To mark his 90th birthday, Club Historian Bill Dalton takes and extended look back at the remarkable playing and coaching career of Hull FC legend Johnny Whiteley MBE…
Today, on Friday, 20th November, Johnny Whiteley celebrates his 90th birthday. This personal landmark falls just a month before the 70th anniversary of his debut in the Black & White of Hull at Clarence Street, York on 23rd December 1950 which launched a first-grade Rugby League career in which he became an immortal in British Rugby League.
Indeed, in an age when “Icon” and “Legend” are bestowed rather too freely, these adjectives can be applied without question to the best Rugby League player ever born in the City of Hull.
John William Whiteley signed for Hull from the Hull Boys Club in December 1950 after completing his National Service in the army. The team at Hull Boys Club had a pact under which no-one would sign professional until they had served their conscription, and most of John’s team mates did so, mainly with Hull and Hull KR.
So it was that John impressed in two trials in the “A” team before being called up in the loose-forward berth for the game at York which Hull won 19-11. A couple of days later, he had his first encounter with Rovers in the traditional Christmas Day Hull Derby. His opposite number that day was Alec Dockar, himself an England international. The programme notes for that Derby game stated that “he had certainly impressed in the two trials and that club officials had great hopes that John would make a name for himself”. Well, at least those officials got that right! John played 14 games in that first season, only missing out for a month in February-March due to injury.
John impressed in his initial seasons with Hull, sufficiently so to earn selection for Yorkshire in the County Championship encounter with Cumberland at Workington on 29th September 1952 in the second-row. He retained his place, this time at loose-forward for the Boulevard encounter with Lancashire, in which Mick Scott and Harry Markham also featured.
In all, John would feature for Yorkshire on some 12 occasions. International recognition also came early when he played for England U23’s at Wigan. Full England honours followed in April 1953 against France in Paris. The 1953-54 season saw him help Yorkshire to the County Championship in a play-off at Whitehaven alongside Mick Scott, Bill Riches and Keith Bowman.
That season also saw Hull reach the first of three successive Yorkshire Cup Finals, all of which John played in. By this period, John Whiteley was revered throughout the game for his ball handling skills, the like of which are rarely seen in today’s game, and his ability to put his supporting half backs through the gaps he created. Tommy Finn scored 132 tries for Hull and Rowley Moat created a new tries record for a stand-off in the 1955-56 season, by being on hand to benefit from Johnny’s skills. And how many of Ivor Watts 216 tries came off Johnny’s ‘scissors’ pass?
The first Rugby League World Cup was held in France in the Autumn of 1954 and John was selected in the 18-strong party under the captaincy of Dave Valentine (Huddersfield). At this stage, it has to be appreciated that there were some class loose-forwards such as Harry Street (Wigan), Ken Traill (Bradford) and Valentine (Huddersfield) still in the game, so John was biding his time for full Great Britain selection. Although John was fated not to play in the tournament, his Hull FC friend Bob Coverdale played in all four matches as Great Britain – perhaps unexpectedly – won the tournament. John went on to selection in all of the first three British World Cup squads (1954, 1957 and 1960), a distinction shared only with Mick Sullivan.
Hull, led by Mick Scott, won the Rugby League Championship in 1955-56 with John having his most outstanding season so far. Nevertheless, it was a surprise that he was overlooked for the Lions Tour to Australasia that summer. At this stage, the Rugby Football League did not engage a coach with their international team, the job being undertaken by League Secretary, the late Bill Fallowfield, who, it was obvious, had favourites in the game that did not include Hull players!
However, John was on the plane Down Under in the summer of 1957 for the ill-fated World Cup tournament that celebrated the 50th Anniversary of the Australian Rugby League and he made his test debut in the encounter with Australia at the Sydney Cricket Ground on that trip, and also gained selection for a Rest of the World team to play the cup-winning Kangaroos. His subsequent 15 GB Lion’s appearances were all the more creditable as there was another generation of good back-rowers coming to the fore.
Another Championship success came Hull’s way in 1957-58, this time with John as Captain of a team that possessed an all Hull-born pack of forwards in the Championship Final. He and Tommy Harris left immediately after that final to join up with the Lions on the 1958 Australasian Tour – in my opinion, the finest team we ever sent there. The back row of Dick Huddart, John Whiteley and Vince Karalius was the finest such combination in the history of the game.
John once confided to me that he strived to be as good as these two in order to ‘be the best’. In turn, they were also striving to be as good as John, so no wonder it was such a great back-row. The games folk lore has the 2nd test victory at Brisbane as Great Britain’s joint finest hour (comparable with the 1914 Test in which the Northern Union won with only nine fit men). The following year, John scored a vital match-winning try at Headingley to tie up the series against Australia. That was the last occasion the British won the Ashes on home soil.
At club level, under John’s captaincy, Hull reached Wembley for the first time in their history in 1959 and 1960. As ever with Hull, cup final luck deserted them, particularly so in the latter year when prior injuries devastated the selection.
After no less than 418 appearances in the Black and White of Hull, in which he scored 156 tries, John retired from playing in 1965. Having taken on the position of player-coach a couple of years previously, he undertook the sole role for a further five years during which he guided the team to Yorkshire Cup Finals in 1967 and 1969, the latter being the first success in that competition since 1923. In tandem with the position at Hull, he coached the Yorkshire County team for 12 years, and succeeded to the Great Britain coaching position, leading them to the 1970 Ashes triumph in Australia, the last time that Great Britain ever won the Rugby League Ashes.
Upon his return from Australia in August 1970, it was announced that John had left Hull and taken up the Coaching position at Hull KR, citing his disagreement over the board of directors taking over the selection of the team. He guided Rovers to a Yorkshire Cup success in 1971 before leaving Craven Park, where the same differences arose. He returned to the Boulevard assisting with coaching and in 1992 was inducted into the inaugural Hull FC Hall of Fame. He has since also been enrolled onto the Rugby League Roll of Honour, received the MBE in 2006, and subsequently made a Freeman of the City of Hull. He was finally inducted into the Rugby League Hall of Fame on 7th November 2018.
Even these many years after his playing career concluded, John is fastidious in keeping himself fit, and is a regular attender at the FC training sessions. He continues in an ambassadorial role for Hull FC.
His personal mantra was to strive to be the best. He wanted to play for Hull, then he wanted to captain Hull, then coach them. He achieved all those aims and then the same aims for Yorkshire and Great Britain.
Seventy years after his debut for Hull, supporters of all the generations who had the privilege of seeing him play and those who have met him can truly say of him that John Whiteley was a legend for Hull, a hero for Great Britain and a true bedrock of the greatest game.