2002- A Year of Missed Opportunities
A lost chance to be part of the new first division.
A new season beckoned, but a season that was to bring yet another change to the structure of the Northern Ford Premiership for both the current and future seasons.
A new league structure
A new season beckoned, but a season that was to bring yet another change to the structure of the Northern Ford Premiership for both the current and future seasons.
The current set up of1 9 clubs was regarded as too large as it prevented clubs meeting each other both home and away. It was decided that the current division would be split into two, National Leagues One and Two in 2003
National League One would comprise the clubs that secured the top nine positions in the 2002 competition, with the 10th spot being allocated to the team that won an end of season knockout competition held between those clubs’ finishing 10th to 15th. The remaining clubs would form National League Two.The seasons for the new structure would be aligned with Super League in 2023.
In addition, starting from the 2002 Season, as well as the normal league and Challenge Cup games, there would be a new National League Cup competition to be played mid-season.Consequently, the current season would start in December 2001 and end in September 2002.
The Sheffield management team were busy in recruiting a competitive and experienced team that would enable the club to secure a spot in the top 9 in the division, enabling the Eagles to claim a berth in new senior Premiership division for the 2003 season.
However, unlike clubs who ended up in a similar position to Sheffield the previous season within the league, and who had then spent the close season pursuing high profile signings which demanded the commitment of significant financial resources, storing up potential problems for them in the future. Eagles continued with a tight playing budget, to concentrate on recruiting younger players who can be moulded into future stars.
The club had retained a strong nucleus of the 2001 squad. Three had previously left the club during the previous season and a further six did not resign for the new season.Carl Briggs had already left mid-season to go to Gateshead, whilst Chris Chapman joined Dewsbury, and Ricky Wright returned to his home club, Workington.
Chris Judge, who had played with a broken foot for half of the previous season, retired as did Darren Summerill and Steve Walker. New signings included:
- Guy Adams (Hunslet)
- Ryan Knight (Salford)
- Andy Raleigh
- Nick Turnbull
- Lee Trasler (Cronulla Sharks)
- Jon Breakingbury (Cardiff Demons)
- Craig Brown (Bradford)
- Greg Hurst
- George Raynor(Hunslet)
- Matt Foster (Keighley previously on loan)
- Darren Callaghan (Hull KR)
- Wayne Freeman (Hunslet)
- Richard Singleton
- Mitch Stringer (Hoyland Vikings)
Michael Docherty (York) joined the club in late March following the demise of York Wasps, and Adam Carroll also joined from the Huddersfield Alliance side.Simon Morton followed from the Alliance side in April.
The club also sought to strengthen their back room staff by adding former 1984 season player Andy Tyers (Heritage Number 1) to the coaching team to assist Mark Aston and Howard Wilkinson.
A further welcome development off the field was the creation of the Sheffield Eagles supporter club.Their aim was to raise financial support for the club, as well as act as a forum for supporters to make the Sheffield Board, management and coaching staff aware of their views.
A Double header Friendly against Gateshead Thunder and an Emerging Eagles game against the British students’ team was held at the Thunderdome on the 19th November 2001.The Eagles easily retained the Tolent Cup with a seven try victory helped by an impressive half back display by Darren Callaghan, backed up with a strong defensive display by his Sheffield teammates. Leading 14 points 4 at half-time, through their second half attacking display ran out victors by 38 points to 8.
As the new season approached, the club were facing at least 40 games this season, compared to 30 in the previous season. So squad rotation was seen as key to maintaining momentum and achieving success on the pitch.
The Club’s aspiration for the coming season was to achieve better than they had done in 2001.
The season kicked off at Derwent Park. Facing a big and physical Workington side the Eagles players were the target of a series of high tackles throughout the game. Yet the penalty count was 6-12 against them. Strong defensive displays were produced by both sides, and with a few minutes left Sheffield were ahead by 10 points to 6, when the home side scored a last minute converted try, resulting in them to taking the points.
The Eagles first home match of the season was against Gateshead Thunder, within whose ranks were seven former Eagles players. The day started with the Tag Rugby Festival, involving 200 local schoolchildren.This was followed by the main event. Within a minute of kick off, George Rayner had crossed the whitewash and by half-time, Sheffield were ahead by 12 points to 2, ex-Eagles Carl Briggs scoring the only points for the opposition. The second half saw further tries from the home side who exhibited a strong defensive display throughout the game. The result, a positive 32-4 victory for Sheffield.
Next was a trip to Huddersfield Giants who had been relegated from Super League the previous season, being replaced by NFP Champions Widnes Vikings. Previous Championship winners promotion bids from both Hunslet and Dewsbury had been rejected.For many Eagles fans this was seen as a “grudge match” but for the players it was just another game.
Up against a full-time team, Sheffield matched them for long periods of the game. Yet at crucial stages, the Eagles were reduced to 12 men. By the interval Huddersfield were ahead. 20 points to 6. Even though they dominated the majority of the second half, Sheffield lost the encounter 30 points to 12. Despite the defeat, Mark Aston remained positively upbeat about the team who had “showed a lot of character”.
The final match of 2001 was the South Yorkshire derby against Doncaster Dragons at Don Valley. An understrength Sheffield side, with key players missing, including Richard Goddard, controlled the game throughout securing a 36 - 14 victory and retaining the South Yorkshire Cup. Goddard’s non-appearance brought about the end of his consecutive 24 week run in which he had scored in every game. By the end of the year the Eagles were in 8th position in the league.
The New Year saw a trip to Featherstone Rovers on January 6th. A hard-fought game saw the Eagles take a 16 points to 12 lead with twenty minutes to go. But in that time the youthful inexperience of the team showed, as Featherstone scored two converted tries, snatching a 28-18 victory.
With injury problems mounting, Sheffield next faced Keighley Cougars at home. In front of a crowd of 1,489, the Eagles put in a strong all-round performance, with Gavin Brown totally dictating play. A hat-trick of tries from Wayne Freeman and a further brace Matt Foster helped contribute to the score. Sheffield were eventual winners, 60 points to nil, with Brown contributing 22 points.It was the first time that Sheffield had managed to beat Keighley in the NFP.
Next was a trip to second placed Whitehaven. Outplayed in the first half, the Eagles were 16-0 down and even though they managed to claw back some of the deficit in the second half. They still lost the match by 32 points to 10. This defeat saw Sheffield drop a place to 10th in the League.
The Eagles unbeaten home record continued when they faced amateurs Leigh East in the Third round of the Challenge Cup. Although the amateurs put in a strong display, Sheffield won the match 34-12, earning themselves a fourth round tie with Wakefield Trinity, who had recently recruited former Eagles captain Paul Broadbent.
Sheffield were in another hard-fought game at Don Valley in early February against visitors Barrow Border Raiders. The match swung one way and then the other, but the Browns won it in the end, with a hat-trick of tries for Craig Brown, two for Gavin Brown. who added a further 14 points with his boot.Sheffield took the points, 34-26.
Next at Don Valley were Wakefield Trinity in the Challenge Cup.This was the first time that the Eagles had faced Super League opposition since the club had reformed.
Although being the underdogs, a youthful Sheffield team put up in a gritty performance in front of the largest crowd at Don Valley that season.Sheffield’s only try of the game came from Wayne Flynn, who plucked the ball from the scrum and then raced 35 yards to score. Wakefield progressed to the next round of the Challenge Cup, 26 points to 6.
For their last match in February, the Eagles visited Batley Bulldogs. Losing 12-0 playing up the infamous Mount Pleasant slope, through the orchestration of Scott Rhodes, Sheffield amassed 34 unanswered points down that slope. With a further two victories in the bag. The Eagles found themselves well established in the top half of the table in 8th position.
March witnessed a mixed bag of results. First up were Hunslet Hawks at Don Valley. Although the Eagles won by 28 points to 12, Mark Aston felt that it was hard to find any positives in the victory and it was “close to being the worst performance from the new Sheffield Eagles”.
Next was a trip to Swinton Lions. In testing conditions, the Eagles found themselves 8-4 down to the bottom of the table team. Mistakes by home side, enabled Sheffield to come away with the spoils 14 points to 8.
The last two games of March saw two consecutive defeats. A poor first half performance against Oldham, backed up by a better effort after the break which was too little and too late, saw the Eagles side lose their unbeaten home record in the League. The first half try blitz by the visitors was sufficient to secure them a 25 points to 6 victory.
The second defeat was at Hull KR. Although the Sheffield side stood up to the league leaders and made them work hard for their points, it was two late tries in the final twenty minutes that saw the home side claim victory 24 points to 7.
Despite the mixed bag of results Sheffield still found themselves in contention for the top division, holding on to 9th place at the mid-season break. It also saw York Wasps pull out of the competition because of severe financial problems.
National League Buddies Cup
April was the month of group stages of the new National League Buddies Cup. The Eagles looked at this as an opportunity for themselves to secure some potential silverware for the club. For the first year of the competition the club found themselves pitted against Doncaster, Featherstone, Gateshead, Hull KR and Keighley in a series of one-off games.
It was the Eagles intention to use these Cup games to look at fringe players in their squad. The first game was another visit to Hull KR. An early try blitz by the home side had them 34-12 ahead at the interval, the game ending with a defeat for the Sheffield side, 40 points to 18. The next game saw The Eagles back to winning ways. At home to Gateshead Thunder, they secured their first win in the cup. Although not a vintage performance, the home side kept the scoreboard ticking over, beating Gateshead by 50 points to 12 at the final hooter.
A further home victory followed against Keighley Cougars. Another inconsistent display by the home side, scoring some good tries, but then conceding soft ones as well.The Eagles finally triumphed 35 points to 14.
The penultimate group match was against South Yorkshire rivals Doncaster at Belle Vue. The Eagles were blown away by an on-fire Doncaster side out to revenge their earlier defeat at Don Valley. The result, a 50 -12 defeat and the loss of any chance to progress in Buddies Cup
The final game was a home tie against Featherstone Rovers.
A typical classic game of two halves, with Sheffield forced to defend for 40 minutes, the second half saw the Eagles come out narrow winners 18 points to 16.
The end of May saw a return to the Premiership season, with the Eagles returning to winning ways, although these were achieved with an increasing injury list. A home game against Chorley Lynx witnessed the Sheffield side trailing 23-6 just after half time, but the Eagles replaced their lack of composure displayed in the first 40 minutes, with a show of resilience and self-belief that got them through a tough encounter. Scoring three tries, with Richard Goddard converting the last as the hooter sounded, the home side secured a one point victory, 24 -23 and the match points which earlier had looked to be going the way.
Sheffield’s next game was away at Gateshead Thunder. Records tumbled at the game. An Andy Poynter hat-trick, accompanied by Neil Kite, Ian Thompson and Scott Rhodes scoring two tries a piece, with Lee Bettinson scoring his first for the Eagles, resulted in a 66 points to 14 victory. Eleven Eagles players had their names on the scoresheet.The 66 points scored represented the highest for the club since it’s rebirth. Gavin Brown also passed his 350 points mark in an Eagles shirt. The result meant that Sheffield now stood 3rd in the League table.
May also saw the inaugural games of the newly formed Sheffield Academy Team. This was an aim that Mark Aston had always wanted to achieve - a Sheffield Team made up of Sheffield young people.
The Eagles played their last of three games in ten days when they faced second place Rochdale Hornets at Don Valley at the start of June. The Eagles dominated the first half with what Mark Aston thought was the best his team had played all season.They led 14-8 at half time, but then three unanswered tries from Rochdale saw the visitors run away with the game 26-14, in spite of the earlier resilience shown by the home side.This was the first of three consecutive defeats in the month.
The next defeat was at high flying Leigh Centurions, where the Eagles were shut out 32-0. This was followed by a disjointed Sheffield display at Dewsbury Rams, where they lost out to their hosts 30 points to 12. As a result of these setbacks the Eagles had tumbled back to 10th in the Premiership table.
July started in the same vein as June with an away defeat at Keighley Cougars. The home side sought revenge for their earlier season thrashing, coming up with a victory by 44 points to 12. Mark Aston view was that his team had lacked desire which had started to become a habit in recent games. He recognised that his team had most likely finished their chances of securing a top nine berth.
With ex-Royal Marine Jordan James joining the club, for the next game, away to Hunslet Hawks, Mark Aston shuffled the forward pack around, with positive results.In a game that saw a high error rate and penalty count against the home side, the Eagles in 26 points to 7 victors.
Winning ways continued in the next home game against Workington Town. A hat trick by Andy Poynter, two tries from Wayne Flynn saw the Eagles take the points with a 46-26 victory. Unfortunately, this was followed by a reversal at Rochdale Hornets in the following match. A ragged and disorganised young Sheffield team were easily beaten by a rampant home side 64-2. The match saw Mitch Stringer, Nick Turnbull and Simon Morton from the Academy team all make their first team debuts.
It looked as though the Sheffield side were going to experience a further defeat at the following match, a home game against Batley Bulldogs. Due to a series of defensive errors in the first half, the team were facing an uphill struggle, falling 20 points to 4 down at the interval. The second half saw the home side slowly claw back the initiative levelling the scores with minutes to go. Batley then scored a field goal, but with less than a minute left, the Eagles were awarded a penalty.Up stepped Gavin Brown to slot the ball between the up rights to win the match 24-23 and the Eagles the points.The game also marked Andy Raleigh’s first team debut.
By the start of August, Sheffield was in 10th spot in the league. Their next opponents were 7th placed Doncaster at their ground which bore the nickname “the House of Pain”. Down to only 17 fit players, a youthful Eagles side were never in the game, falling 40 points behind by the interval and only managing to score a couple of tries in the second half. They had lost by 46 points to 12, as well as the South Yorkshire cup, a very painful experience for the young side. The game also marked Greg Hurst’s first team debut.
Next up was a home tie against Dewsbury Rams, who like the Sheffield side were on the periphery of the top nine. The Eagles injury crisis had worsened. Following a lacklustre first half display, the Eagles found themselves trailing by 18 points. A resurgent performance in the second half brought them back into contention, but Dewsbury managed to sneak through to victory with a late try, 29-18. With two home games left of the normal season, the Eagles found themselves in 12th position in the league table, 2 points behind the 9th placed team.
The first of these was a home visit by Swinton Lions.The match was hard going for the Sheffield side. It was touch and go right up to the final whistle, but the youngsters in the side helped the Eagles earn a 24-21 victory and two vital points, moving them up to 11th position.
The final game was against table topping Huddersfield Giants who had not lost a game all season. The Giants brought a full-strength side to Don Valley, but a gutsy display by the injury hit home side, who showed a lot of commitment and passion in front of a crowd of over 1,400, meant it was only in the last quarter that Huddersfield were able to pull away and secure victory, 38-18. The Eagles had failed to make the automatic places for the new top division, but now had to try the hard way through the lottery of the play-off system.
Commenting on the season to date Mark Aston’s view was that the reason for the failure to secure an automatic spot was down to:
Finishing 12th overall with 26 points, the Eagles secured 13 wins, scoring 579 points but conceding 610, a negative balance of 31 points. The negative points difference was the worst to date since the rebirth. Playing at home the Eagles had won 9 out of 13 games, whilst their away record was only 4. The club finished 5 points below Oldham, who secured the 9th spot. Note: The York result was expunged from the records as the club went into liquidation mid-season.
10th Place Play offs
Although they had failed to secure a place in the top nine, Sheffield still had a chance of finding themselves in the new First Division should they manage to win the knockout stage. The first game in the knockout stage was at home against 15th placed Swinton Lions. The game saw the return of a couple of the injured players who had been missing during the latter stage of the league season, Andy Poynter, and Jon Bruce. Mark Aston played his first match of the season.
Swinton soon had a ten point lead in an error strewn first half. But with two minutes to go, Andy Poynter scored a 40-metre converted try. The Eagles went in 6-10 down at half time. In a closely fought second half Mark Aston came off the bench to orchestrate the Sheffield fight back, and with the score standing at 18-14 in the home side’s favour, scored under the post. Despite an immediate response from Swinton, a late converted try by Billy Kershaw ensured an Eagles victory, 30 points to 20 and a place in the next knock out stage.
That was against Barrow Border Raiders who had finished 14th in the normal season. The Eagles again had home advantage.It was a match that saw the lead change several times, with the Eagles securing an early lead to see it clawed back and surpassed, resulting in Barrow going in at half time 16-10 ahead.The second half was in a similar vein as both sides were desperate to progress.Both sides traded converted tries, penalties, and field goals, but it was two tries from Darren Callaghan and a final try from Billy Kershaw, that swung the game in the Eagles favour. With an 80 minutes performance on the field by Mark Aston orchestrating his side, Sheffield had won the game 28 points to 26. His team were in the semi- finals.
That semi-final took place at 10th placed Dewsbury Rams, who had already beaten the Sheffield side in their league outings. But Sheffield’s dismal away form seemed to reappear, particularly after Mark Aston had to leave the field after an injury to his arm. The Eagles side were never in the game, falling 6 points to 14 behind by the interval, with Andy Poynter converted try being the Eagles sole contribution. The second half was not much of an improvement, as Dewsbury scored a further three ties to a single unconverted Andy Brent try.
Sheffield had lost the chance to progress and life in new Second Division for the new 2003 season beckoned, whilst Dewsbury went on to win the remaining 10th spot in the First Division
What Went Wrong?
So, what went wrong? The Eagles by the end of May were in third position and in a good place to achieve their aim of appearing in the new First Division the following season, although some of their performances at the latter stages of the first five months were sounding warning bells. The growing number of longer-term injuries to established players did have an impact, with others playing on whilst carrying injuries which affected their performances. This lead to a growing reliance on younger players some of them being promoted to the first team, possibly before they were ready to take on that responsibility.
A clear issue was Sheffield’s poor away performance. Some of the games that were lost were by significant margins which resulted in a negative points difference of 132 which is a reflection on the effectiveness of the Eagles defensive display.
The deteriorating form of the team certainly influenced home crowds. Prior to the Buddies break in April, it averaged 1,275, afterwards it had fallen to 840. The two pay on the gate home playoff crowds were even lower, averaging 500.
This decline in numbers led to Ian Swire, Chairman of the Eagles Board, expressing concern about the falling numbers and its impact on the future of the club. Season tickets had fallen year on year after the euphoria of the rebirth. He advised supporters that the Board were committed to keeping the team alive in the Second Division, but it would be playing on reduced budgets which would have an impact on the type of players the club could attract.At the end of the day, he argued that:
His concerns did have an immediate effect. It created a very positive response with many supporters pledging their support and the GMB trade union committing to be shirt sponsors for the new season.As one fan commented:
End of Season Awards
Player of the Year: Andy Poynter
Supporter’s Player of the Year: Andy Poynter
Players Player of the Year: Andy Poynter
Travel ClubsPlayer of the Year: Andy Poynter
Shooting Star Award: Adam Caroll
New Sheffield Eagles Academy
The Sheffield Eagles Academy was part of the dream of Mark Aston. He had always wanted a Sheffield team made up of Sheffield youngsters. Finance had always been a hurdle. Although the Rugby Football League was supportive, it was unable to offer any financial assistance. However, funding was secured from the Home Office through an outreach programme run through the offices of the Crime Director for the East Midlands. One of the major aims was to use sport to divert young people from unacceptable behaviour such as crime and disorder, the Academy was one of the initiatives identified to carry forward the objectives in the local community.
Under the coaching team of Andy Tyers and John Winder, the Eagles recruited several up-and-coming players. The Academy squad that was brought together for the 2002 season comprised:
- Gareth Barnard
- Gareth Berry
- Jon Breakingbury
- Danny Brown
- Marc Bull
- Darryl Cheetham
- Daniel Cook
- Andrew Copley
- Bryn Evans
- Andy Gargan
- Billy Glossop
- Richie Hunter
- Stuart Jones
- Simon Morton
- Tom Lyons
- Ryan Rafferty
- Ricky Reckless
- Johnathon Sharp
- Stu Perry
- Brett Turnbull
- Rob Watson
- Adam Carroll
- Mitchell Stringer
- Carl Walker
Simon Morton a former player for Hillsborough Hawks was appointed Academy team captain. Starting a new rugby team from scratch is a big job.But when that side must support a first team enduring an injury hit season of their own, the task almost becomes impossible. That’s the task that the Academy coaching staff faced in 2002 with their best players having to lose their better players for first-team duty week after week. Consequently, results were affected as the season progressed.
The Academy finished sixth out of eight teams in the Senior Academy League. The high point of the season was the away victory at Keighley, or 50 points victory over Whitehaven at home. The low point was the hone defeat to Doncaster, when the team had six or seven players missing due to injuries, holidays or first team duties. Players with first team experience stood out at academy level with Paul Wells, Jon Breakingbury, Adam Caroll and record-breaking Mitch Stringer leading the points scoring. Stringer took the club title for most points scored in a match, 25 away to Keighley.
Most Improved Player: Gareth Berry
Coach’s Award: Tom Lyons
Players Player of the Year: Mitch Stringer
Player of the Year: Simon Morton
Top Points Scorer: Mitch Stringer with 12 tries, 47 goals and one drop goal for 143 points
For more detail about results and players visit the Rugby League Record Keepers Club website HERE.