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York City Knights season review 2012: Relief as the season from hell finally ends
Knights players try to work out what went wrong as opponents Sheffield celebrate a try during one of York’s defeats
THE term annus horribilis, once famously coined by the Queen, probably doesn’t do justice to the season York City Knights have had. Throw in a few terrace profanities and punch a wall, and you’d be getting closer to reality.
To sum up, it’s been *insert your own swear words here*.
Look at the statistics – only one Championship win, not a single reserves win, and the lowest-ever average attendance since the club re-formed a decade ago. Happy ten-year anniversary? Hardly.
And to think we all thought 2011, with five wins from 20 and a third-bottom finish, was bad.
The average crowd figure of 720 is a major worry, and rather embarrassing. Attendances have been on the decline since the near-2,000 average of the 2005 promotion season, and this one is the lowest since the last full season of the ailing York Wasps. And to think some people say York is a rugby town.
Fans must take their share of blame for fickleness – the fact remains if they don’t show up rain or shine, the club aren’t likely to get stronger – but then who can blame them for finding something better to do than pay hard-earned cash to watch their side lose every week.
There are mitigating factors, however, and, while coming up with positives out of this dire year is clutching at straws a little, there are a couple of those too.
Firstly, the club have suffered horrendous injuries, losing not only plenty of players but players in key positions.
Look at the well-documented half-back curse – player-coach Chris Thorman had ten half-back partners in 21 games. Ten. That’s just ludicrous. Half of them weren’t even half-backs.
Whether squad recruitment passes scrutiny or not, it’s largely rotten luck that has meant the Geordie was the team’s only playmaker for much of the season.
Other sides have at least two, if not three, four or even five. The fact the Knights also played a prop at loose-forward all year – as much by necessity as design – didn’t help when it came to creativity either.
Thorman on the pitch was majestic and frustrated in equal measure, trying this, that and the other to get his side up the field and through defences, but it rarely showed on the scoreboard. Basically he had too much on his shoulders.
He had some gallant lieutenants in captain James Ford, the trusty Jack Lee, prop Adam Sullivan, who consistently blazed a trail up top, and pocket battleship Jack Aldous, who had to take on too much responsibility for a rookie forward but never shirked work. But other players brought in for their proven ability and experience – such as Waine Pryce, James Houston and marquee signing Paul King – missed large chunks of the campaign. King had an excellent impact when he did play, but he didn’t play enough.
When one key man returned to fitness, another got injured. For example, not long after winger Pryce came back – having torn a quad in what was an encouraging Northern Rail campaign of three wins and only one loss to a strong Sheffield side – centre Ford’s season was ended.
On top of that, other notable signings were major disappointments. Former Super League players Jordan Tansey – be it at scrum-half or, after repeated failures in the number seven shirt, in his favoured full-back position – and Tommy Haughey didn’t bring much to the table before departing. Houston didn’t pull up many trees either, though at least he had the excuse of niggling injury.
The club had a couple more notable departees. Club captain Alex Benson didn’t always have the full backing of the fans but he was missed when he quit. Brett Turner effectively froze himself out later in the summer, and while he was never going to be one of the first names on the teamsheet, it still made matters worse.
Then, of course, there’s the dual-registration system which, in Ford’s words, has been a “disaster” for the club this year.
Did the Knights rely too heavily on dual-reg? When you’re banking on the likes of half-back Danny Nicklas and prop Chris Green to strengthen your team only to be told a few days before a game that their parent club wouldn’t be releasing them, then the answer has to be yes.
The fact other dual-reg youngsters, like scrum-halves Ben Johnston and Ollie Olds, picked up injuries so soon into their Huntington Stadium spells didn’t help.
Of course, all teams suffer injuries and absences, so, even if York did have considerably more than most, such mitigation can come across more like an excuse than an alibi. There will also be the argument that last winter’s recruitment was not comprehensive enough, even if the club were hamstrung by late notice they were being spared relegation.
Nevertheless, that York as a club succumbed so much to injuries leads us on – perhaps paradoxically – to the two main positives of the season and indeed the next mitigating point.
The first positive is that there is, of course, no relegation from the Championship this year due to the league’s restructuring. We can be rubbish and still not go down. Hurray.
This fact, though, probably played its part in Thorman ending his debut season as a boss with only one league win to his name (which came at home to Swinton when this writer was on holiday so didn’t even get the pleasure of witnessing it).
Normally, one would expect a relegation-threatened club in desperate need of improvement to splash cash (much of which has been saved on not spending “winning pay”) on new players.
The Knights, not fearing the cost of relegation, didn’t do that, however. Why waste good money after bad? Why not save it and put it into the pot for 2013? This is certainly a huge mitigating factor in Thorman’s coaching record. He simply didn’t have the players to forge a winning team, notwithstanding his efforts on and off the pitch.
There are some repercussions of finishing last, not least the ignominy and the fact it then makes recruitment tougher, with some targets possibly wary of signing for losers.
However, especially with hopes of the play-offs long gone, the club can’t really be blamed for writing off the season so decidedly.
The other positive is that this all meant some Huntington Stadium youngsters got an early grounding in Championship rugby.
Look at the team sheets at the end of the season. Harry Carter, Liam Ellis, Tim Stubbs – these lads are barely out of school. Ben Dent, Tyler Craig, Kriss Brining, Gareth Poutney – at the start of the year they’re reserve reserves; at the end they’re first-teamers.
Everyone knows they’re not nearly ready for it, but there is now the hope they will be better in years to come for these run-outs.
It must be said the kids deserve much credit too, firstly for providing the club’s only success story of 2012 as part of an under-18s side with five wins from six games, and then for some brave displays against the top teams outside of Super League.
It’s not as if they were surrounded by tried-and-tested pros helping them to find their feet either.
Rather they were alongside Ed Smith, Matt Garside, Rhys Clarke, Dave Sutton, Tom Bush, George Elliott and Aldous – veterans by comparison but still aged only 19, 21, 21, 22, 22, 20 and 21 and still themselves taking early strides in semi-pro rugby. It’s actually these lads who ideally should be drip-fed into the first team, never mind the kids.
On top of all this, it has to be remembered that this Championship level is no mug’s game and that the Knights’ glory years, so lauded by fans, came in the division below. By contrast the club have competed for three seasons in domestic rugby league’s second tier and they’ve been in the relegation zone each time – twice avoiding the drop only by default.
Notable questions remain, therefore. Are the Knights big enough or good enough for this standard? Should the club market itself as a small but proud outfit battling against the odds among bigger boys, or does it possess the funds and werewithal to challenge them?
Can 2012 be written off with bigger and better things in the pipeline, partly on the back of the planned community stadium and all that brings? Does this glorious city of ours possess fans fervent enough for rugby league?
Here’s hoping a new start, a new head coach in Gary Thornton, and some new players can make for renewed enthusiasm and excitement on and off the pitch.
Because one thing’s for sure: if the club isn’t good enough for this standard, then relegation next year to a new-look Championship One featuring a bunch of development clubs will strike doom into the hearts of those supporters who – to coin the song once loudly chanted all around Huntington Stadium – really are “York and proud of it”.
Player ratings for campaign
Players listed in order of first appearance.
App – appearances + appearances as sub; T – tries; G – goals.
Marks, for players with four or more appearances, are out of ten.
Ben Hellewell (App 7, T1) 6/10
Dual-reg full-back was pretty solid but then went back to Warrington.
Waine Pryce (App 11, T3) 6
Former England winger started well enough but then tore a quad muscle and missed 13 games. Came back and again did well enough but couldn’t influence proceedings. Re-signed for Hunslet this week.
James Ford (App 18, T11) 7
Top try-scorer and a positive influence throughout but missed the run-in due to injury.
Matt Garside (App 23, T4) 6
Rested for Cup game against former club Gateshead but otherwise an ever-present at centre. Fought off many a tackle but prone to the occasional mistake. Still young but now gone to Sheffield.
Dave Sutton (App 7+9, T2) 5
Winger turned centre turned second-row turned occasional prop, he had fair share of terrace critics – some of it justified, a lot of it not – but was always willing to do a job for the team.
Chris Thorman (App 21, T1, G47, DG1) 8
Organiser, cajoler, goalkicker, playmaker, defender. As coach he turned to himself as player to run things on the pitch as well as off it. Class is obvious, though one criticism is he did too much. Now hangs up boots to join Huddersfield as assistant-boss.
Jordan Tansey (App 17, T1) 4
Former Leeds, Hull and Crusaders ace was supposedly the answer to York’s half-back problems when he arrived to much fanfare but, to put it mildly, it didn’t work out. Was better when he switched to preferred full-back position but his departure (surprisingly on this form back to Super League with Cas) was no great loss.
Adam Sullivan (App 23, T1) 8
One who can hold his head high. Ever-present prop barring Cup tie against Gateshead was five times a Press man of the match. Mistakes were conspicuous only because they were rare. Knights were much weaker when he was off the pitch.
Jack Lee (App 21+2, T7) 7
Consistent hooker was again one of the players who could be relied on to do their job well.
James Houston (App 9+3, T1) 6
Former Hunslet forward was okay but not the player York had hoped he would be. Not helped by niggling injury which eventually curtailed his campaign in May.
Rhys Clarke (App 11+6, T3) 6
Young Geordie started year well in Northern Rail Cup ties but Championship is a different ball game. Able to do different roles but sometimes struggled to make a major impact before season was ended by broken wrist.
Ed Smith (App 11+2) 5
Stop-start season for highly-rated teenager, in and out of the side due to injuries. Next year could be pivotal in his career.
Jack Aldous (App 20+3) 8
Pocket battleship former Hull academy prop wasn’t meant to be a front-line player in his debut year at this level but ended the season as The Press Player of the Year. Got no tries but a virtual ever-present (another to be rested for Gateshead Cup game) and never stopped working, doing lots of the unseen ugly stuff.
Tom Bush (App 20+1, T7, G5) 5
Unable to affect matters much when out on the wing but a different player completely, smart and effective, when finally back in his natural full-back position for the season’s run-in. Going to Hunslet.
Alex Benson (App 2+6, T1) 5
Club captain prop quit to concentrate on family and work life midway through term, probably frustrated at feeling edged out.
Tommy Haughey (App 7+2, T1) 3
Nobody’s angry... just disappointed. His move to York simply didn’t work out and he went back to Hunslet.
Brooke Broughton (App 2+5) 5
Warrington youngster showed occasional glimpses of ability but wasn’t greatly missed when dual-reg spell ended.
Paul King (App 11+1, T1) 7
York were so much better when former Hull prop was on the field. His presence gave everyone else confidence – only injuries restricted input and availability.
George Elliott (App 19+3, T10) 6
Ex-Leeds dual-code junior formed burgeoning centre-wing partnership with James Ford and had a decent first season in Championship rugby.
Ben Dent (App 5) 5
New Earswick All Blacks youngster and Knights reserve now knows the standards he must attain to make it at this level.
Brett Turner (App 7+7, T4, G2) 4
Better at hooker than half-back but then departed.
Kriss Brining (App 3+7, T2) 5
Another year of learning for the teenage hooker, especially when thrown in for last six games. One to watch for the future.
Joe Hemmings (App 2+4, T2) 5
Ex-New Earswick amateur and fringe Knights forward was making strides until he became another player whose season was wrecked by injury.
Chris Green (App 2+5, T3) 7
Good acquisition from Hull... apart from the fact he kept getting called back to his parent club.
Adam Howard (App 0+4) 5
North East amateur is very big and very strong but not mobile enough.
Davey Burns (App 0+1)
John Gay (App 0+1)
Nathan Freer (App 7+7) 5
Knights were delighted to get last year’s Press Player of the Year back from Featherstone, where he struggled to break into the team, but he didn’t match his standards of last season.
John Davies (App 13, T4) 8
Second-row made a big difference during his dual-reg stint from Cas, regularly among the better performers. It’s a big shame he signed for Batley for 2013 rather than stay at York.
Ben Johnston (App 3)
Nippy young half-back was finding his feet on dual-reg from Cas before injury.
Danny Nicklas (App 2)
Looked good but injury and recall to parent club Hull left York again stuck for a half-back.
Dario Esposito (App 2+5, T2) 6
Kiwi took a few games to bed in after arriving from Oz but then showed some form.
Ollie Olds (App 2)
Dual-reg scrum-half fell foul of Knights half-back injury curse.
Tyler Craig (App 2+1)
Heworth ARLC youngster was thrown in at deep end, and then got injured.
Jack Stearman (App 0+1)
Good clubman but question marks over fitness remain.
Gareth Poutney (App 2+2, T2) 5
Reserve centre was chucked in at end of season. One costly mistake against Hunslet but bounced back with two top tries.
Tim Stubbs (App 0+2)
Seventeen-year-old prop was another to be given baptism of fire. Didn’t let anyone down.
Liam Ellis (App 0+3)
*See Tim Stubbs.
Harry Carter (App 0+1)
Under-18s hooker is one for the future.