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Curtain call for RL great Clive…

I wrote the following for the May issue of Forty20 magazine and it was reprinted in the programme for Sully.

The first time I saw Clive Sullivan on the wing was at Hull FC’s home the Boulevard.

Unfortunately, it was 1977, Hull FC having been promoted to the First Division as Second Division champions in the 1976-77 season, and Sully was playing in the wrong colours – the red and white of east of the city rivals Hull Kingston Rovers.

1976 was the first year I’d been dragged by a friend of mine to a game of rugby league. We only lived a ten minute walk away from the Boulevard and, for two 10 year olds, the close proximity of the Airlie Street gates was a deciding factor in following the team in the black and white irregular hoops. We got lucky that season, finding ourselves following a team of winners.

This might all be a convenient false memory but, as I stood in the Airlie Birds’ Threepenny Stand, Sully got some comedic jibes thrown his way. Even as young lads we were aware of his legendary status at our club. He laughed off whatever was said to him with a brilliant smile and, for a good few seconds, smiled directly at me and, in that dream-like moment, time briefly stopped. Then, with Rovers in possession, Sully took a pass from a play the ball and went flying up the wing like a gazelle. I’d never seen anyone move that fast.

Sully kept cropping up in the same manner in the Hull Derby until he left Rovers in 1980 (heading first to Oldham, then back to the Boulevard to play until 1982). We were happy to see him exit the pitch at the 1979-1980 BBC Floodlit Trophy on the wrong side of FC’s 13-3 victory then had our hearts broken at Wembley in the same season in the all-Hull Challenge Cup, Rovers running out 10-5 winners with years of “you’ll never win at Wembley” chants to follow.

I didn’t see it at the time but there’s a great Grandstand pre-match interview with Sully that apparently only took place because Len Casey (who’d also made the switch from FC to Rovers) was on the toilet. Tony Gubba asks Sully how many of his 300+ tries have been scored for the opposition. To which Sully responds, with a grin, “Today I’m playing for Hull Kingston Rovers and I want to score three tries for them.” He didn’t – it was Steve Hubbard’s kicking game that stuck the boot in.

Whether red and white or black and white, there’s no disagreement across the city of Hull – Sully was a magnificent player for both clubs. He played a total of 352 games for Hull, scoring 250 tries, and 118 tries for the Robins in 213 games. He continues to be revered on both sides of the River Hull.

Clive Sullivan’s international career was equally successful, playing 47 times for Wales and Great Britain. In the 1972 World Cup, when he became the first black captain of any British national team, he scored a try in each of GB’s games. He was lifted aloft by his teammates with the trophy in his hands thanks, in no small part, to his 75 yard charge down the pitch to score against Australia in the final. The game ended 10-10, with GB taking the honours having topped the table. As one of the greatest players in the sport’s history, Sully was rightly inducted into the Rugby League Hall of Fame in 2022.

When Sully died in 1985, at the age of 42, there was a palpable sense of grief right across Hull and beyond. His memory abides, as it should. Traffic heads from the M62 westwards into the city on the Clive Sullivan Way, serving as a constant reminder of his name, although the traffic often moves somewhat slower than Sully did on the wing.

The 10-year-old who stood in the Threepenny wouldn’t have expected the older version of himself to end up working in theatre. But… In 2005 I was invited to a meeting to suggest some ideas to Hull Truck Theatre following the local success of a play I’d written about the 1980 Challenge Cup. They were keen to commission me to write something else and I had loads of half-baked nonsense in a notebook, none of it sports-related.

The night before the meeting I had an incredibly lucid dream. That moment when Clive Sullivan smiled directly at me replayed. We had a lovely chat and then a huge poster unfolded with Sully, and I know this sounds naff, in a half-and-half kit. The poster was suspended over the theatre. I mentioned this at the end of the meeting and, well, that was that and the play Sully was commissioned.

Back in 2005 the internet was not the first port of call for research. Luckily I was working at the local newspaper, so had access to archive material. But with no plot and only a sketchy level of knowledge about Sully off the pitch, there was a need to talk to a few people with more knowledge and personal experiences of the man than me.

The brilliantly named Hull Daily Mail sports reporter Dick Tingle was not only a font of wisdom that he was eager to share but gave me an out-of-print Sullivan biography by Joe Latus called Hard Road To The Top that proved invaluable. Dick also put me in touch with those that played alongside Sully, club historians and archivists, including FC’s Bill Dalton and, more importantly, Clive’s wife Ros.

Ros, who would have been within her rights to tell me where to go when I turned up on her doorstep, was incredibly generous with her time and her anecdotes. Talking to Ros also led to conversations with the couple’s children – athlete Lisa and former Rovers, St Helens and dual-code international player Anthony. My notebook quickly brimmed with beautiful stories.

The play was, and remains, a gift. Sully’s is remarkable story, made even more remarkable by the fact that, when he was a schoolboy, he was told he would never walk again following a leg injury, never mind have a career in sport. As a Para given dispensation for leave from his Army duties to play for Hull FC, a serious crash on the way back to barracks from a game saw him suffer multiple broken bones, a punctured lung and a near-death experience. What followed is, of course, Rugby League history. The stuff that dreams are made of.

First performed in 2006, it is fitting that Mosaic Productions are reviving Sully in what would have been Clive Sullivan’s 80th year on the planet. Directed by Scott Solway, it is a great way to celebrate Sully’s induction into the Hall of Fame and continue to remind ourselves of this player’s sporting prowess and legendary status.


Sully was performed at Hull Truck Theatre on June 6-10, 2023.

Author James Oddy interviewed me when he was researching True Professional: The Clive Sullivan Story. It is an excellent biography that I heartily recommend. You can order the book below at my virtual shop on

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