THE word ‘legend’ is overused in sport – as is the cliché “the word ‘legend’ is overused in sport” – but it is difficult to think of a term more befitting of Mark Aston.
And the former Sheffield Eagles scrum-half will have his status further enhanced when he reaches a special milestone at home to Swinton Lions this afternoon.
It is perhaps appropriate that Aston’s 500th game in charge of the Eagles will come in today’s fourth round Challenge Cup tie, having starred as a player during the club’s finest hour 18 years ago.
Yet his Lance Todd Trophy-winning performance as Sheffield caused one of the biggest upsets in the competition’s history by beating Wigan Warriors in the final is only a small part of what makes the 48-year-old such an icon.
Having grown up in the rugby league hotbed of Castleford and played for amateur sides Stanley Rangers, Oulton Raiders and Lock Lane, there was little doubt the sport was going to play a big part in his life.
But it was in South Yorkshire where he would make his name, having spurned an offer to sign for his hometown club, and made his bow for Sheffield as an unnamed trialist over the Easter weekend in 1985.
Aston quickly formed a strong half-back partnership with Daryl Powell, who he remains friends with to this day, and by 1991 had become “become very much the standard bearer for League in Sheffield,” along with “A prolific points scorer and fine tactician” according to his profile on his Merlin trading card.
A substitute appearance against France in the same year would be his sole taste of international rugby for Great Britain and a stint closer to where he grew up with Featherstone Rovers in the 1994-95 season ended with him returning to Sheffield.
Aston was part of the club during the early years of Super League too, playing in that memorable first game in Paris, but it was the Challenge Cup where he and his team-mates would enter history.
The 17-8 victory over Wigan Warriors at Wembley saw Aston score two conversions and a drop goal, along with collecting the man of the match award for his efforts.
However, the good times were not to last for the Eagles and a forced merger with Huddersfield in October the following year looked to have been the final nail in the coffin for the financially-stricken club.
This is where the Mark Aston story takes a twist though, with him being instrumental in helping reform the current incarnation of the Eagles from scratch and securing their place in the Northern Ford Premiership for the 2000 season following Bramley’s withdrawal.
The first game for the reformed Eagles saw them triumph 33-20 away to Lancashire Lynx, playing in borrowed kit and with Aston in the player-coach role.
“It was tough,” recalled Aston earlier this week. “My advice to anyone thinking about it would be – don’t do it! It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done in rugby league.
“Although you’re an older player, you have to set the standard in every department from skill through to fitness; otherwise, it’s much harder to motivate people. If you make mistakes anywhere, you become accountable.
“I did it for three years which was far too long! I do miss playing, but it’s a young man’s game and I love what I’m doing now – it gives me a real buzz.”
Not only did Sheffield have the handicap of being formed just weeks before the season kicked off, but they were also denied their share of the money from the NFP television rights as part of the conditions of being allowed back into the competition.
Nevertheless, the Eagles managed a respectable 14th-place finish and the following season set about expanding the youth section of the club, winning the NFP’s Club of the Year award.
Aston eventually retired from playing in 2003 after 348 appearances and 2,140 points, and handed over the coaching reins to Gary Wilkinson in 2006 to take on a backroom role.
However, he was back in charge the following season after the club clinched promotion to National League One and has remained there ever since, overseeing their progress on the field and the move to finally establish their own home ground after a somewhat nomadic existence.
“I don’t look too far ahead, but the dream is to bring top flight rugby league back to Sheffield,” said Aston.
“That was the dream when the club reformed and, with us going full time and getting our own stadium soon, hopefully we have everything in place to start making that push.
“I don’t think I’ll make another 500 games as coach, but I’d love to still be involved with Sheffield in 16 years’ time,” said Aston.
“The club has been a part of my life for over 30 years and I don’t think that will change any time soon.”
Given how Aston and the Eagles seem inextricably linked, few would bet against that changing any time soon either.