Since retiring from playing the sport in 2014, former centre James Ford has established himself as one of the most promising coaches outside of Super League while at the helm of Kingstone Press League One’s York City Knights and, after signing a new contract in 2017 following links with jobs at Featherstone and Sheffield, he feels his development as a coach can grow alongside the club itself and, looking forward to the upcoming campaign, he agreed to sit down with myself and talk the Knights and rugby in general.
After a tumultuous off season at the end of the John Guilford regime, the Minster city club were reeling from the loss of big players who saw fit to move on amid the uncertainty and, when current owner John Flatman’s takeover last winter, the Knights were playing catchup in preparing for the past season Ford saying that, regarding last year, “we had a number of players coming out of Super League under 19s and their understanding of certain things was a long way off where I thought it was going to be and where it needed to be.” Indeed, the fact that the supposed deficiencies in the squad in Ford’s opinion didn’t halt the team’s development or progress throughout the season is a testament to his and his staff’s coaching as well as the world class facilities at the club’s disposal now – facilities which weren’t available to the likes of Dave Woods or Gary Thornton during their coaching tenures at York. Ford alluded to the development of the squad throughout 2017, stating that “the improvement the players showed throughout the year really is a testament to their attitude towards learning and hard work” and that the campaign, which saw an early defeat to Kingstone Press League 1 minnows Oxford, ended with the Knights in the promotion play off semi final having also been the first team to beat the all-conquering Toronto Wolfpack is a very real indicator of the aforementioned progress.
It is a progress that Ford is proud of and one which he feels is vital that the current crop of Knights continue this season, saying “the quality of the league has certainly gone up again” and highlighting the likes of newly relegated Bradford Bulls – who, unsurprisingly, he feels will be the team to beat – and Oldham as potential contenders challenging for promotion. Adding to that, Ford identifies the likes of Doncaster and Hunslet as top of the table rivals, stating “Doncaster have recruited really well and Hunslet have signed some eye catching players. Leon Pryce at Workington will bring the x-factor to them… it makes for a really exciting season.” While the competition for promotion is definitely there, the fact that there is a more traditional look to the league makes away journeys much more straightforward for the Knights without the foreign element the competition has seen recently. In the last two years, Ford has had to take his team to both Toulouse – three times in 2016 – and Toronto with squad difficulties being prevalent, especially with the French trips. Ford, regarding the Toulouse excursions, said “going there three times in a year was tough. We only took fifteen the second time and twelve on the last occasion” which perhaps is the biggest reason Ford himself is relieved to not have those journeys to contend with; “it’s much easier to prepare to travel to Doncaster or Hunslet.” However, the aforementioned journeys, while being challenging, were definitely worthwhile with the coach himself outlining that “it’s a good experience for the players and to have teams of that calibre in the competition just shows how League One is moving forward.”
With an eye on the upcoming campaign, it is clear from speaking to Ford that he is a man happy that his team’s preparations are going well and that the 2018 season could be a strong one for the Knights. This off season, while last year’s was very difficult, has seemingly run much smoother and the recruits brought into York show the potential of the club as well as Ford’s reputation as an upcoming coach. The likes of Will Jubb, Jake Butler Fleming and Graeme Horne have all returned to the Minster city club following appearances on dual registration last season on permanent deals and, with them reportedly turning down other clubs to join York, Ford said that “they believe in the vision and the York City Knights project” and adding that new owner Jon Flatman has been “instrumental in helping attract players like Ben Cockayne, Graeme Horne and Sam Scott,” the latter of whom is returning to York after leaving for Batley in 2013. It is this quality of recruitment that is leading to other clubs viewing the Knights as a threat in 2018 and Ford suggested that the team have the potential to be really exciting this year. When asked about players he feels will get fans on their feet, Brad Delaney was a man mentioned. The recent recruit from Coventry arrived to little fanfare – not dissimilar from second rower Joe Batchelor – signed after an initial trial period and Ford said “he’s quick and a good support player and if he’s good enough to make the seventeen he will make and score tries,” highlighting his scoring record of one in every two games while at Coventry – impressive while playing for a ‘lesser’ team. “He’s looked promising so far in training,” adding that he needs to develop more of a controlling influence during matches in order to guide the Knights around the pitch. Like seemingly all players involved in York currently, Ford acknowledged his worth ethic, saying that “he’s got a good attitude and he seems willing to learn and work hard.” Ben Cockayne’s aggression and will to win was also highlighted by Ford, suggesting that he will also be a fan’s favourite – “I don’t think he could ever not be a fan’s favourite. He plays with his heart on his sleeve.” Continuing on the same point, the former Knights player added that “there’s blokes that are going to excite supporters all around the team,” name dropping the likes of Ash Robson, Judah Masive (recently recruited from Wakefield Trinity), Joe Batchelor and Brad Hey.
One of the key strengths of York’s development throughout last season was the blossoming of a strong dual registration partnership with recently promoted Hull KR – a team who, when the initial agreement was struck, had just fallen out of Super League. Indeed, the likes of Jubb, Butler Fleming and Horne have joined from the Humberside club this winter and the likes of Liam Harris featured heavily for the Knights as part of the agreement last season only to move on to Doncaster in the off season. Speaking about the strength of it, Ford said “there’s a mutual respect between the clubs above the coaching level and that clubs are frequently in contact” and that “both clubs see it as a partnership rather than us relying on Hull KR or Hull KR relying on us.” Ford’s previous playing contacts are of great benefit in this regard as well because, while playing for Widnes Vikings, he starred alongside KR coach James Webster who he has a great working relationship with, adding that “James has been really supportive to me as a young coach coming through.” Not only does Ford have great respect for Webster but also The Robins’ head coach Tim Sheens, a man whose coaching career began over thirty years ago and who has taken in coaching the Australian international team. Speaking of Sheens, Ford glowingly said that “he’s one of the most endearing men I’ve ever come across and his knowledge of rugby league is second to none.” Furthermore, he added that “for me to have access to a bloke who has coached Australia and won titles in Australia is outstanding. Over at Hull KR they’re willing to support us in any way they can, whether that’s providing us with dual registration players, helping us to recruit or helping our team improve as coaches. It’s a really healthy partnership.”
It is clear that Ford and the Knights as a club are looking forward to the upcoming season and, just in my time sat talking rugby with him, the buzz from the players was evident as was the focus – these are players who seem ready for the challenge of going further in 2018 than they did in 2017. Not only has this off season seen developments within the club itself but the boost of work finally beginning on the much delayed new community stadium for the city in the last month is not lost on Ford. When asked where he hopes the club to be when the stadium opens – in theory in 2019 – he said that “it’d be fitting for us to be in the Championship and to have the first league game in the stadium against a massive club like Featherstone or Halifax, Leigh or even Toronto if they aren’t back in Super League. I think it would be a massive day for rugby league and for York – but there is a lot of rugby to be played before then and we’ve got to do our bit on it.”
The Knights start their 2018 Kingstone Press League One campaign at home with the plum match against the fallen Bradford Bulls – under the stewardship of the hugely experienced John Kear – in February and York fans aplenty will be hoping for another Toronto-esque build up, attendance and atmosphere which saw the team beat the Canadians after superb marketing for the match and Ford hopes that the club can go even further in preparations for Bradford, both on the pitch and off it – and it’s less than two months before we can find out!