Championship Focus: Ambitious Keighley Cougars back on track

Mick O’Neill is summoning the spirit of ’95 as he tries to bring a Cougarmania for the 2020s to Keighley.

A lot of water has flowed under the bridges that span the nearby Aire and Worth rivers since O’Neill and Mike Smith gave the small Yorkshire town a big presence on the Rugby League map in the early 90s.

Those heady days, when the far-sighted pair had the club pushing for a Super League berth on the back of innovative marketing methods and matchday razzmatazz, seem a long time ago, as does the well-chronicled controversy over missing out on a place at the top table, which led to their departure from Cougar Park, the new name they gave to Lawkholme Lane.

These days, Keighley are attempting to regain the Championship status lost in 2014, since when an all-too-familiar financial crisis left them in special measures and in January 2019, prompted the return of the duo, who coined the big-cat title as part of their original radical rebrand, the most successful parts of which were picked up by other clubs.

While the landscape of the game is different, their determination to make the Cougars a success remains staunch, as shown by the close-season recruitment of former London Broncos team chief and Warrington Wolves assistant coach Andrew Henderson as director of rugby. The recent addition of talented France international halfback Dane Chisholm to a squad already competing strongly at the top end of League One under Australian coach Rhys Lovegrove, the 35-year-old former Hull KR, London Broncos and Bradford Bulls forward, is another sign of the club’s ambition.

O’Neill, Chairman and joint-owner with his son Ryan and Ryan’s husband Kaue Garcia (Smith is also a director), likens the signing of Chisholm to that of Daryl Powell, who was a Great Britain stand-off when he moved from Sheffield Eagles in a £100,000 transfer in April 1995, shortly before Keighley won the second-tier title, then the divisional Premiership, sweeping aside Huddersfield 26-6 at Old Trafford.

“I hope it’s a Daryl Powell moment,” he said of the arrival of one-time Melbourne Storm player Chisholm from Featherstone Rovers (the 31-year-old has also had two spells at the Cougars’ neighbours Bradford as well as a stint at Sheffield Eagles).

“A moment when we add that quality to a team that is already proving successful, but benefits from that added talent.

“My thanks to Ryan and Kaue for working with Hendo to get that deal done. We have the best set-up since the heydays of 1995.”

After the disappointment of last season’s dramatic play-off semi-final defeat by Doncaster, who clinched their 28-26 victory at Cougar Park with a last-minute try and conversion, O’Neill says going up this year is crucial. 

“There may not be promotion after this, and we need to put Keighley in the top six of the Championship within a year,” he continued. 

“I salute the work of Hendo and Rhys, who have delivered performances beyond our expectation.” 

Early results have certainly been encouraging, with the Cougars securing six league wins from six (over Oldham, Doncaster, Hunslet, Swinton Lions, London Skolars and West Wales Raiders) ahead of their crunch home clash with Rochdale Hornets, who won six of their first seven. 

And impressively, while notching 250 points in the process, they conceded only 32, nilling both Swinton and the Skolars). 

Having tried to take the sting out of the Hornets, Keighley next play host to Midlands Hurricanes on Sunday before taking on early pacesetters North Wales Crusaders in Colwyn Bay on Sunday, June 4. 

“To have nilled the opposition in two games is tremendous and testament to the hard work of the staff and the players,” added O’Neill. 

“We have invested in the squad and the off-field team, and my thanks goes to them all – Rhys for his patience and progressive systems, Hendo for his strategy and foresight with players and advice to Rhys, and to Lisa (Gill, the managing director) for running the business to support what needs to be delivered and pay for all our dreams.” 

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