Super League at 25: When Gary Hetherington and Sheffield Eagles landed
When Gary Hetherington and his wife Kath took the plunge in setting up Sheffield Eagles in the early 1980s, they could barely have imagined their nascent club would be one day kicking off of a new era of rugby league.
Then a 27-year-old professional player struggling to get his first coaching opportunity, Hetherington picked the Steel City on the sport’s periphery in South Yorkshire as the home for a club which would give him that chance – although it was not without its problems.Trying to make an impact in Sheffield where the dominance of football, particularly the two professional clubs of United and Wednesday, meant either code of rugby barely registered a blip on the sporting radar brought its own issues.
So too did having to share Owlerton Stadium with the city’s speedway team and greyhound racing after United pulled out of plans to play at their Bramall Lane home, not to mention the Eagles losing their main sponsor ahead of their entry into the professional game in the 1984/85 season.”It’s fair to say we had made too many assumptions and believed there would be interest because Sheffield is a big sporting city and it’s close to the rugby league heartlands,” Hetherington told Sky Sports. “The city council were very keen to create the club as well.
Our major sponsor fell by the wayside, so we started the club as paupers with very little money and in that first season came 17th in Division Two, so it was a battle for survival from the start.
“It’s fair to say there was very little interest in rugby of either code in Sheffield, so we had to almost invent the game and try to get it established in schools, the community and generate interest in people to watch the team.
“To start with, the team was made up of players reaching retirement and young players, but it progressively got better and within five years we’d been promoted to what is now Super League.”
If the Hethingtons had at any time questioned why they decided to get involved with such a venture in those early years, they had been given an answer by the first season of Super League in 1996 with the Eagles then an established, competitive presence in rugby league’s top-flight.
Now playing out of the city’s cavernous Don Valley Stadium, Sheffield had finished among the top 10 sides in the 1994/95 Rugby League Championship season which earned them a spot as one of the 12 teams to start the first season of summer rugby.
While traditional clubs Widnes, Hull, Wakefield Trinity, Salford, Featherstone Rovers and Doncaster – who the Eagles had been initially proposed to merge with to form a South Yorkshire team – were relegated, in came Division One side London Broncos and a new French entity.
The latter was Paris Saint-Germain, who lined up alongside several of the big names still involved in Super League to this day, plus the likes of Sheffield, Halifax, Oldham Bears and Workington Town.
It was Sheffield who were chosen to open the new-look competition against Paris at Stade Charlety, with the city’s high international profile helping the Eagles get the nod to play that match.
“That came about quite interestingly because the initial draft fixtures had Paris Saint-Germain against Oldham Bears, but apparently nobody in France had heard of Oldham but had heard of Sheffield,” Hetherington said.
“The rugby league authorities at the time and particularly (RFL chief executive) Maurice Lindsay thought it would be a much better start with Paris Saint-Germain against Sheffield Eagles in Paris, and that’s how we got to be in that first game.”
Around 1,500 Eagles fans made the trip to France to cheer on the team in that encounter, but it was the Parisians who were celebrating after clinching a 30-24 victory.
Hetherington, then head coach of the team, admitted he was watching from the stands thinking it was not going to be his side’s night after seeing them fail to make the most of some early try-scoring chances, but still looks back with some fond memories.
“We’d not played a game in Paris before, they were a bit of an unknown entity, and we had a good team and we went there as favourites,” Hetherington said.
“It was quite painful for us because we got beaten, but in many ways that added to the drama because of the result and the size of the crowd.
“It was a terrific atmosphere and with the French team winning, it made for a great start to Super League.”
The Eagles finished seventh in the first season of Super League, but that also brought the end to Hetherington’s association with the club he helped found as he took an ownership stake in Leeds with Paul Caddick.
In his role as the Rhinos’ chief executive, he has overseen the club emerge as one of the powers of the summer era and become a hugely influential administrator, and believes Super League has, for the most part, been positive for the sport of rugby league.
“It’s achieved some of its objectives and not others,” Hetherington said. “If you look now at the stadia and compare the grounds we’re playing in now, it’s chalk and cheese.”We’ve got magnificent facilities now and we’ve got Toronto coming into the competition – who could have expected that 24 years ago?
“The stadiums have improved, the quality of the game has improved, and the competition has improved as well. We’ve got a very even competition now, which we’ve always strove for.
“Expansion has not quite gone the way we would have hoped and there have been some casualties along the way, but with Toronto coming in, and New York and Ottawa wanting to come in, there are some amazing projects going on there we couldn’t have imagined five, 10 or 15 years ago.”