“We need the support of everybody; our partners, the local business community, the fans – everyone needs to work together and play their part but being back in the city gives us the foundation to become a sustainable club with a dream to play at the highest level. That is the next step and I’m determined to make it happen. The future is looking bright again.”
Mark’s career highlights
Alongside leaving his mark on Sheffield rugby, Mark has some impressive achievements to show for almost four decades in the game.
Having made his debut for the Eagles in 1985, Mark went on to establish himself as one of the best scrum halves in rugby league. This led to him making his first appearance on the international stage for Great Britain in 1991 and his selection for the 1992 Great Britain Lions tour of Australia and New Zealand.
In club rugby, Mark says his greatest achievement was winning Man of the Match after scoring two conversions and a drop goal in the 1998 Challenge Cup Final, where Sheffield Eagles overcame Wigan 17-8 at Wembley Stadium.
“As a child, you firstly dream about playing professional rugby league, then representing your country internationally and finally playing a final at Wembley, so to have achieved all those feats fills me with a lot of pride,” Mark said.
Mark’s success continued when he moved into coaching. The Eagles achieved back-to-back Championship Grand Final wins in 2012 and 2013 under his stewardship. Then in 2019, the club won the inaugural 1895 Cup by overcoming Widnes at Wembley. On the international stage, Mark managed Ireland through two World Cup campaigns between 2011 and 2017.
“I love coaching because developing a player is so rewarding. Nobody is the finished article and as coaches it’s our job to make every player better. 23 years later I still thoroughly enjoy doing it.”
Eagles Foundation heritage project awarded lottery funding
Sheffield Eagles’ associate charity, The Eagles Foundation, has been awarded £93,650 by The National Lottery Heritage Fund for a project which will record and share the heritage of the club.
The project, entitled Sheffield Eagles – the story of a Rugby League club battling against the odds, has six key aims:
- Researching archives: Looking through information held by the club at the Rugby Football League, within the local archives and by supporters.
- Digitisation of key documents and items from the club’s past: Documents, photographs, programmes, seasons tickets, videos, flags, banners and other memorabilia held by the club and supporters will be shared with the project. They will be digitised and catalogued before being built into an online database, making them searchable and more widely accessible.
- Collecting stories: Volunteers will interview key people such as officials, players, supporters and coaches, recording and filming their stories. An audio history of the club will be produced, available through a series of podcasts, with a short film produced capturing the history of the club.
- Training and support to volunteers: The project will equip volunteers with the skills to carry out interviews, research the history of the club, take part in the project and produce publications, exhibitions and talks.
- Sharing the stories: This will include the creation of an online website resource, pop-up exhibitions, learning packs, publications, events and public talks to share the stories and involve people.
- Working with the local community: The project will reach out to the community within the immediate area around the new stadium at Sheffield Olympic Legacy Park and the wider city to involve them in the activities.
One of the first steps in the project is to recruit a project officer who will bring the project to life over the course of the two years.
David Butler, chairperson of the Eagles Foundation, said: “We are very grateful to The National Lottery Heritage Fund for supporting our application and for providing the funding for this very exciting project.
“Compared to their rivals, Sheffield Eagles is a very young Rugby League club and that gives an almost unique opportunity to preserve its heritage for years to come using modern technology that simply wasn’t available when longer established clubs started playing the game back in 1895.
“Thank you to everyone who plays the National Lottery which generates funding for projects such as ours. We cannot wait to get started!”
David Renwick, director of the England North region at The National Lottery Heritage Fund, said: “We are thrilled to support the Eagles Foundation in celebrating the heritage of Sheffield Eagles Rugby League Football Club. Thanks to National Lottery players, this project will strengthen the community by helping local people better uncover the heritage of the club and its place in the history books of one of the UK’s best loved sports.
“The North is home to a wide range of sporting heritage, and we know it is a great way of bringing people together and creating a sense of pride that in turn can deliver much wider benefits.”