In the light of recent comments from Sheffield Eagles director John Whaling, it seems appropriate to re-publish the article here.
If a rugby league club told you that they had the support of the city council and chamber of commerce of the fourth biggest city in England, a place with a large number of well-populated satellite towns, and the backing of the local soccer team who have offered the use of their superb stadium long-term, you would probably think that they were in Super League.
That they have an ex-international player as coach, a charismatic cheerleader for the sport in an area outside of the heartland of the game, would only make them appear more of a top flight outfit. That the city is at the heart of England, a transport hub which connects the east and west coasts and the north to the south east of England, should surely only make it more of a nailed-on top-flight contender. A place where the RFL would surely want to be.
Given the fact that this would also be an ‘expansion’ team, then it might raise even more of an eyebrow of surprise. However, this team is not in Super League, and seems to have been forgotten about when it comes to raising the game’s profile outside of the M62 Corridor. Although it may surprise some people, Sheffield is the city, the Eagles the club.
Sheffield has never been part of rugby league’s heartland. Never. The round ball code has always been king here since the early days of organised ‘football’ in the 19th Century. Two of the world’s oldest football clubs, Hallam FC and Sheffield FC play here, while Sheffield Wednesday and Sheffield United are two of the game’s most famous names, despite their current lowly league status.
So, although it is in Yorkshire, its sporting culture is significantly different to somewhere like Leeds or Hull. Football, and cricket to some extent, are the chosen pastimes of athletes here, with rugby union well down the list and rugby league rarely mentioned or discussed. This means that, for our sport, it is as much an ‘expansion’ area as North Wales or London.
Yet this seems to have been forgotten by those in the game who crave expansion. Is it because it’s too close to the heartlands, too Northern, too flat cap industrial in the eyes of southerners, to really count as an expansion city?
If so, that is an incredibly short-sighted view. Sheffield has a huge population and huge hinterland and influence which stretches right through vast swathes of the northern and eastern parts of the Midlands. It is a gateway to so many other areas, as well as being in a superb location which enjoys easy transport access however one chooses to travel.
Yet the Eagles struggle for crowds, with awareness of the team barely registering when it comes to the soccer-obsessed public in the city. If only the sport was being punted with the kind of enthusiastic backing which rugby union receives in South Yorkshire, then this would change. Some serious investment in the marketing of the sport in Sheffield would surely bear fruit, with the two football clubs having had so little to celebrate recently.
The basic structures are all already there in place, thanks to the work of the international coach referred to above.
Sheffield Eagles are a shining testament to the work of Mark Aston and his dedicated team of supporters and backers. The fact that they even exist at all is down to his effort, after the original outfit, Challenge Cup winners in 1998, were clumsily merged with Huddersfield as Super League’s early traumas played themselves out.
He deserves credit for what he has achieved, sometimes in the face of odds which would make a lesser spirit quail. Aston, though, relishes the adversity.
“The club in general has only been going 20-odd years. We’ve only been going 12 as the current regime, and when we took over, there was literally nothing left because of what had happened a couple of years before,” he told Code13, referring to the merger with Huddersfield Giants which saw the original Eagles club effectively cease to exist.
“So now to have all that structure, all those schools and all that community from top to bottom is a tremendous credit to all the guys who have been involved in it.
“But also, it means that it CAN be done.
“Now it’s down to finances. What we want is for people to get on board. The council are still interested. We’re talking to them about what we want to do for 2014-15.
“Sheffield United and Bramall Lane are 100 per cent behind us. The Chamber of Commerce are behind us. Hopefully we’ll be in with a kick next time it comes to licence time.”
Zack Wilson is the author of 'Stumbles and Half Slips', available from Epic Rites Press and Amazon.com.