The Return to Sheffield
23rd May 2022 saw the Sheffield Eagles return to the city of Sheffield at the Sheffield Olympic Legacy Park, 9 years after the demolition of Don Valley Stadium.
For many people the Sheffield Eagles game against Widnes Vikings on the 23rd May 2022 was the final match in that weekend’s round of Championship fixtures. For the club and its fans it was more than that. It was a celebration of a a return to a permanent base in the Steel City at the Sheffield Olympic Legacy Park Stadium, after nearly nine years on the road. It was the start of a new era and the chance to look forward to a more optimistic future, both on and off the field.
9 years away
With the demolition of Don Valley Stadium - the Eagles’ home since 1990 – in 2013, the club were left without a suitable home in the city. This period included “home” games in Featherstone, Doncaster and Wakefield along with a variety of other temporary arrangements in and around Sheffield. For many clubs this would have marked the end – in terms of finances, fanbase and morale. Somehow the club has survived, thanks to the driving force of “Mr Sheffield Eagles” Mark Aston, a committed Board of Directors, supportive sponsors and a core of fans who have remained loyal despite everything.
Sheffield Olympic Legacy Park
The new ground has been built on the same land as the old Don Valley Stadium and is part of the wider Sheffield Olympic Legacy Park Masterplan in the east end of the city. This will see £250m invested in the area to create business space, research facilities, education hubs and commercial opportunities with a focus on health, wellbeing, sport and activity. This development is being led by Scarborough Group International, including the stadium as one of the early phases, which will eventually have a capacity of up to 3,900. The club, having signed an initial 5-year lease for the ground as a key tenant, have been able to adapt some elements of the ground – particularly the changing rooms and support facilities - to suit their requirements.
The return to city was, in typical Sheffield Eagles fashion, not without problems. The construction of the stadium had been delayed by a combination of the global pandemic and a shortage of vital construction materials. Further delays at the start of 2022 meant that the team were still on the road having to play “home” fixtures in Featherstone and Doncaster. With the first home game finally set for Monday 23rd May, live on Premier Sports, there were problems the week before with the licensing of the ground, meaning capacity was limited and the match was all ticket. In the end 795 attended the game, though frustratingly demand was much higher. Much of the frustration and last-minute re-arrangements were kept behind the scenes, with the focus instead on the celebration of the return to Sheffield and a chance for fans to experience their new home for the first time.
What it meant to people
As David Butler, chair of the Eagles Foundation, commented “It felt like attending a family wedding where you’ve not seen many of your relatives for so many years – fans were hugging and reuniting. There were many faces who had not been around for many years coming along to be part of a great occasion.”
For Geraline Ingham that first game meant “Home at last! I can say to my husband, who said it would never happen, you were wrong! The Eagles are at last getting what they deserve after so many years as nomads”.
Katie Peat said before the game that “the 9 years on the road I can only describe as soul destroying, every year not knowing and stressing out about whether we would get through the next season. Travelling away to home games was a killer too and I still to this day do not know how the club have managed to do it.”
The kick off was 7.45pm and some fans were in their seats from 5.30pm when the gates opened, ready to soak up the atmosphere (and the sun), explore the ground and be part of the build-up. Fans were delighted with the new stadium whether it was the legroom, the views or just the fact there were toilets and catering facilities – something they weren’t used to with the temporary grounds in Sheffield and Rotherham. For the club the catering arrangements are also significant as they can operate the food and drink concessions themselves on matchdays. This means for the first time in their history they can generate their own income through this. The pre-match and half-time activities were also a celebration of rugby league in Sheffield. The three Rugby League World Cups were on display outside the ground recognising that Sheffield is hosting the England v Greece game in the men’s competition and several games in the wheelchair tournament later in the year. There were also a series of pre-match friendlies between teams from the local community and schools’ teams, showing once again that rugby league is continuing to grow across the city. The game itself kicked off with a flurry of cheering, flag waving, pyrotechnics and relief. That first game saw a 34-24 win for the Eagles, which was almost incidental compared to the sense of celebration of being home. That said, despite a fightback from Widnes in the second half it was a performance to match the expectations with both the team and the ground looking great on television. That game was a chance to recognise a sense of positivity around the club both on and off the field and there is already excitement about what the 2023 season may hold.
Looking to the future
The Sheffield Eagles Supporters Association was formed two years ago to create a voice for fans, work with the club and raise funds. In that time they have raised over £5,000, quite an achievement considering the relatively small fanbase. The new stadium provides them with opportunities to develop more social events and activities to make connections between the club and fans. Over the last 18 months the Eagles Foundation, the first rugby league community foundation established in this country, has undergone a renaissance. It has been able to create a two-year development officer post and in less than a year, Andrea Dobson amongst a range of other activities has established wheelchair and women’s team with training now underway for both girls’ and learning disabilities sides, with further plans for a physical disabilities team. Members of all of these Eagles’ teams were featured at some point on the 23rd, with one of the biggest cheers of the night being for the on-field training session by the learning disabilities squad in response to their sense of enjoyment of being out on the 3G pitch in front of the crowd. The Foundation has also been successful in securing £93,650 from the National Lottery Heritage Fund for a two-year project, led by Richard King, to collect and share the stories of the club. For a club that was only formed in 1984 it has a rich history and the project provides a chance to share these stories, many for the first time, through a website, films, podcasts and exhibitions. Celebrations are planned for 2023 to mark the 25th anniversary of the Challenge Cup win against Wigan and also the 40th anniversary of the club a year later. That first game was therefore more than just another game. It was a chance to celebrate rugby league in Sheffield and the opportunities in the future. It was a chance to look ahead to the growth of the Eagles, on and off the field. Just as importantly it was a chance for the club to celebrate the fact it is still here and has survived the last nine difficult years.
Share your stories
Do you have any memories of that day? You can share them with the Heritage Project here.