Grounds for concern – Sheffield Eagles and Oldham on the move again

AFTER a year exiled in Doncaster, Sheffield Eagles look set for a return to their home city in 2016.
Last week, this year’s third-place Championship finishers announced they will – subject to RFL approval – be playing their home games at Sheffield Hallam University Sports Park just off Junction 34 of the M1 next year.
Playing 20 miles away at the Keepmoat Stadium while their new ground at the Olympic Legacy Park is constructed was never more than a temporary solution for the Eagles, who have struggled to find a genuinely long-term home in their 31-year history.
Even the original iteration of the Sheffield club, which was merged with Huddersfield in 1999 while drowning in debt, had something of a nomadic existence.
When they were founded by Gary Hetherington in 1984, the Eagles made their home along with the stock car racers and greyhounds at Owlerton Stadium, before having to leave five years later due to the ground being declared unfit for professional rugby league in the wake of the disaster at nearby Hillsborough.
So, having won promotion in 1989, the Eagles were forced to spend their first season of top-flight rugby ground-sharing with both of the Sheffield football teams, as well as games at Wakefield’s Belle Vue, and the football grounds in Barnsley and Chesterfield.
A move to the recently-constructed Don Valley Stadium followed in 1990 and remained their home for nine years, coinciding with the most successful period in the club’s history.
But the glory, culminating in the run to the Challenge Cup final and subsequent shock 17-8 victory over Wigan Warriors at Wembley, could not mask the problems the club was facing and they accepted a £1million payment from the RFL to merge with Huddersfield Giants.
The Sheffield-Huddersfield team – colloquially known as ‘Shuddersfied’ – split home games between the two venues, but the experiment lasted just one season and the Giants reverted to simply Huddersfield as the new Century dawned.
Thanks in no small part to the efforts of Wembley hero Mark Aston, Sheffield Eagles returned as a separate entity, joining the Northern Ford Premiership and taking up residence at the Don Valley again.
However, the athletics track always meant supporters were somewhat disconnected from the action and in a bid to increase attendances and improve atmosphere, the Eagles entered a groundshare agreement with Sheffield United, with home games being played at Bramall Lane in 2010 and 2011.
Then games were split between Bramall Lane and the Don Valley, before the demolition of the latter saw them move back to Owlerton last year – only for ground regulations to again force them out.
The original plan for last year was to play at next year’s home of Bawtry Road and there still remains much work to do before then, including upgrading it to a 3,000 capacity venue and improving site access.
The eventual aim is to move into the Olympic Legacy Park – which, ironically, is being built on the site of the Eagles’ spiritual home at the Don Valley – where a new ground will be built for them.
Finally having a home to call their own should provide Sheffield with long-term stability, which will be particularly crucial now they have decided to revert to full-time status as they bid to return to Super League.
Across the Pennines at Oldham though, the Roughyeds are on the move again after the RFL decreed their Whitebank Stadium was not of the appropriate standard for Championship rugby following their promotion from League One.
Oldham have been something of a nomadic club since moving out of their traditional Watersheddings home in 1997, selling their ground to alleviate heavy debts and move in with the local football team along with the likes of Rochdale Hornets and Halifax.
Oldham Athletic’s Boundary Park has been something of an on-off home in the intervening years, with Ashton United’s Hurst Cross and Sedgeley Park RUFC also hosting the Roughyeds before, with the help of the council, the acquired Whitebank Stadium.
But this year’s promotion means they must find somewhere else to play while the ground is upgraded, with a return to Boundary Park looking the most likely but far from certain.
Sheffield and Oldham are not the only clubs in this situation, with Swinton Lions’ hopes of returning to their home borough being constantly thwarted and London Broncos on the move again for 2016, this time to Ealing Trailfinders RUFC.
They do, at least, have long-term plans in place though and hope the years of not being able to put down permanent roots could finally be coming to an end.

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