It doesn’t get bigger than Hull FC’s greatest ever player Johnny Whiteley.
A Hull FC and Rugby League Hall of Famer, Whiteley turns 90-years-young this Friday (20th November).
Here is part one of our interview with the great man, first seen in the Up the Cream fanzine five years ago.
Black and White through and through, Gentlemen John played no fewer than 417 times for his hometown club, scoring 156 tries.
Living off Hessle Road during the Second World War, life was tough, but for a youngster high on ambition it was the start of an incredible career.
“Unfortunately for lads like me growing up during the war there was no rugby league,” Whiteley told Up the Cream.
“We invented the game in the street, we weren’t allowed out of Hessle Road as you were never far away from a bombing.
“We made paper balls, wrapped newspapers up, used bits of cardboard, and tied it with string. We used anything we could find really, and that was our rugby ball. The streetlights were the goalposts and the curbs on the side of the road were the touchlines.
“When the war started I was nine going on ten, my uncle went into the air force and my dad into the navy. I was left with the gym and I tried to teach the lads the bits of fitness I knew about. It just got into my genes.
“Hull was probably the second highest city in the country to be bombed. We couldn’t travel very far. Pickering Park was a long way away from Hessle Road when suddenly they were dropping bombs and you had to get back to the shelter.
“You didn’t go to school in the morning as you hadn’t slept, and you just went at about one o’clock until about half past two and for people like me that was wonderful, as I could go train, go run, and go swim, but if the buzzers blew you’d have to be out like lightening.”
Imagine it. Bombs going off in the street as a ten year old boy.
The opening week of Hull’s City of Culture celebrations did a great job of highlighting the cities wartime history. The bombing raids were well documented on a projection around Queen Victoria Square, and that there was Whiteley’s childhood.
After the war things got better. Rugby League didn’t mess about in restarting again, but that also presented further challenges.
“We didn’t have a real knowledge about the game as we had nobody to teach us,” Whiteley continued. “We invented our own game, but when the war ended in 1945, the Hull Boys Club reformed.
“At the time Hull FC had got a makeshift team every week, and they played anybody like York or Featherstone just to get the game going again.
“I never played in a losing game of amateur rugby league with Hull Boys Club. We had Billy Metcalfe the ex-Hull scrum half as our coach and we were a little bit special. We had training facilities, we were all geared to train and we played rugby Saturday and Sunday. It became our lives.”
Hull FC was surely next, but not before national service.
Whiteley changed codes too, and they took a liking to him in a less then imagined position.
“I was asked the first game I played on the Boulevard if I wanted a trial, but I went into service like we all did, as we were all about the same age.
“Growing up we had very limited newspapers, we didn’t know much about the world, about anything really, and I was privileged to go to Vienna. Most of the lads there were university lads, and the main captain of the rugby team said we’ve heard that you can play rugby, and I said ‘well I’ve never seen a game of rugby union in my life sir.’ He asked what position did you play and I said prop forward as I was always the biggest lad at Hull Boys Club. I played number eight. He said lets go on the paddock and have a look at you.
“I started performing for about ten minutes, and the coach then said on Saturday you’re stand-off half. I played five games for the team and we won all five. I was then picked to play against the French army. I played centre and scored five tries.
“When I finished playing a major came up to me and asked me my credentials and where I came from, and I told him about Hull Boys Club, and he was the first who said if I’ve ever seen an international in a young man I’ve seen one in you today. He gave me a card and offered me a job up in Scotland to play rugby, as rugby union was amateur then.
“But I wanted to play in that Black and White shirt, it was engraved in me. I wanted to play for Hull; it was an obsession, an absolute obsession.
“I would get out of bed in a morning and I trained and trained. I trained beyond what people trained, and the only reason I say that is because when you’re part of a team and if you want to make it you’ve got to go beyond them, leave them, as the average just does enough. If you want to be something special you’ve got to say right I’m going to beat you. So when they say they are going out for a beer you’ll run round the block or go to the gym.
“I loved training. I was built for it. When I was eighteen I was six foot two and fourteen stone. I swam for the city, I played water polo for the city. I had some athleticism as such, and basically without being clever I was always one step ahead. If someone could beat me I had to beat them.
“I always remember my first training session with Hull. Hull signed me as soon as I came out of the army. They were waiting for me— they dangled a carrot in front of me—and said if you signed we will put you in the first team next Saturday at York. Crickey, I’d have paid them at the time, never mind them pay me.
“In them days there were no contracts. My dad was away fishing, he was a fisherman. There were no agents and the directors came to my house and it was the easiest job in the world for them to sign me. Me signing for Hull, I can’t believe it.”
Johnny Whiteley always knew what it would take to play for Hull FC. He had envisioned it all his life.
In 1950 it had finally become a reality, but there was no signing fee, no contract, nothing like that.
“When you signed for Hull the signature was basically an insurance against injury while you was with the club but also it signed you for life,” Whiteley went on.
“The only way you could get out of it was either if the club transferred you or if you retired. Mr Hardaker, who was the chairman at the time, said what we’ll do is give you £100 if you become an international.
“I didn’t get a penny when I signed, and I didn’t get a penny coming out the army. I had no money, I had no clothes that would fit me as I put another half a stone on and grown another half inch.
“I was working on the fish docks, as I had only been out the army two weeks before I signed for Hull. I had nothing, nothing at all, and to get paid to play rugby was exciting. In them days it was £8 if you won and £5 if you lost. If you drew at home you got losing money and if you drew away you got winning money. No play, no pay, so everybody had to have jobs, but just to play was something special.
“Within a few games for Hull I got picked for England U21s at Wigan and became an international, so Mr Hardaker stuck to his word. I had six good games for Hull and people were starting to talk about me. I walked around with all the supporters and worked with them, and suddenly Johnny Whiteley emerged where everybody started to love you because you were performing well on the stage.
“In the history books I signed and went straight into the first team, and I’m so proud of the fact to say to youngsters I went fifteen years without ever getting dropped. I played eleven games of ‘A team’ football when I was coming back from an injury or if the first team didn’t have a game and I would volunteer to play with the kids. In my lifespan of all the games I played in I never had my name taken or got sent off. I played nearly 500 pro games with representative football and never got sent off, I could run fast you see.”
Hull in the 50s were a genuine force in the game. First came the Yorkshire Cup finals, then the two League Championship wins, then Wembley.
Whiteley throughout his 15 finals with Hull was at the heart of it, but it was a hell of a side, one of the greatest the club has ever seen, and one that stuck together both on and off the pitch.
“This new Hull side, the Drake twins, Tommy Harris, Mick Scott, and Harry Markum, suddenly we became a force and we started to knock people about. I had five tags in front of me, I was the fuel and the energy and they were the muscle.
“The forwards were clicking, we all started together as young men and we stuck together as friends, we met girlfriends, and we got married. Nearly everyone has got families of the same age who are friends. It wasn’t just about the team, those memories never leave you and we built a relationship that stayed with us forever.
“Roy Francis our coach, he was twenty years in front of everybody else as a coach, he had a camera with all the video and all the new concepts. We was doing that in 1950.
“When you become a force and you have a vitality within a side you can make anything happen, and when we won the first Championship at Maine Road, Colin Hutton kicked the goal to beat Halifax and that was our first major breakthrough.
“The whole team was thirsty and it was obvious we would go further as a side. I’m not saying we would always win, but there used to be a saying that no team came to Hull with a full strength side because we were so strong and the pack was so feisty.
“People used to say well he never came to the Boulevard as he backed off. None of us backed off, we got cocky, we knew we could bang people about and run people off their feet. We had the skill and we developed an arrogance under Roy Francis, he was a pure out winner and he developed this arrogance to be winners and I can assure you the Boulevard for nearly ten years was a place where everybody feared coming.”
Johnny Whiteley is not just a Hull FC legend, having played and captained England and Great Britain as an Ashes and World Cup winner.
His first selection came before England moved to Great Britain for a test against France in Paris.
“We met at Manchester and I always remember getting off the train to see all these great players stood there. I felt like an autograph hunter.
“People still laugh and I still smile. I was 23 and 6 foot 1. I ain’t got a mark. Although I was a forward I ain’t had my nose broken at that time or got a cauliflower ear. I was immaculate. I bought a new pair of slacks and a new suitcase and they were there with paper bags, broken noses, cauliflower ears and I felt like a cherub. I rubbed my ear to make it look red so I looked like a tough guy.
“I had a good game in Paris and we beat the French, and then the 1954 Great Britain tour to Australia came around. I thought I’d definitely get picked for Australia but unfortunately I hurt my ankle. I got kicked and damaged ligaments so I missed out.
“When they came back the first World Cup was taking place. The French organised it really hurriedly and it coincided with Great Britain coming back from Australia.
“I got picked in a seventeen man team but didn’t play. Joe Egan of Wigan was our coach and this defies belief really, we had two sessions before we went to the World Cup. We met at Wigan to go to France, we were all getting on the bus and then across on the ferry to Paris where we were based. We said ‘Where’s Joe’ and they said ‘We cant afford to take him’ so we had to coach ourselves and train ourselves.
“Every team had uniforms, Australia, New Zealand and France. They were all impeccably dressed with blazers and slacks. I had my Hull blazer, everybody had their own blazers, and some didn’t even have blazers. They called us the Dead End Kids. I took all the photographs on that tour and finished with two winners medals from the four World Cups I was involved in.”
No forward has scored more tries for Hull FC than Johnny Whiteley. It’s a proud record. He crossed 156 times for the Black and Whites and loved everyone of them.
“I loved scoring trys, just like footballers love scoring goals. I scored a lot of them, but the one which is the most significant of all was in the 1960 Australian tour of England. I scored under the sticks and that was the second time in two years I’d been in an Ashes winning series.
“I was very lucky, as everything went well for me and I was around at the right time. I was one of the first young local boys to come out of the junior ranks and emerge, and more so because I was a Hessle Road lad, a West Hull lad, and I worked in the community with everybody.
“One of the pleasures I get today is wherever I go people stop me and say well you know Johnny Whiteley you gave me a lot of pleasure. When you’re young you don’t appreciate that, you say thank you but it doesn’t sort of register. When you get on in years and look back at all the wonderful times you had you appreciate it all the more, because you know you gave people that pleasure, and that’s something I’m very very proud of.
“Even now I’m still invited to things and people to this day say to me why are you so popular, and what I say now is well I haven’t had a bad game for over 50 years.”