Behind Daryl Powell and Mark Aston’s unique bond as they prepare to square off at Wembley

Ross Heppenstall
Mark Aston, Daryl Powell

Sheffield Eagles head coach Mark Aston (left) & Wakefield Trinity head coach Daryl Powell (right)

Sheffield Eagles boss Mark Aston and Wakefield Trinity counterpart Daryl Powell will be friends reunited when their sides clash in Saturday’s 1895 Cup final at Wembley.

It will be a special occasion for players and supporters of both clubs, but for the rival head coaches it goes deeper. They were team-mates at Sheffield from the mid-1980s and Aston has since become synonymous with the Eagles following his long service as a player and head coach.

The Sheffield chief played at Wembley in 1998, when John Kear led the club to a famous 17-8 Challenge Cup final victory over Wigan, with Aston winning the Lance Todd Trophy as man of the match.

But back in his early days at the club, Powell was right alongside him. “Daryl and I did everything together as Sheffield Eagles team-mates from 1985/86 onwards,” 56-year-old Aston tells Love Rugby League.

“We went into schools as coaches to develop the game of rugby league in Sheffield. We drove from Castleford to Sheffield every single day and were in each other’s pockets for loads and loads of years.

“We were big mates and still are, although we obviously don’t see as much of each other as we used to. But when we do meet, we just know that the special bond we’ve got is still there.

“We were part of something special at Sheffield in those early days, playing together in those Premiership Final victories at Old Trafford, against Swinton in 1989 and Oldham in 1992. We had some great times together and the camaraderie we enjoyed was fantastic. Like I said, we’re still good friends.”

There was their usual warm embrace when they bumped into each other for Monday’s pre-Wembley media day at Haydock Park Racecourse.

Powell, 58, told Love Rugby League: “Mark has done a fantastic job at Sheffield over so many years and he joined the club as a player the year after me.

“I have played half-back with Mark but I was a centre when I first started out, so it was always a debate about whether it was me or him who was creating the tries!

“I would hit the hard lines and he would just give me the ball because he was a pretty smart operator. He’s hung around and I don’t think the club would be there if it wasn’t for him. He’s done a special job for Sheffield Eagles.”

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Since hanging up their boots, the Yorkshiremen have cross swords in some big games as rival head coaches. In 2011, Powell’s Featherstone Rovers side thumped the Eagles 40-4 in the Championship Grand Final. 

Aston’s men exacted revenge the following year after beating Rovers 20-16 before retaining the trophy with victory over Batley Bulldogs in 2013.

“Both of us had really good teams and Sheffield were outstanding that day when they beat us in 2012,” remembers Powell. “I think Mark was crying at the time, he was that happy, and I just wished him all the best because they deserved it.”

With the scores tied at 1-1 between Aston and Powell as rival head coaches in major finals, Saturday’s clash has taken on added importance. Aston guided the Eagles to victory in the inaugural 1895 Cup when they beat Widnes Vikings 36-18 at Wembley in 2019.

“This is what we’re in the great sport of rugby league for,” enthuses Aston, whose son Cory plays for the Eagles.

“It’s about making memories and fortunately as a player I played at Wembley in the 1998 Challenge Cup final against Wigan, who are there on Saturday of course to play Warrington. I then coached us to victory against Widnes in the final of the 1895 Cup in 2019.

“That was a very special moment for the players because as a kid you dream of playing on the big stage and there’s nowhere bigger than Wembley.

“Some of the players who played that day are still with us and we have a number of other lads who haven’t been there and have a special day ahead of them.

“It’s an exciting week and it’s going to be a great occasion – we played Wigan in the Challenge Cup earlier this year and pushed them for 70 minutes.

“Matty Peet admitted on Monday that we had them rattled and as a team we can play because we like to entertain. It’s nice to be coaching against Daryl again and there’s no doubting his qualities as a coach.

“He did brilliantly at Featherstone and Castleford and, while it didn’t work out for him at Warrington, he’s now doing a fantastic job at Wakefield.

“It’s great to see them flying again because we can’t lose these clubs with such great tradition and history like Wakefield.”

Trinity feel like a club reborn since their relegation from Super League last season, with new owner Matt Ellis presiding over a genuine renaissance at Belle Vue.

Powell says: “The club’s in a great place and the areas that are being invested will make sure that its growth is quick and sustained.

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“There have been a few teething issues, and Matt is having to work through a fair bit, but ultimately there’s a real buzz around the place.

“The fans are coming in fair numbers and the away support is massive, so this weekend we get an opportunity to hopefully do something special.”

With Catalans Dragons’ England duo Mike McMeeken and Tom Johnstone joining Wakefield next season, hopes of a high of an immediate return to Super League.

“I’m pretty confident, looking at what’s happening at the club,” reasons Powell. “From our perspective, we just need to make sure that performance-wise we’re in the 1895 Cup final and the Championship Grand Final.

“Ultimately that’s all we can do, but the club is growing and if you go to the stadium now then it’s completely different.

“That will continue and I think there’s an unbelievable chance we will be in there next year. Everything points to that under the IMG structure, so I’m pretty confident we will be there.”

Aston, meanwhile, has given blood, sweat and tears for the Sheffield cause during his long association with the club. In March, pictures of Sheffield FC’s planned 5,000-seat community stadium have been revealed by the club as a full planning application is submitted.

If given the go-ahead, the new facility in Meadowhead will be shared with the Eagles, while a cricket pavilion and football museum will also be based at the site.

“We’ve had plenty of hard times, but tough times don’t last forever,” adds Aston. “There are plans for a new stadium now and this club means everything to me.

“But it’s all about the fans because why wouldn’t we want a big rugby league team in the great city of Sheffield? As a club we’re still here, we’re still having good days and making memories.

“If we win on Saturday, I don’t think I could put Cory on my shoulders anymore like I did after we beat Wigan at Wembley in 1998!”

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