Head Coach Ford signs new deal!

Published: 7 November, 2021 - 4:58 pm

York City Knights are delighted to confirm that Head Coach James Ford has signed a new three-year deal with the club, securing his future with us until the end of the 2024 season.

39-year-old Ford is one of the best-regarded coaches in the British game and, in 2018, he became the first full-time Head Coach in the Knights’ history. That season, he masterminded the club’s title-winning campaign, overcoming Bradford Bulls in a top-of-the-table battle which inspired the best in both teams and spawned one of the best rivalries outside of Super League.

Entering the second tier for the first time since 2011, Ford then guided the Knights to a third-placed finish, winning the 2019 Betfred Championship Coach of the Year award in the process to back up winning the League 1 equivalent the season before.

Ford has also coached at international level when, in 2018, he joined the England Academy setup. In December of that year, the national team became only the third team from these shores to ever whitewash a counterpart Australian outfit, winning both matches of their two-match series.

That spell strengthened Ford’s reputation as a coach who is able to develop talent and, from that team, the Castleford-born coach has worked with Cameron Scott, Corey Johnson and James McDonnell in the last three years at the Knights. Scott had a seven-match spell with the club in 2019 before the latter two spent time with the club this year.

Mikey Lewis, the Hull KR star who also had a spell with the Knights in 2021, was another who Ford worked with as part of his role with the Academy, along with Riley Dean, Corey Hall and Jacob Gannon.

Former Super League centre Ford passed ten years with the Knights in April this year, first joining the club as a player in 2011 – making over fifty appearances for the Knights – before becoming Head Coach in 2015 after spells as under-20s coach and assistant.

This year, while disappointing in the league, saw the Knights make our first trip to Wembley in ninety years for the AB Sundecks 1895 Cup Final and Ford noted that, along with being delighted to extend his stay with the Knights, he is keen to help the club to more big matches over the coming years, as outlined in the full Q&A with our Head Coach below.

James, you’ve signed a new deal and you passed ten years with the Knights earlier this year. Are you happy to have re-signed?

I’m absolutely delighted. It’s a project that I’m really enjoying and I think that, over the time I’ve been here, the progress the club has made is very clear and evident. The thing that excites me the most, however, is the potential of the club. I don’t think we’ve got anywhere close to fulfilling the club’s potential yet which is really exciting.

It’s been a steep learning curve for you at times at the Knights. How do you think you have progressed and developed over the last few years?

Good question. I thought in 2015, when I took over, that I was ready to be head coach and have a positive impact on the club and it’s players. Looking back now, I think the saying we often use is ‘you don’t know what you don’t know’ and I’ve learned so much in that time. I feel like I’ve improved as a person and a coach a fair bit since 2015 and I think 2021 played a big part in that. I’ve often said you don’t always learn from winning competitions and positivity. You can learn a lot in other ways as well and I feel that last season was a really good exercise in terms of me learning about recruitment and retention, as well as being put in situations I couldn’t have imagined would exist in rugby league. But I’ve been in those situations now and it wasn’t nice – it was incredibly difficult – but that’s now in my toolkit and, if and when I’m challenged like that again, I’ve been through it and we’ve been through it as a club and we will be stronger for it.

You mentioned there that recruitment and retention as being something you have learned more about and, for 2022, the profile of the players in the squad is very different. Could you talk us through that?

I think in 2021 we, as a club, signed a lot of players that people would recognise the names of. I felt that, at times, the squad lacked a bit of energy and competitiveness. I think that we were really comfortable doing the nice things but we didn’t invest as much energy into other areas of the game that I think York have become well known for. I think that had a big impact on our performances. I don’t want to make too many excuses about players missing through injury because that’s been well documented but, at times, we weren’t willing to dive on loose balls, to chase people back, we weren’t willing to defend set after set – or maybe we couldn’t. As a result, we’ve looked for younger, hungrier, more enthusiastic players who have got a whole heap of drive to continue improving to get to the top of their games.

At the end of the season, we won five out of seven and the make-up of the team was significantly different. We had people like Corey Hall, Corey Johnson, James McDonnell as well as Myles Harrison and Toby Warren – they’re young players who came into the team, bringing some enthusiasm and energy. That was infectious and we want more of that, but you can’t just go for a squad full of under-19s. You need to balance it out and I feel that we have done. We’ve got a good mix of experience and youth and, with those experienced players that we have kept, I’m confident that they’re willing to invest in the areas of the game that I believe are really important. They will be complemented by some young, up and coming hungry players and, on top of that, we’ve signed some x-factor as well.

You’ve mentioned there the experience. We’ve lost a host of retiring players, not least Tim Spears, who was a stand-out leader. How important is it to keep people like Chris Clarkson and Danny Kirmond around with that experience leaving?

It’s absolutely massive. Those two are both good leaders and very experienced players. They understand the game to a very good level and they both had good seasons last year. Supporters, coaches and players all want the same thing but we look at it from slightly different perspectives. Danny Kirmond would get through a game regularly topping fifty tackles and miss one or two tackles per month. Chris Clarkson would be the same and they were both absolutely key to the good parts of last season. They need to be complemented by different types of players around them and I feel that we’ve got a much more balanced team this year.

There is space now for some of the younger players to step up more as leaders now as well, isn’t there?

It’s important for them to have space to do that, to develop as leaders. I’ve never had or needed a senior leadership group at the club because Tim’s leadership was enough. This year, we will have a senior players leadership group who I will meet with frequently to discuss things with and that will give them the opportunity to develop as leaders and have an impact on the team, the culture and the club. That’s something I’m really excited about.

Looking at some of the specifics within the squad, we’ve brought in a full complement of new wingers, younger wingers. What do you see them bringing?

They’re all young, they’re all very athletic. When I say athletic, I mean they’re all strong, fast and powerful blokes who will challenge the opposition with their physicality, speed and footwork. That’s the way that the modern-day winger is, they’re the best athletes in the team and they start our sets and, hopefully, finish our sets for us! I’m confident that we’ve got some real athletes there.

James Glover and Jacob Ogden have both come in as centres. Glover, especially, has played a lot of Championship rugby, as have a lot of the 2022 squad. Is that something you were looking to bring in?

Yeah, I think that’s important. We probably had some individuals who underestimated the Championship last year and that probably falls on me as I should have nipped that straight in the bud, right at the very start when I got a little whisper here and there. I didn’t and that’s something I have definitely learned over the last year.

James is a really attacking player. He anticipates line breaks and opportunities really well. He can find a pass to put his winger in, he is a threat on kicks with a short kicking game and he’s a fantastic support player. I think that, with the people we’re going to put around him, we will get the best out of James in terms of his attacking anticipation. There are a couple of parts of his game that I want to tidy up but he’s got a great starting point. Not just that attacking element, because he is really competitive. When he plays against his opposite centre, he wants to outplay that centre. He wants his edge to be better than the other edge and that competitive nature is invaluable.

Glover is one of the players who suggested that York is a big club to be at and a great opportunity for him to develop as a player. That sort of hunger can only be good, can’t it?

Yeah. When I met James, one of the things I wanted to make clear was that I want players who want to be the best versions of themselves and who want to take it seriously. Yes, we’re a part-time club with part-time players but we want a full-time mentality. We want to continue improving as a club and get to Super League eventually and the players are absolutely central to that. We need them to want to be there, prepare to be there, train hard and then, hopefully one day, we will be.

Looking at the players in the halves this year, you must be really excited by the options that presents you with?

It’s good to have three half-backs that I really believe in. They all understand the game to a fantastic level and I would say that I have a strong relationship with all three of them. They have all got their different strengths and I’m really excited to work with them all to get the best out of them. It’s going to be a great competition between the three of them because they’re all, individually, tremendous half-backs and at this minute in time I have no idea which two will play in round one. They will decide that by how they train and how they conduct themselves at the club and away from it. It doesn’t matter to me which two play because I trust them all implicitly.

Does having three take a bit of pressure off Brendan coming back from injury?

It absolutely does. I think that’s probably something else I’ve learned over the last year. We set our targets pretty high for 2021 and both Brendan and Morgan Smith were absolutely key to that. We then obviously lost Morgan for the season and then I knew we needed Brendan in that team to have any chance of getting where we wanted to be.

I thought Mikey Lewis came in and did really well, I thought Corey Johnson – for a hooker – was excellent in the halves but I knew that, for us to compete with the teams at the top of the table, we needed Brendan in the team.

We took some gambles bringing him back a little bit early on occasions because we had nobody else. The gamble didn’t pay off but, having Jamie and Liam at the club – as well as Matty Marsh – means Brendan can have as long as he needs to get himself in absolutely prime condition. Then, he can compete for a place in the team and I see him as a potential Super League player. That’s not to put any pressure on him but I think he has enough ability to not just be a Super League player but to have a real impact on that competition.

In the hookers, as well, we’ve now got three players who will really be competing for two spots in the team – could you talk us through what they offer?

Sam Davis, first, I would liken to Micky McIlorum so he’s right up my street. He’s full of effort, energy and endeavour and he will be a real nuisance for our opposition. I want to work with him a bit on his deception and some attacking parts of his game but, first and foremost, he gives us what I feel we lacked at times last year. That defensive effort, that competitiveness, so I’m really pleased to bring Sam in. He can play eighty minutes as well, as can Will Jubb.

Will has always been a pleasure to work with and he’s an incredible skilful player with great deception. He’s really smart and defensively reliable. We want to work with him on his running game, with his running and passing.

Then we’ve got Kriss, who we can also take more time with to get him back to fitness on his way back. The luxury we have, with three, is that we don’t need to rush him back should he need longer. I really believe in Will and Sam but Kriss, when he is it fit, fast and lean, he’s up there with the best in the competition and he is unplayable at times. I’ve tried to tackle him, a long time ago, and it’s tough.

In the forwards, we’ve got a few sticking about and a few coming in. On the ones we have retained, it’s a big year for people like Ronan Dixon and Jack Teanby, isn’t it?

It is. I’ve talked about the potential of Ronan, Jack and Marcus Stock for years and I do see them eventually being top Championship middles – and maybe beyond.

But it’s alright me saying it – they now have to go and do it. They will get their opportunity, they’re going to have some quality half-backs guiding them around and they will have some great hookers giving them service.

The ball is in their court. I think they can go on and be really key players for us this season and I’ll be trying my very best to give them everything they need to fulfil that potential.

Masi Matongo as well, he’s come in, and after looking for a forward to bring some punch to the pack, you must be keen to work with him?

Masi has played about sixty times for Hull FC and you don’t play in Super League that many times if you can’t do it. I believe Masi is a Super League-standard player. He’s had some difficult stuff in his life over the last year that probably hasn’t helped him but I think he has come to the right place. We will give him the support he needs and we believe in him. I am very confident we will see the best version of Masi Matongo in a Knights shirt on Sunday afternoons.

I gather you’re still looking for another prop forward – what sort of player are you looking to bring in?

Somebody with high effort, high energy, values defending and will put the team first. What I mean by that is someone who will get off the floor, retreat, get back onside and respect possession.

Jordan Thompson is one of the few players who have come down from Super League to join the Knights for 2022. What will he bring?

I think the York fans will love him. I’m friends with Jordan off the field, as I am with Sam Scott, and there’s probably no coincidence there but there are some similarities between the two of them.

He’s highly competitive, tough and tenacious. He is going to come out of the line and try to whack people. He’s going to carry the ball hard and he will leave everything on the field on Sunday afternoons. He is a proper ball-playing loose forward who is going to run around the field trying to whack everyone and I’ve said it a number of times – we didn’t have enough of that last year.

Having Thompson at thirteen, like you say, gives you a range of differing options in the second-row spots, as well.

You need a balance. You can’t have a team of Chris Clarksons, but you can’t have a team of Pauli Paulis. You need to hit that balance and I think that, having Chris in one back row shirt, with Pauli in the other gives you strike, ball-playing ability, offloading ability, defensive effort… blokes who are going to get behind the ball early to give us an extra body on tackles one and two. It gives us a great balance and variation of threat. You look at Toby Warren, as well. He has just turned eighteen and is 95kg. He will be a real handful, as will Danny Kirmond. We’ve got a good balance and variation to our back-row spots.

Speaking of Pauli Pauli, the options you have for how he could be used are incredible – you must be really looking forward to that?

When I initially met Pauli, we were chatting and all I was thinking was ‘My God. How would I approach trying to tackle this guy?’ I’m really looking forward to working with him. I’ve met him a few times, his wife and mine know each other and he comes across as a great guy. I’m really looking forward to coaching him and I’m chuffed that I’ve not got to tackle him and that somebody else has!

There will be him and few others coming in early on our training days and I’m willing to give any player my time if they want to get better. I’ve already been with Pauli on his non-training days doing a little bit here and there and that, for him to want to do that on top of what we will be doing, is amazing and while a player wants to do anything more, that’s brilliant and I will give him my time.

From meeting him, what sort of character do you think he will be around the group?

He will have a really positive impact. He’s played at the highest level in rugby league and I think he will have a great impact on what we do. From the time I’ve spent with him, I think the boys will love him and I can’t speak highly enough of him – they’re in for a real treat.

With Pauli coming in, and being joined by Chris Clarkson and Danny Kirmond as back-rowers, there are some great people for Toby Warren to learn off, aren’t there?

He’s got a great opportunity here to learn from some great, different types of back-rowers. They have all played at the top level. Chris Clarkson has won a Super League Grand Final, Danny Kirmond has captained Wakefield in Super League, Pauli Pauli has played in the NRL, so it’s a great opportunity for not just him but any young player on the edges. They have some awesome people to learn off there.

Looking at another teenager in the squad, you haven’t brought in an experienced understudy to Matty Marsh – which is a big vote of confidence in Myles Harrison.

That’s intentional, it’s absolutely intentional. A few different names were tossed up as alternatives and I was adamant I wanted a pathway for Myles Harrison. I thought he played outstandingly well at the end of the season. He got Man of the Match at Newcastle and I think he was even better at home to London against a full-time team.

I said, half-jokingly to Matty Marsh, that he needs to be careful. Listen, if Myles Harrison passes Matty, he will play over him. I didn’t want to sign a full-back over Myles and send him out on loan because, as a club, we think a lot of him and how he played at the end of last season was awesome.

You’ve mentioned Matty Marsh there. He’s signed a two-year deal and showed his versatility with slotting in when needed in the halves last season. He’s incredibly highly thought of here, isn’t he?

When Marshy asked me how long I’d signed for, I said it was two – it turns out it’s three – so he might be wondering where that year has gone!

Listen, he’s been absolutely central to the progress this club has made on the pitch. I love working with him, we’ve got a really strong relationship and with the players we’ve brought to the team in the halves, a lot of space will be created for Marshy.

Pauli Pauli as well, I’ve already spoken to Matty about making sure he’s around Pauli and Matty Marsh needs to be challenging himself to be the top scorer in the division.

Summing all of that up, would it be fair to say you’ve learned from the mistakes in the 2021 squad ahead of next season?

I wouldn’t say they’re all mistakes. I would say that I’ve learnt a lot from the challenges thrown at us. I’ve learned a lot from that and, in terms of recruiting players to suit how I feel the game should be played rather than what name it says on the back of the shirt, for sure.

It’s a three-year deal. Have you mapped out goals that you want to share?

It’s between Jon and I but anybody who knows me is aware of where I want to take this club. I want to be at a club that matches my ambition and I am. I’m confident in the leadership above me and I’m absolutely looking forward to the next three years.

Looking back on your ten years in its entirety, what are the standout moments for you during your time with the club.

Obviously winning promotion in 2018 has got to be mentioned. That was a great year, I really enjoyed that and I’ve made some friends for life. I still speak to Graeme Horne and Ben Cockayne almost every week, Connor Robinson as well.

2019, we were a whisker away from finishing second in that competition and then going to Wembley this year, that’s right up there.

Walking out at Wembley, I was thinking that we need to be in games like this as often as possible. It was awesome and to speak to the supporters and to understand and appreciate what it meant to them was something really special. Hopefully we can take the club back into games like that.

You’ve mentioned 2019 there and the team spirit among that group has been credited with playing a big role in the success that year. That’s not been possible in 2021 but, after Wembley, the team was closer and performances improved.

Is that a big focus for this pre-season, building that team spirit?

Yeah. That’s something that I do believe had an impact on us – a new team in a pandemic when you can’t spend any time together. We have planned some activities to facilitate the cohesion across the group over the next few months.

If you chuck goals out there, you’re there to be shot at and we are there to be shot at because of the ambition of the club, the stadium and the facilities. The individuals that we manage to bring to the club puts a target on us but anybody who knows me is aware that we will be challenging ourselves thoroughly in 2022.

You’ve developed a great relationship with the fans during your time with the club. How important is that to you and staying with the club?

Yeah, I have really enjoyed my time here and they are a big part of it. They have been great to me and their loyalty was probably tested at times last year. We want to repay that faith next year.

What I want them to do next year is build a really strong relationship with the players so they can appreciate one another like I do with the supporters and vice versa, to create a unique atmosphere down here that every player wants to be part of.