THOUGH YORK City Knights will go into the new season as genuine promotion candidates, ambitions within the camp are being kept in check.
Attracting a player of former England Knights forward Chris Clarkson’s calibre is evidence York are becoming a force to be reckoned with in rugby league’s second tier.
After finishing third in the Championship last season, competition sponsors Betfred rate York a 10/1 shot for the title – and elevation to the elite level – at the end of 2020.
Clarkson, 29, is an ambitious signing, having been twice a Grand Final champion and a Challenge Cup winner during a six-season, 118-game spell with his hometown club Leeds Rhinos.
He has also featured in Super League for Widnes Vikings, Hull KR and Castleford Tigers, for whom he scored four tries in 20 appearances last year.
The bookies’ odds are remarkable for a club only promoted to the second tier at the end of 2018 and whose future was uncertain 12 months before that, but understandable after a spirited debut season at Championship level.
The element of surprise has certainly been lost and no opposition team will line up against York this year expecting anything other than to be pushed to the limit.
Under James Ford, arguably the most exciting coaching talent outside the elite level, York’s efforts last year provided their fans with hope the top-flight adventures of the pre-Super League era may once again return to the Minster city.
Raised expectations bring added pressure, but Clarkson insisted the squad are taking no notice of outside aspirations.
“We’re not thinking about where we’ll finish in the league, we have just been challenged to be the best we can be each day,” he stressed of the side’s approach to the new campaign.
“We are trying to be a professional outfit in a part-time environment and if 20-25 members of the squad can be the best they can be week-in and week-out, we’ll see where it takes us. With the calibre of players York already had and who they’ve signed, I’m sure we’ll do quite well.”
York have recruited strongly with Danny Washbrook, the former Hull FC and Wakefield Trinity forward, also adding vast top-flight experience to the pack.
“There’s some big names,” said Clarkson. “But the names that aren’t as well-known are more than capable, I think, of taking this club to where they want to be.”
Clarkson acknowledged: “It would be great for the club to reach Super League. York is a great city and the potential there is massive, but we have not set any goals. We will just see where we end up.”
Though the code there has been through some dark days during the summer era, including the demise of the previous Wasps club, York is known as a rugby league heartland. Clarkson pledged: “If I can do my small part in getting more numbers through the gate and getting the club’s name out there in the city of York, that’ll be great.
“I definitely don’t feel like I have taken a step backwards. Watching York from afar last year, it was an appealing club to come to.
“I always said if I had to make the drop to the Championship I’d like to go to York. I go there with the family for days out, it is a lovely city full of lovely people and if we can get rugby league out there in York, that is great.”
After 10 seasons at the top level, Clarkson is now combining his playing career with work in the building trade, having kept his hand in from his earliest days at Leeds.
He lamented: “There’s no more mid-day finishes! But I suppose I have started that transition into finishing rugby league and going into full-time work.
“It has been seamless because I’ve done it throughout my career. Training-wise it is different, it is really long days with working and training part-time, but it is good and I am enjoying it.”
Though they are part-time, Clarkson reckons York feels like a fully-professional set-up.
“They’ve got great facilities,” he pointed out. “There’s a great relationship with the university, a great gym there and a training field and the new stadium is being built now. We are going for a meal there [today] which will be my first time seeing it. I am looking forward to that. The new ground will probably rival a Super League stadium. I’m looking forward to playing games there.”
The new base, on the site of the former Huntington Stadium, will be shared with York City Football Club.
Knights confirmed yesterday their season-opener against Bradford Bulls, on Sunday, February 9, will be played at Bootham Crescent, but they expect to be in their new home for the visit of London Broncos on March 8.