Jon Flatman determined to enjoy the ride at ambitious York City Knights

IT did not take long for York City Knights chairman Jon Flatman to agree to hosting Super League-bound Toronto Wolfpack at their new LNER Community Stadium next year.

Jon Flatman.

Far from it, in fact. And not just because Sonny Bill Williams might be in action when the Canadians take on Wakefield Trinity on Sunday March 22.

“When we were first approached about the idea, it was just a straight away ‘yes’,” said Flatman, who has helped transform the North Yorkshire club since taking over in December 2016.

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“That stadium has been built to host world-class events and Toronto with Sonny Bill – without Sonny Bill – playing Wakefield in Super League, it’s just a huge, huge draw for York.

Coach James Ford. Picture: Tony Johnson.

“Let’s get into a position on March 22 where York shows it can host top-class rugby league as well as hosting top-class festivals, art, the work around the Minster... let’s put York on the map for a sporting region as the Tour De France did.

“We’ll aim to sell it out and the cut-through is immense; we’ve not advertised anything about it yet – aside from the day it’s on – but there’s only 20 corporate seats left at the whole venue.”

York, of course, will face Featherstone Rovers in a Championship fixture in the first-part of the Mothering Sunday double-header, one of many exciting projects they have in the pipeline for 2020.

But what of 2019? It has been another year to remember for a club that continues to punch above its weight both on and off the field.

BACKING: Fans of York City Knights applaud their team during last season's clash at Bootham Crescent against Widnes. Picture by Ash Allen/SWpix.com

Having earned promotion from League 1, it could easily have all been about survival and consolidation.

However, under the guidance of highly-rated young coach James Ford, part-timers York flourished further and defied the odds to finish third, only a point behind second-placed Toulouse Olympique.

It was no surprise Ford claimed Championship Coach of the Year and City Knights – with their effective marketing and use of social media driving crowds up – took Club of the Year.

With the addition of former Super League players such as Chris Clarkson, Danny Washbrook, Jimmy Keinhorst and James Green, they have strengthened further ahead of the 2020 campaign.

Connor Robinson of York City Knights celebrates with teammates after scoring at try against Widnes in April. Picture by Ash Allen/SWpix.com

The aim is, at some point, to make their own push for Super League but Flatman – who has worked in different roles at London Skolars, Hull FC and Wakefield Trinity previously – insists no timeline has been set in that regard.

“Last year we worked on the premise that the first priority was to stay up and when we did that – got eight or nine wins – we’d then know what the opportunities were and how everything was panning out,” he recalled.

“And, of course, last year we were due to move into the stadium in July.

“That got taken away and financially that was really difficult. Things can change really quickly in the year.

“But that premise probably still exists today; let’s look at how it goes.

“I just think if we keep the momentum from last year off the field and then build on that momentum then we’ll be in a healthy place.

“Finish as high as possible and we’ll give it every shot.

“The challenge is just to stay humble and fully understand we are where we are. That’s not a lack of ambition, just a reality check.

“It’s a competitive competition across the board and we just have to keep it up.”

Having first got involved in the sport when a friend started up a rugby league side at Birmingham University, Flatman worked in many areas of it before finally arriving in his current role.

At Skolars, he helped with business development while, having moved on to Hull, he worked in its Foundation and then on the marketing side of the business.

Later, he had two years as director of sport and community at the Sirius Academy in Hull before what he described as a “mind-blowing” experience completing a MBA (Master of Business Administration).

As part of that, Flatman spent time at Wakefield as a management consultant in 2015.

During his time at Belle Vue, working with co-owners Michael Carter and Chris Brereton, he saw the club successfully come through the first Million Pound Game against Bradford Bulls and it provided valuable insight.

“It was an interesting time when looking back,” he said.

“The emotions of that week and building up to it, not just that final week.

“I felt for Michael and Chris who had put a tremendous amount of effort in. To all come down to that one game...

“Michael runs a sustainable business and it takes discipline to do it. When you see all the things that happened at Wakefield at the time – needing to be in Super League, not wanting to miss out, players coming and going, the change of ownership before – there was some real challenges.

“It’s probably had more impact on me than I realised at the time and this is probably the first time I’ve thought of it like that,” he added.

It was not long after that that Flatman came in at York so what prompted him to immerse him fully as a chairman himself?

“Being in and around sport you develop your own way of thinking and what you think is right,” he said.

“It probably isn’t but it’s what you think and it gives you that appetite and passion.

“I guess it’s an emotional thing and you want to get more involved as time goes on.

“The opportunity at York all came together at once.

“It was an attractive proposition for many different reasons; the city itself, the positioning of sport within the city, the demographic of the city is a different one for rugby league.

“But the sport still has heritage and history in York – you’re not dropping it in – but you could start a new organisation.

“We set out four aims in December 2016; be a sustainable Championship club, develop a pathway for York kids and add to the GDP of the sport.

“We wanted to contribute and put into the game rather than take out.

“The fourth was to give something to the community, be an active part of York and not been seen as boisterous or screaming or shouting. Be a contributor to the city of York because we’d expected York to contribute to us.

“Three years on we’re in a decent place. The challenge is to grow all areas, not just on the pitch.

“As we know the bounce of a ball can often define a season when the reality is there’s far more to it than that.

“Where will this journey go? I don’t know. But rather than worry too much about the destination maybe we’re just starting to enjoy the ride.”