MANY people would believe Batley Bulldogs owe George Flanagan everything after his brave drop goal secured a place in their maiden Championship Grand Final tomorrow,
However, the livewire hooker is the first to admit it is entirely the other way around after the West Yorkshire club stood by him during a dark period of his life.
It was in September 2009 that Flanagan – already serving a two-year playing ban for breaching anti-doping regulations – was put on trial for two weeks on conspiracy to supply class A drugs.
A jury at Bradford Crown Court took only an hour to find him not guilty but it was a nerve-wracking and emotionally draining time for the youngster.
He returned from his drugs ban with Batley in 2011 but later moved to local rivals Dewsbury Rams before returning to Mount Pleasant this season.
Flanagan subsequently played a pivotal part in Sunday’s dramatic extra-time play-off success at League Leaders’ Shield winners Featherstone Rovers meaning the unfashionable club – who won the inaugural Challenge Cup in 1897 and their only title in 1924 – are now set to face champions Sheffield Eagles in tomorrow’s Championship finale at Leigh.
“There were a lot of lean times,” he recalled to the Yorkshire Post ahead of the showdown.
“But my name’s in the paper for the right reasons this time and it (Featherstone) was the best day I’ve had since my kids were born.
“Batley stood by me through those tough times and were in regular contact.
“It was the worst moment (court) and desperately dark for me.
“Everything all happened at the same time and I’m so glad I had so much support to get me through it.
“I did feel down and at times I didn’t want to play rugby anymore.
“But I got around it and Batley stayed close to me and my family.
“They are so well run by (chairman) Kevin (Nicholas) and all the people behind the desk there.
“They really make the club work and it is so close to my heart.”
Having finished fifth this season, John Kear’s side will become the first team to ever win the Championship from outside the top four if they prosper tomorrow.
It will be a tough prospect; this is Sheffield’s third successive final, they are the reigning champions and they have a formidable record against Batley having won all of their last eight meetings dating back to 2010.
Mark Aston’s side, who finished second, are also desperately keen to redress the balance after losing July’s Northern Rail Cup final to Leigh.
But Batley – who won at both Leigh and Featherstone in successive play-off weeks with golden point victories – are battle-hardened, on a five-match victorious run and are ready to inflict another shock.
“We’re going in on the back of two big, big wins both after extra time following what happened at Leigh and Fev,” said Flanagan, who started out in Bradford Bulls’ academy but never played Super League.
“People were writing us off before the Leigh game but we went there and turned the screw.
“We dug deep for each other and moved on to Fev where we did the same.
“We showed all that Bulldog spirit and we’ll go to Leigh knowing we can really put in a good performance.
“People say Sheffield are our bogey team but in a Grand Final anything can happen.
“They are really strong in the backs with a good strong forward pack and Andrew Henderson in the middle of it all.
“They are really well coached by Mark Aston and are a top team but we don’t fear them,” he added.
That is especially so after the manner of Batley’s remarkable win at Featherstone.
They had been 18-0 down after just 36 minutes but fought back in the second period to draw level 20-20 at the death.
Heading into extra-time, everyone expected the hero from Leigh – Ben Black – to go for the crucial one point.
However, instead, Flanagan took it upon himself from dummy half to do the deed, kicking his first-ever drop goal and sending the visiting fans wild.
“We managed to get a quick play-the-ball and I could hear Gareth Moore and Ben Black both shouting ‘George’,” he recollected.
“But I saw the first marker go and thought I’d have a pop myself.
“I managed to take a couple of steps out and as soon as it struck my foot I knew it was going over,” he said.
“They’d had a couple of charge downs and Fev’s line speed was really brilliant.
“I knew they’d go for them but if they didn’t I might be in a bit of a mess.
“Thankfully, it was all happy days. I didn’t know what was happening with the celebration afterwards.
“I didn’t know where I was heading or anything. I just went on this long run towards the Batley fans as the ball went over and it was a brilliant feeling,” he said.
When asked if it was the highlight of his career so far, he admitted: “By a country mile.
“And I’m not just saying this because they’re my team-mates now but they are the best set of lads I’ve ever played with throughout my career.
“To get that moment with them was really special. Hopefully, we’ll get another like it against Sheffield.”