Mark Aston: 'Our finest hour left our club broken'

He played in the Eagles' great Challenge Cup upset. Now coach, he tells Dave Hadfield how his side can repeat that shock in tomorrow's final
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The Independent Online

The memories have never really gone away, but for Mark Aston they inevitably came winging back in force when his Sheffield Eagles came out of the Challenge Cup draw with Wigan.

Twelve years ago, Aston was scrum-half and man of the match as the Eagles soared to the cup's biggest-ever upset, beating Wigan, the 14-1 on favourites, in the final at Wembley. Now coaching and essentially running the club, he gets the chance to relive those glories tomorrow when Sheffield meet Wigan in their fourth-round tie.

"As a kid, you dream of things like going to Wembley, winning the cup and the Lance Todd and in '98 it all happened for me," he recalls. "It all started in the pre-season, when our coach John Kear came in and told us that we were going to Wembley and we were going to win it. We all looked at him and thought he was pissed."

By the time, the Eagles qualified for the final, however, Kear's sobriety was no longer in question. They believed that the cup was their destiny. "I remember that whenever things got tough in a cup match, our hooker, Johnny Lawless, would shout '1998 – the year of the Eagle'.

"We had a meeting the night before the final when everyone had to stand up and say what they were going to bring to the party to win us the cup. The hair was standing up on the back of my neck. Matty Crowther was in tears. We just knew that everyone would do whatever it took."

If Wigan set out that year to make the Wembley occasion just another day at the office, Sheffield unashamedly treated it as the biggest, most emotional game of their lives. All the same, it could have been daunting lining up in the famous tunnel alongside the world-class players Wigan had at the time.

"They had players like Jason Robinson, Henry Paul and Andy Farrell – but then I heard Johnny Lawless at the back of the line, shouting '98 – the year of the Eagle'. There was no way that anyone was going to beat us that day and a few people, like my mum, made a bit of money backing us."

The smart money after the final was on the Eagles, after years of struggling for attention in a football city, using the momentum from the 17-8 win at Wembley to kick on to a more prosperous future. "It should have happened. If the club had been as it is now, it would have happened," Aston says. "It should have been the making of the club; instead, it was the breaking of the club."

The Eagles' failure to build on their famous victory convinced investors, potential investors and Rugby Football League administrators that Super League really did have no future in the Steel City. The botched solution was a forced marriage with Huddersfield, which ended in a predictably acrimonious divorce – and Aston and his dad, Brian, picking up the pieces to form a revived Sheffield Eagles. "The merger was the wrong thing to happen, but sometimes these things happen for a reason," he says.

Life has not been easy since, but there have been recent signs of renewed ambition and even hints of the ability to make it happen. The Eagles, with far more slender resources than most of their rivals, finished an astonishing third in the Co-operative Championship last season and almost beat Super League Hull KR in the Challenge Cup.

This year they have finally left the unwelcoming Don Valley Stadium to share with Sheffield United at Bramall Lane, which was supposed to be their original home when Gary Hetherington set up the club 26 years ago. The Eagles had a crowd of almost 3,000 there against Featherstone in their most recent league game and are hoping for twice that tomorrow.

"We want Super League back in Sheffield," says Aston, although he does not kid himself that facing the reality of a top-flight side is going to be easy. "Wigan are the best team in the country at the moment," he says. "We do four-and-a-half hours training in a week; they do it in one session.

"But we have a game plan, just like we did in 1998. We kicked high at Jason Robinson in the fourth minute and scored a try and it was all planned. We're going out to win the bloody thing."

So will Aston be making a Kear-style speech at Bramall Lane tomorrow, telling them that they are definitely going to do so and making them believe it? "Not quite, although I will be telling them that I was part of the biggest upset in cup final history and asking them how it would feel for them to do something like that again. It would mean that their names would be etched for a lot of years."

Cup to be grounded? Air-travel threat

Challenge Cup ties involving French clubs this weekend are under threat from the air-travel chaos caused by the Icelandic volcano. Salford are supposed to be travelling to Perpignan today for Sunday's tie against the Catalan Dragons. Toulouse play at St Helens and Lezignan are at Widnes tomorrow, while Leigh have chosen to travel to Limoux by coach. A Rugby League spokesman said that they were monitoring the situation closely.

Jamie Foster has been called up into St Helens' squad as a replacement for the injured Francis Meli.

Dave Hadfield