Clive Sullivan: The Man Who Broke Rugby’s Racial Barrier

1972 was a tumultuous year in Britain’s history. The Heath Government faced down unprecedented industrial and social conflict. The National Front was on the rise. Labour swung to the left and unemployment hit the fatal one million mark. Amidst the chaos, Great Britain RL appointed the first black captain of any British national side. It was done without mass protest or jubilant fanfare. For that reason it remains unheard by the sporting public. James Oddy looks to rectify it with his epic tale of the Humberside legend Clive Sullivan.

True Professional: The Clive Sullivan Story by James Oddy. Published by Pitch.

Clive Sullivan lifting the WC. He became the first black captain of a any British national side.

For all the negative imagery that the sport of Rugby League invokes; of ‘Whippets and Flat Caps’, Eddie Waring’s “he’s a poor lad” and shouts of ‘Gerrum Onside’, the game has traditionally been at the forefront of progressive social change. Born out of a class rebellion itself, the sport has made a home for the outsiders and mavericks of British sport. In 1995 Ikram Butt became the first Muslim to play for England in any sport. In the late 1980s, Australian Ian Roberts became the first openly gay sports player without much spectacle. In the current era, the sport has been the first to promote mental health awareness with a dedicated ‘State Of Mind’ round, giving a platform to the usually ‘tough as nails’ young men to discuss the challenges they face on a daily basis. For a sport defined by its naked aggression on the field it is remarkably compassionate off it. In League, the only thing that you’ll be judged on is your ability on the pitch.

Much of League’s progressive history remains unknown outside of the M62 Corridor. Of all the historical achievements unheralded, the story of Clive Sullivan MBE remains the most interesting. In 1972, as the National Front rose and began to infiltrate working class culture – now basing its headquarters in Hull – Great Britain RL made Clive Sullivan the first black captain of any British national side. The England football team were still six years away from picking a black player and twenty-one from appointing a black captain. Yet there is no Clive Sullivan statue at Wembley. His name does not appear in clickbait newspaper lists of pioneering sports stars. That’s their loss. In James Oddy’s True Professional: The Clive Sullivan Story, the reader encounters a tale worthy of a Hollywood blockbuster. If League does crack America, they should hold up the story of Sullivan’s journey from Wales to Buckingham Palace with pride. His story is League’s story.

The Great Divide

Sullivan wowed the Hull faithful. He scored 406 tries in 639 appearances.

Born during World War 2 in a small village in Cardiff’s Splott district, Clive Sullivan came from the only black family within his community. In a town similar to the working class heartlands of League, Sullivan was brought up playing the ‘other’ code. In the 1940s however, League was on the cusp of its golden age as money swelled out of the worker’s pocket and into the stadiums. It was League that was flush with money, with tales of rich Northern Chairmen pulling up in the Welsh Valley’s – often in a Rolls Royce – to unearth  the next superstar. As documented in the brilliant BBC documentary ‘Codebreakers’ , just talking to League meant relinquishing amateur status and “they would never be welcomed back into the fold”. Greats such as Jim Sullivan, Gus Risman and Billy Boston had made the journey up North, becoming superstars in the process. But with it came a huge sacrifice; forgoing the chance to run out at Arms Park for the Welsh Union side.

For a young Clive Sullivan, Hull and the Northern riches were not even a pipe dream. James Oddy delves into his early career and recounts how, following an injury, a doctor told Sullivan that his weak knees meant he may never walk again. An unknown injury as a schoolboy left him with one leg shorter than the other. If Clive was going to make it, it would be the hard way. Perhaps the injury gave Sullivan a ruthless streak. Whilst other young Welshmen turned their back on the League traitors, Clive was inspired by watching the great Billy Boston wow the Wigan public. Boston set a blueprint, as Oddy highlights, by venturing up North and becoming an icon. Whereas Boston had been prevented from playing for Wales R.U because he was black, the Wigan public embraced him with open arms from day one. After just a few weeks in League, Billy Boston became the first black player to be taken on a tour Down Under.

The transition of a player from Union to League was something akin to a Cold War thriller novel. Oddy discovers that League ‘infiltrators’ would approach Union players under the guise of ‘looking for autographs’, with scouts acting as a hidden ‘fifth column’ within the sport. Suspicion of traitors within the sport was palpable. In the small coalfields of South Wales, even thinking about League was enough to destroy your own reputation, as well as your family’s. When it came to the tapping up of Sullivan in 1961, an unnamed scout approached him ‘accidentally on purpose’ to cajole him into trying out League. After a failed trial at Bradford, he scored a hat-trick for Hull’s A team and signed a contract the following day. With it began a career that would see him raise the RL World Cup trophy as Great Britain captain – the last occasion the trophy was won by any nation other than Australia or New Zealand.

Old Faithful

The 1960s was a volatile time for race relations. Yet Sullivan found solace amongst the people of Hull.

Britain in the 1960s is often defined as a period of rising racial tension. Historic opinion polling reveals that four in five people felt that ‘too many immigrants had been let into the country’. In 1964, the Smethwick election brought Malcolm X to the streets of Birmingham after being “disturbed by reports that coloured people are being treated badly.” Yet far from the caricature of the North being hostile to change, Sullivan experienced little racism in Hull and Oddy recounts the ease at which he and his wife were accepted as a mixed race couple. In Rugby League in the Twentieth Century, Tony Collins argues that this is part of a long history of openness to other cultures within Northern communities. He points to the Second World War, when black American troops “received a much warmer welcome” up North than in other parts of the country. The oppressed industrial working class had little to gain in attacking a man because of the colour of his skin, and were seen to be united in struggle.  That is not to say that black players were welcomed by everyone in League. Just fifteen years prior to Sullivan crossing codes, Harry Sunderland, whose name is embezzled on the Grand Final Man of the Match trophy, released Roy Francis from Wigan because ‘he had no time for blacks’.

Sullivan quickly fitted in at Hull FC’s notorious ‘Boulevard’ ground. Contrary to the imagery conjured up by its exotic name, The Boulevard could strike fear into the most experienced of international player. The former St Helens and Great Britain international Bobbie Goulding, not renowned for his shyness, once remarked that “if I could describe the Boulevard in one word that word would be hell“. Rugby League grounds were products of the industry that had been built around them. In Hull, the trawler-men from the nearby fishing docks reigned supreme. Dubbed by Oddy as the ‘three day millionaires’, the spectators had “a pocket full of pay and a desire to make up for lost time.” The brutality on the pitch offered “a respite from the spectators’ often-tough lives”. This was the place where people came to unload their emotions after a hard week and Sullivan would be looking up at a crowd of dockers, miners and fishermen, ready to be entertained. It was not a place to falter. Despite being ruled by knee operations, Clive Sullivan played 13 seasons for Hull scoring 250 tries in 352 games.

Hull’s Boulevard was a notoriously difficult place to play.

Sullivan’s rise inevitably led to Great Britain calling. By the early 1970s however, League had reached its nadir. The World Cup of 1972 was set against the backdrop of Britain’s most politically volatile year since the General Strike. More than 23 million days were lost in strike action and unemployment hit the dreaded million mark. Amongst a period of uncertainty, Sullivan reached the peak of his powers – being awarded the captaincy ahead of the World Cup. When Britain reached the final, Sullivan secured the trophy with a solo effort worthy of the stage and his ability. Amidst the turmoil back home, you would expect the nation to savour in the escapism of the national side doing well. Yet as Oddy points out “The RFL did little to celebrate the achievement.” Compared to fanfare of the 2003 England RU victory 30 years later, there was not even one journalist or photographer to meet Sullivan and the conquering heroes at the airport. England haven’t come close to winning the tournament since and had the sport known it was about to embark on such a dry run, it might have capitalised on the success. Then again, the game has never been good at that. Oddy admits that “The squad was not met with scores of press members clamouring for interviews, or requests for endorsements and sponsorships.” Unlike the honours bestowed on Sir Clive and Sir Jonny, there would be no knighthood for the first black captain of a British national side. Nevertheless, he did receive an MBE for his efforts and featured on the TV series This is Your Life.

The “damp squib” of a homecoming highlights the humbleness of League’s characters. In 1972 the fans of the sport treated their returning heroes as equal peers. Oddy writes that on his return, Sullivan pocketed the £50 winning bonus and headed back to work at an aircraft factory in Brough. It is this humility in the face of triumph that still resonates within the game today. Now the Super League players are full-time professionals, yet they still eat and drink in the same establishments as the supporters that cheer them on each week. At weekends, players volunteer at local food-banks and charity fundraisers. The accessibility of the players is unparalleled in modern sport. Yet this comes at a cost. The game has no superstars. As discussed in a previous piece, the game last created a household name in 1989, when ‘Chariots’ Offiah burst onto the scene. Before him, Ellery Hanley – another black League icon – dragged the sport kicking and screaming into the 1980s. Hanley was the most elusive of characters, refusing to speak to the press for most of his playing career. It fed into an aura on the field that has never been matched. If Eddie Hearn wants to create Super League’s Anthony Joshua, the fans will have to buy into a narrative that the players are ‘extra-ordinary’. For a sport brought up on the humble Sullivan’s of this world, it may prove to be Hearn’s biggest stumbling block.

League itself faces a very uncertain future. The next Clive Sullivan has no plans to make the trek North to play Rugby League, and since the turn of the century it has been one way traffic. Rugby Union has now developed its own ‘fifth column’, poaching stars such as George Ford and Owen Farrell away from League while they were still in school. Just a few months ago, Edinburgh enticed 18 year old Callum McLelland away from the Castleford Tigers. He had been the next bright hope of League. This trend is only going to continue while the sport remains the junior and financially poorer cousin. While Clive Sullivan and Billy Boston were blacklisted for crossing codes, it is now seen as a positive when a League player comes back to the code. In recent years, Henry Paul, Joel Tomkins, Sam Burgess, Iain Thornley and Josh Charnley have been welcomed back into their communities after earning a pretty penny ‘Down South’. This should be welcomed as sign of progress, both within our society and within our sport. But with the decline of entrenched class warfare, the two sports have lost much of their unique identity that once marked them out as different entities.

With that change is a time for reconciliation with the ‘traitors’ who embarked on a new life path all those years ago. In Wigan they adore Billy Boston so much they have erected a bronze statue of him.  In Hull, the main road between the Humber Bridge and the city centre has been renamed Clive Sullivan Way – uniting the two City rivals like no one else can. Taking inspiration from Oddy’s story, perhaps one day the people of Wales will do the same with their working class heroes who became legends within their own lifetime.

James Oddy is the author of In It Together and True Professional: The Clive Sullivan Story. Since graduating from the University of Bradford, he has written for Rugby League World, League Express, Forty-20, the Yorkshire Evening Post, Boxing Monthly, MMA Weekly, and the New Statesman. 



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