Championship Focus: U-Knighting a club

Gareth Walker gains an insight into York’s latest initiative with the club’s supporters

There aren’t many sports where you would get a group of fans aged between mid-teens and pensioners, a club Chairman, coach and player all together on a video call discussing personal issues.

But that has been what’s happening at York City Knights over the last seven days after the club launched its latest initiative with supporters.

As Chairman Jon Flatman points out, it’s not a unique idea, but one they have adapted to provide what they will believe will be a significant impact on the fans involved.

I joined the club on one such call last week, and it was a remarkably refreshing experience, listening to people talk about how the last 12 months has affected their personal lives while asking rugby questions of coach James Ford and player Chris Clarkson.

The Knights’ version of this approach originated at the start of the first lockdown last spring.

Flatman explained: “We did a series of phone calls early in lockdown one, before everybody was using Zoom.

“We had our senior players call a group of senior fans over 65.

“We kept our players up-to-date with what was happening all of the time, which was appreciated, and they then asked what they could do to help us.

“We put it around the office and decided why not ring people up to see how they’re doing.

“Clubs use players like that when they want fans to renew season tickets, but we wanted just to see how people were getting on.

“That senior group made probably 150 calls, and there were some relationships built then that are still going now.

“I know that Will Jubb still rings up one of his contacts on a regular basis to talk fishing, university and cricket and just to have a chat.

“This time, when the lockdown came everybody was using Zoom and Teams, but while you could hold business conferences online for hundreds of people we wanted to keep the groups small and personal.

“We trusted our players and staff to be able to have those personal conversations with fans; they understood the rationale behind it and really bought into it.

“We know others have done similar things and all of these ideas are recycled in some way. But we think it really works.

“What has been good about them has been that everyone has had a chance to speak; we’ve had full engagement from people taking part.

“There has been some pretty personal stuff delivered in confidence at times, and we’ve had fantastic feedback from them.

“It’s something that we will definitely repeat and continue past lockdown, because why wouldn’t we?”

The call I was involved with ran way beyond the planned 45 minutes, and included six supporters, Flatman, Ford and Clarkson.

There were no barriers whatsoever between officials and fans; it was a chat between a group of people sharing their own experiences, before moving on to insights of how the club has been operating.

In short, it encapsulated everything good about Rugby League – the close connect between those at clubs and those that come through the turnstiles.

Flatman has certainly seen the benefits, which go beyond anything measured by monetary value.

“Is there any direct commercial return from doing this?” he added.

“No, but there has been a lot of love in those rooms and people have come out of them much happier than when they went in.

“People have been looking out for each other and they will remember that once things get back to normal.

“Those people will walk past each other in the stand at a game at some point and there will be a link between them; they’ll have something in common.

“As a club you exist for two things – hope for the future and pride in the past.

“If you can have those two things you’ve got a pretty good club, and I’d like to think anyone involved with these calls has been proud of their club.”

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