Representing your home town club is often the dream of sports people and Ben Johnston has this year returned for a second stint with the Knights, this time on a permanent basis, after previously making seventeen appearances for the club over two years on loan from Castleford Tigers in 2013 and 2014.
“I’d always wanted to return to my hometown club at some stage and with York going in the direction I wanted to do so while I felt I could still offer something as a player,” Johnston told the club’s official website. After making the vast majority of his senior appearances for Halifax, leaving the West Yorkshire outfit following six years in the blue and white was understandably tough for the 28-year-old but he acknowledged that the chance to play for the Knights was a big draw: “the pull of it being the team I grew up watching as a lad swayed it for me.”
While his arrival came ahead of this season, Johnston admitted there had been previous interest from the Knights under head coach James Ford and, upon linking up with the team, the former York Acorn junior found one of his closest friends in the halves. “When I found out Connor was signing again I nearly backed out!” he joked, his friendship with Knights’ talisman Robinson having been much publicised following his arrival back in the Minster city.
“The appeal of playing alongside Connor definitely helped,” Johnston noted, continuing “we’re very good mates. I think we complement each other as players and we showed promising signs of that against Rochdale.”
That match against the Hornets, the Coral Challenge Cup Round 5 victory which was also the Knights final outing prior to the ongoing shutdown of the sport, marked Johnston’s first try in York colours in his current spell with the club. The cup matches, however, have been the only ones in which the Knights have recorded victories so far after narrow defeats against Toulouse Olympique and London Broncos as well as heavy losses against Leigh and his former club Halifax. During his time with the latter, Johnston formed a key part of a team who regularly competed at the top end of the Championship – something the Knights are keen to do following an excellent third place finish last season.
Of what made that Halifax team so strong in that period, Johnston acknowledged the importance of shutting out opponents. “I think defence was massive for us, having that desire to work for your mate and just genuinely enjoying each other’s company,” he noted, also highlighting Halifax’s ability to raise their performance for the bigger games, showcased no better than their tough, never-say-die showing against St Helens in last season’s Coral Challenge Cup semi-final defeat to St Helens.
Both characteristics Johnston mentioned were a clear strength of the Knights in 2019 and, while this season has seen a tough start with four reverses, there have been signs that those attributes are still there – notably in the narrow home defeat against London. “We’ve had a tough start which hasn’t been ideal but theirs still a long road ahead,” Johnston philosophised. “We’re all confident in the group from the man at the side of us through to the coaching staff that we will meet our individual and collective expectations,” he added, clearly in the confidence that the Knights’ class of 2020 will come good.
Of the current setup at the club which Johnston is so confident in, the half-back emphasised just how important hard work is throughout the Knights camp. “I think first it starts with equipping blokes with the right mind set about improving. We all want to work hard at getting better for the greater good of the team,” he remarked, before further explaining the approach in training towards his partnership with Robinson. “Personally and as halves we’ve been working on playing really square and decision making. Fordy is a realist too he knows what lads are good at and fills you with the confidence to focus on the positive you can bring to a game.”
Johnston’s return to his hometown club seven years after making his final loan appearance comes at an exciting time for the club with a move to the new LNER Community Stadium approaching and, coupled with excellent training facilities at the York St. John Sports Park, the club is well set for a bright and prosperous future. When asked about what are the biggest changes he has seen between those two spells, it was the facilities and general approach which stand out to him. “It’s similar to when I was full time in terms of gym programmes to nutrition,” Johnston noted. “The club gives you the best chance off the field in terms of facilities, training and preparation to enable us to perform on it.”
The last outing saw the Knights deliver one of their best performances of the season in the 70-12 victory over Betfred League One’s Rochdale and, after progressing to round six of the Coral Challenge Cup, have been drawn against Castleford Tigers in the next phase of the competition, an encounter which will offer Johnson the chance to face off against the team who gave him his Super League debut in 2012. “It was a dream come true for me,” he reflected. “I owe a lot to Cas as I was able to make my Super League debut for them and they have some great lads there that it will be nice to catch up with. I’m still a Cas fan and love watching them play so I’m sure it will be a good experience and we will be looking to give a good account of ourselves,” Johnston further added.