Less than a year ago, the York City Knights looked doomed, set to be consigned to the landfill site of semi professional sport. Then chairman John Guildford had, after years of wrangling with the City of York Council and York City FC about the proposed new community stadium, expressed his intention of closing the club down. This would have been a great shame as the club, a phoenix from the ashes of the York Wasps rugby league team, contributed so much to so many; the scholarship program and first team saw players move from York into the Super League while also getting a whole new generation of fans involved in the sport. After all, the York City Knights were the reason I got into rugby league. Activity camps in school holidays, free tickets for matches… the club cared about getting new fans through the gates. All of this was threatening to fall apart.
That was, of course, until Jon Flatman came in. A man with experience of running a rugby league team after his previous involvement with Featherstone Rovers, Flatman came in as the saviour of rugby league in York and immediately made it clear that there was great promise for the sport in the city. After taking over at the start of December 2016, however, the race was on to get a competitive team on the pitch for the 2017 season. After all, with the threat of the club closing down hanging over their heads, many players sought job security so moved on to pastures new. At the time, nobody could blame them. However, those who stuck around, including homegrown Ed Smith and James Haynes, will be glad they did for, after recruiting smartly and steadily through late winter and the early part of the season, the Knights did indeed get a team together. More than that, they were proving more than a match for their more prepared counterparts in the Kingstone Press League 1. Without a shadow of a doubt, the highlight of the on pitch campaign was the defeat of the all-conquering Toronto Wolfpack at Bootham Crescent in July, a match which would prove the Canadians’ only defeat of the season. In front of a crowd of in excess of 2500 following a sterling marketing campaign where the club got the backing of British rugby league legends including Jamie Peacock and Paul Sculthorpe, it showed that the Knights now had a man who not only knew what he was doing at the helm but, also, one who cared.
Nothing proved this more than his decision to allow under 16s to come to every Knights home game for free. A superb gesture as the club sought to regain fans they had possibly lost towards the end of the Guildford era, Flatman made plain his desire for the Knights to be a rugby league success story in North Yorkshire with the aim of getting them into the sport’s second tier shortly. After years of bad relations, the partnership between the city’s football and rugby league clubs seems to now be much more healthy, something which they will need to be if they are to be sharing the delayed community stadium. At the moment, both clubs are using York City’s Bootham Crescent ground and, finally, the Knights have managed to get some space in the club shop at the ground – something they never had when Guildford was at the helm.
Perhaps a proper pre season at the club’s superb training complex shared with one of the city’s universities will see the Knights progress through into the second tier in 2018. With James Ford calling the shots, they have one of the best coaches outside of Super League and the former York player has turned down advances from Kingstone Press Championship teams in the past, suggesting that he feels something big can be achieved at York.
Finally, things seem to be looking up for the Knights and only a brave man would bet against Ford and Flatman achieving their goals of promotion next season.
Image from http://www.yorkpress.co.uk/sport/15442959.Ford__Knights_can_get_even_better_after_stunning_victory_over_Toronto_Wolfpack/