JAMES FORD may have said next week’s top-of-the-table clash against Bradford Bulls was not in York City Knights’ minds – focus instead being on the present and the game at London Skolars.

His team didn’t play like it.

The Betfred League One title hopefuls gave arguably their worst performance of the season – lacklustre, stuttering and scratchy – and nearly paid for it, before hanging on for a 22-20 victory.

The Knights have been involved in some cracking contests this term, and several other two-point games.

This match, conversely, was a stop-start drag, and got exciting only for the wrong reasons as the lowly Skolars forged a comeback.

In mitigation, it was too hot and too muggy, the journey was long and the atmosphere muted, and the officials allowed the game to dawdle on for almost two hours.

The Skolars also played better than their fourth-bottom position and last week’s defeat to Coventry would suggest.

If there was ever a game to get out of the way, therefore, this was it.

Most importantly - apart from not boosting their points-difference, which could yet be significant - the Knights ultimately got the job done and went joint-top of the table, if only temporarily, ahead of Bradford’s game against Hunslet.

Head coach Ford also reported no injuries – taking Graeme Horne off in the second half being a clear indication the Bulls were already in mind.

The Knights had received a blow the night before the game, though, when dual-registered Hull KR full-back Will Dagger pulled out with a calf injury.

That meant he could not make the requisite fifth DR appearance for York in time to be eligible for the rest of the season.

The four dual-reg players who are available for the business end are Will Oakes, Matty Marsh, Jordan Walne and Josh Johnson – though none turned out here.

Dagger’s late withdrawal saw Ash Robson revert to full-back with Liam Jackson going onto the wing for his first Knights appearance since May 12.

Although Jackson is a half-back with little experience out wide – as highlighted by a bad late miss which should have sealed victory - Ford opted to keep Ben Cockayne at stand-off given his fine form.

Aussie Jake Butler-Fleming made a welcome return from injury at centre, with Joe Batchelor moving back to the second row. JBF clearly needed the game-time yet shone with two ace assists and touches of class.

Also into the pack ranks came Adam Robinson, Dan Hawksworth and Ronan Dixon, with Walne, Johnson and Sam Scott rested and Colton Roche out with a groin issue.

Will Jubb also returned as starting hooker with Andy Ellis another one rested – Bradford obviously in Ford’s thinking, even if he said otherwise.

Skolars were without former Super League centre Matt Fleming but had two dual-reg players in from London Broncos in James Meadows, at half-back alongside the excellent Mike Bishay, and sub Rob Butler.

Former Knight Neil Thorman – a promising youngster when at York and now a veteran - was at hooker.

The first half was played mainly in London’s half, but it stayed 0-0 until a late flurry.

To the Londoners’ credit, their defence - hard hitting and hard working - remained very good and they slowed the game at every opportunity without censure, hence the drag.

When York did break the line, through Brad Hey and, later, Cockayne, the Skolars recovered well and smothered well, and play was spread too slowly to create sizeable openings.

Robson and Judah Mazive also tried to fashion a breakaway but Mazive’s return pass was awry.

Indeed, York’s attacks lacked their usual fluidity and they struggled to generate any pace. Errors were forced as attacks became hurried.

Their defence was rarely tested but frustration was mounting.

Joe Porter’s forced offload straight into Skolars hands early in the tackle count 10 metres from the try-line summed it up.

When the deadlock was finally broken seven minutes before half-time, it came against the run of play.

A penalty piggybacked London upfield and a second penalty was kicked between the sticks by Bishay for a 2-0 Skolars lead.

Next week’s game suddenly looked out of focus.

Nonetheless, when it seemed the Knights would go into the break behind, they finally got it together, to score twice in five minutes.

Cockayne’s pass was excellently taken above his head by Butler-Fleming and the Aussie got a pass out of the back door to Mazive, who finished well enough.

Then a penalty given away on the last tackle - referee Nick Bennett finally spotting some holding down - was punished as Connor Robinson brushed off one man and crashed through by the left post.

He got up limping but converted for a 10-2 half-time lead.

Batchelor gave his team some goal-line defence practice at the start of the second half when spilling the ball in a hit-up.

But York increased their lead eight minutes in.

Robinson stole the ball off Jerome Yates. Butler-Fleming, wrapped up, then got an offload out for Porter to run home. Robinson goaled.

Skolars soon hit back after Robson, on one of his weaving lateral runs out of defence, had the ball knocked from his grip.

Meadows tidied up a loose pass and attacked the short side, his kick catching Jackson on his heels for Vinny Finigan to touch down. Bishay converted.

A bobbling kick then forced a repeat set for London and concerns again grew.

York, perhaps recognising the danger, briefly lifted the pace and Harry Carter injected urgency with a 50-metre run from dummy-half.

That chance was wasted but York quickly won the ball back and, after Robinson’s pass went through a team-mate’s hands, Batchelor picked up and crossed for an opportunist, if fortunate, try.

But again York dropped off.

Bishay’s 40-20 led to a try by Meadows, weaving between Jubb and Batchelor, for Bishay to convert, cutting the gap to 22-14.

London then forced a dropout on the back of a penalty, and they thought they had scored again as Bishay’s cut-out pass put Yates into the corner – only it was called forward.

Then they did score again. Thorman chipped, chased and, with a kind bounce, regathered before feeding Bishay, who sped into the corner.

Bishay’s touchline conversion made it 22-20 with five minutes left.

York should have put the game to bed after Lameck Juma was sin-binned for lamping Ben Cockayne, also handing York the penalty and respite too as the clock ran down.

They created a two-on-one but Jackson, indecisive with his finishing, was nudged in touch in goal before touching down.

Skolars immediately countered but, as the hooter sounded, the hopeful kick went dead, and York could depart unscathed - just.