York City Knights have experienced an interesting and varied past few years; the joy of promotion to the Championship in 2010 was consolidated by the club’s survival in the second tier in 2011. The following year the then Head Coach, Chris Thorman, saw his side only win once all season and finish up propping up the rest. The league was expanded for the 2013 season, so the Knights were spared relegation, but the league’s restructuring merely put off the inevitable, and the North Yorkshire side finished at the foot of the table for the second year running. Former Castleford under 20’s coach Gary Thornton took the reigns in 2012 and, following the drop into Championship One, expectations were high of promotion and a swift return to the Championship. They finished on top of the league ladder at the end of the 2014 season, but home defeats to Oldham and Hunslet in the play-offs meant that York would be playing the 2015 season in England’s third tier for a second successive season.
The RFL have dubbed another restructuring of the Championship and Championship One divisions as rugby league’s ‘new era,’ and, with promotion up to Super League now a possibility, the 2015 season will take on a new importance. The Knights themselves are embarking on their own new era, Thornton was relieved of his duties as head coach following the play-off disappointment and replaced by James Ford, who had been Thornton’s player/assistant coach. The centre had bagged himself six tries in thirteen appearances in 2014 before taking his first head coach role.
Knights chairman John Guildford described Ford as a “potential future Super League coach;” and expressed his desire for the former Featherstone, Castleford, Widnes and Sheffield man to take the club into the top flight:
“James will be a Super League coach at some stage – let’s hope it’s with the Knights. His record in developing players is excellent and, as a club, that is something we’re buying into. The game is also moving on and he is au fait with new technology and techniques.”
The changes to the coaching staff also see former fan favourite Mark Applegarth return as player/assistant coach, the role that Ford has now vacated for the top job.
Perhaps the biggest change for the Knights in 2015 will be the venue for their home games. Following the play-off final eliminator defeat to Hunslet, York said goodbye to Huntington Stadium – which first opened in 1989. The 3,428 capacity stadium is to be torn down to make way for York’s new 8,000 seater stadium, which will be shared by the City’s football and rugby clubs. In the meantime, the football clubs’ Bootham Crescent stadium will host the City Knights’ home games. However, it may be the rugby league side will find themselves homeless in 24 months.
Guildford insists that York City Council have informed him that they can only play at Bootham Crescent for two years, and not indefinitely until the new stadium is finished. This could cause the club major problems, especially as the £19 million project has already been delayed several times. Work is expected to begin on the construction of the site in Spring next year, but the council have refused to comment on the possibility of the City’s rugby league team being left without a home, saying:
“Any proposed terms and conditions discussed with project partners for the community stadium development are commercially confidential therefore we will not comment on specific queries in relation to such terms.”
The new community stadium is expected to be ready in the summer of 2016, but any further delays could cause a headache for Guildford and the club. Bootham Crescent will be the Knights’ home for the next to seasons though, as York look to return to the Championship.
There is no doubt last seasons play-off failure will be costly, as potentially lucrative games with Bradford Bulls have been missed out on. Championship One will be a much more competitive affair in 2015, too, as no less than five teams were relegated from the Championship last season. Coventry Bears also represent something as an unknown quantity and away games will include long trips to Hemel, London, Oxford and twice to Wales to face the Scorpions and the Crusaders. Despite a difficult season ahead, York will certainly be amongst one of the favourites to attain one of two promotion berths, as well as being fancied for a good run in the League One Cup.
Seven of last year’s Championship One Team of the Year played for York last season, and of them Ben Dent, Pat Smith, Colton Roche and Knights Player of the Year in 2014 Jack Aldous will line up for Ford’s team next season. Ryan Mallinder and Jonny Pressley are also contracted for next season and Kris Brining has also extended his stay at the club while full-back James Haynes will take over as club captain.
Preseason preparations have been hampered for the Knights by a legal dispute between the club and the council over the new stadium move, which meant that the first team were unable to train at York St John University, which had originally been agreed while construction on the new community stadium was being carried out. However, Ford believes that the disruptions will help the players build camaraderie:
“It’s all making our preparations a lot harder but the character in the squad is such that they are seeing it as a challenge and it’s bringing them closer together,” said Ford.
The next couple of years are sure to bring with them even more challenges for the Knights to overcome. However, the future looks very promising for the club and the new stadium demonstrates their ambitions. Rookie coach James Ford already has a good knowledge of the club and rapport with the players and has dealt with a turbulent first couple of months in charge in a very positive way. It is clear that the club has massive potential and, in the not too distant future, wouldn’t look out of place in Super League.
York will play their first game at Bootham Crescent for ten years on January 11th, when they take on Super League outfit Hull FC in a preseason friendly.