Championship Focus: Batley Bulldogs prepare for first ever Wembley appearance

“THIS is massive, working with a bunch of players like these. They are really ‘roll up your sleeves’ type of guys. I know the commitment they put in and I’m proud to be with them. They don’t get great financial rewards, but hopefully they will now get some recognition.”

So said David Ward, the former Leeds and Great Britain hooker, on coaching Batley to their first trophy for 74 years when they beat Oldham 28-12 to win the Trans-Pennine Cup, a competition for the eight Division Two (third tier) teams, in 1998.

Twenty five years might have passed since that final, which the Bulldogs won the right to stage on the toss of a coin, and Mount Pleasant might have become the Fox’s Biscuits Stadium, reflecting the ever-growing importance to clubs of sourcing additional funding.

But Batley’s no-nonsense approach remains the same, and just as it was when Ward was at the helm, the club is far more about graft, grit and guile than glamour.

So it’s not surprising that Craig Lingard was a little emotional as he reflected on becoming the first coach to take Batley to Wembley after they won 22-8 at York to set up an 1895 Cup Final showdown with Halifax, 10-6 semi-final victors at London Broncos, on Saturday week, August 12.

It’s particularly poignant for the 45-year-old because he has invested so much of his sporting life in the club he will leave at the end of the season to focus on his other role as assistant coach of Castleford, which he took on in early May.

When the Trans-Pennine Cup was won, the fullback was in the first of eleven seasons as a Batley player and finding his feet via four appearances from the bench before the following year, scoring the first ten of his 142 tries, a tally which remains a club record.

After 205 appearances, Lingard became part of the coaching team at the Mount, and after working for Bradford and then taking charge of Bramley Buffaloes in the National Conference League for the 2012 season, he returned to Batley to become an assistant to John Kear.

Ahead of the 2017 season, he again branched out on his own to become coach of Keighley, before taking the reins at Batley during the build-up to the 2020 campaign, which was, of course, to be ended early by Covid.

Since then, Batley have made the play-off semi-finals, then last season’s Championship Grand Final at Leigh, themselves Wembley-bound for a Challenge Cup final clash with Hull KR, which the 1895 showpiece follows.

And Lingard, always quick to acknowledge the work of his assistant Mark Moxon, who will succeed him as Batley coach at the end of this season, won’t be taking his eye off clinching a third straight play-off appearance.

But he will be making the most of the Wembley experience, and trying to pilot Batley to a first piece of silverware since 2010, when the Northern Rail Cup, like the 1895 for clubs outside Super League, was won by beating Widnes 25-24 at Bloomfield Road, Blackpool.

“I’ve spent so long at this club, I can’t really put the feeling of getting to Wembley into words,” he admitted.

“What I will say is that to be the first Batley coach to do it is an absolute honour.

“I’m really pleased for this group of players. Given what they put into the club, they deserved to get to Wembley.

“Sometimes you don’t get what you deserve, but they stuck to what we do best and earned their place there.

“And that goes for the whole squad, not just those who played against York.

“It can be really difficult for a coach, because you can only pick 17 players, and there are always going to be some who are disappointed.

“But there were no complaints and none of those who didn’t play sulked. They were really professional, helped out where they needed to and supported those in the 17 where they needed to.

“Everyone buys into what we’re about.”