James Ford looks out from his vantage point in York City Knights’ new state-of-the-art facility still trying to believe that this is the new home of his club.
Nine years ago, when Ford’s association with the club started, initially as a player, he could never have envisaged the journey he would experience. He could certainly never have predicted the club would boast what he sees before him as its home after almost a decade of turbulence.
Ford arrived at the club as a player in 2011 and they avoided relegation by a fluke, with the demise of the Celtic Crusaders and the misdemeanours of Barrow keeping them in the Championship. A year later, they were again spared relegation, despite winning just one game all season. Eventually, in 2013, the Knights were relegated.
In 2015, he transitioned to the coaching ranks, though adversity was never far away. That year, the club had to play at the home of local amateur club Heworth, after Huntington had been demolished to make way for what would become their new home.
18 months into his tenure, the club directors threatened to wind up the club because of disputes with York Council.
Takeover talks collapsed that summer and, by December, the club was within 24 hours of the collapse, with an RFL deadline for ownership issues set to expire.
To say the club’s resurgence in the four years since has been remarkable would in all honesty do it an injustice.
In truth, the club never struggled on the field under Ford. During his first three years in charge, they finished in League 1’s top four, before missing out on promotion.
But 2018 saw the club’s ascent up the Rugby League ladder truly begin, and the trajectory has been near vertical since.
They secured the League 1 title in 2018 after a dramatic year-long battle with Bradford Bulls. Their exploits in 2019 were greater, surprising everyone to finish third amid established, bigger-spending clubs.
Now they have a first-grade stadium at their disposal to match their success on the field. Crowds surpassed 2,000 during 2019 and some believe they were unlucky not to be selected for Super League entry through the recent selection process.
But Ford and his colleagues have brushed that off, and are now fully focused on a more traditional, onfield approach to earning Super League status.
“There’s been some off-field strife, let’s be honest, it’s been a very challenging period. But that’s over now,” says Ford, as he surveys the LNER Community Stadium.
“The city is behind us, we have a fantastic facility and we can’t wait to play here.”
That will, hopefully, be in March. If that’s the case, Ford will boast a squad that has added significant experience to its ranks. Ryan Atkins, Adam Cuthbertson and Danny Kirmond have all arrived to complement a squad that earned the club promotion to this level in 2018.
There’ll be a new halfback duo, with Australian Brendan O’Hagan and Morgan Smith, the latter arriving from London Broncos, being the team’s chief operators too.
It’s a high-profile recruitment drive that will come with expectation externally. To many, York are now a Super League club in waiting and Ford is the man who has to deliver that objective.
“All coaches are judged by results on the field; that’s the agreement we sign up to when we take the post,” says Ford.
“I’m looking forward to that challenge; on paper we have a stronger squad and we’re still looking to add to it. We want to be the best version of ourselves.”
Ford believes that if York want to prove they are genuine contenders, they’ll have to provide optimum levels of performance, given the level of competition across the Championship.
“I don’t think there’s a lot between a number of sides; I’d list them, but I’d miss one and rattle them. There are some great teams in the competition, with great players and coaches. It bodes well for the potential of the Championship beyond 2021 and the sponsors and supporters.
“All we can do, as well as the other teams, is keep knocking the standards up in terms of preparation, fitness and facilities, and drive continuous improvement. If we do that, the secret will eventually get out of the bag, won’t it?
“I’m pleased to be playing my part in it, but York and I will be doing everything to come out on top of the pile.”
York City Knights squad: 1 Matty Marsh, 2 Jason Bass, 3 Liam Salter, 4 Ryan Atkins, 5 Kieran Dixon, 6 Brendan O’Hagan, 7 Morgan Smith, 8 Ronan Dixon, 9 Will Jubb, 10 Jack Teanby, 11 Chris Clarkson, 12 Sam Scott, 13 Adam Cuthbertson, 14 Kriss Brining, 15 Jordan Baldwinson, 16 Marcus Stock, 17 Danny Kirmond, 19 James Green, 20 Tim Spears, 21 Joe Porter, 22 Perry Whiteley, 23 Harry Dodd, 24 Daniel Barcoe, 25 AJ Towse, 26 Myles Harrison, 27 Toby Warren, 28 Danny Washbrook, 30 Tyme Dow-Nikau.
Ins: Ryan Atkins, (Wakefield Trinity), Daniel Barcoe (Wakefield Trinity), Adam Cuthbertson (Leeds Rhinos), Kieran Dixon (London Broncos), Harry Dodd (Wakefield Trinity), Danny Kirmond (Wakefield Trinity), Tyme Nikau (North Wales Crusaders), Brendan Oâ€™Hagan (Wests Tigers), Morgan Smith (London Broncos)
Outs: Brad Hey (Hunslet), Ben Johnston (Doncaster), Josh Jordan-Roberts (Rochdale Hornets), Connor Robinson (Halifax Panthers), Will Sharp (released), Elliot Wallis (Hull Kingston Rovers – loan expiry)
Head coach: James Ford