WATCHING him regale stories with enthralled fellow rugby league legends half his age, it is easy to see Johnny Whiteley’s mind is still as sharp as a tack.
It is one of the reasons that, even at 88, Super League are keen to use his brains and vast knowledge of the sport as part of the revamped judging process for the prestigious Steve Prescott Man of Steel award.
Whiteley, who coached the last Great Britain side to win the Ashes in Australia in 1970 and played more than 400 games for his home town Hull, was announced as one of 21 panel members on Monday.
He will help adjudicate who the competition’s best players are each week – three points for his chosen man of the match at an allocated game, two for the runner-up and one for the third-ranked – to decide the eventual winner at the end of 2019.
“It’s a real honour and a pleasure to be asked to do this,” said Whiteley, who was enrolled into rugby league’s Hall of Fame in November.
“I still go to almost every Hull FC and Hull KR match, home and away, and I watch and study the game as I did as a coach.
“I get my enjoyment from that side of it so maybe it’s a bit easier for me than most to pick a 1-2-3; being a county coach for so many years, Great Britain coach and everything else, it means I know what I’m looking at and looking for. That part of it does come quite easily for me and I’m looking forward to doing it when I get the chance.
“Nearly every game I go to someone asks me, ‘Will you pick the man of the match?’.”
He led Hull to Championship glory in 1956 and again two years later before playing in Great Britain’s 1960 World Cup success.
Whiteley also coached Hull KR and is held in great esteem on both sides of the river in the city.
When you get to my age, you look back and realise it all has to come to an abrupt end at some point. Yet here I go forward another step, like this.Johnny Whiteley
He is one of five Hall of Famers on the inaugural panel; Ellery Hanley, who is chair and the only three-time winner of the Man of Steel, and Garry Schofield were with him at Monday’s launch event.
Malcolm Reilly, who played under Whiteley for his country, and Martin Offiah are the others.
“I was so proud when I heard I’d be involved,” said Whiteley.
“When you get to my age you look back and realise it all has to come to an abrupt end at some point. Yet here I go forward another step like this.
“I appreciate that and being with all the lads. It makes me feel young again.”
While Whiteley is the eldest of the panel, recently retired former Huddersfield Giants and England prop Eorl Crabtree is the youngest at 36.
Whiteley, who had long retired before Man of Steel’s inception in 1977, said: “In my day it was the Player of the Year. I won that in 1958.
“In those days the supporters’ club picked the first, second and third – much the same principle as this – and I was fortunate to win it back then.
“I’ve still to get the big silver salvo inscribed. There were some great players around; Lewis Jones was there, Eric Ashton, Alex Murphy had come around.
“There was an abundance of talent with people like Brian McTigue, too, who was a wonderful prop forward.”
On the current game, he added: “There’s plenty of great talent in Super League now.
“I watched Hull Kingston Rovers at Warrington on Saturday and was impressed by some of Warrington’s players.
“But I was quite surprised at how Hull Kingston Rovers played against them and Danny (McGuire) has still got a little bit of life left in him, hasn’t he?
“He’s so well respected and has found a niche in Hull. I always like to see players like that who keep pushing up and helping the new lads.
“It’s very, very interesting and I’m sure some of the big overseas signings will come to the fore soon once they’ve blended in.
“James Roby, of course, is the early leader, but it’s open to everyone and who knows what will happen as this year goes on?”
True. But what we do know is with greats like Whiteley at the helm the award is in safe hands.