Nostalgia is a dangerous emotion. It can make you see things through rose tinted glasses, yet there’s nothing misty eyed about the Championship winning Hull FC team of the 1950s, fronted by the clubs greatest ever player Johnny Whiteley and coached by the legendary Roy Francis.
It was a truly magnificent team, arguably one of, if not the best, sides that the club has ever produced. It was one crafted and put together from scratch by player turned coach Roy Francis and one that featured club legends from Mick Scott, to Ivor Watts, to Tommy Harris, to Gentleman John himself. It was a side full of local lads who grew up in the war, who had to bide their time, but who were always destined for greatness, and so it proved with two Championship wins coming in both 1956 and 1958.
The Championship was the forerunner of today’s Grand Final. Back then, there were 30 clubs in the Northern Union 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 semi-finals with the final played at a neutral venue. No dog dishes were handed out.
In the early part of the decade, Hull flirted with mid to higher end of the table finishes, but in a thirty club league, they couldn’t yet make a dent on fourth position and beyond. They also negotiated their way to three Yorkshire Cup finals with all three unfortunately ending in defeat, yet with Francis’ wits and innovation, they were certainly on the rise.
One of many rugby league diamonds to hail 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 soon built a fearsome forward pack and made the Boulevard a place where everybody feared coming.
The first breakthrough
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 immortals like Brian Bevan amongst their ranks and had not been beaten by a Yorkshire side on their then home ground Wilderspool for seventeen years. The task ahead was huge.
Hull were massive underdogs but they defied the odds for one of their greatest ever victories, winning 17-0 courteously of tries from Bill Drake, Bryan Cooper, and Tommy Harris. Obviously Warrington, who as usual did not take defeat well, were waiting for next year, whereas back in Hull, fans who hadn’t jumped on the train specials were waiting anxiously on the Boulevard backstreets for news of the game. When the result came through, they literally couldn’t believe it, but the celebrations soon kickstarted on Airlie Street and beyond.
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 had a good start to the game and 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.
Of course, there was to be one final twist and soon it came. 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 at 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 himself, who signed for Hull following National Service in 1950 and along with the great 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.”
So near, yet so far
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, back then a big force in the game, and such was the interest in the fixture, it was played at Boothferry Park. Hull were absolutely magnificent that afternoon, running riot to win 45-14. The final was against Oldham and was played at Odsal, 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 if they got hurt. This penalty contributed to an Oldham lead of 15-11. The second was in the closing moments after Stan Cowan intercepted an Oldham pass to score a try 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 ever Wembley Challenge Cup finals in 1959 and 1960.
It was a special side with a special pack and 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 finish 4th like they did two years before, having won 27 from 38 games. That brought a semi-final tie away at Oldham – a team they had lost to in the league just 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, and like the one at Warrington against the odds two years ago, was one of Hull’s greatest ever wins, with Ivor Watts, Bryan Cooper, Jim Drake and Cyril Sykes getting the four tries that day. New fullback Peter Bateson kicked the goals.
The final was against Workington and was again played at Odsal with 57,699 fans in attendance. Hull went into it understrength and 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 Bryan Cooper’s try, went on to win 20-3, with Johnny Whiteley, now captain of the side, lifting the Championship trophy following crafty assists for Mick Scott and Tommy Finn, and of course a sublime try for himself. What a player he was. The greatest.
The 1958 final 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 were the best team in the land.
With thanks to Brian Crofts and Johnny Whiteley MBE.