It was around 10 minutes into meeting Terry Devonshire and Mick Harrison that I realised I definitely had a great story on my hands.
Most people in rugby league know the broad strokes of the story of Clive Sullivan-prolific try scorer for Hull clubs, World cup winning captain, and also remarkable longevity despite numerous injuries. People in rugby league in Hull of course know even more- the generous and open nature, the visibility in the community, and his enduring legacy as one of the best players during a golden age for Hull rugby league.
But when I started writing a biography of him, I was worried that the small, personal details that could really bring Clive the man to life would be hard to come by. I’d already spent every spare hour, away from the day job and my family, at Huddersfield’s Heritage Quay, going over the numerous scrapbooks that hold day-by-day Hull Daily Mail accounts of rugby league for decades. I’d already read numerous other players of the eras autobiographies, or books covering the era, and watched all the grainy footage I could find. But I was worried it would be a very dry account. I never wanted to write a game by game account of Clive’s career, because, as an avid reader of sports books myself, it wasn’t something that I’ve ever enjoyed reading. Instead, I wanted to try and create a snapshot of rugby league and northern life 40 odd years ago.
I’d always planned to speak to his ex-team mates, but when I did sit down with them, the book finally seemed to come to life. Every Hull FC player had a unique insight not only into Clive himself, but the way the game was played in the 1960s, which was significantly different. Alan McGlone, the great hooker, told me about how players would tape wood to their forearms and swing them at the opposition.
Devonshire told me about how the Boulevard crowd would banter back and forth with home and away players alike. Mick Harrison told me about how one Castleford prop would “bang you then bless you”. I also spent a whole afternoon in the company of Johnny Whitley, who more than lived up to his ‘gentleman’ nickname, breaking down in wonderful fashion how he played rugby league and the endless tales of his relationship with the likes of Roy Francis and Clive. Lee Crooks offered a view on rugby league as is entered the 80s, and I even got the unique views of Alan Smith, the great Leeds winger, who played with Clive for Great Britain but also against him for many years.
Of course, Clive didn’t only play for F.C, but also KR. I spoke to Ged Dunn, who went from being challenged to a race by Clive as an opponent to fooling the local press only a few years later as team mates.
Steve Hartley and Mike Smith, two extremely talented players in their own right, told me great stories about the genius of Roger Millward, and the very eloquent Rovers historian Roger Pugh painted some vivid pictures of Rovers during the period from a board room perspective. Sammy Lloyd told me what it was like to be a business partner with Clive during the week and then playing against each other at Wembley in 1980 in arguably the biggest challenge cup final of all time.
The most interesting conversations perhaps were with the Sullivan family themselves, who helped me to understand the pressures on a Rugby league player during the part time era, trying to balance work, family life and being a star player for a local side. Ultimately, I believe that I did gain enough anecdotes and memories to bring the story to life and be of interest to people with even a passing interest in rugby league.
One thing that many people are surprised to hear is that I’m not even from Hull, and I wasn’t even born when Clive passed away. So why did I write it? My answer is fairly obvious and boring, but it seemed like a great story.
I also, whilst being a huge rugby league fan, am not a Hull or Rovers fan. I have very little bias towards or against either team, and I also didn’t have rose tinted memories of Clive as a player. He has always been a historic figure for me, and I wanted to treat his story with due diligence and with the respect it deserves.
The ways of life that people of a certain vintage that didn’t seem particularly fascinating to them were just that for someone like me born in the 90s, and I hope other people like me in their 20s who read the book feel the same degree of awe and reverence that I did. Clive’s era was one that encompassed the industrial peak and then decline of Hull’s fishing industry, and I wanted to try and capture some of that along the way.
Ultimately, I wanted to write a good book, and I hope that has been achieved. My publishers, Pitch, have submitted the book to be considered for the prestigious William Hill Sports book of the year award. I’ll be a heavy outsider to even make the short list but no rugby league book (or rugby union book for that matter) has ever won the award, so it would be fitting if Clive could achieve another first for rugby league if his story was the one that could do it. Mostly however, I just hope people who spend their hard earned money on it enjoy it and feel I have done Clive and the city of Hull justice.