CRAIG Lingard issued a reality check and rallying cry to Keighley Cougars fans after he and general manager Steve Gill returned to the club after their players were paid.

In a shock twist in the crisis club's ongoing crisis, both men have now come back to Cougar Park after resigning last month over the unpaid wages dispute.

Lingard is back as head coach, while Gill returns as general manager after Keighley players, both past and present, were paid after claiming they were owed wages going back to August.

It is believed at least some of the staff were still waiting on wages, but the Keighley News understands club officials are working on getting this matter resolved.

The vast majority of Cougars have suffered an exodus of players - including favourites such as Ritchie Hawkyard, Scott Law and Harry Aaronson - following its wages row.

Lingard now has two months to get a squad together for Cougars' Betfred League One opener at Whitehaven on Sunday, February 17. The club's first game of the 2019 season at Cougars Park is against Coventry Bears on Sunday, March 3.

He issued a rallying cry to Cougars' fans, to get behind their team ahead of the forthcoming campaign.

Lingard says he has unfinished business at Cougars, is now in the process of building a squad from the foundations up and sees the bigger picture.

He said: "It's a strange one.

"I could have quite easily not come back, but it's about putting the players on the park and putting a team out for the spectators. It's not about me, it's about the club as a whole.

"I had a chat with Steve Gill about it all. He said he'd got the reassurances he needs to come back. We had a heart to heart.

"We have come back to make sure Keighley have a team full-stop.

"The players were paid last Wednesday. Steve called me on the Thursday afternoon. Steve was working behind the scenes to make sure the players were paid.

"The RFL seemed happy under the proviso that Steve came back and ran the club.

"I have come back to give it a go. It was a really difficult decision for me because I said I would not come back and I am a man of my word.

"I am confident I can turn the club around. The alternative is no Keighley Cougars, I don't want that to happen. I want to get the club back on the map. We will have to build the squad from the foundations up.

"Sixteen players have agreed to start with us. Three or four are interested, so I am hoping to get to the 20-player mark for the squad.

"There is still an issue with the RFL with us being in special measures, which they are working on, so we can't sign anybody at the moment."

The ongoing wages crisis and mass exodus of the squad has also dented Cougars' pre-season preparations, as they are already playing catch-up to their League One rivals.

Lingard added: "We started pre-season training on Tuesday night. We are already down by 12 to 14 training sessions from where we should have been. We are four weeks behind other teams in our preparation.

"It is very, very difficult to come back. But we have got to cope with what we have got."

But the returning head coach had sobering words for fans ahead of the forthcoming campaign. He also understands fans who may not be able to forgive the club's majority shareholders, Austria Holdings, but said it's time for everyone to stick together and move on.

Lingard added: "Realistically, they have got to expect a tough season.

"We have lost half of pre-season already. We have lost a lot of players due to what has happened.

"I just want the fans to support the team. I'm not bothered about me, I want the fans to support the players. Players and coaches will come and go, but the fans will support the team over the long term.

"There is still a lot of ill feeling around the staff and fans. I want fans to look at supporting the team rather than the ownership of the club.

"Some people will never forgive the owners for putting the club in this position. Austria Holdings are still the owners, we can't change that at the moment. People will be annoyed and hold a grudge.

"Some of these guys have been loyal, they held on as long as they could during pre-season by not signing for other clubs, they want to play for Keighley Cougars.

"It has been an horrendous 2018 for the club. We will be glad to the new year."

Lingard said he was also in the process of finalising his backroom staff ahead of the new campaign.

Shane Spencer, of Austria Holdings, refused to comment when contacted by the Keighley News.

A spokesman for the sport's governing body, the Rugby Football League (RFL), confirmed Cougars remain in special measures and unable to officially sign any players, but, in the meantime, can take players on trial.

Former North Wales Crusaders head coach Mike Grady last week expressed his interest in taking over from Lingard, saying it was a "good club steeped in tradition". But it is the original head coach who has made his return to the Cougar Park dugout.

Meanwhile, Cougars front-rower/prop Harvey Hallas became the latest to leave the club, having joined Championship side Dewsbury Rams.

The 21-year-old had signed for Keighley ahead of last season, having been part of the Wakefield Trinity academy before then.

On signing for the Rams, Hallas said: “Being at Keighley last season in League One, I just thought I wanted to push myself a little more, and I think the Championship and the Rams is a good place to do that.

"I think the club will have a good ethic and I know they want to try and achieve more than what other clubs are doing.

“I think it is a good place to push myself, and it is the next step in my career going forward.

“I am only a young lad really at 21 years old, so I will be coming up against people who have been in Super League, or are knocking on the door of the top division.

"It is going to be a massive physical challenge for me, but I am really up for it. I know mentally and physically it will be a challenge.”