Rugby League Heroes: Johnny Whiteley (Part 1)

Johnny Whiteley is perhaps Hull FC’s greatest player, scoring 156 tries in 417 matches between 1950 and 1965. A majestic ball-playing loose forward, he played on the successful 1958 and 1962 Lions Tours before moving into coaching, taking charge of the Black and Whites and then Hull Kingston Rovers. He also led the 1970 Lions, the last time Great Britain won the Ashes. Whiteley remains a wonderful ambassador for Rugby League and, at 89, still coaches children and watches both Hull clubs, home and away. He is an MBE and a freeman of the city. This is part one of Johnny’s interview.

RR: Your house was bombed during the war. What are your recollections of that time?
JW: We lived opposite a school, where the shelters were. I had to carry my youngest sister there in a clothes basket when the buzzers went off. This went on for three years. If the buzzers went after midnight, you didn’t have to go to school until the next afternoon. We used to pray for that, so we could spend the next morning playing rugby! That was brilliant for me, but I was as dumb as hell when I left school. The day we were bombed, I was 11. The door of the shelter was blown to smithereens. When we came out, there were fires and our house had been bombed. Fifty-odd were killed and about 200 injured. It was the biggest bomb on Hull during the war. We went to the church hall, where I had been christened, and had to sleep on mattresses filled with straw. We had no water, but a lorry with an attached boiler would come down the street with showers attached to it and that’s how we washed.

RR: How were you affected by rationing?
JW: I actually remember a very ignorant chap writing in one newspaper that Rugby League players were pot-bellied taxi drivers. I was nine, going on ten, when we were first rationed, but I was a full international by the time rationing was done away with. Let me tell you, if anybody back then was pot-bellied, they were stealing somebody else’s ration!

RR: How else did the war interfere with your Rugby League development?
JW: The park was the farthest you could go because, if the buzzers went, you had to get home. We all had to stay together. All the men had gone to war, so there were no coaches about. I was lucky because my granddad had a couple of units and there was a gym above one of them. With all the men away, I used the gym at the age of nine or ten. I could swing dumbbells and use the punch bag. And then I would teach other kids what to do. The bomb blew the gym away, although I did retrieve a few bits for my shed, so I could still work out. We also played touch rugby on the street with a paper ball and I was taken to the Boulevard before I could walk. Hull FC was ingrained into most of us. They were the be-all and end-all to us. They’ve been in my blood since I was born.

RR: Did your experiences harden you in a way the modern player couldn’t experience?
JW: Yes! Take injuries, for example. What people don’t realise is we are in an era now when kids are driven to school and climbing frames have been done away with. You pushed, pulled and carried everything in my day. I didn’t have a car until I was 31 – and I was seen as posh for having one at that age. Today’s players haven’t had their physiques developed like ours. We developed leg power and ankle strength, but players now get a lot more ankle and knee injuries. It’s not down to the game, it’s down to kids not developing like they did 40 or 50 years ago. This is my 77th year teaching kids conditioning. I’ve had to drop standards because kids can’t do some of the things previous generations did. We no longer run hills. An Australian once said to me you don’t run hills on a rugby pitch. But I thought if you’re losing a Test match, it’s like climbing Everest!

RR: How limited was your education?
JW: Very limited, but we could do the basics. There were no books or newspapers when I was between 10 and 13. I played sport in every spare minute. Not having an education is one of my regrets, but you make your own way.

RR: How did you come to sign for Hull?
JW: When Hull Boys Club was reformed in 1946, we started playing rugby. Hull came and watched and liked a few of us. A few of us went on trials. We were kids from the back streets of Hessle Road and were great friends. We all thought we were the bees’ knees because we didn’t get beaten. We made a pact to stick together until after our conscription. We did 18 months until we were 19, so none of us signed until then. Hull were waiting on my doorstep when I came back, and I jumped at it. I played ‘A’-team trials against Huddersfield and Keighley. I then signed with the agreement being I’d be in the first team the next week – but there was no money for signing! My debut was at York, who had a massive pack. It was like running into a wall every time I took it up. I thought I can’t stand 12 years of this. I didn’t think it would be for me. Then I ran into one wall, went through it and went flying up the field. It was like running into a wall and finding a door with a handle!

RR: You were named ‘Gentleman Johnny’, a hat-tip to your sportsmanship. Was the nickname always justified?
JW: Most of the time! But I played in a Yorkshire Cup Final against Featherstone, the first one to be televised. They only showed the second half back then. During the first half, a Featherstone player had kicked me repeatedly at the play-the-ball. It was when you could strike at the play-the-ball, but he kept kicking my shin instead of the ball. I had a hole in my sock and lots of bruises and blood. When the TV coverage began at the start of the second half, Eddie Waring introduced me to the nation as “Gentleman Johnny Whiteley”, explaining how fairly I played the game. Straight away, I was kicked at the play-the-ball by the same player, and ‘Bang!’, I hit him flush on the chin and he flew backwards. The producer, who had never seen Rugby League, turned to Eddie and said, “If he’s the gentleman, I can’t wait to see the villains.”

RR: You were part of Great Britain’s successful 1954 World Cup squad, but didn’t play.
JW: I should have gone on the Lions tour before the World Cup. I’d played in a previous Test at loose forward, but two weeks before the tour I got injured. So, Dave Valentine, a wonderful player, took my place and had such a tremendous tour, he was named captain for the World Cup. There were no subs then so I didn’t get a game. We didn’t have a ball in our first training session. I had to put a vest in a sock! But it was a wonderful experience.

RR: One of the highlights at Hull was winning the 1956 Championship Final, with a late penalty goal from Colin Hutton.
JW: It was particularly pleasing because our success coincided with the fishing industry in Hull getting back to normal after the war. The whole of west Hull was vibrant again. Winning the final, along with Hull being back on its feet, was wonderful. It also made me the blue-eyed boy of Hessle Road!

RR: You toured with the 1958 Lions, playing in the famous Alan Prescott Test. What are your memories and, in particular, of one of the tour managers, Tom Mitchell.
JW: Tom was one of the game’s great characters. Jim Brough was our coach but, before the tour, Tom had finished with Jim at Workington, which didn’t augur well for the trip! Tom got a few senior players like Vince Karalius and Alan Prescott on his side and made them the officers of the tour. Tom took over the coaching and Jim was told he could have a holiday. Tom was a fitness fanatic with great lung power. There was a mountain behind the ground at Townsville and Tom had a bet he could run up it in 19 minutes, a minute less than it took to drive. Alex [Murphy] went with him and they won the bet. In the swimming pool, he’d wrestle with you under water!

RR: What do you remember of the two Tests you won?
JW: As we all know, Alan broke his arm in Brisbane and stayed on all game with a fully fractured arm. He said the Australians would have to go around him! We went down to ten men with other players going off injured. The spirit in that team, allied with the talent, was amazing and we won the Ashes with a 40-17 win in the third Test at Sydney. The 1962 team was great as well, but the adversity we experienced in 1958 was unbelievable. When I look at the photo of the tour, there aren’t many of us left. It brings a lump to my throat. Life has gone so fast. It all seems like yesterday. Being involved in this wonderful game of ours has given me so much pleasure.

The second instalment of Rugby League Heroes with Johnny Whiteley will appear on next week.

Johnny Whiteley was named a member of the Rugby League Hall of Fame this year and that is one of League Express’ Significant moments of the year… for ten more moments, buy League Express on Monday.