“It’s the place you want to be.”
Fresh from signing a new deal with the Knights for 2021, Tim Spears admitted that he couldn’t resist the prospect of going round again with everything the club has to offer. As he revealed, however, it wasn’t always like that.
“When I first came to York, I don’t mind saying that the culture wasn’t where it needed to be to win,” he explained. “We had a lot of young lads and we were in a sort of rebuilding phase and I used to walk around scowling a fair bit because I wasn’t happy.
“The way we trained and were in games, I wasn’t happy with it,” Spears elaborated. Now, though, it couldn’t be more different. Noting that much of the responsibility for the team fell to him in his early days with the club, the veteran forward heralded the number of experienced role models within the squad. “From a leadership perspective, a lot of it was on my shoulders but now we’ve got a team full of really good, senior players,” he reasoned. “Seeing that shift in culture has been great. For example, rather than a few blokes doing extras because they think they have to do them to seeing a number of blokes doing it to, now, seeing everyone buying into it and a number of different people leading those extras and collectively working hard is brilliant,” Spears added.
“Now, even when we’ve won comfortably, we sit down and spend ten minutes looking at the good stuff but half an hour looking at where we could get better and I think that culture and ethos has grown from being a few individuals to being the York way, really,” he explained. “I’m so proud of seeing that grow and to now see the group become such a tight, hard-working, honest bunch of very committed rugby league players.
Acknowledging that the Knights have a guilt of riches in terms of experienced players, the former Featherstone forward heralded a number of others in the squad as having a lot to offer in terms of leadership. “A lot of senior guys have played lots of rugby, however many of the squad are still young and have their best years yet to come, really. You look at people like (Jack) Teanby, Ronan Dixon, Jordan Baldwinson, Stocky… people like Marshy, as well, they’re all still young,” he explained. “They’re young players but with loads of experience who just keep getting better and to have people like Adam Cuthbertson, Ryan Atkins and Danny Kirmond coming in and being around to help and grow their game is just a massive, valuable tool for them all.”
Those new recruits who are set to join the squad for 2021 will, in Spears’ belief, only be a good thing for the collective group and the development of the culture within. “First and foremost, they’re all outstanding rugby league players who have had brilliant careers,” he said. “As a young player in the squad now, you look at the facilities we’ve got, the stadium we’ve got and some of the mentors you’ve got around you and then these outstanding rugby league players coming in who have been in some of the best cultures in British rugby league,” Spears furthered.
“You can’t help but be inspired at working with people like that,” he added, highlighting his belief that they will continue to push the team forward.
The importance of a strong culture has not only been exemplified in the Knights’ team performances in recent years but, as Spears suggests, it has been huge for the very youngest players in the squad, players the man who captained the Knights to the 2018 Betfred League One title is excited to see develop further. “You look at kids like AJ (Towse) and Myles (Harrison), people like that, who you could see just improving out of sight last year, simply from spending time around such a good culture, such a good environment with good people to learn from,” he articulated.
2021 will not only see Spears continue in the black and amber but he has also been awarded a testimonial, one that was initially supposed to take place this year. “I was in the process of announcing it and seeing how it would look just as Covid-19 bit really,” he revealed. “A testimonial year isn’t something I’ve ever really thought about much to be honest. As a player, you just sort of focus on the short term, looking at the next game, week and month so I think, when I was awarded it and started thinking about it, that it’s just a really nice way to catch up with some old mates and remember numerous great times I’ve had and brilliant teams that I’ve played in.
“I’m really looking forward to it.”
While acknowledging that the current global pandemic makes planning events for his testimonial year challenging at this stage and, while admitting there aren’t any major plans at this stage, Spears said: “In an ideal world I’d like to have a dinner of some form to get some friends and family together but I’ve got a bit of an open mind about it really. We might have to get a bit creative with one or two bits but primarily I want to enjoy it and remember the brilliant times I’ve had with some great teammates and the loads of fantastic people I’ve met along the way.
“I hope we’ll sit down early in the new year and see where we’re at and then hopefully come up with a few things that will be interesting and appeal to fans and people of York as well as rugby league fans.”
Ahead of that campaign and a testimonial year, Spears’ attentions – and those of his teammates – will be starting to turn towards pre-season training ahead of what is anticipated to be a big year for the Knights. Many players approaching the end of their careers would perhaps be dreading those preparations but, in his case, it couldn’t be further from the truth. “I love training, I always have done. I think, to be fair, it’s always been my friend as a player and I’ve always worked hard to be as strong and as fit as I can be and that’s served me well,” he explained.
Agreeing that is will be great to see his teammates again after such a long time away from the club, though, Spears recognised that this won’t be a normal pre-season. “We’re going to have to be creative and do things a bit differently this time because of regulations that are in place.
“There’s many boxes to tick and protocols to follow but I think, knowing how meticulous Jon Flatman and James Ford are, it gives us an opportunity in a perverse way,” he said. “We’ll do everything to the letter of the law but also as thoroughly as we can and make the sacrifices that we’re going to need to do which might involve some early mornings, late nights and some work on your own.
“Knowing the club and group as I do, though, everything will be in place to give us the best possible opportunity to succeed and, if I’m brutally honest, I think that may just give us an opportunity to get one up on some of our rivals who I don’t think will be quite as well prepared and as willing to make sacrifices as we will be.”
On what he expects from pre-season, Spears outlined his belief that the team will have to be smart in preparations for 2021. “Pre-season is a fair sacrifice and challenge through the winter months,” he explained. “I think obviously with a significant period away from the club and away from rugby, there is going to be an acclimatisation period where we’ll have to ease our way into it as getting back into the rigors and demands of professional rugby league in terms of getting bashed and bashing people as well,” Spears emphasised.
“I’m looking forward to that, though, and to getting my head down and working as hard as I possibly can to be the best I can be next year.”
2021 will also see the Knights play their first matches with the new rules adopted this year in Super League and the NRL and Spears suggested that the six-again rule looks a fascinating one. “I probably won’t be saying that when I’m defending my third set of six and I’ve made forty tackles but I think it speeds the game up,” he reasoned. “It’s something we’re all going to have to adapt to but I’m excited to see how we can exploit opposition defences’ mistakes with some of the opportunities we’ve got,” Spears added before highlighting a man who he believes can lead the Knights in taking advantage of the new rule. “You think of the likes of a fully-fit Kriss Brining running at teams for two or three sets of six and it could be good for us,” he remarked. As a man who prides himself on training hard, then, Spears will be one seeking to lead the way for a 2021 campaign which he believes will require players, partly due to the new rule, to be fitter than ever. “We’ll have to be really fit with that but, with the way we want to play, we’ll have to be very fit anyway.
“It’s the way we like to play but that becomes ever more crucial given the increased demand on players to have to defend back to back sets of six,” he said. “We know there’s no respite so I think fitness will be important but also the ability to react to errors quickly and be on board quickly with playing ad-lib, unstructured stuff in these situations.
“There’s always opportunities like that and I think that’s something we’ll be looking to practice once we’re back together as a group.”
Those rigors are something that Spears feels he is ready to embrace once more and, after signing to go round again, he noted his delight at extending his stay with the Knights into what will be a fifth season with the club. “I think it will probably be my last year playing and, in that regard, it’s great to get a new contract sorted,” he shared. “Now I can really focus and dedicate myself to getting ready for 2021.”
Discussing his motivations for committing to another season with the Knights, Spears admitted that he doesn’t feel ready to stop playing just yet. “I still enjoy training hard and I still enjoy playing. I think this season, we only played a few games, we didn’t really get going and I want to go round again to finish on a high,” he remarked.
“I still enjoy the game and feel I’ve got a lot to offer but I think, at the same time, I’m a player who is always wanting to make a difference and be the best I can be,” Spears elaborated. “If it got to the point where I didn’t think me being around was of benefit to the team I’d call it a day but I don’t think I’m at that point yet.
Hailing the impact of the club’s facilities, he added: “the other thing is that you just look at the club and see it is in a healthy place. You look at the stadium, the calibre of players we’ve signed, and the calibre of players we’ve retained as well – it’s the place you want to be.
“I love playing for the club and I love being around it, it’s a fantastic setup and I think those standards that have just grown year on year, in every way, are infectious and something you want to be a part of,” Spears expounded before suggesting that, were the Knights not in a healthy position on the pitch, he may have had different thoughts around playing on. “If we were just sort of low and surviving then it wouldn’t really be for me, that’s never been my scene to be honest, but when you’ve got a group and the collective mindset of wanting to get better and better and to win, that’s where you want to be.
“If I can have another twelve months of that then sign me up.”
Spears also heralded the impact the fans have had on him since joining the club as one of the Knights’ first signings follow chairman Jon Flatman’s takeover. “I’m really, really proud to have been associated with the club for the last four years and from minute one the York fans have welcomed me with open arms and I’ve always had a really good relationship with them.
“I always enjoy talking to the York fans, having the odd beer with them or chatting in the bar after the matches,” Spears noted. “Through my time at York I honestly can’t think of a time when fans have got on our backs really. They still see that the effort and endeavour is there, even if the quality and execution might not have been, and that unwavering support has been brilliant and a real key part of what we’ve achieved really,” he added.
Perhaps, then, there is nobody better than Spears to take up a new role at the club where he will be seeking to create new links between the Knights’ players and the Foundation and wider fanbase. On the new position, the loose-forward declared his excitement. “To have this role to build those bridges and improve people’s experiences around the Knights, whether that be from a player or fan perspective, is an exciting one and something I’m really looking forward to.
“Whatever we’ve done as a club, the fans have got behind it. When we’ve had open forums, they’ve always been well attended and the fans have asked some really sensible, well-pitched questions of us and I think that we’ve got a really strong fanbase who really know and enjoy their rugby league so, as a player, it’s a pleasure to be able to give back and help that experience,” he explained.
Even Spears, though, accounting for his admiration for the Knights fans, admitted to being taken aback and humbled by the generosity of our 2020 members who elected, in huge numbers, to donate their money back to the club. “I think, as players, we were blown away by it. I have to say that it was a bit of a niggling concern to me,” he admitted. “When you put together the economic downturn and the opportunity for people to take some cash back, you have to say it was a concern if I’m honest.
“The club, in terms of an illustration of the fanbase and their unwavering support, I don’t think there’s a better one than that,” Spears added. “It’s a gesture that certainly wasn’t lost on the players. It’s appreciated by all concerned and just shows what a special club and bunch of fans that we’ve got.”