Meet the York mum of four breaking the glass ceiling in the world of Rugby League

AS the new director of York City Knights rugby league club, Joanne Dickenson knows what it is like to be a woman in a man's world.

"It doesn't faze me; I don't feel inferior or superior. I just love rugby. Everybody involved in rugby league is passionate about rugby league and in that way I am as passionate as them."

Passionate is a word that crops up a lot when we meet for a coffee in York just days after her appointment to the board is announced.

Despite her northern accent – "some people mistake me for a Geordie" – Jo (as she likes to be known) was born in Germany and raised down south, moving to Yorkshire when she was eight.

Now aged 39, she is a mum of four – to Chloe, 19, who is a beauty blogger and works in magazine PR; Billy, 14, Katie, 11 and Shay, five.

Rugby is in her blood. She grew up watching her brother play rugby and would have played herself, given half a chance. Back then, girls didn't play rugby; she did netball instead.

Moving north, she began following rugby league, becoming a huge fan of Leeds Rhinos and after moving to York, the Knights.

She prefers rugby league to union. "It's fast paced and exciting. It is thrilling to watch – all rugby league, not just the team you support."

Jo and her husband Gary were originally interested in taking over the Knights last year, in the club's hour of need. "Last November, when the club was looking at folding, it was a really, really bad time. It was devastating, the thought of losing it. The thought of losing the rugby club out of York was unimaginable."

The couple are shareholders in Rugby AM, a local TV show fronted by Alex Simmonds and Leeds favourite Jamie Jones-Buchanan. Gary is heavily involved with New Earswick All Blacks ARLC and York & District ARL. Jo is the manager of New Earswick All Blacks under-14s, where their son Billy is a player.

Rugby is a rough and tumble sport, but that doesn't deter parents enrolling their kids, says Jo. "I've never heard any parent say they don't want them to get involved in case of injury. We take measures and have lots of safety procedures in place to protect them as much as we can."

A woman on the board in rugby league is a rare thing. But Jo is clear about one thing: "Don't call me the Karren Brady of rugby league though! I am not doing this for any accolade or to stand out. I just want to do the best I can for the club. I don't need personal recognition, but if me being a woman gets it out there that women can get involved in rugby league and it is not just for boys and men then that is a positive."

Jo is joining the Knights at one of the most dramatic times in their history. One year ago, the club was on the verge of folding. But a new owner, Jon Flatman, has reignited the club and brought a turnaround in fortunes. Currently playing in League One, the third tier of rugby league, the Knights have banked a place in the play-offs for promotion into the Championship. They were last in the second tier in 2013.

"Our goal is to get up into the Championship. That would be amazing for us. I am positive we can do it," says Jo.

She is dedicating herself to continuing the Knights' remarkable recovery. Part of her role is securing sponsorship, but also marketing the club and getting bums on seats.

A social media campaign helped pack out Bootham Crescent for a crunch match against moneybags team Toronto this summer. Nobody gave the Knights a chance. Except the Knights themselves. Before kick-off, Knights' coach James Ford told reporters they were aiming for a win not just a respectable defeat. What followed was the stuff of dreams: the Knights pulled off the almost unthinkable with a 26-16 victory – arguably the best in the club's history.

Jo wants fans and the whole of York to get behind the club now and turn out for the rest of the season to cheer the lads into the Championship.

From where she is sitting, the future of rugby league in York looks bright. It is an exciting time, and she is keen to crack on with the success story.

In the not-too-distant future, the Knights will have a new home at the long-awaited Community Stadium.

But Jo is not holding her breath. "As far as I know, work is supposed to star in October. But we live in the moment. If and when the new stadium comes, it will be fantastic. We are not waiting for the stadium. We are doing all that we can do now."

Looking ahead, Jo is keen to establish better pathways for grassroots players into the first teams. The York City Knights Foundation already runs training camps and works in schools – with girls as well as boys. They recently started a new scholarship scheme for local talent. The next stage is to set up an academy. "We are in the process of doing that with the aim of players going through the Foundation, into the Academy then into the first team."

That route would be open to girls as well as boys. The York City Knights Ladies were launched last year to play in the new Women's Summer Merit League, which is effectively a feeder competition to the Women's Premier competition. They have had a great season and women's rugby is stronger than ever in the city, says Jo.

She hopes more girls and boys come into the sport; she believes rugby league gives unique qualities to players beyond fitness.

"They learn about respect, discipline and teamwork. In rugby league, there are no glory hunters. You can't make a tackle or score a try without your teammate. I see that with my boys at New Earswick and it is amazing to see."

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