History of York Rugby League

Early years

The club was first formed as York Football Club in 1868 and played both association and rugby football, for the first few seasons they had portable goal posts as they did not have their own ground and would play wherever they could find a pitch. Eventually a permanent pitch was secured on the Knavesmire.

It took three years for the club to record their first victory, and that was in an association football match against York Training College. Results picked up in the mid-1870s as the club attracted a higher standard of player. In 1877, York were among several leading Yorkshire clubs who inaugurated the Yorkshire Challenge Cup. In the first season 16 teams battled it out for the T’owd Tin Pot, with York eventually losing out to Halifax in the final.

Financial problems in the early 1880s forced the club out of the Yorkshire Gentlemen’s Ground in Wigginton Road and in 1883 the club amalgamated with York Melbourne Club.

After playing on Poad’s Fields for a short time, the York Lunatic Asylum leased the club a plot of land at the end of the Clarence Street in 1885. The first game at the new site was between a York XV and 20 players from the city.

The club made great strides with the team of 1895, which won virtually all their home matches. Off the field the club paid £85 for the Waterman’s Mission Hut in Fishergate and converted it into their first grandstand, incorporating dressing rooms.

Northern Union

Northern rugby teams broke away from the Rugby Football Union to form their own Northern Union in 1895. York initially stayed with the Rugby Football Union but as more and more clubs began to join the new order, it became a financial necessity to follow suit. The decision to join the Northern Union was taken at a meeting at the Bar Hotel, Micklegate, on Monday, 25 April 1898 and five days later they played their first Northern Union match against Hull Kingston Rovers losing 29–2.

The York club was first admitted to the Rugby Football League in 1901. In 1902/03 the Lancashire and Yorkshire leagues were combined to form a second division. York was one of the new teams to join the second division. After the First World War, they became known as “the Dreadnoughts”. They beat the visiting Australasian team of the 1921–22 Kangaroo tour of Great Britain 9–3.

York’s best moment came in 1931 when they reached the Challenge Cup Final for the first time, only to be beaten 22–8 by Halifax. York had finished as the top Yorkshire club in 1932–33 for the first time and fourth in the league to qualify for the Championship play-offs but were beaten by Swinton. In 1933, York beat Hull Kingston Rovers 10–4 in the Yorkshire Cup final held at Headingley. 10 February 1934, York’s record attendance was set when 14,689 turned up to watch a Challenge Cup match against Swinton, which ended in a 0–0 draw.

York again made the final of the Yorkshire Cup in 1935 but were beaten by Leeds 3–0 at Thrum Hall, Halifax but were back the next year this time beating Wakefield Trinity 9–2 in a final held at Headingley.

Bill Kirkbride became coach in 1980. York team lifted the Division Two title in 1980–81, beating Hunslet 53–7 to guarantee themselves the title with two games to spare, finishing above big-guns Wigan and big-spending Fulham. Kirkbridge left in 1982.

Financial problems forced the club to sell their training pitch for £200,000 in 1986. Three years later faced with a large bill for safety work, the rest of the stadium was sold to a housing developer for £705,000, less than half what the ground was worth.

York’s last match at Clarence Street produced a 26–17 victory over Hunslet in front of a crowd of 2,904 spectators. When plans to ground share with York City F.C. broke down, York moved to the Huntington Stadium (originally Ryedale Stadium) two miles to the north of the city at Monk’s Cross. As the stadium was financed by Ryedale District Council the club became known as Ryedale-York.


Gary Stephens became coach in 1988. Huntington/Ryedale Stadium’s record attendance for a rugby league match was set on 5 January 1990 when 4,977 turned up to watch a division two match against Halifax.

In 1991, York and Fulham toured Russia. An act that caused many Russian rugby union clubs to switch to rugby league. Stephens left as coach.

Stuart Horton took over the coaching reigns from Roger Millward in January 1995. He was sacked at the end of 1996 for alleged gross misconduct after the postponement of a friendly fixture at Hull. He was replaced by Dean Robinson. Following the move to summer rugby in 1996, the club was renamed York Wasps.

York Wasps

York were beaten by amateur side West Hull 10-6 in the Challenge Cup on Humberside on a frozen pitch. They became the first professional side to lose to an amateur club in the fourth round, and it was only the third time a minnow had triumphed against a giant in the event since the Second World War.

York won one game in the Northern Ford Premiership in 2000 and finished the campaign with a team of amateurs after almost folding. Coach Dean Robinson resigned in March 2000 and caretaker coach Garry Atkins finished the season.

Lee Crooks took over as coach in August 2000. They attracted sponsorship from the New York Economic Development Council for the 2001 season. This promised, but did not deliver, a bright future. Lee Crooks resigned and academy coach Martin Flynn took charge for the final Northern Ford Premiership home game.

York made an approach to Virgin to buy the London Broncos in August 2001 and form a merged club under a new name, York Wasps Ltd, to play in Super League. Australian Leo Epifania came over to England to be head coach of York Wasps in September.

On 19 March 2002, after completing 11 games, York Wasps announced that they had folded. After a last-ditch take-over deal to save the Wasps collapses, the RFL accept the club’s resignation on 26 March 2002. Ironically the plug was pulled less than a fortnight after the club’s first win in 13 months.

Head coach, Leo Epifania quit England but York players continued to train with the idea of playing later in the season under unpaid caretaker-boss Stuart Horton. A supporters’ trust working party was formed on 27 March 2002 and applied to the RFL to continue the 2002 Northern Ford Premiership fixtures. After hearing it would be impossible to meet requirements to return that season, on 5 May 2002 fans backed new proposals for a new club to apply for admittance to the league for 2003, and a new club, York City Knights, was subsequently established.

York City Knights

2002–2003: Origins and foundation

The RFL accepted York’s bid to play in the newly formed National League Two on condition that they had £75,000 in the bank by 31 August. The new club decided that the best way to raise cash was through a fans’ membership scheme. Former Great Britain star Paul Broadbent was revealed as player-coach. With the total standing at £70,000, John Smith’s brewery came in with £5,000 as the club hit the target just hours before the deadline.

The full name of the new club was revealed to be York City Knights RLFC, following a competition in the Evening Press. Club bosses, in the following month of October, also let the public design a club logo which was based on the New South Wales Rugby League Team’s logo, while they picked new colours of blue and white – a move away from York RL’s traditional amber and black. John Guildford was revealed to be the majority shareholder and they played at Huntington Stadium, where the previous incarnation of York RL played.

2003–2006: National League 2 and promotion

The Knights played their first game at home against Hull Kingston Rovers in the National League Cup on 19 January with a bumper crowd of 3,105. In their first year, the Knights finished fourth with 11 wins, a draw and 6 losses. They made the National League Two play-offs but lost 50–30 to the Barrow Raiders. Paul Broadbent resigned as coach at the end of the season.

Richard Agar was appointed head coach for the following year. They made it all the way to the Challenge Cup Quarter Final, losing 50–12 to the Huddersfield Giants. York also made the semi finals of the Championship Cup, losing 32–0 to Hull Kingston Rovers. After finishing second in the league, and three points behind Barrow Raiders, the Knights entered the play offs. They lost 37–20 in the qualifying semi final to Halifax and then beat Workington Town 70–10. Mark Cain broke the record for most tries in a match and the score was the highest points tally since the Knights were born. They were narrowly beaten in the play-off final by Halifax 34–30 at the Halton Stadium in Widnes. Agar left York to join Hull F.C. as an assistant coach.

York appointed Mick Cook as their new head coach in 2005 as part of a partnership with Super League club Leeds Rhinos. Cook’s side made it to the 5th Round of the Challenge Cup losing 62–0 to St. Helens at Knowsley Road. At the end of the league season they were champions by three points and were promoted automatically to National League One for the first time. They were now only one tier away from Super League. They had the highest crowd average for National League One teams, of 1,986. Yorks’s game against Hunslet on 25 May 2005 drew a crowd of 3,224 which at the time was a record for National League One.

York kicked off their first season in rugby league’s second tier, losing 25–18 away at Widnes Vikings. They lost their first seven games before finally beating Oldham 62–0 and then again 15 days later, 54–10. Despite a good late run of form including wins over Whitehaven, Doncaster and Rochdale Hornets, York were relegated back to National League Two at the end of the season culminating in a 60–16 defeat to Leigh Centurions at Hilton Park. York finished second bottom, above Oldham with five wins and thirteen defeats, three points below Doncaster. They did however, win the Fairfax Cup, after beating Batley 14–10 in their first appearance in the York International 9s.

2007–2010: Relegation to Championship 1

2007 was a poor season for the City Knights, finishing sixth in the league with ten wins and twelve losses. There was also a record defeat for York City Knights in the Challenge Cup 5th Round losing 74–4 to Huddersfield Giants, Chris Spurr getting York’s sole try. Mick Cook quit as coach at the end of the season and Paul March was appointed player-coach on a one-year rolling contract in September 2007.

He took York to sixth place again with eleven wins and ten losses. Even though there were three promotion places available (two automatic, one via the play offs), the Knights failed to capitalise and lost in the play offs to Rochdale Hornets 12–28. Gateshead Thunder and Barrow Raiders went up automatically, Doncaster went up via the play offs.

2009 saw the Knights start positively and looked like they could challenge for the title. After a Sky Sports game at home to Oldham, March was sacked in due to disciplinary matters and then director of rugby James Ratcliffe took over. The Knights finished third but eventually lost in the play offs in the semi final to Oldham 44–14.

Chris Thorman arrived at the club in 2010 as assistant to Ratcliffe but saw himself become acting head coach while Ratcliffe was suspended. The Knights claimed one of their biggest scalps when they defeated Leigh Centurions, who were in the division above, 13–12 in the Northern Rail Cup group stages thanks to a late Thorman drop goal. Ratcliffe returned for the away game at Doncaster and Dave Woods arrived at York as director of rugby in April 2010. Five games later, Ratcliffe was sacked after a 30–36 defeat to Swinton Lions and Woods was named as head coach. York were fifth in Championship 1 at the time after seven wins and six losses in the league. Woods’ first game was a 60–12 victory over Gateshead and finished third in the table and thus qualified for the play-offs. After losing to Oldham, York then beat Blackpool Panthers in the semi final where they’d face Oldham in the final. On 26 September 2010, the Knights won the Co-operative Championship 1 play-off Grand Final to earn promotion to the Championship. They beat Oldham 25–6 at the Halliwell Jones Stadium in Warrington. The Knights had finished the regular season 13 points behind their final opponents.

2011–2013: Promotion to the Championship

York finished third-bottom of the Championship in 2011, but bottom club Toulouse were exempt from relegation so, with two going down, the Knights faced demotion along with Dewsbury Rams – until the RFL decided not to admit Crusaders into this division following their withdrawal from Super League, thus earning York a reprieve. Dewsbury were also saved after Barrow Raiders received a points deduction meaning the Knights finished fourth bottom. Just six days later Dave Woods was sacked by the club.

In 2012, there were no relegation spots available and thus, York decided against strengthening their squad. Chris Thorman was appointed head coach and former Leeds Rhinos full back Jordan Tansey signed for the club on a one-year deal. York won one league game all season beating Swinton Lions 26–22. Thus York finished bottom of the pile. Chris Thorman announced he would be joining the coaching staff at Huddersfield Giants at the end of the season. He was to be replaced by Gary Thornton who was appointed head coach in 2012.

2013 started off well for the City Knights and looked to be challenging for the play offs. A run of eleven straight losses at the end of the season and failure to win away in the league since June 2011 saw them relegated back to Rugby Leagues basement tier. They made the 5th round of the Challenge Cup losing 92–8 away at Catalans Dragons. The Knights finished the season seven points from safety with six wins and twenty losses.

2014–2016: League 1

York City Knights played in League 1, as they finished bottom of the Championship in the 2013 season. Famous wins in 2014 came against Hunslet whom they beat three times, 28–26 away in March, 40–0 at home in May and won the league at the South Leeds Stadium after the comeback was sealed thanks to a Colton Roche Try meaning the Knights won 20–18. They also beat Oldham 54–14 at home. York City Knights topped League 1 but lost in the end of season play-offs to Hunslet Hawks, thus failing to secure promotion back the Championship.

Gary Thornton was was replaced by James Ford for the start of the 2015 season, while the Knights were now homeless after John Guildford failed to sign up for the Community Stadium deal. Guildford stepped down as Chairman and appointed four directors; Stephen Knowles, Dave Baldwin, Neil Jennings and Gary Dickenson.

On 18 June 2015, York City Knights reserves were kicked out of the reserve league and banned from entering the 2016 competition. The first team still remained homeless.

At the end of the 2015 season, York City Knights finished Fourth in League 1 and qualified for the play offs. They lost out to Swinton Lions 17–16 on the Golden Point They were also knocked out in the League 1 Cup second round by Newcastle Thunder. They reached the fifth round of the Challenge Cup, losing to St. Helens 46–6.

Closure threat

In July 2016 it was announced the club would not be able to play their first game of the Super 8s against Doncaster at Bootham Crescent due to York City FC playing on the Saturday, meaning that the Knights would have to play midweek due to there having to be 24 hours between games at the stadium. Due to the disputes between the owner and the council, the club directors announced that they would be winding up the club as soon as all necessary legal steps had been taken.

The following day a joint statement from the club, the RFL and the city council was issued stating “We continue to work to resolve this situation and are hopeful that ways can be found for James Ford and his players to be able to fulfil the remainder of their fixtures this season”. On 25 July the club owner, John Guildford, announced that he was in negotiation with local businessman, Gary Dickenson, and that the sale would be of a club “virtually debt-free” enabling the Knights to continue to run. however on 23 August Dickenson discontinued the negotiations. Following the collapse of the sale to Dickenson, Guildford put the club up for sale to any interested buyer.

New beginnings

The RFL issued a deadline of 1 December 2016 for ownership issues to be resolved and late on 1 December the club issued a statement that ownership of the Knights had passed entirely to new owner Jon Flatman. The following day the RFL confirmed that the team would be re-instated into League 1 for the 2017 season. One of Flatman’s first moves was to tie down talented head coach James Ford to a three year deal, allowing Ford to set about rebuilding his Knights team. In January 2017, it was revealed that the club will play all home fixtures in 2017 and 2018 at York City’s Bootham Crescent, and that the team colours had reverted back to the traditional amber and black.

Flatman and Ford immediately set about assembling a squad capable of competing again in League 1, including notable signings such as Tim Spears, Andy Ellis & local lad Ash Robson. The undoubted highlight of the season was a 26-16 victory over big spenders Toronto Wolfpack. The Knights were the first ever team to claim a league victory over the new Canadian team of superstars in front of over 2,500 fans on a memorable sunny July Sunday afternoon at Bootham Crescent.

The Knights went on to finish in fourth place, and travelled to third-placed Whitehaven in the play-offs. The Cumbrians eventually emerged victorious in what turned out to be a world-record game of rugby league, scoring the decisive golden point field goal after an incredible 26 minutes of extra time.


2018 will go down as one of the most memorable in York City Knights history, as they went toe to toe with former Super League and World Club Champions Bradford Bulls. With astute signings such as Ben Cockayne, Sam Scott, Graeme Horne and relative unknown Joe Batchelor, the opening day saw a thrilling two point loss to the Bulls at Bootham Crescent in front of over four thousand fans, and the Knights would then go on to lose just one more match in the entire league campaign. Revenge was earned at Odsal Stadium in July with Judah Mazive going the length of the field to seal a memorable victory. York went on to ultimately clinch the league title with a win over Whitehaven in front of 3,500 fans on the last day of the season.

Other memorable moments that year included two world record victories over West Wales Raiders – 144-0 and 0-130 respectively – and a thrilling Challenge Cup tie in front of over 3,000 fans at Bootham Crescent, where the Knights pushed eventual tournament winners and Super League side Catalans Dragons all the way, before falling 34-22 in front of the BBC Sport cameras – the first event ever broadcast in 4K HD by the BBC. James Ford became the club’s first ever full time Head Coach, signing a three year deal that summer.


2019 started out with the main aim of avoiding immediate relegation from a tough Betfred Championship division, and that target was all but sealed by Easter after a fairytale start to the season. The Knights pushed Toronto Wolfpack all the way in round one live on Sky Sports, before picking up their first win at Dewsbury Rams a week later after coming back from 16-0 down – relative unknowns Marcus Stock and Jason Bass coming to the fore alongside returning Super League stars Kriss Brining and Liam Salter.

York continued their dream run, picking up another memorable victory at Bradford Bulls, as well as notable home and away doubles against former Super League teams Leigh Centurions and Widnes Vikings.

An unlikely Championship play-off spot was earned in late August with a win over Featherstone Rovers at a sunny Bootham Crescent, and the Knights went on to end a dream season in third place – behind Toronto Wolfpack and Toulouse Olympique – the highest placed UK team outside Super League.