A decade ago, York and the rugby league world were shocked by the demise of York Wasps RLC. But supporters would not let it lie.

PETER MARTINI charts the rise, out of those ashes, of York City Knights.

TEN years ago next month, York Rugby League Club was at its lowest-ever ebb. Like any club, it had had its ups and downs over the decades, and its fair share of mid-table mediocrity. But ten years ago in March, it was staring at the abyss.

The end of 134 years of sporting history was nigh. No more ups, downs or even mediocrity. Nothing.

The club, which was first formed as York Football Club in 1868 and played both association and rugby football before joining the breakaway Northern Union (now the Rugby Football League) in 1898, was about to fold.

The death knell had sounded on March 20, 2002, when the directors of York Wasps, as they were then called, informed the RFL that the club had ceased to trade as of the previous night, with all forthcoming fixtures called off.

The club had gone bust.

Of course, everyone knew they had been limping along for a couple of years, vying in that painful period to be the worst team in English rugby league on the field, and so poor off it that at times they could only afford to field a batch of amateurs allied to brave club stalwarts.

So infamous was their well-documented desperation that former coach Lee Crooks, the Great Britain legend, dedicated a chapter in his autobiography, published last year, to his plight in charge of the ailing outfit.

The chapter was entitled “Is Pat on the Bus”, in reference to the then physio Pat Howdle, who was named as a substitute for one particular match simply because he’d turned up. Kitman Steve ‘Bomber’ Harris was also on the bench by virtue of having “played a few games at school”.

But the closure was still sensational. A bombshell.

Indeed, only six months earlier, the Wasps had signed a supposedly superb sponsorship deal with the New York Economic Development Council – thanks to a supposedly creditable company called World Rugby League – which promised, but did not deliver, a bright future.

It was also a little ironic the plug was pulled less than a fortnight after the club’s first win in 13 months.

The then head coach, Leo Epifania, an Aussie who had upped sticks only that winter to try his hand in the English game, and his players were told of the directors’ decision only a few hours before The Press, then the Evening Press, broke the news.

Later editions of the Evening Press reported that an emergency meeting with RFL chiefs that same day had given the club six days to survive. But a rescue package did not materialise.

On March 25, vice-chairman Russell Greenfield declared his confidence that the club could be saved by the end of that day. But on March 26, the potential buyer pulled out. That was that. It was 18 years to the day since the Wasps had taken the mighty Wigan so close in the Challenge Cup semi-final.

Fans were shocked, distraught. There would be no more matches, no ups, no downs, no players to cheer, jeer, shout for, shout at. No potential cup runs and certainly no semi-finals. No team to follow. Nothing to do on a Sunday afternoon.

Everyone knows York’s pedigree does not match the likes of Wigan, Leeds or St Helens in rugby league, likewise Manchester, Liverpool and London in football. But regardless of respective fan bases and successes down the decades, a club is a club, supporters are supporters, and the tradition of watching your team, win, lose or draw, with (or without) a pint and a pie, is no less meaningful, whether the average gate is 1,000 or 100,000.

Every club has history, regardless of how triumphal it is, and every history has meaning, not least for the hundreds of thousands of people who had taken an interest down the years. In this case 134 years.

Sport – be it rugby league or football – weaves a fabric in the community like nothing else.

But that was that. The club was dead.

OR was it? Can an end not herald a new start? The club was dead: long live the club?

A packed crisis meeting at Huntington Stadium – set up by long-time supporter Gary Hall (now the Knights supporters’ club chairman) – had been held two days earlier, on March 24.

York Press: Wasps head coach Leo Epifania, front, and some of the players and bootroom staff

The then Wasps head coach Leo Epifania, front, and some of the players and bootroom staff who were also in attendance at the crisis meeting

Initially, it threw the Wasps a lifeline as players, led by the likes of local favourite Mick Ramsden, agreed to play for nothing, while fans pledged enough money to wipe out the club’s immediate debt.

In reality, however, there was no real chance a supporters’ consortium could be formed in less than 36 hours to meet the RFL’s deadline. Hall said on being told the club could not carry on: “I’m totally devastated. We thought there was this white knight on the horizon.”

But wait. Did someone say “knight”?

Such devastation among fans acted not as discouragement but as a spur to channel efforts into forming new proposals, a new chance.

Indeed, what this episode did confirm is that York’s hardcore fans, while maybe small in number compared to the Wigans, Leeds, Manchesters and Liverpools of this world, are made of stern stuff.

It had been a time of woe for York City, too, left in the financial mire following the deeds of Douglas Craig, the former chairman who transferred the ownership of Bootham Crescent – City’s most prized asset – from the club to a holding company he owned.

But like their football counterparts, the rugby league fans would not trudge off accepting their sorry fate. It meant too much.

Another public meeting just one day after the Wasps’ official demise formed proposals for a supporters’ trust, not unlike at York City, and saw a working party set up comprising at its helm three men who showed that fans, as much if not more so than players, were the true heroes of any club.

Solicitor Roger Dixon, who had taken the mic so passionately yet eloquently at that crisis meeting (or, in his own words, “been unable to keep my mouth shut”), accountant Mike Miller, and Hall himself got the go-ahead to form a committee to “Keep Wasps Buzzing”.

Pledges continued while fundraising activities and events, not least a “WaspAid” concert planned for the Barbican on June 1 featuring a host of local bands, got cash in the coffers.

The Evening Press got fully behind the campaign, and the cause even cropped up in Parliament, when York MP Hugh Bayley raised the plight of smaller professional sports clubs, and discussed the matter with the all-party Parliamentary group that champions rugby league.

New hope was tinged with sad reality, though, as coach Epifania quit England, while a few players, now free agents, started leaving for pastures new, local favourite Mark Cain the first to go.

Some, perhaps harshly, were accused of jumping ship, but not so Epifania. He was an individual hit hard by events but will forever be a hero of the York faithful after a rallying call on his departure.

“It’s the fans that make the club and they would run the club with their hearts. You can depend on them to give 100 per cent and do their very best,” he said on April 3.

What he added turned out to be rather prophetic.

“I don’t know the full details of what the fans are wanting to do this season, either financially or player-wise, but they’ve got to concentrate more on building for next year and making a fresh start,” he told the Evening Press.

“They should use the rest of this year to get sponsorship in, raise money, get the right structure, the right players lined up and basically get everything spot on for next year so that when they start the season they will have the perfect set-up.

“I’ve heard a lot since I got here about the history of the club in recent years, and it’s a bad history. I’m hopeful this time they will take their time and set it up right for the long future.”

The supporters’ group’s initial plan was for the Wasps to re-enter the league – then the Northern Ford Premiership – later in the year. In those days, the Northern Rail Cup, then the Buddies Cup, was played in mid-season and there was a chance York could sit out those weeks to regroup and re-form in time for when the league campaign restarted. A number of players even pledged to stay.

Meetings continued with the RFL about a business plan for readmittance, with league chiefs set to decide York’s plight on May 1. The fact they then deferred the decision until May 8 gave everyone extra time.

However, before that new D-Day arrived, it had already become apparent, as another fans’ meeting was told on May 5, that getting back in the league was a no-go.

The new set-up would have to take on the old set-up’s liabilities, and this they simply could not afford to do.

The final nail in the coffin.

BUT wait. The club is dead: long live the club. That fans meeting on May 5 saw a unanimous decision taken to not give up on York Rugby League, as might have been the case, but to channel all resources into restarting a new club for the following season.

The campaign title changed to “Kick-start York RL” as posters printed by the Evening Press declared around the city.

What’s more, good things were happening behind the scenes.

It had already emerged that a certain chap with a bucketload of rugby league nous had been lurking in the shadows at that initial crisis meeting, a rally which is now nearing legendary status in the context of York RLC. He later said the passion the fans displayed convinced him to get involved.

That certain chap was Steve Ferres.

York Press: Prospective new chief executive Steve Ferres, right, and player-coach-to-be Paul Broadbent address a meeting during the race to get York re-elected to the league

Prospective new chief executive Steve Ferres, right, and player-coach-to-be Paul Broadbent address a meeting during the race to get York re-elected to the league

The Evening Press had revealed on April 29 that the former player, coach and administrator would be the new chief executive if the club were allowed back into the league.

He had actually been the one in talks with the old board about stepping in before they folded the Wasps, and he finally accepted the role after more than two weeks of discussions with the working party. Hall was no longer devastated. “We are cock-a-hoop,” he’d said.

Moreover, as confirmed in the Evening Press on May 6, and as the newspaper’s earlier reports had suggested, this new plan for 2003 was being backed by a mystery consortium looking to take a major share in the new-look club.

At the head of this consortium, it emerged some considerable time later, as late as October 3 to be exact, was John Guildford.

The developer and businessman has been called many things down the years – some things more controversial than others – but what cannot be denied is that he, following on from Dixon and Ferres, was another of these white knights Hall had been seeking.

Indeed, the trio of Dixon, Ferres and Guildford – with the skills, time and knowhow they offered, plus the funds they and in particular Guildford contributed – formed a formidable round table, especially as it was backed by those wonderful fans.

The revised bid for York’s admittance in 2003 had to be with the RFL by May 31, while the outcome of any bid was promised for June 30, although, somewhat inevitably, the saga continued long after these initial deadlines.

There remained sadness among the revitalised hope. The players who had been dutifully training with the idea of playing later in the season had their final session under unpaid caretaker-boss Stewart Horton, one of those proud Yorkies, on May 15.

There was also an element of farce, as a character by the name of John Batchelor, whose takeover of York City later proved to be a false dawn of epic proportions, claimed he was looking to form a new York rugby league club himself as part of a growing sporting empire. Batchelor, as it happens, was a charlatan and asset stripper.

BUT this story is about white knights, not black ones. Long-time fan Dixon, it was revealed on June 1, the day of WaspAid, was lined up to be the proposed new club’s first chairman, the mystery consortium having been so taken by his efforts in the working party.

A Popular Stand regular, clever, articulate, diplomatic, ludicrously nice, universally popular. A splendid choice.

But would there be a new club for him to chair?

It became known at the end of July that they would be allowed in for 2003 only if they could bank a minimum of £75,000 before August 31.

Ferres also stressed the need to raise £250,000 before the start of the season the following spring for the club to be competitive on and off the field. Both were tall orders.

Another public meeting on August 8 outlined exactly what was required. If the money was not raised, then Dixon and Ferres, and most probably the “mystery consortium”, who was no doubt wary of putting money on a dead duck, would have no option but to quit.

That, for sure, would signal the end of professional rugby league in the city.

Amazingly, that meeting saw nearly £16,000 handed over in hard cash, through donations and the fact more than 60 supporters immediately bought new club memberships.

This took the total in the coffers up to £23,750, which included £8,000 received in donations following the collapse of the Wasps. A further £30,000 would be added when pledges were realised.

The campaign to “Kick-start York RL” continued. More money came in, more memberships were purchased. But the clock was also ticking.

Another public meeting on August 28 took the total to £62,650, but the August 31 deadline – the final deadline – drew ever nearer.

THEN came the kind of late sporting drama to rival anything that could happen on the pitch.

In a deal brokered by the Evening Press on the day of the deadline, Tadcaster brewery John Smith’s came in with the last £5,000 to see the club hit their target.

“We’re there,” proclaimed the paper in capital letters. “Roll out the barrel”.

However, while the battle was won, the war went on.

More money came in, season tickets and new sponsorship added to the pot, and it’s fair to say that Guildford, cheered by the fans’ reaction, dipped into his pocket again, too, to reach that £250,000 figure.

The new club was born. Long live the club.

This new club was a new business, a new venture, a new beginning, and as such it needed a new name. An Evening Press competition was held to pick it – but there was only ever going to be one winning option.

What had the likes of Gary Hall wanted all those months ago? Knights. And that was what he and all the wonderful York fans got: York City Knights.

Club bosses, in the following month of October, also let the public design a club logo, while they picked new colours of blue and white – a move away from York RL’s traditional amber and black.

New name, new logo, new colours. Ferres had made a big thing of making sure the Knights were new for the city, detached from the negative baggage created by the Wasps’ demise.

Changing colours was difficult for some but it probably had to be done. In time, it maybe even helped to re-forge links with prouder times of York RL, prior to the Wasps’ sorry demise. In time, the amber also returned – see the 2011 away kit, and also the strip for the York Select amateur team.

A new coach was already into his stride by now. Former Great Britain prop Paul Broadbent had been un-veiled as the prospective player-boss back on August 23 – what a coup.

The timing of this announcement, a week before that cash deadline, was surely no coincidence as the new set-up looked to be taken seriously, not least by latent support predicting another false dawn.

It was also notable that local lad Cain, the first player to leave the sinking ship, became the first to publicly pen a deal with the new club – on October 14 – biting the bullet hard in leaving Hull KR to head into the unknown.

Another former favourite from better days of the Wasps, Alex Godfrey, had also agreed to join but he waited to turn 24 in December before penning his deal (so the Knights did not have to pay his club, also Hull KR, a transfer fee under RFL rules).

Rich Hayes, one of York’s best-ever players, was another notable recruit, also from Hull KR, while the marquee signing was revealed by the Evening Press on December 13 – former Great Britain hooker Lee Jackson from Hull.

Some cynics around the city still predicted doom, but it’s fair to say the club were now being taken seriously by most people, a new-found professionalism on and off the field helping to build Knights fever.

There was even a new mascot, Norris the Knight, to provide light-hearted moments. And didn’t he look smart in his new regalia.

York Press: Wobby the Wasp

Above, Wobby the Wasp departed head bowed, but, below, Norris the Knight breezed in

York Press: Norris the Knight

Perhaps Guildford – the only one of the three white knights still at the club today – should have the last word on it all.

On his emergence from the shadows in October, he’d said: “The supporters have done a hell of a lot and it is the fans and the York public that make it work, not people sat on a pedestal.

“I’ve always been a supporter of York and I’m a York lad and it would be nice to have a good side in York. A city this good should have a good team.”

Come the new year in 2003 and that “good team” was in place, with a bumper crowd of 3,105 watching their first game.

Ten years ago, the end of 134 years of sporting history had been nigh. Instead, the Knights have given us another ten years of history, with more to come.

There have been ups (including two promotions) and downs (one relegation and another near miss), and plenty of players to cheer, jeer, shout for and shout at. There’s also been another semi-final (Northern Rail Cup, 2004).

Losing a game might bring disappointment but that does not compare even slightly to losing your club. Win, lose or draw, Sunday afternoons returned to how they should be. The club was dead: long live the club.