THE BIG INTERVIEW: Jon Flatman on rebuilding and revitalising York City Knights

If you grouped 100 rugby league fans of all ages in a room and asked them for the first word that came into their head when they thought of the sport in York, you’d doubtless get a fascinating variance in responses.

For those whose exposure to rugby league is much more recent, the first words may not be all that complimentary, given how the city’s premiere club have spent the majority of the last few years in the headlines for all the wrong reasons. 

After all, you only have to go back 18 months to be reminded of the near-unbelievable situation the new owners of York City Knights found themselves in. “We took over on the 1st December that year,” their chairman, Jon Flatman, recalls to TotalRL.

“At that time, the club didn’t have a venue to play its fixtures at the following year, it had no office base and its reputation, for what the club stood for in the city, was struggling.”

Now though, ahead of arguably the biggest game of the weekend across all three professional divisions, the situation could not be more different. The darkness and gloom surrounding the Knights has gone; now, there is undoubtedly a bright future ahead with Flatman steering the ship off the field, and James Ford – more on him later – on it.

How does Flatman view the previous handling of the Knights in an area with such untapped potential? “The past has happened, and everyone will learn from that,” he says. “The previous chairman had delivered a club for the city for 10 years and that’s commendable. The way he did things might not have been the way others would, but we’re all different people. This is about looking forward and if it wasn’t for that individual, we may not have had a club to build this platform with.

Sunday’s opponents Bradford have been vocal in youth development playing a strong role in their long-term plans: York are no different. One of Flatman’s first priorities was to establish stronger links with the community clubs in the area. Producing North Yorkshire-born players is another goal – that has already been recognised to some extent, with players like Joe Porter at the heart of their quest for promotion.

“A strong relationship with the community is vital,” Flatman insists. “We’re aware that everyone has their own agenda, and that’s okay – it’s good, even. But everyone wants the same thing for York. As long as people who pull the shirt on – whether they’re from York or somewhere else – give their all, we don’t mind, but of course, when you have York-born players wearing the shirt they love, you perhaps inevitably get an element of a little bit more from them.”

But, let’s be honest – we have avoided the elephant in the room for too long at this point. Let’s talk about York’s innovative marketing techniques. Whether it be the more conventional retro shirt day, the ‘York and Proud’ game – or even more outlandish PR campaigns like ‘L’eau De Fordy’, a nod to Ford’s snappy dress sense, York will have certainly caught your eye on Twitter this year.

Flatman is modest, saying: “Nothing we do is new, Keighley and Bradford were doing this 20 years ago.” But there is a lesson for all clubs in how to use a free platform like Twitter to your advantage – and the numbers back up the fact that the city of York are buying into what the City Knights have to offer.

In the two years of Flatman’s reign, crowd figures have trebled. Sceptics – and there are plenty of them – will argue big names like Catalans, Toronto and Bradford visiting Bootham Crescent has inflated that number: but two of these three sides travelled to York without away support. 

“We hoped it would deliver bums on seats – and we think it has,” Flatman says. “We’ve backed the people involved, to let them flourish. People are always telling you that something will never work – we decided to stop saying no, and give things a chance.

“We knew from a financial standpoint that growing crowds was absolutely essential. It feeds everything else across the business, and commercial partners are encouraged by crowds going up, they then want to be involved and be a part of it. The numbers are probably where we hoped they would be.”

This week, the Knights’ progression was also underlined by the promotion of Ford to the club’s first-ever full-time coach. “It’s an indication of all that he brings to the operation, Flatman says of his coach. “As a coach, an ambassador for the club and a person, you can’t ask for any more from one individual. It was made on the premise he has delivered everything expected of him and more, and we believe he will continue to deliver.” It is hard to argue given Ford’s stock.

There is also the small matter of the new community stadium in Huntington, on the site the Knights once played. It will be ready midway through next season – but York will not wait until the end of 2019 to settle in. “As soon as the keys are in our hands, we’re in,” Flatman laughs. “This is going to blow peoples’ minds when they see it – and it’s another key milestone in the growth of our club.”

And onto Sunday. There is perhaps an argument it is must-win for York in terms of the League 1 title race – but at a time where the sport appears to be constantly bickering with itself, how refreshing to hear two clubs championing what is happening on the field, rather than off it.

“Sunday will be brilliant,” Flatman says. “Two great cities, two great sets of fans and some quality rugby league – what’s not to like? There is no excuse to miss it; even if you can’t get there it’ll be on Facebook: but I would urge anyone who’s unsure what to do on Sunday to get there.”

While the rugby league world scrambles for supremacy and power, the future of the game outside Super League looks increasingly interesting. For all the negativity in the lower leagues, though, it is clubs like York that prove there is plenty of life in the Championship and League 1 – and plenty worth persisting with. To those who are unsure of the value of the lower leagues, a trip to Odsal may well be worth considering this weekend.

“We just wanted everyone involved with York to feel valued again, and feel as though they were part of a big team that contributed to something special. So far, it’s gone to plan.” Make no mistake about it, whatever the result on Sunday, you suspect you’re going to be hearing a lot more from York in the coming weeks, months and years.