Johnny Whiteley Hull FC Rugby League Legend. A tribute by Kevin Ellis, founder of Ellis Rugby.

Hull FC Legend Johnny Whiteley MBE dies aged 91. A tribute.

I was saddened by the recent news that former Great Britain player and coach and Hull FC legend Johnny Whiteley MBE had died, aged 91.

A genuinely lovely bloke. Who was always engaging and passionate about the game whenever he spoke. My most recent personal memory of Johnny was being interviewed by Jamie-Jones Buchanan at the Rugby League Lions Luncheon held a couple of years back.

Memories of the first Rugby League World Cup in 1954

His memories of the first-ever Rugby League World Cup competition stage in France in 1954. Johnny explained that the 1954 team was a ‘make-shift’ squad as many of the players had just returned from playing in the Ashes Series in Australia and were unable to get additional time off work to compete in France. Then as they prepared to make the trip across the channel, the squad were informed by officials they wouldn’t be accompanied by the Coach as the Rugby League couldn’t afford his wage.

The squad traveled to Paris, but were delayed on route, but made their way to the training ground for their one and only training session before the tournament. When they arrived at the stadium, the French officials assumed they were not training after all had left for the evening chaining up the metal gates. The team scaled the fence only to then realise that they didn’t have a rugby ball to train with. Johnny came to the rescue and created something that resembled a ball through knotted clothing.

Johnny Whiteley was a member of the Great Britain Rugby League squad that reached the final

Despite being an inexperienced team and all the setbacks in preparation Great Britain reached the final and in front of over 30,000 partisan supporters at the Parc des Princes defeated France by 16 points to 12. Johnny didn’t get a run-out in the competition as the skipper of the squad, Scotsman Dave Valentine played in the same Loose Forward position. He was though a Ashes series winner over Australia with the Lions as both player and coach. In addition, he was part of three World Cup squads between 1954 and 1960.

Ellis Rugby launch Hall of Fame range inspired by Johnny Whiteley Hull FC Legend

I met Johnny at a Rugby League Cares ex-players reunion at the Emerald Headingley Stadium. We’d recently launched our Hall of Fame range celebrating his amazing career. This included Hull FC Championship success in 1956. When Colin Hutton kicked a last-minute penalty in the final against Halifax at Maine Road, Manchester.

Hull FC Championship victories in 1956 and 1958

Then victory again in 1958 against Workington. The silky skills of Johnny Whiteley began to dominate in the second half. And he had a hand in all three second-half tries. He combined with brother Peter. Also, he sent prop Mick Scott through who stepped Workington stand-off Harry Archer to score. Whiteley then sent Tommy Finn away for a brilliantly worked Try. Between he scored a great try himself. By spotting a gap from acting half-back and sprinting 30 yards to the line.

Johnny Whiteley MBE and the outstanding Great Britain Rugby League Ashes-winning team of 1958

In 1958 he starred for the Great Britain Lions in their historic Ashes victory against the Kangaroos. In the first Test, he played Loose Forward. But moved into the Second Row along with Dick Huddart, allowing Vince Karalius to operate at Loose Forward. With this outstanding back row, the Lions smashed the Australians 25-18 in the second Test in Brisbane. Then 40 points to 17 at the Sydney Cricket Ground in the third Test. Johnny also crossed for a try.

Johnny Whiteley Great Britain Rugby League Ashes-winning Coach of 1970

After his retirement from playing, Whiteley established himself as one of the games leading Coaches. And was chosen to lead the 1970 Great Britain team alongside captain Frank Myler.
The first test of the 1970 series was a sell-out of almost 43,000. And although the score was 37-15 – it perhaps flattered the Aussies. Coach Whiteley made several changes. By bringing in Dennis Hartley and Tony Fisher to toughen up the Front Row. Work-horse Second rower Jimmy Thompson. And what proved to be the match-winner in Roger Millward. The second test was a magnificent performance a 28-7 victory. Great Britain outscored the Aussies by four tries.

Victory against the Australian Kangaroos in the 1970 Ashes Series third Test

So on to the third test on the 4th July 1970 at the SCG in front of a partisan crowd of 61,000. The scoreline of 21 points to 17, just does not do justice to Lion’s outstanding performance. Five tries to one is a resounding victory. John Atkinson of Leeds was outstanding crossing for a brace of tries.
Led by Johnny Whiteley. The 1970 Lions played 24 games over two and a half months. They won 22 of their matches, lost 1, and drew 1. They scored 753 points, conceded only 288 points, and were watched by a total number of 370,034 spectators – making them the most successful Great Britain team of all time!

Johnny Whiteley Hull FC honours & successes

In addition to the Championship successes. He played in the Challenge Cup finals with Hull. And scored 156 tries in 417 games. Also coached both Hull FC and Hull KR. His services to rugby league were rewarded with an MBE in 2005.

Our thoughts are with Johnny’s family & friends. What a man, what a fantastic player!

(Pictured, Founder of Ellis Rugby, Kevin Ellis with Johnny Whiteley MBE in 2019 at the Emerald Headingley Stadium)