York City Knights 22 Featherstone Rovers 18

WHAT a finale. The hooter sounded with Featherstone stuck in their own 20 metres. A hopeful hack forward was caught by Connor Robinson and the York City Knights scrum-half sprinted to the Main Stand and launched the ball into the crowd to end the game and spark wild celebrations.

York had come from 12-0 and 14-10 down to beat old rivals Featherstone 22-18 and secure a quite remarkable place in the top-five play-offs of the Betfred Championship with two games of the regular season to play.

James Ford’s rank outsiders, the underdogs, the team up from League One, the club with one of the smallest budgets in the second division, had achieved if not the impossible then certainly the improbable.

What a game this was, a relentless encounter in which York only hit the front with 15 minutes left.

In fact, what a season this has been, the Bootham Crescent regulars being treated to yet another breathless, nailbiting, stomach-churning thriller – and another in which their boys had come out on top.

And what a way to sign off the 2019 home campaign. “James Ford’s Barmy Army”, “We’re York And We’re Proud Of It”, “When The Knights Go Marching In,” were all chanted in turn, as the Shed Seven hit Going For Gold blasted over the speakers. People didn’t really want to leave.

What’s more, it’s not over yet.

On top of all that, this was a sweet revenge victory for Ford’s troops – and for Ford himself, against his old club.

In 2004, the Knights famously beat Featherstone four times out of four in a memorable season for the reborn club.

Rovers have generally held the upper hand since, however, with two more handsome wins banked this season.

They looked on course for another as they went 12-0 up but, unlike in those recent encounters, there was no York capitulation this time. Just the opposite.

Instead it was another highlight of another memorable year under the Jon Flatman era – topping last term as the best season since the club re-formed as the Knights, and probably since the heydays of the early to mid-1980s.

Ford had rung the changes, having left a few big names at home for last week’s match away to runaway leaders Toronto. Was it a case of accepting defeat that day to prioritise this game?

Perry Whiteley was back adding size on the wing, and Kriss Brining was back as interchange hooker, while Ronan Dixon, Graeme Horne, Joe Porter, Sam Scott and captain Tim Spears were all back in the pack ranks. To a man all 17 stood up and were counted.

All things were put into perspective before kick-off with a minute’s silence for 20-year-old Batley player Archie Bruce, who was tragically found dead in his hotel room after making his Bulldogs debut in Toulouse this weekend.

As play got underway, Rovers, against a stiff breeze, got off to a blistering start with a try in their very first attack, a sweet move down the left finished by Jack Render, with only 70 seconds on the clock.

Dane Chisholm, York’s nemesis in the previous meetings this term, converted.

York suffered another blow on seven minutes as star centre Liam Salter departed with blood pouring down the side of his face after a huge hit and clash of heads with Brad Day.

They also blew a great position following a penalty as Porter’s pass from the tap was inexplicably forward. Porter has started in the second row but switched to right-centre.

Then, when Whiteley fumbled in a ruck coming out of yardage, Rovers had another attacking platform and dual-reg Leeds half-back Callum McLelland dummied through, Chisholm’s goal making it 12-0 on the quarter-mark.

York needed a spark. They got one as a fine defensive set led by Brining garnered a penalty as fellow sub Jack Teanby forced Chisholm to hurry his kick which went wayward and caught a teammate offside. However, it was snuffed out as Liam Harris overplayed in the red zone and Rovers pounced on the loose ball.

The next spark, however, lit a fire.

It came via a brilliant break down the left led by Connor Robinson and taken on by Whiteley, Matty Marsh and Jason Bass. The latter was held down ridiculously long by Chisholm who was duly sin-binned for a professional foul.

York immediately made use of the extra man as winger Will Oakes crossed down the right, Robinson converting.

In the next set, Marcus Stock so nearly found a route to the whitewash, before being halted at the line. There was no stopping Brining, though, and it was now 12-10 - only for the half-time hooter to sound at the wrong time for the rampant home team.

Featherstone, benefiting from the breather and the wind now behind them, eked their lead up with a penalty won for holding down on ex-Knight John Davies.

Chisholm, to boos from the crowd, returned from his sin-bin to kick the two points.

Then some great hands in centre-field, Chisholm again at the heart of it, saw the Knights’ line breached again and McLelland looked sure to score again. However, as the away fans began to celebrate, the try was ruled out as the scrum-half knocked on in the act of scoring.

That was a let-off for York and another followed as only great defence from Oakes and Marsh denied Alex Sutcliffe in the left corner.

Marsh also spectacularly diffused a bomb, and Oakes led a counter-attack that brought about a dropout.

And those inputs proved all the more significant as they preceded a remarkable try.

Horne for all the world looked held up over the whitewash but then referee Tom Grant suddenly ran back and awarded a try, the prop having somehow contorted his body around or through a stack of bodies to touch the ball down.

Robinson converted and York, believe it or not, were 16-14 ahead.

Rovers again looked sure to score after benefiting from a lucky ricochet but, with Marsh on the cover, Connor Jones lost his footing and the ball.

Then came a bizarre incident – and more home joy.

Robinson’s kick for touch struck a Featherstone physio slowly making his way off the pitch. As per the rules, York got an attacking scrum and they forced a dropout for another repeat set.

The pressure on, Harris slipped a little ball to Porter and the local lad was through, the resultant noise lifting the roof off the Main Stand.

Robinson’s goal put York two scores up at 22-14 with eight minutes left, and with the home crowd in fine voice.

Those cheers were subdued as Sutcliffe finished superbly to cut the gap with two and a half minutes left.

But the home team saw out the remainder - and that stunning play-off place was in the bank.

Knights: Marsh 9, W Oakes 9, Salter 6, Bass 9, Whiteley 8; Harris 8, Robinson 9; Dixon 8, Jubb 8, Horne 9, Porter 8, S Scott 9, Spears 9. Subs (all used): Brining 9, Baldwinson 9, Stock 9, Teanby 7.

Tries: Oakes 36; Brining 39; Horne 65; Porter 72.

Conversions: Robinson 36, 65, 72 (3/4).

Penalties: none.

Sin-binned: none.

Sent off: none.

Featherstone: Golding; Render, Sutcliffe, Carey, Johnson; Chisholm, McLelland; Albert, C King, Harrison, Day, Walters, Lockwood. Subs (all used): Cooper, Davies, Jones, Makatoa.

Tries: Render 2; McLelland 20; Sutcliffe 78.

Conversions: Chisholm 2, 20 (2/3).

Penalty: Chisholm 45.

Sent off: none

Sin-binned: Chisholm 35.

Man of the match: Graeme Horne – to be fair, you could take you pick of the 17. Horne’s remarkable try and his input throughout, however, were as crucial as anything.

Referee: Tom Grant (Leeds) – good.

Penalty count: 5-5

Attendance: 3,115