EXCLUSIVE: Knights’ Ford keen to ensure players keep working hard

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It’s been a year of high praise for Betfred League One’s York City Knights and their head coach James Ford as the Minster city club continue to build on their growing reputation as a club and being one of the flag bearers showcasing the state of rugby league outside of the top flight. Ford himself, however, is a man who is keen to ensure that the praise is given moreso to the players than himself, as he told Get ’em Onside.

“I’ve always said that coaches get too much praise when things are going well and too much criticism when it isn’t going too well,” he admitted. “The blokes who go out on the field, they’re the ones who need the praise and the pat on the back. The blokes who defend their line for seven sets then go up the other end of the field and score a try.” A man who doesn’t seek to bask in the glow of the praise which is increasingly been issued to him, the former York centre explained his belief that the other coaches should get the plaudits as well. “I suppose the praise should be shared out among the coaching team as well. We’ve got Chris Spurr, Graeme Horne, Will and George Leatt, conditioning staff and medical team… yes I oversee what they all do but they do massive things for this club,” he said. “I’m really proud to work at this club,” Ford explained. “I think we are making enormous strides off the field and that’s obviously down to John Flatman and Gavin Wilson, all of the volunteers and the foundation as well who do a fantastic job. We wouldn’t be able to do what we do off the field if we didn’t have all of those around us.” 

Indeed, Get ’em Onside’s meeting with Ford came shortly after York’s back to back victories over Coventry and Bradford, the latter of which saw the Knights close the gap to mere goal difference between the Bulls, top in the third tier, and the Ford’s men. “It’s certainly up there as one my best wins as a coach,” he revealed, continuing that “it was really important to win that game because, if we didn’t, then our aspirations of finishing top were over really.” A defeat to the multiple Super League winners would have seen the chasm at the top open to four points which, with eight games remaining after that match, would probably have been insurmountable, something Ford was inclined to agree with. “Winning the game doesn’t guarantee us top spot, far from it, but it gives us the chance and puts pressure on Bradford. We’ve now created a situation where Bradford are under a lot of pressure and we’ve removed that margin for error that they have by closing the gap – but we obviously need to keep winning ourselves,” the 35-year-old articulated. On his team’s chances of reaching top spot and, with it, the sole automatic promotion place, Ford was, as ever, keen to ensure that his team don’t start to take their foot off the gas. “We know that we need to be as good as we were that day, if not better, if we are to get there. We put a lot of time and invested into that performance with our preparations and the boys made a lot of sacrifices so I’m really pleased for them that they played like they did and got the recognition that they deserved.  It’s going to be an immense challenge to catch them but we will keep working hard and do our very best to do so.”

Such was the importance of the clash at Odsal, emotions were understandably running high – especially, in York’s case, in the second half where the Bulls mounted a remarkable comeback. In the days following the Knights’ 30-28 victory, Ford was reported for using abusive language towards the fourth official. As a result, the former Super League threequarter was hit with a two match touchline ban and a fine following a disciplinary hearing at the RFL’s Red Hall. Regarding his sanction, Ford was reflective and accepting. “I think it is right, I deserved the ban. I said things in the heat of the moment that I shouldn’t have said,” he admitted.  “As a young coach I probably didn’t deal with the situation as well as I would have liked to but, going forward, I can change that. There were a couple of decisions that went against us which were questionable and it helped swing the game’s momentum their way and I obviously reacted in a negative way. The panel weren’t impressed with what I said to the fourth official but they understood the circumstances in which it took place and now I’ll serve my ban, pay the fine and learn from it.”

Looking back at the season so far, which has been a strong one for both the club and Ford individually, the head coach believes there is still further improvement to come from his charges but was keen to emphasise his happiness at the season thus far. “I’m pleased with what we have done so far but the season is by no means over. We need to keep striving to improve and, if we do that, I’m sure we will get the rewards which come with that effort,” he expressed. “I think we’ve had a really good season, we’ve shown a lot of character and backbone at times when we perhaps haven’t played as well as we would have liked to but worked our way to a win.” Indeed, Ford himself has seen him announced as one of two new coaches in the England Academy set up, joining ex-Bradford Bulls forward Jamie Langley and the returning chief Dave Elliott. The appointment is an indication of the esteem Ford is held in and, understandably proud of his role, he is keen to ensure it aids his coaching development.“I thought it would be something that I could learn from as a coach. I’d get the opportunity to learn about the country’s best up and coming players which is obviously a good thing for York as well as myself,” he explained.

Such is the progress currently being made by the Knights under the stewardship of both Flatman and Ford, the club recently announced that their head coach – as of September – will be going full time with the club, Ford set to become the first full time coach the club has ever had. When Get ’em Onside spoke to him at the end of last year, Ford made plain his wish to one day become a full time coach and is delighted that it will be happening with the Knights. “I’m really pleased that the club could do this for me, it’s great,” he explained. When asked what his enhanced role will entail that his current part time position doesn’t, Ford responded in a jovial manner; “I’ll be able to dedicate more time to the rugby without getting the life frustrated out of me by twenty five 16 year olds all day!” he joked, referring to his role as a tutor at Wakefield College. “I really enjoy teaching but, obviously, I was keen to become a full-time coach.” In a change which will no doubt benefit the Knights going forward, he revealed that he will have more time to analyse opponents and prepare for them while also being able to spend more time fine tuning the team’s training sessions. 

Furthermore, Ford explained the Knights’ hopes for a reserve team in the not-too-distant future, the subject being something of a hot topic in UK rugby league at this moment. “We’re looking into developing a reserve side as well but we don’t want that to take away from the community game, we want it to help the community game, which is healthy in York,” he outlined. Indeed, the continued development of the amateur game in North Yorkshire has seen Joe Porter, formerly of York Acorn, establish himself in the first team while youngster Matt Chilton, also of Acorn origin, made his competitive debut for the Knights last time out against Coventry. Of one of his latest acquisitions, Ford was positive about his future. “He’s only young but he’s really enthusiastic about the game and wants to be the best he can be. We would have signed him earlier in the year but I didn’t want to take a player out of the community game only for him to play two or three games out of twenty,” he explained. “We took some time to come to that decision as we thought he played well [when on trial] but we just thought it was better for his development to get regular rugby. He understood where we were coming from, he took all of our advice and feedback on board and now he’s got his chance and, on debut, I thought he was really solid.”

At the other end of the scale, the Knights recently announced the signing of Joel Edwards from French outfit Limoux and, having never played in the UK before and with over a century of NRL appearances under his belt, the 30-year-old’s signing, from the outside, looks to have come from left field. “He is mates with Adam Quinlan at Hull KR [Knights’ dual registration partners] and he’d mentioned to him that he’d like to come over to England to finish the season,” his campaign in with Limoux having come to an end. “[Graeme] Horney passed that message on, we had a look at some video and did some research about him as a bloke and it was all really positive. He’s a fantastic leader with a great work ethic, really good professional and lots of experience in an elite league,” something which should benefit the younger members of the Knights’ impressive squad. “While we are already strong in the forward positions I thought it would be ridiculous of us to not bring him in when we had that opportunity and, while he’s only played one game so far, he looked really good and long may that continue.” With that signing coming days before Leigh’s clear out in the division above, York went on to lose dual registration regulars Josh Johnson, Will Dagger and Jordan Walne – all of whom had the required number of Knights appearances to feature going forward – to the Centurions. Edwards’ arrival, therefore, filled the void vacated by those forwards – but that wasn’t the club’s intest. “I’d like to say we planned that to perfection but we didn’t,” Ford jested. “The cards fell well for us, we’ve been fortunate there with the timing in the end and Joel can fill that void.”

York have made a clutch of recent signings and those of Edwards and Jack Ormondroyd from Leeds Rhinos, the latter on loan and the former until the end of this season, could be viewed as coups for the club. Now a place where players are keen to come to play their rugby, the Knights – like every other club – are beginning preparations for 2019 but are currently having to do so without knowing which competition they will be in with promotion a serious possibility. Of the challenges that presents, Ford was, as ever, calm and suggested that it was a problem coaches only have when their team are doing well. “It makes it a challenge, certainly,” he admitted. “We want to put a side together that is good enough to stay up in the Championship and, if we don’t get up, we want to put one together which is good enough to get into the Championship. I feel we have a very good side with a lot of potential and, if we were injury free, could stay up in that division. We are a bit thin in a couple of areas so we need to make sure we are strong. We are obviously looking at players and are keen to retain the vast majority of this squad and add a handful to it to help take the standards even higher.”

High standards are a key component of the Knights under Ford and Flatman and that means both on and off the pitch. The off field work of the club’s social media guru Gavin Wilson has been praised by the rugby league masses recently and another off field success came a fortnight ago in the form of Knightsfest. The event saw hundreds of fans head to the club’s training facility to meet the players and staff while also having activities, refreshments and access to the club’s newly published stadium plans in order to book their seat for next season’s maiden campaign at Monks Cross. “I was taken aback with the number of people that attended the event and the sheer positivity from the supporters and sponsors to the players and the club,” Ford outlined. “It was lovely to see. Obviously I see how they train and all the sacrifices the boys make and it was great for them to feel how much they are appreciated by the supporters who came down. It was a really good event for the club and showed how far we have moved forward.”

That move forward is something Ford has been present since his arrival at the club in 2011 and, as the club have progressed, so has his career as a coach. For anybody who has met the Knights’ helmsman, his calmness and approachability leave him as an almost perfect figurehead for a rugby league club. While he accepts and is grateful for the praise issued to him and his team, though, he is certainly a man with his feet on the ground and admitted that he hasn’t achieved anything in the game yet. “Falling in love with yourself as a coach is when you come unstuck – I haven’t got that far just yet!” 

If that mentality prevails going forward, Ford’s career will surely reap some rewards of the silver kind in the near future and, thanks to his new full time deal, the Knights’ faithful will certainly be hoping that happens in the Minster city.

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