Nostalgia is a dangerous emotion, and it can make you see things through rose tinted glasses. We’re all guilty of it. How many times do you hear fans talk about “how much better the game used to be” or reminisce on a famous side gone by. It’s countless. However, there’s nothing misty eyed about the Championship winning Hull FC team of the 1950s, fronted by the legendary Johnny Whiteley and coached by the brilliant Roy Francis. They were brilliant, and were hands down one of the best sides the club have ever produced.
It was a magnificent team, crafted and put together by player turned coach Roy Francis and featuring four players who are in the top ten all-time Hull appearance makers: Mick Scott (459), Tommy Harris (443), Johnny Whiteley (417) and Ivor Watts (410). It was a side always destined for greatness and so it proved with two Championship wins coming in 1956 and 1958.
The Championship was the forerunner of today’s Grand Final. Back then, there were 30 clubs in the Northern Union league all under one division. All the Yorkshire clubs played each other home and away, as did the Lancashire/Cumberland clubs, with some inter-county fixtures taking place during the season. The top four then played for the Championship based on 1 v 4 and 2 v 3 with the final played at a neutral venue. No dog dishes were handed out.
Flirting with mid to higher end of the table finishes in the early 50s, not to mention negotiating their way to three Yorkshire Cup finals, Hull with Gentlemen John and co were on the rise again. One of many rugby league diamonds to come from Wales, Francis was way ahead of his time. He had a brilliant insight into the game and used his knowledge of fitness and video analysis to the detriment of his oppositions. Moulding the muscle of Scott and the flair of Whiteley, he built a fearsome forward pack and made the Boulevard a place where everybody feared coming.
The 1955/56 season saw Hull finish 4th with 25 wins from 36 league games, earning a play-off game at league leaders Warrington. Back then the Wire boasted rugby league legends like Brian Bevan amongst their ranks and had not been beaten by a Yorkshire side on their home ground Wilderspool for seventeen years. Hull were massive underdogs but as per defied the odds for one of their greatest ever victories, winning 17-0 courteously of tries from Bill Drake and Tommy Harris. Obviously Warrington, who as usual did not take defeat well, were waiting for next year.
The final was against Halifax and was played on the 12th May at Maine Road, Manchester—the then home of Manchester City FC with 36,675 fans in attendance. Matches against Halifax back then were always hard and closely contested. Hull initially led 8-0 thanks to tries from both of the Tommy’s, Finn and Harris, but with only a minute to go Halifax were leading 9-8.
Hull winger Brian Darlington, despite hobbling through injury, was brought down just short of the line in a three-man tackle. As he got up to play the ball the referee penalised Halifax for offside. Hull captain Mick Scott’s first reaction was to tap the penalty to himself and try and force his way over the line. But he then changed his mind and gave the ball to Colin Hutton to kick the penalty even though it was almost on the touch line. Colin was a very good goal kicker and after taking his time with a crowd so silent you could hear a pin drop, he gave the old leather ball a big thud and coolly landed the goal giving Hull victory 10-9. Cue rapturous scenes from the Hull supporters.
The 1956 Championship win was Hull’s first in twenty years. A long time coming, but years in the making thanks to the perseverance and craft of Roy Francis.
The spearhead of that side was of course Johnny Whiteley, who signed for Hull in 1950 and along with Billy Batten, are the only Hull players to have the honour of being in the Rugby League Hall of Fame.
It’s an era Whiteley recalls fondly, “This new Hull side, the Drake brothers, Tommy Harris, Mick Scott, and Harry Markum, suddenly we became a force and we started to knock people about,” he told Up the Cream.
“I had five tags in front of me, I was the fuel, the energy and they were the muscle. The combination of the pack and the thoughts of Roy Francis combined meant we were a force to be reckoned with.
“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 for success, and with the energy there it was obvious we would go further as a side. I am 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 use 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.”
The following season of 1956-57 saw Hull finish 2nd in the league with 29 wins from 38 games. That brought a semi-final home tie against Barrow. Such was the interest in this game it was played at Boothferry Park. Hull were absolutely magnificent that day running riot against a very good Barrow side winning 45-14. The final was against Oldham and played at Odsal Stadium, Bradford on the 17th May. Unfortunately, Hull did not carry over their semi-final form.
The final result hinged on two incidents in the game. The first was a controversial penalty which Oldham kicked. In an era of unlimited tackles Cyril Sykes was injured but was penalised for not playing the ball. This rule was changed the following year to allow players time to recover. This penalty contributed to an Oldham lead of 15-11. The second was in the closing moments when Stan Cowan intercepted a pass to score midway between the touch line and the posts. This gave Colin Hutton the chance to win the match like the previous year but this time from a better angle. Unfortunately, and unlike the year before he seemed to rush things and the goal was missed. Oldham won 15-14 and that was that.
Fortunately, Hull did not dwell on that setback and hit their stride again the following season, not to mention reaching their first Wembley Challenge Cup finals in 1959 and 1960.
It was a special side with a special camaraderie, a side easy to pick in an era which operated so different to how rugby league does today, as Whiteley again recalls.
“The Boulevard crowd was massive every week and they loved us,” he continued. “It was a combination in West Hull of the supporters and them forwards, every forward got a benefit. The directors used to pick the side in my day, and it must have been so easy to sit down and say the forwards are there for ten years.
“You could not do that in this day and age. When you signed for Hull too the signature was basically an insurance against injury while you were with the club but also it signed you for life. There were no contracts and the only way you could get out of it was either if the club transferred you or if you retired.
“Luckily, that meant we all stuck together as friends, we met girlfriends, and we got married. Nearly everyone has got families of the same age who are friends, it was not just about the team, we built a relationship that stayed with us forever.”
The 1957-58 season saw Hull again finish 4th following 27 wins from 38 games with a semi-final away at Oldham – a team they had lost to in the league a month earlier 43-9. However, against all the odds Hull produced a superhuman effort and won 20-8 despite having Tommy Harris sent off with some 20 minutes to go. Against a hotly fancied Oldham side this was one of Hull’s greatest ever wins, with Ivor Watts, Brian Cooper, Jim Drake and Cyril Sykes getting the four tries that day. Peter Bateson kicked the goals.
The final was against Workington and again played at Odsal with 57,699 fans in attendance. Hull took the field minus Tommy Harris (suspended) and the Drake twins (ill). The match turned when Cec Thompson the Workington forward was carried off with a serious leg injury. With no substitutes allowed in those days Hull with a man advantage and already 5-3 ahead after Brian Cooper’s try went on to win 20-3, with Johnny Whiteley, now captain of Hull FC, lifting the Championship trophy following assists for Mick Scott and Tommy Finn and a try for himself. What a player he was. The greatest.
That 1958 win ended three glorious years of Championship participation – two victories and a third that could/should have been won, but no-one could argue for then at least that Hull FC were the best team in the land.
With thanks to Brian Crofts and Johnny Whiteley MBE.