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2000 - Rising from the Ashes

The 2000 season saw the rebirth of the Sheffield Eagles following the merger with the Huddersfield Giants the previous year.

As the 1999 Super League Season came to an end Sheffield Eagles fans were left without a club to follow. The merger with the Huddersfield Giants had gone ahead but thanks to the efforts of a dedicated group, a new Sheffield Eagles was created ready for the start of the 2000 season.

The Merger

were opposed to the merger with Huddersfield Giants. “Don’t let the Eagles merge and die” was the typical response. The priority for fans was an independent Sheffield based club.

I wish to express my disgust about the obscene haste in which the club has been sold out
R Hattersley, League Express
I suspect most Sheffield Rugby League fans would be more prepared to give their emotional support to a grass roots team than some Frankenstein creation
B Langridge, League Express

Opposition to the move was voiced by Rugby League supporters across the country, including many former Sheffield Eagles players.

It will be a very sad day if it is the end of Sheffield Eagles. So many people have worked so hard for the club. I never expected the Eagles to leave Sheffield or South Yorkshire
Paul Broadbent

Part of the merger plan was to retain Sheffield in the club name (the Huddersfield-Sheffield Giants) and play a number of Super Leagues games in the City at Bramall Lane, home of Sheffield United, albeit the majority of games would be played in Huddersfield. Many Eagles supporters vowed to boycott these matches.

The struggle to relaunch the club

It soon transpired that the decision to merge had not been a unanimous one from the Sheffield Eagles. On the 5th October, long time director, Terry Sharman resigned in opposition to the deal.

With the groundswell of support to retain an independent Sheffield club, Mark Aston announced on 11th October 1999 that it was his intention to try to relaunch a new Sheffield Eagles to play in the semi-professional Northern Ford Premiership.

The Eagles started at the bottom under Gary Hetherington, they can do so again
Mark Aston, 1999

If the new club was to play in the forthcoming 2000 Season they were advised by the Chairman of the Associated Professional Clubs, Dewsbury Rams Chair, Bob McDermott, that they must submit an application to join quickly, as the season was due to start on Boxing Day 1999.

A consortium was established to develop the application, including Ian Swire, a long term sponsor and Ian Anniss, of the Hillsborough Hawks amateur club. The application was submitted to the Rugby League Council on 25th October. The aim was to create a community club with adequate finances, no one person being able to own more than 15% of the Club, with an outright ban on borrowing to sustain the new club.

As part of the campaign, a Fans Forum was convened which attracted 250 supporters. A Fighting Fund was set up for the new Eagles which secured pledges of financial support from both local businesses and fans. By the end of November nearly 600 applications for Season Tickets had been received.

In early November the new club secured its rent free base at Don Valley Stadium, the ground of the now defunct Super League club, as Sheffield City Council and the Sheffield Star added their support for the bid.

We can’t let the Eagles die for the sake of the fans … the fans have made it plain they want their own club … we need a professional team in the city to promote the game at the grassroots
Consortium Bid 1999

A detailed business case for the new Eagles was presented before the Rugby League Council on 15th November, but was rejected by 16 clubs to 14. All the Super League teams supported the bid, along with two Premiership clubs - Bramley and Barrow. A major issue for some clubs was that there were already 18 clubs in the Premiership, which meant that teams were unable to play each other home and away. However it was also suspected that the main reason was that clubs did not want Hull, who also put in a separate bid to join (as they had been merged with Gateshead) and they had already rejected a bid for Huddersfield to run a separate club in the Premiership.

The case for the new Eagles is claptrap. We have tried Rugby League in Sheffield and it has failed… if they do get in, it will not be with my support
Richard Evans, Featherstone R

However it came to light soon after that one of the Premiership clubs, Bramley were looking to drop out of the League and join with their Super League neighbour Leeds. However Bob McDermott argued that there was no place for the Eagles to replace Bramley and there was not enough time to get everything sorted out as the fixture list needed to be published.

Undaunted Mark Aston and the consortium agreed to fight on, as more Premiership clubs came over to the Eagles cause. Editorials in the Rugby League papers also called on the Rugby League authorities to allow the Eagles into the Premiership. The subsequent APC meeting on 26th November was unable to reach a decision and the matter was referred to the full Rugby League Council.

By the time the Council met on December 7th, more clubs had joined the cause, including Doncaster. Consequently the new Eagles were admitted the Premiership as an Associate member. The club would not receive any Sky TV income for the following three years and would not be eligible to gain promotion to the Super League in that time.

In seventy days the Eagles Fans had gone from despair to joy.

Pre-Season Preparations

The club had only 22 days to create a functional team to be up and running by the kick off time at Chorley on the 28th December. Fortunately Aston had already approached several potential players who had provisionally signed for Sheffield, but their names had been kept in the dark to prevent potential poaching until the club had been given the formal go-ahead by the Rugby League Council. The club had already lost a couple of potential signings to other teams in the Premiership.

The Initial target was a squad of 20, made up of a blend of youth and experience, with a couple of veterans of the game to help with the coaching of the younger members of the squad. The Club was equally fortunate in securing the services of Howard Cartwright as Assistant Coach, with Aston operating as Player coach. Cartwright had been involved in coaching Eagles teams in the early days under the leadership of Gary Hetherington.

The New Squad

  • Mark Aston (Eagles)
  • Michael Jackson (Eagles)
  • Ricky Wright (Eagles)
  • Chris Morley (Salford)
  • Chris Robinson (Keighley)
  • Kevin Crouthers (Wakefield)
  • Gavin Brown (Leeds)
  • John Strange (York)
  • Steve Walker (Batley)
  • Wayne Freeman (Bramley
  • Glen Freeman (Bramley)
  • Leon Williamson (Dewsbury)
  • Simon Wray (Bramley)
  • Darren Summerill (Doncaster)
  • Lee Bettinson (Eagles Academy)
  • Jon Bruce (Doncaster)
  • Ian Brown (Lock Lane)
  • Mickey Johnson (Lock Lane)
  • Marc Gibson (Bramley)
  • Dave Larder (Keighley)

During the ensuing season more players joined the squad. These included the former Eagles player Marcus Vassilokopolous, as well as a mixture of seasoned and younger players - Jeff Wittenberg, Carl Briggs, Andy Brent, Lee Hanlan, Neil Kite, Alex Thompson and Richard Goddard. Pre-season training was hampered by the weather, which limited outdoor sessions to only three before the big kick off.

However on the eve of the initial game at Chorley, Aston remained positive about the outcome.

It’s going to be hard and I don’t expect us to peak at first. But I’ll be going for quality and I expect us to be a competitive side. I’m saying we will not win the league, but we’ll hold our own. One thing is certain, everyone in the team will be giving 150 per cent for the Eagles and hopefully we’ll come back with victory
Mark Aston, 1999

Off the field there was plenty to be done to get the new club up and running. Volunteers had to be recruited. Local businesses had to be approached for sponsorship and packages had to developed for them. Fundraising events were organised, an office had to be set up, marketing and promotional activities were planned, away coaches booked and player insurance negotiated … and all within a very tight budget.

Securing sponsorship from businesses was a key component in the start up process. The Club secured the support of Electronic Data Processing plc who signed a three year shirt sponsor deal under the logo of their subsidiary fastfreenet. This helped the club immensely to balance the books when every other team in the league were receiving financial support from the Rugby Football League and the Eagles received nothing. This deal made the relaunch of the club a reality.

This has got to be one of the biggest sponsorship deals in the NFP. It will ensure the continuation of professional Rugby League in Sheffield and also enable the future growth of our sport in schools and at grassroots level throughout our area
Brian Aston

2000 Northern Ford Premiership Season

The Eagles opening game of the season was held at Lancashire Lynx’s Victory Park ground in Chorley. Over 500 Eagles fans trekked across the Pennines to watch their team, boosting the crowd to 888. There was a kit clash with the Lynx, so the Eagles team had to borrow the Lynx’s second strip for the day. You can read the programme for that first game below.

Sheffield Eagles v Lancashire Lynx 28/12/1999

The honour of the first try of the new era went to Jon Bruce. There soon followed an Eagles purple patch. Within 24 minutes the Eagles had scored further tries through Ian Brown, followed by an 90 metres break from John Strange, a try from dummy half for Gavin Brown, and then by two quick tries from Chris Robinson and Mickey Johnstone, capped by a field goal by Gavin Brown. Early in the second half Aston caught an elbow in the mouth, dislodging two bottom front teeth and had to be taken off injured. The Eagles led 33-8, and despite two late consolation tries by Lancashire, Sheffield were victorious by 33 points to 20. As Aston commented at the end of the game:

We played some great football in the second half and credit to the boys they dug in there. It was tough in the first half but I thought in the second half we played some vintage stuff. The fans are absolutely fantastic – the noise they made was great
Mark Aston

The opening day’s victory was followed by a closely contested game on January 9th at York Wasps which the Eagles lost by a single point drop goal in the last ten seconds, 15-16.

The first Sheffield home game at the Don Valley Stadium was scheduled for the 16th against the Batley Bulldogs. On the day, here was a party atmosphere in the stadium amongst the 1,612 fans who attended. A sponsored walk had been organised by supporters which brought the match ball from Sheffield Town Hall to the ground.

By half time the Eagles led by 12 points to 6 through converted tries from Mickey Johnson and Steve Walker. The first half was marred by an incident, however, involving Gavin Brown, who had his jaw broken by a Batley player who remained on the field (even though the Rugby Football League Disciplinary Board subsequently banned the player for six matches). In the second half Batley took the initiative, scoring three further tries, ending up winners, 22-12. Despite the defeat Mark Aston remained upbeat.

I thought there were glimpses of us getting it right as there have been in all games so far…there were a lot of positives and some good individual performances
Mark Aston

The next Sheffield outing was at high flying Hull KR the following Sunday. The game was the first for returning former Eagles Super League player Marcus Vassilokuopolos. After a hard contested game in a mudbath of a pitch the Eagles came out as losers by 4 points to 6.

The Eagles first home win happened two days later when they entertained Hunslet Hawks at Don Valley. In the previous season Hunslet had been the Northern Premier champions. In front of 1,278 fans Sheffield held onto a 14-8 half time lead, and through a strong defensive effort, prevented the former Champions from scoring their second try until the 80th minute. In their 17-12 victory, the Eagles gave debuts to new signings Richard Goddard and former Eagle Alex Thompson.

Unfortunately the next game, five days later was, for most Eagles supporters, the low point of the 2000 season. Facing the amateur Thornhill Trojans club at Don Valley, the Eagles were dumped out of the Challenge Cup 14-16. This was seen as a major financial blow to the club as it denied them a potential match up against a Super League club in the later stages, which could have brought additional finance into the club.

This is a lowest point of my career, to be involved with a team that has been beaten by an amateur side. We have dug ourself into a bit of a hole but we’ll get out of it
Mark Aston

By the end of January 2000, Sheffield Eagles found themselves in 14th position in the Northern Ford Premiership, having recorded only two victories out of five games and with a negative points difference of -8.

Between February and mid April the Eagles recorded an eight game losing streak, losing heavily to both Featherstone Rovers and Dewsbury Rams away, but only narrowly at Widnes Vikings, 3-0 during February. Despite the home team being virtually camped in the Eagles half for most of the game, Widnes were held out by a strong defensive effort from the Eagles squad.

March was not much better for the Eagles. Starting with a home defeat in the derby game with Doncaster Dragons, eventually losing 10-16 in front of the Eagles highest home crowd of the season 2,732, further heavy away losses were recorded at Keighley Cougars and Barrow Border Raiders.

The Doncaster game had marked the inaugural game for the new South Yorkshire Challenge Trophy which ended up, along with points, winging its way down the M18 to Doncaster.

The final match of the month was another home fixture, this time against Workington Town. Leading 12-6 at half-time the Eagles lost out to a last minute penalty, 18-20. Looking for a way to end this long running losing streak, Mark Aston told the team that:

I’m not looking for people to blame – that’s not the way to get out of this. We have got to be focused and get a grip on games
Mark Aston

The Eagles performances were not helped by a series of injuries and suspensions for key players. Consequently both Neil Kite and Jeff Wittenberg were given their debuts in an attempt to steady the ship. The first game in April was a home game against Oldham Roughyeds. Yet again it resulted in another heavy loss by 6 points to 28. Next up was an away trip to League leaders Leigh Centurions, who had been unbeaten in their previous 9 games.

Losing 10-18 at half time, with Leigh extending their lead early in the second half, excellent performances by half backs Gavin Brown and Chris Robinson, assisted by Jon Bruce, Chris Morley and Dave Larder in the pack, the Eagles ran out winners by 26 points to 24. The highlight of the game for the Eagles away supporters was Bruce’s bone-crunching stop on Leigh’s legendary hard-man, Tim Street.

By the mid-point of the season, after 14 games, the Eagles had dropped to 16th in the Premiership, having secured only three victories, scoring 190 points but conceding 337, a negative points difference of 125. Hoping to build on the Leigh victory, the Sheffield team next travelled to Swinton Lions looking for their next win. In an end to end game, the Lions finally came out the victors by 38 points to 30.

The Eagles next game was the return home match against Lancashire Lynx on Good Friday 21st April. The Sheffield team ran out 56-12 winners, with Neil Kite scoring a hat-trick and Chris Robinson having a hand in all 10 Eagles tries.

Then there was an away visit to Hunslet Hawks on Easter Monday. By half-time the Eagles had managed to just get on top, leading 8-6. Immediately after the restart, Marcus Vassilakuopolos took control of the game, directing play from dummy half and was a constant threat to the Hawks with his darting runs. Scoring a try and assisting in a further two, helping Sheffield to a 27 points to 6 victory. It had been a good Easter programme for the Eagles.

May brought a mixed bag of results. Two narrow home defeats at the start of the month to two lowly placed teams, Whitehaven Warriors and then Rochdale Hornets, was then followed by a low key home draw 12 all to York Wasps. This string of poor results led Mark Aston to take the microphone at the end of the Wasps game to apologise to the fans who had attended, calling on the players to step up their efforts and restore some pride until the end of the season.

The appeal appeared to have worked, as the next two results saw victories against Batley Bulldogs away, 21-14, and a narrow home win against Hull KR, 10-8. But the month ended with a further defeat against high flying Featherstone Rovers.

The month of May also had Chris Robinson make it into the Rugby League World’s Team of the Month, the first of the reformed Eagles players to do so.

In June the Eagles were up against three contenders for the Premiership’s title, resulting in home losses to Dewsbury Rams and Keighley Cougars and an away defeat to Doncaster Dragons, who retained the South Yorkshire Challenge Trophy. In a tough game, marred by 27 penalties, the Eagles, hampered, by a spate of injuries to key players, put up a spirited performance, losing 29 -8 to the Dragons.

The last home game of the season saw Barrow Border Raiders visit Don Valley. On the day Sheffield turned on the style, running out 30 point to 2 victors, with Aston coming off the bench to make a major telling contribution. After the game he commented:

It was a long time coming. The players said before the game they wanted to do it for themselves, wanted to do it for the spectators, who had been fabulous throughout the season and finish on a high, which I certainly believe we did. We played some great stuff. Just shows what we can do, when we chill out and relax a little bit and play smart
Mark Aston

To complete the season the Eagles had to make the long trip up to Workington Town. A typical end of season game, the Eagles came out on top, courtesy of a Vasilakuopolos field goal, by 19 points to 18. Although finishing 14th overall with 19 points, the second half of the season saw the Eagles secure 6 wins and 1 draw scoring 289 point and conceding 248, a positive balance of 41 points.

Play Offs

Dewsbury beat Leigh 13-12 in the Play off final, entitling them to make an application to Super League.


Commenting on the club’s first season in the Northern Ford Premiership, after the Workington game, Mark Aston praised the fans.

The supporters have been fantastic, there were around 400 of them up at Workington on Sunday. That would have been unheard of before. Everybody feels a part of things. As for the players, many of our boys have said that they have enjoyed this last season more than any others in their career
Mark Aston

These sentiments were echoed by the players. Chris Morley told the Rugby League Express:

The Sheffield supporters have been terrific this season. I don’t really like playing at home as the pitch is so far away and there isn’t much atmosphere. But the fans have stuck with us through everything and I’m chuffed with the way they supported us away from home. It definitely helped the Sheffield players this year. They are really fun fans and even when you get beat they don’t have a bad word to say against you. That wasn’t the case at other clubs I’ve been at. Clubs where the supporters get really on your back if you are losing.
Chris Morley

The 2000 Northern Ford Premiership Season was a difficult one for Sheffield Eagles. Relaunched with virtually no time to prepare for the new campaign, a limited playing budget, and having to battle through some difficult spells on the field. Particularly that nine match losing spell in the first half of the season which would have broken many a side’s spirit. Overall, the season can be seen as a success. A success that could be built upon in future seasons. The reformed Sheffield Eagles were definitely here to stay.

Everybody talks about the likes of Castleford and Featherstone but that passion is in Sheffield now. There might be only around 1,500 fans, but it is there and they want their own club. Sheffield Eagles are a go-forward club…our target for next year has to be a top eight place. But the fact that we are here at all is the main thing
Mark Aston

End of Season Awards

Supporter’s Player of the Year: Jon Bruce

Players Player of the Year: Dave Larder

Coach’s Player of the Year: Chris Robinson

Travel Club's Player of the Year: Chris Robinson

Results

2000 Results

TABLE

2000 Table

PLAYER STATISTICS

2000 Players

Further Information

For more detail about results and players visit the Rugby League Record Keepers Club website HERE.

Author

Ian Swain