Blast from the Past: The fall and rise of York RL

March 28th 2002 was a dark day for rugby league in York, as it was the day it was finally announced that York Wasps, the city’s only professional rugby club, ceased to exist.

Given the alarm bells that were already rung that season, we should perhaps not be too surprised that the club joined Belle Vue Rangers, Prescot, and Nottingham. The shock, though, is that it was York rather than Gateshead or Blackpool (with all due respect).

While it was not the first time that the club had been in trouble, it still came suddenly and over comparatively little. York joined soccer clubs Accrington Stanley and Wrexham in the ranks of those who have gone under for amounts – in this case apparently £30,000 with another £70,000 needed to play to the end of the season – dwarfed by the sums lost by other clubs who have survived their crises. I can only contrast it with the millions involved in the case of York City at the time, who flirted with extinction but, ultimately survived and are now slowly beginning to dream again after returning to the football league after 8 years in the football wilderness. It was a serious blow to the game, and not just in the terms that the death of any club diminishes the sport overall, but it was a club that was steeped in such history and tradition within the game.

They may not have been a great league club, but they were several cuts above the likes of Doncaster, Prescot and Bramley (again with all due respect). They made it to Wembley in 1931, were one step away (and made a good fist of their semi-final as well) when inspired by Graham Steadman as recently as 1984, won the Yorkshire Cup three times and had seven players chosen for Great Britain, including a late career appearance by Mick Sullivan.

Thirty years ago, When Fulham made their dramatic debut, it was not Wigan they had to give best to in the chase for the Second Division title chase, but York. However, all this fine history and tradition couldn’t rescue them as they were watched by a crowd of just 280 when they beat Chorley in their last ever home game, which by then the players were playing for free and the kit man and physio were on the bench just to make up the numbers!

So what went wrong, and why were they allowed to die so easily when so many other clubs raged successfully against the dying of the light? The answer almost certainly lied in their move out of the city in the early 1990s.

Clarence Street may have been a dump, but its location in the city centre made the club impossible to ignore. Ryedale Stadium, (as it was named in reference to the local authority which, in marked contrast to the then City of York Council, went out of its way to attract the club) was a featureless metal box next to a supermarket in the middle of nowhere in particular. In its frustration at the council, the club forgot its identity – a prime example of two boards forgetting their responsibilities to their community, and in their many arguments producing an answer that suited neither of them. The Wasps ceased to be York’s club, but failed to belong anywhere or become anyone else’s. Thankfully this is slowly changing a decade on as York continues to evolve and Huntington & Monks Cross now very much feels a part of the Minster City, with a helpful Council who were instrumental in securing a new home for the Knights and City.

The future of professional rugby in York wasn’t looking good; the club’s remaining supporters kept rallying round to find funds to keep the club alive, and staged a crisis meeting just five days after the clubs demise to relaunch the club. This plan was deemed impractical however, so the supporters, led by Gary Hall, decided to form a brand new club to enter the rugby football league in the following season.

“The original idea was to show there was enough support to make York RL a success, and the intention then was to fulfil the fixtures of York Wasps.” Hall explained.

“We put a business plan together to get us back in the league that season but it became obvious it would not be possible.”

It was then that the supporters decided to form the new club, and with Steve Ferres, a well-respected former player and official at various clubs, coming on board as chief executive in April, the new club then had to raise £75,000 in four weeks to meet a rugby football league deadline. They finally managed to achieve this on the last day of the deadline, courtesy of John Smith’s brewers, and were then allowed entry into the RFL’s new-look National League for the 2003 season, and the York City Knights were born.

“Once Steve Ferres got involved, things began to click into place. We put forward a plan to get back in the league this [2003] season, and that was eventually accepted.” Hall stated with enthusiasm.

A few weeks later the new look York City Knights unveiled Super League star Paul Broadbent as head coach, and York-born Mark Cain became the first player to sign for the club. With a passionate chairman at the helm, Roger Dixon, a successful local businessman who attended the first meeting back in march, a majority shareholder and sponsor in John Guildford, who after 10 years is still going strong as our esteemed Chairman, along with a host of other significant sponsors, Broadbent and Ferres set about putting together the first band of Knights. They pulled off a major coup when it was announced that Super League stalwart Lee Jackson, a former Great Britain International and grand final winner had joined the club.

This high profile capture spurred a host of other quality signings, including former Great Britain tourist Graeme Hallas and Super league winner Chris Smith, who were then added to with young home grown talent such as Darren Callaghan and Scott Rhodes. All of a sudden the Knights had a team that was capable of big things, and were ready for action.

January 19th 2003 was the day of reckoning for the fledgling club, they were finally able to measure just how much interest there was in the game with their first ever match. The opponents were Hull Kingston Rovers and an unbelievable crowd of 3,105 were there to see the new look team provide more than a match for their well-established opposition from a higher league. The final score was 36-26 to Hull KR although York were leading with just ten minutes to go, and local legend Alex Godfrey had the honour of scoring the Knights’ first ever try.

That was a pretty special day for me. Exactly Ten years ago today my love for York Rugby League was rekindled in spectacular fashion. After years of struggle and ultimately disappointment it was amazing to see the passion and life suddenly injected back into pro-rugby league in the City. I will never forget the first roar of the huge crowd that greeted the team that day. It literally made the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end as Queens ‘One Vision’ blasted out of the PA system.

The appropriateness of one of Freddie Mercury’s famous works still rings true as the Knights celebrate their Tenth birthday. We still have one vision – to be the best we can be, to be a club for the good folk of York and North Yorkshire to be proud of. While we may not yet have the resources to mix it with the big boys in SuperLeague, we can certainly give our best shot in an exciting and vibrant Championship competition. Who knows what’s going to be in store for the Knights with a brand new stadium just around the corner? I certainly dare to dream, even if the immediate task of avoiding relegation from the Kingstone Press Championship gets tougher by the week. But even despite this, the next Ten years have the potential to outdo the first Ten in the excitement stakes.

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