ANDY HAY’S first few months as a head coach, at the helm of Championship Grand Finalists Featherstone Rovers, have certainly been eventful.
The former Great Britain second-row arrived in May, more than impressed by the West Yorkshire club’s clear ambition and bold plans to make an assault on Super League in 2015.
Yet barely six weeks later and the man chiefly behind that aforementioned bid – majority shareholder Feisal Nahaboo – had walked out, taking his financial muscle with him and followed, too, by chief executive Craig Poskitt, following an “undisclosed disagreement” with chairman Mark Campbell.
Rumours were rife that the plug had been pulled on Featherstone’s ‘Destination Super League’ dream, worried players may be left unpaid and it would all end in disaster.
Maybe Hay should not have been too surprised by the dramatic turn of events given he took over from a man who had lasted just 10 competitive matches in charge but still left the club in a creditable position of third.
John Bastian’s hasty and harsh demise arrived, though, after consecutive defeats against Leigh Centurions – a formidable side that has lost just one league game all season on its way to Sunday night’s Headingley final – left the demanding Featherstone hierarchy distinctly unimpressed.
Hay has negotiated some rocky waters himself since but has undoubtedly made a positive impression and, therefore, Rovers are now so close to an elusive title. The ex-Leeds Rhinos star, whose father John played at centre for Featherstone in the late Sixties, admitted to The Yorkshire Post: “It has been a steep learning curve. I knew coming into the club that there was a lot of history here of it being successful.
“I knew the pressure was on from that point of view and a lot of things have added to that along the way. We’ve come through a lot of tough times during the year but we just get on with the job on the field and now it comes down to the last game of the season and 80 minutes of football.”
Of course, under Bastian’s predecessor and current Castleford Tigers chief Daryl Powell, Featherstone finished top in four successive years but only won the Grand Final once, in 2011.
This time around, they came second, fully 15 points behind an imperious Leigh side that have taken the competition by storm in 2014 and rattled off more than 1,000 points in the process.
“They are a really good side and massive favourites,” conceded Hay, who spent five years as Terry Matterson’s assistant at Castleford, before heading to Hull FC where he left, in acrimonious circumstances, after 18 months.
“Leigh had eight players in the Championship Team of the Year on Tuesday. We had one.
“We’re massive underdogs and there aren’t any expectations on us. Leigh are the ones deemed to have the firepower up front, good half-backs and quick outside backs so we’re under no illusions it will be tough.
“Yet, on the other side of that, we’ve some great players – a good pack, Gareth Moore playing well at half and a backline probably the envy of most in the comp’.
“It should be a good match-up.
“We have to play to our very best to compete. If we do that, then we will and who’ll know what happens then?”
Hay, after working as No 2 to Brian Noble and then Iestyn Harris at Salford Red Devils, has stamped his own mark on Rovers.
And he feels the lack of expectancy on his side can be beneficial.
“We’ve had no pressure on us since finishing second,” added the 40-year-old, whose squad secured the lucrative runners-up spot and, crucially, an extra £250,000 by winning at then second-placed Halifax in August.
“You can see as a group of players just how much more fluid our game is now and they are enjoying themselves more.
“It is rare, in recent years, that Fev go into a game like this and aren’t favourites and that can help us. But also you have to remember Leigh are favourites for a reason. We have to be switched on for 80 minutes.”
They need only look at their chastening 48-18 defeat at Leigh in August to be reminded of that.
But Paul Rowley’s side, whose solitary loss was against Doncaster, were pushed hard by sixth-placed Dewsbury Rams before eventually progressing through Sunday’s play-off 31-22, showing they are not infallible.
Castleford-born Hay concluded: “I’m really enjoying it. Coming here from Salford I just thought it was time to be a head coach.
“Fev have given me an opportunity and I’m more than happy.
“It’s a great club with such a community feel and there’s stuff going on that, unless people come down and see for themselves, they won’t truly understand.
“There’s volunteers doing building work for us and, at the minute, we’re digging up an area to make sure we can get a full length pitch in for next season.
“But, first, we have some unfinished business and want to end this one on a high. The boys are full of confidence.”