It could hardly have gone better for Sheffield Eagles as they opened their new-look Olympic Legacy Park stadium with a commanding win over Widnes.
Despite trailing 12-0 inside the first 10 minutes in front of the limited capacity sell-out of 700, the Eagles roared back to lead with 34 unanswered points before Widnes added two late tries.
The night was the latest stop on the Sheffield rugby league rollercoaster that dates back 40 years.
It was perhaps fitting that their opponents were the side that they beat at Wembley to win the 1895 Cup final in 2019 – little over 20 years since the most famous of Wembley wins, when Sheffield beat the mighty Wigan in the Challenge Cup final.
There was a buzz about the place that belied the attendance figure.
A large number of the fans took up their seats in the newly constructed main stand, which generated a decent atmosphere looking out to the open three sides of the ground.
There are plans to add terracing to at least one end and the opposite side, though the timescales for that remain unclear.
It wasn’t the finished article – the large indoor room at the top of the sand was incomplete, some of the surroundings represented an unfinished building site and the roof on one side wasn’t fully completed, amongst other things – but the signs of progress are there for the Eagles.
You could sense the excitement from fans, volunteers and former players in attendance, including Challenge Cup final winning captain Paul Broadbent, who delivered the match ball to the referee ahead of kick-off.
A mammoth journey
The big boost is that it gives them roots in the city.
It marks a long and arduous journey for the club and Mark Aston, the Eagles’ most famous son, who co-founded the new club after the controversial merger with Huddersfield in the late 1990s.
Aston was of course Lance Todd Trophy winner at Wembley in 1998 and has held a range of roles at the club, from player and coach, to CEO and director of rugby.
After the game, Aston told Premier Sports: “It was the result I was hoping for. We probably got a bit emotional first seven minutes and we were all over the place, but I was delighted with character we showed just after that.
“What a great night. There’s been some dark days. You wake up one morning and think its done, we’re over as a club.
“The resilience of not only myself, the board of directors who’ve stuck in there. The journey’s been a mammoth journey, we’ve been everywhere and anywhere, and now we’re back.
“Now we can start re-building, this is all about the fans. The fans are the club. You’ve got to appreciate what they’ve had the last nine years, scratching around for places to play.
“You can see what it means to them tonight and they’ve turned up. The capacity will get upped and if we start playing rugby like that.
“I feel the atmosphere there tonight we’ve never had in Sheffield before. It’s all about atmosphere and the collision and what people feel. The fans will walk away and say wow this is rugby league.”
Sheffield are well-placed in the Championship, with six wins from 11.
Only three of those games have been home games, all wins, albeit two were played on the road due to the delays with the new stadium completion.
Putting down roots
Sheffield have at times lived a frustratingly nomadic existence, bouncing around various venues in the city – including Bramall Lane, Hillsborough and Owlerton Stadium.
The biggest constant was the Don Valley Stadium, where they first played in 1990. When it became clear its days were numbered, the Eagles played games again at Bramall Lane, home of Sheffield United FC.
When the Don Valley was scheduled for demolition in 2013, the Eagles were forced to move back to Owlerton Stadium after plans to play at a new Sheffield Hallam University facility initially fell through.
Owlerton was not up to standard though, and they would be forced to groundshare with Doncaster and Wakefield, either side of a year at Sheffield Hallam University.
They eventually returned to Sheffield at the Olympic Legacy Park in 2018 on the same 4G pitch as now. Facilities were basic at best, with a temporary stand.
It has taken four years to get to where they are now – and despite the fanfare, there is still work to do to get the ground up to Championship standard. The Eagles required dispensation to allow a limited capacity for the Widnes game; having already been forced to put back their return home from April.
If another side or two can be added to the ground, it will certainly provide the platform within the city that Sheffield need to maybe start dreaming of Super League again.