Clive Sullivan: A god amongst men

The legendary Clive Sullivan was a player who proved himself to be the best Hull FC ever had, and that’s saying something. A record 250 tries in 352 games says it all, but as usual I digress…

As a very young, excitable boy attending his first games of rugby league, your goals and wishes are set very early on. Sitting in front of an open fire on a cold winter’s night I had heard Mum and Dad talk about this smashing young lad from Wales so many times and here he was in the flesh. He had problems with both his knees and shoulders as a Cardiff youngster but here in 1967 (my first ever Hull game), he had his kit on ready to start and his legs were glistening in the dressing room lights, oiled up and ready to go. My expectations were there for all to see.

Clive Sullivan never disappointed. I’m sorry to say I never saw his seven tries at Doncaster, but I witnessed a few of his hat tricks, many of which were at the Boulevard. He was a complete speedster who had a lightning gear change, and who would often leave defenders either grasping at fresh air or in a heap on the floor, sometimes both.

Clive was a childhood hero of mine. He gave Hull the “X Factor” right from that first game against Bramley in 1961 when he lined up on the team-sheet as “A.N. Other”, and until his fairytale return at Elland Road in 1982.

Clive’s early years at Hull were spent whilst still a serving member of the British Army and as such his appearances at first were limited, but he went on to become a legend. That term is all too often overused, but few can boast the legend tag on both sides of the river. Clive does.

In 1969, Clive gained the first of his career honours, winning the Yorkshire Cup Final at Headingley. Featherstone were the opposition and the rest as they say is history. It was a proud day for me personally too as I was club mascot. I travelled that day on the players’ wives coach as the players coach had every director and their guests on so there was consequently no room for me. I to this day wished we had gone on a supporters coach because we arrived late, and I didn’t get the opportunity to lead the team out that day.

Now all of you who have been to Headingley know what a set of tarts their stewards can be. Arriving late I had to pay on the gate, no problem Mum did that, but getting to my position behind the sticks to stand with Kevin was a different problem. I arrived at the gate at the end of the slope onto the pitch, older fans will remember that the players came onto the field from the end back then and not on the halfway line, could I get access to the playing area? Not a chance. Mum argued with the stewards to say I was the mascot and I should be allowed to go to the position under the uprights. I think the appropriate response from the stewards was unprintable. Big mistake on their part, as up stepped a burley Hull Docker who promptly told the steward to get the f*** out of the way before lifting me over the barrier. I then sprinted to my position.

Clive that day went from villain to hero in just a few minutes. Put through and over the line he proceeded to try and get the ball under the uprights for an easier conversion and was instead pushed dead. In a tight game this was not what we wanted, but he scored a try soon later and everything was forgotten. That at the grand of old age of nine was the best day of my life, even better than the wedding day, but don’t tell the missus. The trip home was on the right bus with Clive and co, a Danby’s coach was just about as good as it gets. It has taken a very long time to eclipse that feeling, 2016 to be exact, and Mum, Terry and I in floods of tears after our first Wembley win.

Despite constant heroics with the Airlie Birds, arguably Clive’s biggest career achievement came whilst still a Hull FC player in both playing for and captaining Great Britain, the first black player to do so in any of our national sides. But then rugby league was somewhat a haven for black players who joined our game after being racially abused in rugby union. They were always welcome here, and in 1972, Clive was the captain of the Great Britain team which played in the World Cup and who were crowned World Champions after a draw against Australia in the final. Who can say they have not watched that try? It showed everything Clive had, pace, power and the ability to evade would be tacklers. What a moment. Arguably Great Britain’s best ever, and in the history of the World Cup too.

After a dozen or so years, Clive decided that his future was elsewhere, and with Hull struggling, in 1974 he moved across the city to play for the Dark Side. Although still a great finisher, his strike rate didn’t reach the same heights over there. However, he did manage another Yorkshire Cup win and he also played in a game of little significance in 1980 when he picked up a winners medal in the All-Hull Wembley Final. We gloss over that game. We got our revenge in the John Player Trophy final for Ronnie Wileman’s finest hour and again at Boothferry Park when Sterlo and co stuffed them in the Yorkshire Cup final. But that was the one they have never shut up about.

At the age of 39, Clive retuned home and was part of the best Challenge Cup replay ever. Both the Wembley Final and the Premiership Final against Widnes decimated Hull and on that night in ‘82 we had many surprises with both Clive and Tony Duke turning up in the team. We won 18-9 for one of the best occasions in our history, and for Clive and his adoring fans, the fairy tale had come to its natural end.

Clive sadly passed away aged just 42 just three years later in 1985 after battling liver cancer. The whole city shed many a tear. He was so popular in our great city that the aldermen paid him a great honour and named the newly finished A63 after him. This was a fitting tribute for a man born in Wales but made in Hull. Every year we remember Clive in games against the “others” for the Clive Sullivan Trophy. No little thing to be sure, honouring a hero, a legend, and a gentleman.

Clive was all that and more. He will never be out of the heart of anyone who had the pleasure of meeting him. I consider myself very lucky that I was one of them.

This article first appeared in Up the Cream Issue 84. For more like it check out our online shop here

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