BBC Radio Humberside airs tribute to rugby league legend Clive Sullivan by widow and Hull playwright

Rugby league legend Clive Sullivan remains a hero of Hull. Today his widow Rosalyn narrates a piece for radio co-written with playwright Dave Windass. John Blow reports.

Clive Sullivan on the ball with Billy Boston and Colin Dixon in 1968.
Clive Sullivan on the ball with Billy Boston and Colin Dixon in 1968.

Hull playwright Dave Windass met the city’s late rugby league hero Clive Sullivan just once.

“Only to say hello to,” he says. “You used to be able to get on the pitch at the end of a rugby game and I said hello to him once, actually... But other than that just admiring him from the touchline.”

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Admiration wasn’t always the word, though. Windass is a Hull FC fan, and Sullivan’s switching back and forth between that team and the rival Hull Kingston Rovers during his career in the 1970s and 80s is well-documented.

Rosalyn Sullivan and Dave Windass enjoying rehearsals for Sully in 2006. PictureL Terry Carrot.

“I’m a black and white,” says Windass, 55, “so a Hull FC fan. I was kind of a regular at the Boulevard from the 70s, well into the 80s, so Sully was playing for Rovers then. So he was the enemy.”

He adds: “His returns were kind of welcomed often with a rather strange sense of humour. As you can imagine in the 70s it was a bit rough and ready in the Threepenny stand in terms of what was hurled his way. But yeah, it was always a kind of joy to see him on the pitch, and obviously a great day in 1980 when both teams played at Wembley, when Sully got the Challenge Cup medal. Although, obviously bittersweet as an FC fan to watch FC lose...”

Sullivan’s widow Rosalyn enjoys all of this, laughing along in the background of the Zoom call the pair have with The Yorkshire Post to coincide with the broadcast of Sidelines, a short radio performance she and Windass have developed, commissioned by the Humber Mouth literature festival.

The Welshman became universally loved in Hull, so much so that after his death in 1985 at the age of 42, following cancer, the road into the city was renamed Clive Sullivan Way and its two rival teams annually compete for a memorial trophy in his name.

Such is his reputation now that, incidentally, Google marked what would have been his 78th birthday with one of its trademark homepage “doodles” on April 9.

Sidelines, which will air on David Burns’s BBC Radio Humberside show today, rounds off a trio of works by Windass related to rugby.

His first was Kicked Into Touch, a play at the Hull Truck Theatre, which in the writer’s words became an “unexpected hit” with league fans in 2005. Then a biographical play about Sullivan – Sully – was made in 2006 with Rosalyn’s input. Windass says: “So Humber Mouth put out this call for ideas for these commissions, and I just thought it would be a good opportunity to do a third piece about rugby league and also get back in touch with Ros, with a view to telling Clive’s story from her perspective really, because obviously behind every kind of great success story there’s a support network, and she was it in this case.”

Sullivan played for Hull FC between 1961 to 1974 firstly and Hull Kingston Rovers between 1974 to 1980, although he was later called up by the former team again.

He played on the left wing in KR’s 10-5 victory over FC in the Challenge Cup Final at Wembley Stadium in May 1980. Two years later, he won the same title with FC in a 18-9 replay victory against Widnes at Elland Road. Sullivan also played internationally for Wales and Great Britain. In 1972 he became the first black captain of a British national team and led the latter squad to the Rugby League World Cup title –and scoring a wonder try, too.

He did all this while working a succession of jobs after coming out the Army, including being an employee for British Aerospace, running a pub, factory roles, a building society stint and, lastly, at the couple’s club, Sully’s.

When writing the radio piece, Windass imagined Sullivan in the kitchen at home, anxious before setting off to Wembley in 1980. After speaking to Rosalyn, it turned out that the fantasy was close to the truth, and the piece includes her reflections and anecdotes from the time.

Ros, 74, narrates the 10-minute play. “It was a bit of a shock, when I met Clive, I realised that he was quite well known in Hull,” she says. “I married into that, knowing that, but it becomes greater the more successful he becomes. You live it, don’t you, it’s just an everyday thing. You often feel that you don’t get the whole of that person because when you’re out publicly, you’re constantly... Someone wants to speak and you’re sharing them all the time. But there’s the public Clive and then there’s the private Clive, where you often have to pick them up. You have to be patient when they’re injured and they’re not very sociable or happy. There’s so many different facets.

“Not only that, I think today they’re full-time professionals, whereas when Clive played it was a part-time thing so you have the full-time job as well So, time... We didn’t get a lot of time together and of course the matches were on the weekend. And I remember my daughter saying, ‘I’ll never marry a rugby player, ‘cause you never see them’. So you can understand. You got to work at half past seven in the morning and you’re home for five, have a meal, then you’re rushing out to train and by the time he comes home the children are in bed. People probably say ‘Oh it must be wonderful’, but when they come home with a bag full of sweaty, dirty rugby gear to wash for the next training session, it’s not that romantic.”

The couple also had two children together, Anthony – who also became a rugby player – and Lisa.

Windass says: “Obviously not everybody’s the partner of an international sportsman and a great of a sport but I think the universal side of it is that it does speak volumes to couples supporting each other, family life, playing that supporting role... In whatever role people are carrying out in life. There is something very important but very universal in terms of how that works [and] in terms of a successful relationship that Ros and Clive obviously had. We talk about it all the time, don’t we, but that work-life balance, how do you get that right? How do you make sure there’s still a lot of love in the room?”

He adds that “without that strong woman there for him, he wouldn’t have achieved as much, he wouldn’t have been able to focus and concentrate on what he was capable of doing.”

Rosalyn says that it is “of course” a source of regret that she was unable to spend more time with Sullivan.

“Now I’ve got five grandchildren and a great-granddaughter, but I’ve been very fortunate. I’ve had experiences that a lot of women haven’t had and Clive did live life to the full and he did achieve a great deal in that short time.

“I mean you always miss them and, you know, your children, hitting milestones in their life and, of course, Anthony went on to play and was very successful – he missed all that.

“Just having my great-granddaughter in July, there’s always that sense, ‘He should have seen all this’ but, as I say, we’ve had compensations. I’ve had some wonderful times both at Hull and Rovers. We were on This Is Your Life, he got an MBE. So I’ve had experiences many other people haven’t had, and you’ve got to be grateful for what you’ve had.”

Week of commissions

Sidelines is just one of four radio performances on BBC Radio Humberside this week commissioned by the Humber Mouth festival.

Jodie Russian-Red’s story about the shift to remote employment, Working from Home, aired on Monday.

Cassandra Parkin’s series of poems “imagining a future Hull that has been returned to water and inhabited by a strange second-skin creature”, called Tales from the Underwater City, will be broadcast on tomorrow’s evening show.

And Matt Nicholson’s poems from The Seven Stages of Love can be heard on Sunday afternoon during Lucy Clark’s show.

Listeners can hear works that have already aired using the BBC Sounds app.