Thursday, 7 September 2017

Sunday's Coming: Sheffield Eagles

An enigma, wrapped in a mirage, wrapped in a stadium crisis - it must be Sheffield Eagles.

The last time we wrote about Sheffield, we spoke of how the club -  surrounded by a series of un-named ‘partners’ -  was desperately bidding to be the preferred developer of the stadium earmarked for the old Don Valley site, now managed by the ‘Olympic Legacy Park Ltd’.

The situation came to a head last month when the rights to develop the stadium were granted to a rival bid headed up by Sheffield-born, Brussels-based property developer - and former chairman of Sheffield Utd - Kevin McCabe and his Scarborough Group. This outcome is widely considered to be the worst possible scenario for the Eagles, as McCabe is under no compulsion to complete the stadium to RFL standards ahead of the 2018 season - and, if and when he does, Sheffield will be a distinctly secondary tenant. According to the Sheffield Star: “If the council rubber stamps the OLP’s expected recommendation, then the Eagles must then negotiate with the winning bidder for the terms of their tenancy.”

It is widely believed that becoming tenants at the OLP, rather than a developing partner, Sheffield Eagles could face yet another season away from their home-city base, with sponsorship and support already dwindling five years after the Don Valley stadium was razed. In that time, the Eagles have played in Doncaster, on a school field and now 26 miles from home in Wakefield.

Since news broke of the Eagles’ stadium issue in early August, all parties - art seems - have communicated solely by statement.

Eagles general manager Liam Claffey stated in his statement:  "Whilst the news and decision is not the preferred option of Sheffield Eagles, the club will work with all parties to ensure the club is back in Sheffield and at the Olympic Legacy Park in 2018. The decision made by the Olympic Legacy Park Ltd will now be passed to Sheffield City Council to make a final decision and the club are continuing dialogue with them as well.”

Chairman Chris Noble said: “If we don’t get it we need to start negotiating with whoever the other party is, ask when they plan to build the seating area,” he said. “Part of the heads of agreement state that Sheffield Eagles have to be facilitated. However we will just become tenants at a rate which we don’t obviously know yet. We’ll have no say over when we can play.”

Only weeks after Legacy Park project chief and former sports minister Richard Cabon said that OLP Ltd had: “…  made it absolutely clear to everyone who made an approach that it would also be the home for Sheffield Eagles…” he went on to say: “Following discussions at the Board meeting we have recommended to Sheffield City Council, as Landowner, that it enters into a land transaction with Scarborough Group International for the development of a Stand and other linked facilities. In light of this decision, representatives of Sheffield Eagles have been informed with a view to enabling constructive discussions on accommodating the Club at the proposed stadium.” Hmmm, hardly endorsing…

Scarborough Group International boss McCabe said: “We welcome the discussions as we move forward in working together on the development of a community stadium at the Olympic Legacy Park. We need to clarify certain criteria in the process but we are more than happy to work with the Sheffield Eagles.”

None of which sounds particularly resounding - but given that the Eagles’ backer remained firmly ‘un-named’ throughout the process, perhaps the council and the OLP opted on the side of transparency?

On the field, the Eagles look to be ending their season with a visible wobble. With a Championship Shield semi-final berth already guaranteed, Sheffield have now lost three consecutive games -  going down 18-32 at home last week against against the already relegated Bradford Bulls.

Having trailed by just 10-16 at the break, Sheffield snatched an 18-16 lead after 47 minutes courtesy of a quick-fire brace of tries, but Bradford hit back with two more of their own, adding a late one to blow out the scoreline to 18-32. Most eye-catching stat of the day was the hat-trick that Bulls winger Omari Caro ran through his opposite number Garry Lo.

Defeat to the Bulls came on the back of a frankly brutal trip to Toulouse on Bank Holiday Monday, where Mark Aston’s side was compelled to travel at 7am on the day of the game - which had an 8pm kick-off.  Needless to say, they went down 32-16 in Blagnac.

In an attempt to arrest the wobble, Mark Aston is using the last two games of the season as an audition for the Shield finals, saying this week that any player finding a level of consistency will put themselves in the frame for a place in their Championship Shield semi  - which could mean yet another trip to Toulouse (any bets on a midnight kick-off on a Tuesday?).

Hornets make the trip to Sheff/Hudders/Wake/School - field (delete as appropriate) buoyed by last week’s massive win over Swinton and on the very cusp of securing Championship survival. Having added two crucial points to the gap between Swinton and Oldham, all eyes will be on their relegation shoot-out at Heywood Road. With only two points available after Sunday, the loser of that game won’t be able to catch Hornets.

Oldham’s points difference is 129 worse than Swinton’s, which puts them in grave danger, as - even if they win - should Swinton lose in their last game at Toulouse and Oldham beat Dewsbury in theirs, the Roughyeds could still go down on points difference unless the games throw-up at least a 130 point swing (this weekend’s game pending).

If Swinton win on Sunday AND at Toulouse - and Hornets lose both remaining games - the worst we can finish is 6th, which gains us another Championship season next year.

By far the worst scenario would be a draw at Heywood Road. That would leave a two point gap between Hornets and the other two clubs - so everyone in the mix would go into the last game of the season seeking points to secure survival. But let’s not go there…

In a season that’s seen us slay a couple of  Yorkshire bogey sides, a much overdue Hornets win at Sheffield would make things very simple indeed - and now is the time for our all-important 18th man - the travelling support - to stand-up and be heard.

So here’s how to get there:

The TLCRF80mins short-cut.

Off the M62 at junction 31 as if you’re going to Featherstone. Follow Pontefract Rd towards Featherstone as far as the roundabout at the new West Yorkshire Police headquarters - turn right and follow the A655 towards Wakefield for about 10 minutes until you reach the A638, Doncaster Road. Turn right at the lights and go under the railway bridges, the ground is on your left after about 300 yards. It takes just 50 minutes - so get yourself over there.

Details for your SatNav are
163-165 Doncaster Road, Wakefield WF1 5EY.

Sheffield have been poorly supported all season, so if  we can make some noise and ‘own’ the atmosphere, it’ll give the lads a massive boost! So let’s get there in numbers, out-sing the home support and get the lads over the line in style. No excuses - see you in Wakefield.