LAST MONTH, Thornhill Trojans were just a minute away from achieving one of the most famous upsets in the club’s history.
An unfortunate slip saw Doncaster claim the victory in the third round of the Challenge Cup, but Thornhill’s performance gave them plenty to be proud of and plenty to be positive about heading into the new league campaign.
Their whole cup run had been impressive, upsetting NCL Premier Division side Thatto Heath Crusaders and thumping Normanton Knights before coming up just short against League One opposition, providing renewed optimism for a team in recovery following relegation.
Having gone from the bottom tier to the top in just four seasons, just four wins all season and an instant return to Division One wasn’t what many people were expecting last term.
Danny Ratcliffe retired from playing at the end of the season, bringing a career that included Wakefield, Dewsbury, York and Hunslet to a close. He took over the head coach role from uncle James Ratcliffe, who had led that impressive charge back up the divisions before stepping down at the end of last season.
Right from the start, the younger Ratcliffe had his mind set on a good run in the Challenge Cup to kick-start his reign and that is exactly what the Trojans delivered.
He said: “People asked when we first started training if we had any friendlies, but I said the Challenge Cup would be our friendlies. Luckily we performed really well and managed to get a decent run.
“The thing that we said after that Donny game was that we’re not finished yet, we’ve got to kick on. We’ve got to go up another level which we have over the last few weeks.”
The numbers in training are improving again as the intensity steps up ahead of the NCL Division One season, which starts for Thornhill tomorrow (Saturday) with the visit of Stanningley to Overthorpe Park.
Ratcliffe set out his stall early with the squad and made it clear they would not be in for an easy ride under his charge.
“We had a squad meeting before pre-season started and we said there that we would work quite a lot on fitness,” he explained. “Not just physical fitness, but mental fitness, pushing yourself further than you can go.
“The lads have all bought into it. We had a really tough week last week and the lads should be really proud of what they’ve done. Hopefully we can take that into the start of the season this Saturday.”
The Trojans were being tipped by some for a Premier Division title challenge at the beginning of last season but things did not go to plan, and Ratcliffe believes that as well as their mental fitness, injuries and discipline were crucial.
“We’ve made a point of working mentally this year,” he said. “I think people were tired, they were taking a step back instead of pushing themselves that extra step.
“Injuries were quite big last year, we had injuries to key players and we had to reshuffle players about.
“Our discipline was very poor and I don’t think that was to do with people personally, that was frustration from the results and how the games went.
“Discipline is something that we’ve worked on this year, not just on the field but off the field as well. If you can do it off the field, you should be able to take it on the field as well.”
There is little that the head coach can do to influence their injury list but there is plenty he can do about discipline, and a better ethic is top of his aims for the season.
“We had a squad meeting at the beginning of this year and we put some things out there: working on our discipline, our team spirit, respecting each other; and that means turning up for training and putting the effort in like your teammates are.
“Those personal goals that I’ve set them, if we can bring all of them together and perform, then promotion will hopefully come without us worrying about it.
“We took the pressure away from everybody. (We said) achieve those little goals and enjoy yourself, and hopefully it will all fall into place.”
Thornhill topped the Division One table in 2018 with only four defeats all season and the squad has remained largely unchanged over the past couple of years. Promotion-talk may be forbidden but the evidence on show so far suggests more success is within reach.
“You speak to a lot of people and they say Division One is the hardest to get out of,” said Ratcliffe.
“We’ll give it a good effort and hopefully if we perform throughout the year like we did against Doncaster, it could be quite a successful season.”