Ambitious Flatman targets top flight for York City Knights

HOW refreshing to be able to write a good news story about rugby league.

York City Knights's Matt Chilton celebrates the title in front of the stands with a drum.
York City Knights's Matt Chilton celebrates the title in front of the stands with a drum.

And, in that regard, York City Knights are certainly the embodiment of good news; everything they currently touch seems to turn to gold.

Well, silver, to be more precise, when it came to lifting the League 1 shield and trophy on Sunday.

For a club that was facing extinction barely two years ago, the turnaround – both on and off the field – has been astonishing.

York head coach James Ford

James Ford’s dynamic side were crowned champions and cemented promotion to the Championship following their 32-14 final day win over Whitehaven, prompting memorable and jubilant scenes at Bootham Crescent.

A crowd of 3,233 – more than some Super League clubs have attracted this term – were on hand to see York return to the second tier for the first time since 2013.

Chairman Jon Flatman admits it was the perfect ending to a glorious campaign that, remarkably, saw 24 wins from 26 league games and so much feelgood factor for their fans, often on the back of bold marketing initiatives.

“It was a fantastic feeling,” he told The Yorkshire Post, about sealing promotion, after a 15th successive win made sure the might of Bradford Bulls did not pip them in the last act.

Matt Chilton dives over to score a try against Whitehaven

“It had been built up and built up in the media and by the marketing guys and there was a real special effort behind it.

“The rugby league community got behind it all and there was even a great turnaround in the weather – it changed from forecasts for gale-force winds and pouring rain to what turned out to be a really nice afternoon.

“It all came together in a perfect storm; our coach James Ford has done a fantastic job and our players, coaching staff and everyone involved really deserves it.”

Expect those crowds, this team and the entire club to flourish further now they have reached the Championship and especially as they prepare to move into a new, purpose-built 8,000 capacity stadium next June,

The endgame is to reach Super League for the first time in their long history and, given the famous city’s size and vast appeal, Flatman believes it is possible.

He took over in December 2016 with the club dogged by uncertainty but, without breaking the bank, has led a revival that is an example to all other aspiring semi-professional clubs.

Part of that saw Flatman make Ford the club’s first full-time coach in July, a sign of not only York’s ambition but also the rising stock of the 35-year-old as one of the sport’s most promising young coaches.

Now they plot their way into the Championship in 2019 together and Flatman added: “League 1 is a vibrant competition – we’ve seen that. We all know the Championship is so vibrant as well but a different beast altogether.

“There’s irons in the fire with recruitment but it was right we got through this season without that at the forefront of our minds.

“Further discussions will now take place; the work started really about 6pm Sunday night.”

Asked where this feat ranked in his own career, Flatman – who worked with Hull FC and Wakefield Trinity previously – admitted: “It is a massive achievement. Everyone starts out with a plan. We had a three-year one.

“We’ll reassess that now but I’ll always remember the smiles on the faces of so many on Sunday.

“The sheer outpouring of emotion after the game and the thanks we received from so many, that gave me a great satisfaction.

“And a reminder of how much rugby league means to everyone.”

Ben Cockayne is one of a handful of York players already more used to playing in Super League.

Nevertheless, the 35 year-old winger, who joined from Hull KR at the end of last term and was utilised as a stand-off in a Ford masterstroke, says this has been one of his career highlights, too.

“It’s up there with what we did with KR when we won promotion to Super League in 2006,” said Cockayne, who stays on in 2019.

“That season we only lost one or two games as well. I’d put this on a par with that and you have to take it right back to what Fordy’s done.

“He’s created a culture and an environment where there’s a bunch of people in there who know they have to train well and play well to stay in the team.

“From day one he made that call and, for a part-time team, it can sometimes be hard to manage. Players could just be playing for appearance money or win/loss money so to be able to get everyone competing like he has has really been admirable.

“When you bring in dual-reg as well there’s a lot to balance and he’s done a great job. Then there’s Jon Flatman and all those that do so much behind the scenes plus the social media guys who have just been massive.

“It’s been a real privilege for me to be a part of it all. As players, we’re just the ‘front of house’ people who get to go out and play.

“But what everyone else does, and those fans, is immense.”