The story of how Sheffield Eagles overcame Wigan Warriors in arguably the greatest-ever Challenge Cup final upset is a well-known one. But while the 1998 final itself was perhaps not the most thrilling encounter ever seen at Wembley, Sheffield’s semi-final victory over Salford Reds was one for the ages. Featuring a see-saw battle, a grandstand finish and spectators assaulting the officials, we look back on a forgotten chapter of a memorable Challenge Cup campaign…
ASK anyone to name the player most associated with Sheffield Eagles’ triumph in the 1998 Silk Cut Challenge Cup and the chances are they will pick Mark Aston.
The inspirational performance of half-back Aston – who remains with the club to this day – in their 17-8 victory over Wigan Warriors in the final earned him the Lance Todd Trophy man of the match award and led to the unfancied Eagles slaying one of rugby league’s giants on the grandest stage of all.
Another name which has long since faded into the ether though is Dale Laughton, for it was he who grabbed the try which took them to Wembley as they overcame Salford Reds 22-18 in the semi-finals.
The former prop forward would sadly later become infamous for his post-sporting issues, where problems adapting to life after retiring from playing led to him being charged with supplying cocaine at a music festival.
But on the field, 1998 was a banner year for Laughton. Not only would he be named in Super League’s Dream Team at the end of the year for his efforts in an Eagles shirt, but he would also playing a starring role in helping his side lift what, so far, remains their only major domestic honour.
But while Sheffield were massive underdogs for the final, the only predictions anyone was making for the semi-final against Salford Reds on Saturday, March 28 was that the winner was near-on unpredictable.
Indeed, the words of Ray French prior to kick-off were an indicator of what was to come, with the BBC commentator saying: “I doubt anyone will recall a match where even the bookmakers cannot decide the eventual winner.”
When the Grandstand cameras showed up at Headingley for this tie on a sunny spring afternoon though, they could have hardly expected to be beaming live to the nation what would turn out to be one of the most dramatic semi-finals in Challenge Cup history.
These still being the days when the BBC actually had a wide portfolio of sport to broadcast and Grandstand was still very much a staple of Saturday afternoon television – ask your parents, kids – the day’s Cup tie was fitted around the Boat Race, horse racing from Newbury and the draw for the first round of the Embassy World Snooker Championship.
It also gave viewers the chance to see some flashy new computer graphics, produced no doubt at great expense to the license fee payer, when introducing the team line-ups.
Eagles coach John Kear made no secret of the fact his side had targeted the Challenge Cup – then still held in the early months of the campaign – from the moment they returned to pre-season training late in 1997.
It was an approach which paid dividends. Having seen off Leigh Centurions, amateurs Egremont Rangers – who had knocked out professional side Workington Town in round four –and Castleford Tigers, they now stood one game from a maiden Wembley appearance.
Salford, coached by Andy Gregory and semi-finalist the previous year, were barely tested on their run to the last four having outscored amateurs Ovenden, Widnes Vikings and Hull Sharks 163-16 in their three Cup ties to this point.
Given the fact this match-up paired two of the perceived to be less-glamourous teams in Super League against each other, it is perhaps not surprising a record-low semi-final crowd of 6,961 turned up at Headingley on the day.
Those who had decided not to make the trip would miss a cracker though, with Sheffield going ahead after eight minutes when Whetu Taewa survived slipping over to score following a rampaging run from Darren Turner.
However, Salford hit back four minutes later when Darren Rogers somehow managed to both out-jump Eagles winger Nick Pinkney and dot down right in the corner from Josh White’s steepling kick.
The diminutive White then put Salford ahead midway through the half, darting through the defence for a converted score. However, the teams would go in deadlocked at half time when interchange player Michael Jackson gratefully received an offload from Matt Crowther to crash over, with Aston adding the extras.
“WE’VE got the draw for the first round proper of the World Snooker Championship coming up after our rugby league from Headingley – could it be after extra-time from Headingley?” pondered Grandstand presenter Steve Rider as the teams re-emerged from the second half.
Either way, there would be no extra-time. As French pointed out to his colleague, a replay would await Sheffield and Salford were the tie to remain level at full time.
Co-commentator Jonathan Davies predicted a drop goal could make all the difference and maybe someone at Salford had heard him, with both Martin Crompton and Steve Blakeley nailing one-pointers early in the second half to edge the Reds ahead.
Then with just over 15 minutes to play, Peter Edwards somehow managed to get the ball down on the line through a mass of Sheffield defenders, with referee Stuart Cummings eventually award the try after some deliberation.
Staring down the barrel, Sheffield hit back four minutes later as Pinkey’s deft grubber kick was collected by Aston, who scampered away to score behind the posts and kick the conversion.
And they took the lead for the first time in the game with 10 minutes to go when a lightning attack from a tap penalty ended with Laughton barging his way over to score, with Aston again converting.
It then took some sterling defence from Sheffield to keep out repeated attacks from Salford – and even when the final hooter sounded they were not out of the woods.
The confusion began when the Eagles thought the match was over after making a tackle with seconds left. However, the ball was played fractionally before the hooter sounded, meaning it was play on.
A look of panic suddenly descended on the faces of the Sheffield players as Blakeley sprinted towards the try line, only for him to be dragged down and knock on just 30 metres out.
The drama was not over yet though and television viewers were treated to the unedifying sight of Sheffield players having to drag a spectator off Cummings, having run onto the field to poleaxe the official after he had blown the final whistle.
“I thought we did OK today,” said Kear, summing up the match in a typically understated way with the BBC’s Richard Duckenfield in the immediate aftermath.
“It’s rather an emotional time, it’s something you dream about from being a kid, and these people deserve it and those blokes out there were absolutely maginificent – and they deserve it.”
The other semi-final the following day would prove somewhat lopsided as Wigan ran out 38-8 victors over London Broncos in Huddersfield. But the rest, as they say, is history.