The former Great Britain prop Karl Harrison spoke to me shortly after winning the Northern Rail Cup as coach of Batley in 2010. This interview was published in League Express.
Name: Karl Harrison
Club: Batley Bulldogs
Position: Head Coach
Previous Clubs: Bramley, Featherstone Rovers, Hull FC, Halifax
Representative: Great Britain (14 caps), England (6 caps)
First Professional game: 1983
Honours: Premiership final winner (1991), Great Britain v New Zealand Test series winner (1993), National League Cup (2003), National League One Grand Final (2003), European Nations Championship (2004), Northern Rail Cup (2010)
BATLEY’s stunning Northern Rail Cup final win against Widnes last weekend, which saw them win their first piece of silverware since the 1924 Championship, underlined that their coach Karl Harrison’s philosophy in putting faith in young, English players, isn’t a bad idea at all.
It also provided further proof that Harrison is a fine coach and one who – if he so desired – should maybe still employed at a higher level. Harrison has previously coached England and took Salford to the giddy heights of fifth in 2006, despite having the smallest wage bill in Super League.
Within a year, however, amid a crippling injury crisis, the Reds sacked Harrison – a decision which clearly still rankles with the 46-year-old, even though he is more interested in discussing the present day.
“It’s gone down extremely well – the whole town’s buzzing,” says Harrison of the Bulldogs’ last-gasp 25-24 win over the Vikings at Blackpool.
“We’re extremely pleased and it’s good for the game that one of the so-called smaller clubs has managed to get some silverware. We got back to Batley Frontier on Sunday night and there must have been about 1500 people waiting for us – it was fantastic.
“I thought it was realistic that we target the Northern Rail Cup this year so we put a lot of interest and focus into it. A lot of the so-called bigger clubs like Featherstone and Halifax didn’t get past the group stages, but we did, and the rest is history.”
As for Batley’s future ambitions, Harrison says: “We want to stay in the Championship. It’s well documented that we have the smallest playing budget in the division and we need to remain there. We need to sign as many of the players that we have on our books for next season.
“There are no Super League ambitions at all – we just want to be a competitive team in the Championship; one that makes the play-offs every year.
“I’ve said before that my life’s now changed since I was at Salford. I was on the scrapheap, but Batley offered me an opportunity to get back into the game and I’m really happy here.”
Harrison’s work at Batley has not gone unnoticed with calls from media pundit Garry Schofield and ‘League Express’ last Monday for him to be included in the England coaching set-up. Harrison coached England – effectively a second-string side behind Great Britain – in 2004 and 2005.
“It would be a great honour and I’ve enjoyed coaching rep football and working with the elite players,” says Harrison. “I think I would have something to offer but they have James Lowes, Steve McNamara and Brian Smith who I’m sure will do a good job.”
Harrison believes he was always destined to be a coach, even if he didn’t realise it while he was still playing.
“I don’t know to be honest – I just sort of dropped into it,” he says. “I was a dominant type of player and was probably coaching others without knowing it.
“I was lucky enough to be coached by some great coaches like Peter Fox, Maurice Bamford, Roger Millward, Brian Smith and Malcolm Reilly so I’ve had various guidance in my career.
“Brian Smith signed me at Hull and he changed my philosophy and made me think a little bit deeper about the game and team structures.
“When I first met Brian I’d never been properly coached before – I’d been coached by older-type British coaches. When I went to Hull FC in the late ‘eighties, I’d never really been taught how to tackle or pass a ball, but he broke the game down for me – I’d never even experienced a video session before. He’s guided a lot of people in the right direction.
“Malcolm was a great coach, but a different type of coach – very motivational and very dedicated to the cause. He wasn’t as technical as Brian was, but I think I’ve taken something from all of those coaches.
“I captained Halifax for nine seasons – we always had a strong, competitive team – and I felt there’d be a route into coaching there,” Harrison says, “but things didn’t work out and I was finished by John Pendlebury as a player which hurt because I put my heart and soul into Halifax.
“I was offered a coaching position at Keighley and then I was touted by Brian Noble to be an assistant at Bradford and I jumped at the chance.
“So I think I was always destined to be a coach.”
Harrison’s head-coaching break came when he took over at Salford at the end of May 2002.
“I did five years at Salford and thought I did a good job. We set up a youth programme and signed people like Jordan Turner and Stefan Ratchford.
“I thought I was harshly done by in the end. We reached the play-offs but had the smallest wage bill. But in 2007, we didn’t replace Andrew Dunemann and for my last game at Catalans, we only had about 13 fit players.
“I still think to this day I would have turned it around but Salford felt otherwise.”
So how is coaching Batley different to coaching a Super League side?
“Obviously at Batley all the players are part-time so you have limited time with the players. You need to get the balance right and give them the correct amount of information for what they need to know.
“If I can gradually change their thought process like mine was changed then that’s great. I’ve been here 15 months and I’ve changed a lot of people’s philosophies on and off the field.
“The people who had been there before me – David Ward, Paul Storey and Gary Thornton – were all great coaches. They always challenged and were never relegated from the Championship.
“When I arrived there was confidence and self belief that they could make the step up. We train very hard, and I expect them to train how they play.
“The players have been first class with me. I have a lot of young players and I’ve sold some of them a dream that they can get Super League contracts and some of them are starting to attract Super Leaguie attention. I think a few of my players could play in Super League and there’s solid interest in two or three for definite.”
Harrison’s playing career saw him play for four clubs. He debuted for Bramley in the 1982/83 season, making eight appearances and scoring his first professional try in a thumping 42-17 win over Salford.
He moved to Featherstone midway through the 1985/86 season before Brian Smith tempted him to Hull FC where he won the first of 20 international caps – 14 for Great Britain and six for England, the last of which came in the 1995 World Cup Final against Australia. He enjoyed nine years at Halifax before signing off with a second spell at Hull – then called Hull Sharks – in 1999.
He selects three highlights from his playing days: “My Test debut in 1990 against Australia at Wembley, winning the second Ashes Test in Melbourne in 1992 and winning the Premiership Final for Hull FC against Widnes in 1991.
“I played 14 times for Great Britain – once each against France and Papua New Guinea and the rest were against Australia and New Zealand so I never got blooded at all. I was straight in at the deep end for my debut against the Aussies.
“I remember everything about that day. I remember David Howes telling me I was in the squad initially and I remember the training sessions. It was my first rep game of any kind, including as a junior.
“It was tight at half-time but then Paul Eastwood scored a couple of tries. We were the closest generation to the Ashes since the 1970 team and Lee Jackson cost me an OBE with his missed tackle on Ricky Stuart in the last minute of the second Test!
“Ellery was very instrumental back then as was Garry Schofield. Then there were players like Shaun Edwards and Andy Platt, who was one of the greatest forwards of his generation. We had a very good side.
“The 1992 win was memorable because of the score. They were very English conditions – it just rained and rained. We trained at Richmond Oval the day before and it was the worst training session I’ve ever been involved in. But we turned up and absolutely battered Australia.
“As for the Hull win at Old Trafford, they had been the top team, then they declined but come back a bit under Brian Smith. He’d left by that final and Noel Cleal was in charge. It was my first major final as a player and it was an amazing occasion.
“We were the underdogs but we did the business on the day.”
Nineteen years on, Harrison has triumphed again in the role of underdog. Perhaps Steve McNamara should get in touch!