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2001 - Club of the Year

After a previous year of uncertainty and the rebuilding of the Club the 2001 season saw progress on and off the pitch.

Unlike the previous season, when it was touch and go as to whether the Eagles would be able to compete in the Northern Ford Premiership, for the forthcoming 2001 season there was ample time to prepare and develop a squad that would be more competitive.


Out of previous season’s squad of 30, 17 players left, including Dave Larder who signed for Rochdale, Chris Morley for Leigh, Jeff Wittenberg for Batley, Kevin Crouthers for London Broncos and Leon Williamson and Mickey Johnson for Gateshead.John Strange returned to Australia.

Working on a tight recruitment budget, the Eagles player-coach, Mark Aston, and his team recruited the following new players:

  • Chris Judge (York)
  • Andy Poynter (Leeds Alliance)
  • Simon Tillyer (Unattached)
  • Bright Sodje (prev Sheffield)
  • Steve Hill (York)
  • Chris Chapman (Leeds Alliance)
  • Paul Wells Castleford
  • Scott Rhodes (Hull)
  • Jack Howieson (Sheffield Hallam University)
  • Heath Cruikshank (Leigh)
  • Gareth Hewitt (Salford)
  • Ian Thompson (Featherstone)
  • Wayne Flynn (prev Sheffield)

A strong Leeds connection was developing within the club, with many of the new recruits and a significant number of existing players previously developing their skills through the Rhinos system.

As the season progressed other players joined as needs arose - Gareth Dobson (York); Billy Kershaw (Dewsbury); and Matthew Foster (on loan from Keighley)

The 2001 Season established the recruitment principle for future Sheffield Eagles teams – a good balance of youth and experience, skills and speed.

In 2000 we only had three weeks to fashion a side. This time around we are determined to be fit and ready before time. With the squad we are assembling I’m more than sure we can challenge for the top eight in 2001
Mark Aston 21/08/2000

Stadium Issues?

A potential problem reared its head in September. when it was revealed that the club could possibly be faced with the need to ground share Don Valley with the Premiership champions, Dewsbury Rams, if their application for promotion to Super League was approved. The Eagles Board and management were opposed to this proposal. It had been the Dewsbury Chair who had led the opposition to the Eagles being allowed to restart in the Northern Ford Premiership in the previous season. However, the threat never came about, as Dewsbury’s bid was unsuccessful.

Huddersfield Giants also announced, after having played two games in Sheffield, which were very poorly attended and largely ignored by Eagles fans, that they were dropping the Sheffield name and not playing any further games in the city.T his was final recognition that the merged arrangements were never going to work. Whilst welcomed by the Eagles Board, some concern was expressed about the future of rugby league development in the city.

Huddersfield had been given funding to continue this but were not prepared to financially invest further in development work in the Sheffield area. Ian Swire, Eagles Chairman. slammed the Giants for refusing to pay a penny towards youth development in Sheffield.

Now the air is clear, and we can go onto build Sheffield Eagles as a force in the game. But Huddersfield have got an obligation towards development in Sheffield to continue into the future after the merger.
Ian Swire 13/12/2000

In December 2000 the Eagles launched their own development programme in schools and the community, funded by sponsors with matched money from the Government’s Sport Match Fund.


On the field, mid-November saw the Eagles play their only pre-season friendly against Gateshead Thunder. At stake was the Tolent Cup. In front of 849 fans, the Eagles ran out 22-4 victors, claiming their first piece of silverware. The victory was due to Sheffield’s impressive defensive display – Gateshead’s only points coming from a defensive error. Tries from Ian Thompson, Heath Cruickshank, Ian Brown, and Paul Wells contributed to the score, with conversions from Richard Goddard and Chris Robinson.

League Structure

The structure for the new Northern Ford Premiership season was the same as the previous year. Each team would play all the others in the division at least once and play home and away games with at least those in the same geographical region as themselves, which for Sheffield was Yorkshire and Humberside. Despite it being the


The season started in earnest in December, with the first game at home on December 3rd against Batley Bulldogs, who included former Eagles forward Jeff Wittenberg in their line-up.In front of a crowd of 1,429, the Eagles beat the Bulldogs by 34 points to a single field goal. With a try double from Andy Brent and an 18-point haul from Richard Goddard, the Eagles handling and inventiveness going forward was a revelation for a side which built its reputation on defence the previous season.

We wanted to play particularly well, and we did. The defence was first class It was champagne rugby at times – we’ve just got to do it consistently
Mark Aston 05/12/2000

The early part of the season was impacted upon by the wintry weather which resulted in many early season’s matches for all the clubs being postponed, including a couple involving Sheffield. Consequently, a fixture congestion problem developed in the following weeks when the weather cleared. Teams found they were playing games every four days to enable the league programme to catch up. This had a negative impact on some clubs with smaller squads, with their performances being particularly affected.

Progress was maintained at the following away game at Featherstone Rovers. In a hard-fought game, a brawl or two, a few dubious tackles and 26 penalties, the Eagles ground out a 15-12 victory, ensuring that they were third in the table. As the team had not received their new home shirts from their supplier at this stage, they had to play in a set that had be loaned back to them by their previous year’s sponsors.

Next was a trip to Hunslet Hawks, where the Eagles were beaten by the bottom of the table Hawks by 14 points, the Eagles failing to record a single point. This was followed by the South Yorkshire derby, played at Doncaster on Boxing Day with the South Yorkshire Cup at stake.

Facing another bruising encounter against one of the strongest and most physical sides in the Premiership, having to defend, often brilliantly at times, against an on-fire Doncaster Dragons team, the Eagles lost by 22 points to 2. Mark Aston was disappointed with the performance however, as there had been too many handling errors and particularly the failure to create anything when in possession of the ball. The team remained a work in progress.

I am creating a side for the future all from scratch and with limited resources
Mark Aston LE, 27/12/2000


An enforced rest followed as the next game, against Gateshead, was postponed. At the turn of the year, the Eagles had dropped to 9th in the table.

The New Year didn’t see a change in the Eagles’ fortunes. The first match of the year at home brought Keighley Cougars to Don Valley. At that stage of the season, they were then on an unbeaten run. In front of the biggest home crowd of the season, by half time, the Eagles were 36-0 down, with former Eagles player, Martin Wood, being instrumental in the Cougars demolition of the home side. They ran in 6 tries in 40 minutes. Despite pulling back 16 points in the second half, a much more solid Sheffield performance failed to prevent Keighley running out 52-16 points winners. Commenting on the Eagles first half performance Mark Aston believed that “it was a disgrace for any professional club”.

In the match programme for this game, Ian Swire looked to the future for the club.

We have got this far without handouts from anyone, and I am firmly convinced that with the backing of our supporters and sponsors we can build a club that will one day return to its rightful place in Super League and this time to stay.
Ian Swire, January 2001
Sheffield Eagles v Keighley Cougars 07/01/2001

Following two further postponements due to the weather, the Eagles next match was the rearranged home game against Gateshead Thunder at the back end of January. With Mark Aston guiding the team from the park rather than the touch line, a brace of tries from Ian Thompson and Scott Rhodes apiece, and a further 18 points from Richard Goddard, Sheffield ran out 38-12 victors.

There was not much time to prepare for the next game, a Challenge Cup match against East Leeds, and a match that was yet another physical game, sometimes scrappy. But the Eagles managed to run out 42 points to nil winners, exorcising their Cup ghost, setting up a Fourth-round tie with South Yorkshire rivals Doncaster.

A further rearranged home match against Dewsbury Rams was held the following Wednesday. Sheffield lost out going down fighting 25-6, as the Rams finally battered through a determined Eagles defence in the second half after trailing the home side 6-4 at half time. But, as Dewsbury coach Neil Kelly described, they had to play “our best rugby of the season”. A first half injury to Jon Bruce and his fellow front-rower Ricky Wright being forced off early in the second, played a big part in deciding the game.

The second half saw us struggling as injuries took their toll but the kids handled themselves well. To play four games in ten days, which is what we are currently having to dop, is ridiculous. But I’m proud of the lads. The character’s there, they stood up to be counted tonight.
Mark Aston LE 05/02/2001


February saw the arrival of Hull KR to Don Valley on the 4th. Another hard-fought game resulted in the Rovers leading by 12 points to 3 with 10 minutes to go. A converted try from Bright Sodje and a try from Andy Poynter saw the Eagles needing a conversion to win as the hooter sounded. With no available kicker on the field, up stepped Mark Aston to take it, and he missed. There was to be no fairytale ending.

The fourth round Cup match at DoncasterDragons took place the following week.This was the first outing of the Eagles in their new strip, but it did not bring a change in fortunes.In a typical tough, bruising tie, that had come to mark South Yorkshire derbies, the game went down to the wire. The Sheffield side lost out to the Dragons by 12 points to 14 and a next round tie against Huddersfield Giants.

Next was a long trek to Workington Town, where another close fought game saw the Eagles defeated 12 points to 15, with Workington having to come from behind twice to secure the points. February ended on a positive note however, with another away trip to York Wasps, a fixture that had been earlier postponed due to a frozen pitch. Having missed a fair number of chances in the first half, the Eagles ran in 8 tries, with Richard Goddard contributing a brace, making a personal 24 points contribution overall. The end result, Sheffield were the victors, 48-6. Pleased with the second half performance Mark Aston commented that “we showed some great glimpses of what we can do and there are plenty of positive things we can work on”. By the end of the month the Eagles remained outside the top eight in 10th position.


March brought a further five games for Sheffield and it was a relatively productive month for the club. However, it brought its challenges. Due to the club’s financial situation, it was not able to keep hold of Heath Cruickshank, who moved to St Helens. They faced a further challenge in retaining the services of top points scorer, Richard Goddard. To try to ensure he remained at the club, the Eagles Board launched “A keep Godds on our side Campaign” aimed at business sponsors and fans, asking them to “dig deep and raise the cash." A further blow was the decision of captain Chris Robinson to hang up his boots and concentrate on developing his business interests.

I will miss playing. I certainly enjoyed my time at the Eagles. I met a lot of good friends.
Chris Robinson

Fortunately, enough funding was secured for the club to offer Richard Goddard a longer-term contract tying him to the club for a further three years. Goddard also undertook the now vacant role of Team captain.

Equally problematic was a fall in attendances at home games. After relatively good attendances early in the season, by mid-March crowds had begun to drop.

The fans said they wanted the Eagles to survive, but if we are, they have to come through the turnstiles. If we are to keep Rugby League alive in this city, and grow we need the fans’ support.
Eagles Board 10/03/2001

On the field, the month saw positive progress for the team. Starting with a home victory against Barrow Raiders, when the Eagles scored seven tries to Barrow’s two, winning 40-16, the next visitors to Don Valley were Widnes Vikings. This was to be Heath Cruikshank’s last game in Sheffield colours and the team wanted to give him a good send off. The Eagles dominated the game against an outfit of seasoned professionals, finishing 26-17 winners.

Sheffield were unable to continue their winning run when they visited the Oldham Roughyeds ground. Wrong decision making on the field at a crucial time in the game, resulted in a 16-24 defeat. Winning ways continued in the next away game, however. A closely fought game with the result, in doubt up to the last few minutes of game time, saw the Eagles take the points with a hard fought 18-12 victory over Whitehaven Warriors.

A successful month was concluded with the visit of Chorley Lynx to Don Valley. An eleven try bonanza, with Neil Kite, Andy Poynter, and Steve Walker, all scoring two tries apiece, resulted in the reformed Eagles posting their greatest victory to date, a win of 60 points to 4. Having won five out of their last 6 matches, Sheffield were poised at the halfway stage of the season just outside the top eight with 16 points, kept out by Featherstone Rovers better points difference.

Sheffield Eagles v Chorley Lynx 31/03/2001


But April saw a mixed bag of results. A visit to Swinton Lions on the 8th resulted in the Eagles managing a one-point victory over the Lions. It turned out to be an end-to-end thriller, with both sides level at 22 points each with ten minutes to go. A late drop goal from Richard Goddard enabled the Eagles to snatch the two points, helping to move the club into the play off places. However, an injury to influential prop, Jon Bruce, created strong Eagles’ fears that he would be sidelined for the rest of the season.

A further victory was secured in the home fixture with Doncaster Dragons on the 13th. In a match that Sheffield dominated, they ran out 28 points to 4 winners, securing both the points and the South Yorkshire Cup, also maintaining their playoff position. The match saw the long-established Eagles total appearances record broken, previously held by Mark Gamson. With ten minutes to go, Mark Aston came off the bench to register his 351st game for the club, with Jack Howieson making his first team appearance at the same time.

This positive progress in the League was not maintained. On the 17th, Sheffield lost heavily away at Rochdale Hornets 46-8. It was a match in which Gareth Dobson played for the first time in an Eagles shirt, replacing hooker Andy Speak, who had been recently allowed to leave the club to play for Castleford Tigers. On the 29th, they played hosts to the League leaders Leigh Centurions. Losing by 10 points to 30 at half time, due to another poor defensive display, with the arrival of Mark Aston off the bench, the Eagles stunned Leigh, outscoring them by 18 points to 4. Due to these results and those of their rivals, the club dropped out of playoff contention, falling to 11th position by the end of April.


The mixed performance on the field continued into May. The Eagles lost at Batley Bulldogs (2-23), Keighley Cougars (14-26) and at home to Featherstone Rovers (14-28). Despite the home defeat Mark Aston paid tribute to the “true grit” his young players showed in that brutal clash with Featherstone. Due to the tactics adopted by the visitors, both Chris Chapman and Wayne Flynn were taken to hospital in the first half, whilst in his surprise return to the team, prop Jon Bruce had to put in a full 80 minutes. The only other bright note of the month was a revenge home victory over Hunslet Hawks, with the Eagles ending the game as 40 points to 10 winners.

Off the field, there was an attempt by the traditionalist clubs in the Premiership to revert to playing in the winter months, which would put the league out of kilter with Super League and make promotion and relegation between the two impossible. Sheffield along with Leigh and Widnes threatened to set up an alternative Super League 2 if this proposal had been followed through.


June saw the Eagles hoping to end the season on a positive note. Mark Aston challenged the squad to prove that they deserved to earn a place in the club’s plans for the next season and that ultimatum appeared to reap dividends.

At the start of the month, Sheffield faced a home visit by cash crisis club, York Wasps. The result was a shut-out, resulting in a 56 points victory, with the home side crossing the York line on 10 occasions, with Paul Wells and Andy Brent securing a brace of tries. This, however, was followed by a 28-16 reverse at Dewsbury Rams. Down to a lacklustre first half performance by the Eagles, who failed to score, they were 19 points adrift at half time. Although they outscored the Rams after the break, this defeat ended Sheffield’s playoff hopes for the 2001 season.

Sheffield then faced a trip to Hull KR, where the battling Eagles produced one of the shocks of the round recording an 18 points to 14 victory, with Richard Goddard producing a captain’s and man of the match performance. Down to only 17 fit players in the squad, they ended a five-match winning streak for the home side.

The Eagles were hosts to Workington Town on the 24th, in their last home match of the season. With a post-match barbecue planned for the fans, the team were out to prevent their opponents crashing the party. In front of more than 1,250 spectators the home side were 22 points to 10 ahead at the interval. Despite the efforts of play off hopefuls Workington in the second half, who gave the Sheffield defence a real trial, the home side managed to secure a 34 points to 26 victory, giving their supporters something to remember and savour over the offseason.

Week by week we are getting better and better and this will continue next season.
Mark Aston LE 25/06/2001
Sheffield Eagles v Workington Town 21/06/2001


The final game of the season was a trip to Barrow Border Raiders.Hoping to end on a high, the Eagles stumbled to a 38 points to 14 defeat, the game again being lost in the first half.

Season Overview

Finishing 11th overall with 28 points, the Eagles secured 14 wins, scoring 637 points and conceding 543, a positive balance of 94 points. Although they fell short of securing a place in the play offs, due to injuries to key players at crucial stages of the competition, this represented an improvement overall on the inaugural season for the fledgling Eagles. However home attendances were down on that season, dropping to 17,898 in total and a game average of 1,193.

Financially the club were now looking at securing future long term security.

Our first season was all about survival which we managed to do, and we are now formulating the planning required in order to prosper … within our means
Ian Swire March 2001

But progress during the year threw up major challenges for the Sheffield management team. The performances of many of their players, particularly the younger members of the squad, was attracting the interests of other teams in the Championship and even Super League. Having already seen Heath Cruickshank and Andy Speak being snapped up by teams from Super League, the budget that the Eagles had to operate under, and consequently the pay levels they were able to pay, meant that the club faced a fight to retain the services of their stars, as well as to secure fresh talent for those who left. Now that the club was becoming more financially secure, one of the planks to retention strategy was offering longer term contracts to existing players, with Neil Kite being the first to be awarded a two-year deal.

One of the most pleasing things to happen this season, has to be the reestablishment of the grass roots development programme. To assist this, we have established a charity trust, the first of its kind in rugby league, to raise the necessary funding. It has been established to fund the grassroots development of the game in the region, not to fund the recruitment of players. This is the route for rugby league to be finally established in the Sheffield region.
Ian Swire March 2001

One of the keys to future progress was recognising the need to bring in more experienced professionals to help develop the current squad. Another was the creation of an under-21 side, that would afford an opportunity to bring on younger players from local community clubs, as well as enabling existing younger squad members to get more opportunities to play and develop their skillsets when they were not turning out for the first team.

Club of the Year

In addition to securing the Tolent and South Yorkshire Cups, Sheffield Eagles received the ultimate accolade from their peers when they were awarded the Northern Ford Premiership Club of the Year for the work they had been doing in the community.

End of Season Awards

Player of the Year: Richard Goddard

Supporter’s Player of the Year: Richard Goddard

Players Player of the Year: Andy Brent

Travel Clubs Player of the Year: Richard Goddard

Richard Goddard also made it into the NFP All Star Team in the loose forward position.

Playing Squad

2001 Playing Squad


2001 results


2001 table

Player Statistics

2001 players

Further Information

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


Ian Swain