Craig Lingard is used to doing things the hard way in the Championship and League One. Castleford Tigers will be hoping he can bring his determination to succeed to Super League.
CRAIG LINGARD has rarely had things easy.
Take his first head-coaching role, for example. Twelve years before becoming a Super League boss, he was preparing to brave the National Conference League with Bramley.
“At my first introduction meeting, where they invited all the previous players down for an open evening to get them to sign up, four people turned up,” he recalls. “Then because only four people turned up, two of them got up and walked out. I started the season with two players!”
Or his first time in the top job at a professional club, when Keighley were placed in special measures after their then-owners failed to pay wages.
“There were eight months there when staff and players weren’t getting paid. We were training in parks at half five in the morning because we were locked out of the ground.”
So it’s fair to say that Lingard has earned his way up to the top-flight and his new role as head coach of Castleford.
Before Bramley, where he managed to put together a team and reach the play-off semi-finals in his single season, he was coaching in schools and junior clubs and then leading the scholarship side at Bradford.
Passing through the NCL, League One with Keighley, Championship with Batley and now Super League, he really has worked his way up, one step at a time.
Lingard was a fine lower-league player in his own right, his one-club career bringing 142 tries for Batley where he remains the record try-scorer and has a terrace named after him, but a desire to coach came early.
He explains: “It was probably in my mid-20s. It was always something I’d liked doing and, deep down, it was always something I wanted to do more than playing to be fair.
“I always enjoyed the technical side of it, looking at the game in depth and seeing how you could influence or change a game.
“I knew I had to start early because I wasn’t a Super League player or an international. I couldn’t rely on my name for a shortcut in the game. I knew I’d have to start at the bottom and work my way through, and that’s what I’ve done.
“I think that’s good. You work with a lot of different people and experience a lot of different things.
“If you go straight from being a full-time player into full-time coaching, you don’t necessarily experience all the different things I’ve gone through. I think it’s made me a better coach.”
While he’s moved about plenty, his career has circled around Batley. After his playing retirement in 2008, Lingard immediately joined their coaching team, leading the Reserves. When that set-up was disbanded, he had to move elsewhere, and after Bramley he returned in 2013 and spent four years as an assistant under John Kear.
“After my first year of coaching in the Conference I thought I was at a certain level and ready for that next step up. Then I went to the Championship, working under John, and realised how far off I was,” says Lingard.
“Working with somebody like John Kear was fantastic for my development. Until you work with someone who has a lot more knowledge than you at that time, you don’t realise how far away you actually are.
“His attention to detail was first class. I remember a few times in his team previews, he’d singled a couple of things out that I didn’t think were particularly significant. But then when we played, we scored a couple of tries based on the stuff that he’d identified.”
Lingard flew the nest for Keighley in 2016 and, when a two-and-a-half-year spell which had brought very respectable results in the circumstances was brought to an abrupt end in 2018 by new ownership, Batley was where he landed again.
He says: “After going through the eight months that we’d gone through, to be told you’re no longer needed there was a kick in the balls at the time. But I don’t hold any grudges over it. It is what it is.
“I was in limbo. When you move on from a League One club, it’s ‘where do you go from there?’ (Batley chief executive) Paul Harrison asked how I’d feel about coming back as head coach. It was an easy decision for me – I was out of work and it was a club close to my heart.”
Over four glorious years, Lingard only strengthened his Bulldogs legend. After taking the low-spending minnows to the Championship play-off semi-finals in 2021, they went one better by reaching the Grand Final the following year, and then went to Wembley for the 1895 Cup final in 2023.
“To achieve that in three consecutive seasons, with the budget that we worked with, it just shows you don’t always have to have the most money and the best players on paper to be able to achieve something,” he says.
“I guess we’re in a similar place now at Castleford. We might not spend as much as other people but what can we achieve with the players we’ve got? It’s about trying to get the players we have got to buy into that collective goal of trying to achieve something.
“That’s the challenge you like as a coach. It would be great to walk into a club and be told ‘you can spend what you want and bring in whoever you want’, but that doesn’t always work (and bring success).
“The challenge we’ve got here is trying to replicate what we did at Batley. The overriding pride there was that we overachieved every year.”
Lingard initially applied to be the Tigers’ head coach when Lee Radford departed early in the 2023 season. Although missing out on the role to Andy Last, he was appointed as an assistant instead, combining that with the Batley job – which he says he would have left at the end of that campaign regardless.
Cas scraped to survival under a third head coach in Danny Ward, who chose not to take the job permanently thereafter. That opened the door for Lingard to finish a whirlwind year as a Super League boss.
The biggest change is that, despite being involved in rugby for almost all his life, he is only now finally working full-time in the sport. Before the move to the Jungle, his career had taken other paths, most notably in the prison service and latterly in alternative school provision.
“I was working at Yorkshire Bank in Dewsbury at 19 years old, and I absolutely hated it. I detested it,” he remembers.
“It was 1999 and I saw a job for the prison service. I didn’t really understand what it was. I’d have done anything, I’d have swept streets or unblocked toilets just to get out of that bank.
“I sent off an application form and within six weeks I was walking through the gates at Full Sutton maximum security jail in York as a prison officer. Nineteen years later, I finished at Wakefield prison as a custodial manager.
“I miss the people I worked with but I don’t miss the job one bit. It’s like playing, I’ve not missed it since I retired.”
Most of his years in the prison service were spent in leadership roles, again providing him with different experiences to his rugby peers: “It’s all about working with individuals.
“Every single person you’ve got is an individual. People like doing different things and don’t like certain things. It’s getting people to do something they don’t want to do.
“It’s a bit like pre-season now. People don’t necessarily enjoy the conditioning and getting flogged, being taken out of their comfort zone, but you’ve got to find a way to get people to do that. That’s what I enjoy, getting results out of people.”
He also enjoys reading crime fiction – “I’ve got to read every night before I go to bed” – and watching Leeds United’s fluctuating fortunes with an Elland Road season ticket, although his most famous pursuit outside rugby league came on Countdown.
“It’s something I’d always watched and always enjoyed from growing up, so I thought I’d give it a go,” he explains of his appearances on the long-running quiz show in 2012, winning three episodes and later being invited back for a special.
“I applied for it. They ring you up and you do a couple of rounds on the phone. Then they asked me to go through for a second audition at the TV studios in Manchester.
“A couple of days later they said ‘you’re on’ and before I knew it I was sat in the Countdown chair with the TV cameras on me and a pen in my hand, asking for one from the top and five other ones!
“I always like to challenge myself and do something different. When I finished playing, I wanted a challenge. I used to hate running so I challenged myself to do a marathon. I did the London Marathon, and I don’t think I’ve run since! But I just wanted to do it to challenge myself and prove to myself that I could do it.”
Another major challenge now awaits at Castleford – perhaps even greater than running a marathon or doing maths on national TV.
But if there is one man used to doing things tough, it’s Lingard.
First published in Rugby League World magazine, Issue 492 (January 2024)