York City Knights are certainly a team on the up. A vibrant club where there was nearly no club at all, owner John Flatman and highly rated head coach James Ford have overseen the development of a rugby league revolution in the Minster city. Gone is the apathy and pessimism which surrounded the club for many of the recent years and they are now replaced with optimism, joy and excitement – both on the field and off it.
On the pitch, the club have just secured top spot in Betfred League One and the automatic promotion place that goes with it. The team had two nominees – Ben Cockayne and eventual winner Connor Robinson – for the league’s player of the year as well as Judah Mazive who, in his first full season of men’s rugby league, was nominated for the young player of the year award. To put the team’s success into perspective this season, a look at Robinson’s stats gives a small indication of how good this team is. 2018 saw the former Halifax half-back break both the points and goals tally records for rugby league in York, previously held by current Super League star Danny Brough all the way back in the mid-noughties. This is one of the best teams York City Knights, albeit in its’ short existence, has ever known and now the club is preparing to move into a new stadium in summer 2019 with Championship rugby league set to grace it.
While the star players – Cockayne, Robinson and St Helens bound Joe Batchelor – get a lot of the public praise in the media alongside Ford, the coach himself is always at pains to emphasise the work his backroom staff do to get the team to where they are and, in their ranks, are two brothers who are undeniably two of the unsung heroes in what is making rugby league in York exciting again, both on and off the field.
Will and George Leatt have been involved at York in recent years with the former being on of Ford’s assistant coaches while George, the younger of the two, is one of the most popular members of the staff and regularly cooks for the team while also being an equipment assistant at the club. When Get ’em Onside met the pair, it was just days after the club secured promotion after their last day win over Whitehaven at Bootham Crescent and spirits were certainly high.
They did, however, admit that winning Betfred League One wasn’t something they necessarily believe would come to pass back when the season started in February, something George alluded to. “At the start of the season I probably didn’t think we’d be champions. From the first game against Bradford, though, there’s been a buzz. We knew we were in the mix of the contenders and, if I’m honest, I thought the Bulls would win it – a lot of people did,” he explained. George developed that further, suggesting that “after the game against Bradford, it gave us a gauge of where we were,” agreeing that playing them first up was possibly good fortune in that regard.
As the season developed, York emerged as serious contenders to Bradford for the title and, for the York born Leatts, seeing their hometown club lift the trophy was superb. The club has, of course, changed in its’ nature over recent years and, with the brothers becoming involved with the club since 2013, they have seen many of those changes. When asked how he started out with the Knights, Will told Get ’em Onside “I was at York St. John university studying sports science and injury management and needed to do some work experience. I got in touch with the Knights who, at the time, had an under 20s reserve grade team and that was where I started.” At that time, James Ford was the head coach of that team whilst captaining the first team and the future first team coach was suitably impressed with Will’s work, asking him to remain with the club for the following season. “At the end of that season  he said to stick around and come back next year and that they would get another role for me. I’d always had an interest in coaching really and coached at New Earswick All Blacks and wanted to explore that avenue really.”
The younger George became involved with the club after Will and told that his slowly increasing role with the Minster city club originally came about by chance. “We’d watched all of the reserve games in 2015 and there was Will, Fordy and Mick Ramsden and that was it,” he explained. “Fordy asked me if I wanted to come on the bus and help out really – I thought it’d be just for a couple of weeks and it’s turned into a few years!” After gaining his grade three qualification in professional cooking, George works as a chef in one of York’s hotels and that skill has also benefited the Knights. “I started cooking for them last season. I started off doing some different pasta dishes in pre-season and one of the lads said why don’t I start cooking for them after training and that they’d pay. That’s where the idea came from really.” While being the Knights’ self-appointed head chef, George is also the regular kicking tee runner for the team and, as a result, has spent more time with Connor Robinson than anyone else. With Robinson breaking York records this season with his goalkicking and points scoring, the younger Leatt has been on the pitch more than his fair share and revealed that he is keen to ensure the team’s star kicker doesn’t get carried away or distracted. Joking that the former Halifax half back would be sick of the sight of his tee-runner, George beamed at how well Robinson has done this season. “He’s been incredible, breaking Danny Brough’s records just shows how good he has been,” he explained. “When I went on with the tee during the Whitehaven game, I think it was a penalty in the second half and Adam Robinson [on the touchline] told me this was for the record. I ran on smiling and I didn’t want to tell him. I wanted him to focus on the kick but he said “is this the one?” Admitting that he didn’t want to answer, it was only after Robinson had nailed the kick that George told him that he had become the record-breaker, no doubt a special moment for the player. “I was buzzing for him really,” he shared. “I think he fell out of love with the game a bit in 2017 before coming to York having not played that much so it’s great to see him enjoying his rugby with us.”
Working for their local rugby club is something which many fans would love to do and that is something the Leatts do. “It’s great,” the pair beamed. Throughout their time with the club, they have seen it progress and no time more so than since John Flatman took control. A sense of positivity and optimism now surrounds the Knights like never before and riding the crest of that wave is very much paramount for those involved. “There’s always an exciting period when somebody new comes to a club or an organisation,” Will explained. “I think Jon and his team have done really well is keep that positive vibe going and obviously the team winning as much as we have is helping that. It’s great at the moment, a lot of the stuff that’s out there in the media and the work people like Adam Prentis do with the foundation is helping to change the opinion of the club.” Indeed, the work of the club’s foundation was recognised at the recent award ceremony when they won foundation of the year. When the club first came into life in 2003, the Knights were keen to connect with the youth of the city and free tickets were handed out regularly in schools to introduce the youngsters to the sport. However, when George – now 21 – was at primary school, that wasn’t as prominent. “When I was at school  the people who came in sometimes weren’t as passionate as they could be but now the kids all seem to be loving it. That’s something that’s changed in the last couple of years.”
Ford, who recently signed a deal to become the first full time head coach in Knights history, is one of the highest-rated coaches outside of Super League and it is clear that the former Wakefield College tutor is big on pushing his players and staff to be the best they can be, something the pair agreed with. George reasoned that “I think people sign with York because they want to play and they want to get better. If you just want the money, you go elsewhere.” Furthermore, he added that the experienced pros who complement the youth in the squad ensure that the standards Ford demands are enforced. “Not only do the experienced lads train and play well but they help to uphold the standards at training,” he explained. “It doesn’t always need to come from the coaches if players can keep them high and, when someone like Ben Cockayne is telling you to pick it up, you know you need to listen. All of the players, especially the younger ones, are all really keen to be the best they can be. Joe Batchelor, Connor Robinson, Brad Hey… they always push themselves,” adding that that attitude makes the team a great one to be around. Will, more involved with tactical discussions and training than his brother, explained how Ford pushes him to improve as a coach. “Ever since I met him he’s been keen to help me develop. Now, we have a fantastic relationship and a great amount of trust. He’s always got time for people and whatever I ask him he’s willing to help me learn. He keeps adding things to my role to help me develop.”
Having secured promotion to the Championship, 2019 promises to be a hugely exciting year for the Knights as they not only return to the second tier but also finally move into their long-planned new home – one that will only be the distance of a lengthy Joe Batchelor try from the Leatt’s home. “It should be brilliant,” the pair agreed, Will adding that “it makes the club that bit more professional with having the stadium to go with the training facilities we have. When we go to Doncaster, we know how nice a stadium and how good a pitch it is to play on and to have that sort of facility every other week as our home ground will be great.” Before that, the pair have some down time in the off-season after, for Will, discussions regarding recruitment and how to approach 2019 while George will be looking at new recipes for post-training meals – while also possibly looking into starting his own cooking business.
What is clear from talking in depth to the pair is that their enthusiasm for the club is tangible. It’s an enthusiasm which oozes out of anybody connected to the club right now and, after a reasonable while where the fans of York rugby league didn’t have too much to be optimistic about, that is a great place for them to be.