It doesn’t get any bigger than Hull FC’s greatest ever player Johnny Whiteley.
Both a Hull FC and Rugby League Hall of Famer, Whiteley is an absolute legend, an icon, and a gentlemen.
Here is part two of our interview with the great man, first seen in the Up the Cream fanzine in 2015.
Johnny Whiteley had a sensational playing career, but retiring was far from the end of the journey.
For Gentleman John making the transition from player to coach was easy – after all it was a profession he already had a fair bit of experience in.
He had big shoes to fill as well, replacing the great Roy Francis, but like his playing career Whiteley was only heading one way – to the very top.
“For a lot of people who finished playing the game they have nothing else,” Whiteley told Up the Cream.
“I was fortunate where I was still in love with fitness and training. I loved coaching. I like to think I’m a teacher. I’ve had so much success with youngsters which I still have today as I’ve still got my own gym and I still teach.
“I was 35 when I stopped playing and up to that time I played nearly 600 games with amateur and rugby union in the army. Your body takes a lot, and as I was a forward I was always in the thick of things. I played Sunday league football too in goal. My shoulder kept dislocating. It wasn’t hard for me to decide, if we lost as player coach I blamed myself, I didn’t blame no-one else, I took it all on my own back. I thought I wasn’t doing my job justice.
“I was very surprised with Roy Francis leaving Hull. Leeds offered him a contract, they were one of the up and coming sides. Our team was starting to get battered a bit and starting to drift away. Roy saw his way out and he came up to me one night and said ‘by the way you’ll be the new coach’ and he gave me his whistle and off he went to Leeds. ‘You’ll be alright’, it was an easy transformation really, he just left and I took over.
“It wasn’t hard to retire, a lot of people who retire finish with nothing else and they go on benders and don’t know which way in life to turn. It was easy for me, I loved coaching that much, I was in the heart of it and I was doing so well at Hull with the kids. When I started we had no money and we couldn’t afford to sign anybody of any note. All the team was disintegrated and I was coaching kids to play professional rugby.
“I was involved in seven Yorkshire Cup Finals, and we won one of them against Featherstone. We played Leeds in the semi-final and they were a full international side. We beat them 20-17. Roy was the coach and he said to me before the game, ‘why don’t you make a move’ as I had a team of youngsters, and when we walked off that day I said ‘this is the reason I didn’t.’ He was a father figure to me was Roy. He always treated us like his lads. I loved the man.
“That 1969 team, I was the instigator in signing about 11-12 of them off the park and from that team 11 got picked for representative football. I look at it with a lot of personal pride to say well I helped that young lad. This is the satisfaction I got as a coach, and because of that I got promoted to Yorkshire county coach and I was there for twelve years. I finished up on the shortlist for the 1970 Great Britain tour because of the outstanding response I got from the players at Hull and Yorkshire.
“The tour was between Joe Egan of Wigan and me. I had no academic background what’s-so-ever, but I became the assistant manager/coach come everything else in 1970. I was so proud, I couldn’t believe it.”
With two wins coming at the Sydney Cricket Ground, that 1970 tour was the last time a Great Britain side won the Ashes in Australia. It was also the year that Whiteley fell out with and left Hull FC.
It was a different era.
“There were so many factors in me leaving Hull,” Whiteley continued. “I met many people who weren’t very nice. After 1970 being involved with Hull, Yorkshire and Great Britain and everything else in the game, I suddenly educated myself in life.
“Coaches didn’t pick the sides back then. All the committees and directors did. I wanted more say in the team selection so I started beating the drum and I didn’t win. In fact we at Hull had a board of directors who were adamant that I had no say in the team selection so I fell afoul of the board. I had disagreement with every session.
“They would pick a team and I would say to a player that they’ve had a good game then they would drop them. Then I had to come up with an excuse to why they were dropped. Like it wasn’t me, it was them. I was apologising to a player in a lie for something I haven’t even done, and by this time I was intelligent to think that’s not on, but I didn’t win so I resigned. I never had a contract in my life, just a handshake and that’s all I got anywhere I went. Prior to going to Australia I gave my notice in. I said I’m finishing with you, as I can’t work here anymore.
“The board had a vote of no confidence in the chairman, they came to my house and asked if I’d reinstate myself as the coach. I said I fought you all and there was only one man who backed me. The rest didn’t do me any favours and when they came to my house and asked me to reinstate myself and start again and I refused point blank. I wanted some allies somewhere down the line and I never felt like anyone gave me anything so I said ‘sorry gentlemen I can’t work under those conditions anymore.”
Whiteley had had enough, and upon returning from Australia a move to the old enemy was next.
“When I was in Australia, Hull Kingston Rovers rang me. At the time Colin Hutton was the coach at Rovers and he rang me to say he had been promoted on to the board and they would like me as the coach.
“I had three kids, a mortgage and no money. The money I got from rugby paid my mortgage. I didn’t smoke or drink. I didn’t gamble. After everything I’ve done in the game I haven’t got a backbone. I didn’t want to move out of the City of Hull so I agreed on the basis I’d have some say in team selection. I came back from Australia from the most successful Ashes tour in history and I became the coach at Rovers.
“But when I became coach the same scenario applied, the board would pick a team, they’d have a meeting and they’d then contradict it. They had already had a board meeting before I even came in. We’d sit there and say right who’s for fullback, and there was no agreement. It didn’t materialise and I had a bust up with the chairman.
“I was picked to coach Great Britain again at the 1970 World Cup four months later, I knew I would be without having an ego, but unfortunately I then fell afoul of the Great Britain committee. If we contested I think I would have won the argument, but their say was final.
“I wanted to prove I was the best, and to think success will come from my efforts. I was in a professional game and I am at the top of my profession. I lost money going to Australia and the Australians said at the time I was the best in the world. I was getting disillusioned, I thought I’ve gone all this way as a professional athlete, I’ve played the game all my life, I’ve given everything and I’ve got nothing to show for it.
“When the World Cup came they offered me virtually nothing to be boss and I thought right I’ve had enough now. I can’t afford to go to France so I resigned. Rovers didn’t like that so I had a barmy with the chairman and because they wouldn’t let me have a full say in team selection I decided that I would bow out and go into my own business. That served me in good stead. I had my own gym and I started coaching kids. I went into club life and I was very successful.”
The professional games loss was the community games gain, although Whiteley did stay with the Yorkshire side and in fact coached Great Britain again for two years from 1980.
Whiteley was a pioneer for the amateur game in Hull. He was involved at Eureka, Charlston and he formed West Hull, all whilst running his own gym.
“I had a good wife, and three daughters who all backed me. With having the gym and still teaching, again I wasn’t really out of the professional game as all the pros who used to come train with me continued to do so. Players like Dane O’Hara, Gary Kemble and people like that all came. Hull didn’t have their own gym so they came to me, to my gym.
“I wasn’t getting paid but I wasn’t getting paid at the top of my profession so it didn’t make no difference. It didn’t bother me as I’m still doing it to this day. I love it, I love doing it. I don’t charge anybody anything in my gym, and people used to question that and I’d say well you don’t need a wallet in a tracksuit.
“It was always my intention to go into club life, public life. I worked at the West Hull Club under Wilf Mooney and when I took it over I thought we might as well have a rugby team. I said we can’t play in red, white and blue as that’s Great Britain colours so we’ll play in green and gold in Australia colours, and to this day they still do. They’ve got about 12-14 teams now, and every time I see a green and gold shirt I see a part of Johnny Whiteley.”
Whiteley was awarded an MBE in 2005 for his services to rugby league.
From being a professional, to a community gem, he was a success wherever he went.
His recipe is pretty simple too.
“One of the things for youngsters is learning to work as a team, and then you then know and appreciate that people are beside you and become a part of a team. Don’t become individuals but take challenges and don’t accept defeat. Have a goal to work on, working on a goal keeps your mind active, and one of the things which I say to kids in schools, you never know who’s watching you.
“I go round watching junior games myself, and I put a name down. He might only be eight or nine, but I make a note of somebody I like. I like to think I have a knowledge of what it takes as I came up off Hessle Road during the war. You can feel it in a youngster. When you’re young you don’t think anybody’s watching you, but really everyone is watching.”