Profile: Mastery and mystery: Ian Ridley assesses a peerless performer who protects his privacy behind a prickly persona: Ellery Hanley
Sunday 24 April 1994
At 33 the day after he captained Leeds to a semi-final win over St Helens with a virtuoso, two-try and two-fingered-to-his- critics display last month, Hanley is no longer the Mr Indestructible of his Eighties halcyon days with Wigan when he led the British game from a beer-bellied amusement to chiselled conqueror of the athletic Australians, an achievement which brought him a rare accolade for the game, an OBE.
But pride burns fiercely on to accompany a still considerable talent and one more meeting against his former club on the biggest stage, for this biggest of players, should motivate that miscreant right leg to obey and heal.
To embark on an assessment of Hanley, man, player and legend, is to be offered three varyingly helpful comments from those who have known him: 'Be careful', 'Good luck' and 'You're brave'. It is to encounter polite refusals to talk and unreturned phone calls. A request for an interview was declined on his behalf by his business manager, who also felt unable to offer any insight, and an enquiry to the home of the former Wigan coach John Monie, in Australia, met with a similar response.
Hanley's distaste for journalists is well known and has sometimes driven the League's image-
conscious officials to distraction. Even the programme editor at Wigan once had trouble in getting him to fill in a routine questionnaire. One he did complete, in 1985, said under 'likes': 'Genuine people. Proving people wrong, especially journalists. I like it when people put me down and I am able to make them eat their words.'
It stems from references to his youth and brushes with the law; from publicity about a paternity suit five years ago when tabloid photographers besieged his house; from reporting of such incidents as accepting a television commentator's contract in Australia - he was soon released as viewers were unable to understand his Yorkshire accent - when injured on tour with Great Britain and, on another occasion, allegedly leaving the British team hotel without permission.
All have contributed to a picture of a dark, brooding persona; certainly to a misunderstood figure. Yet those within the game who will talk about him refer, beyond an extraordinary ability on the field, to a charm, generosity and sense of fun off it.
'He is an incredible human being,' says Maurice Lindsay, the former Wigan chairman, now the league's chief executive. 'It is a shame that nobody can really get close to him. He has a tremendous thirst for knowledge and will talk to any expert in any walk of life to try and learn. He has a natural charisma that appeals to children, old people and to the ladies.'
'He's just a special sort of individual,' Doug Laughton, the Leeds coach, says. 'He's a little scamp, always up to things.' Indeed to stand opposite him momentarily in a corridor at Headingley last week was to perceive a brightness and openness in his eyes at odds with some accounts, his menacing current shaved-head appearance notwithstanding.
Ellery Hanley was born in Leeds of immigrant parents from St Kitts who have since returned to the Caribbean. In his adolescence, football was his game, Pele, Cruyff and Keegan his heroes. 'They were my men,' he once said. 'I could not have cared less about rugby league. But at school if it wasn't one game then it had to be another and if you couldn't get into the soccer team the alternative to playing rugby was a slipper across the backside.'
He signed professional for Bradford, for pounds 2,000, from the amateur club Corpus Christi, in 1978 and the Northern hooker Brian Noble, who signed the same night, recalled: 'Growing up with him at the club soon made me realise the extent of his determination. I remember Ellery saying he would make more out of rugby league than anyone but there was more to it than just money. He had tremendous drive and nobody has worked harder to improve.'
After an astonishing season in 1984-85 when he scored 55 tries - the first player since Billy Boston for Wigan in 1962 to break the half-century - Wigan paid pounds 85,000 for him and converted him from centre or stand-off to loose forward. In the next six years, a litany of trophies was sung: three Championships, four Challenge Cups, four Regal Trophies, one Premiership and a World Club Challenge victory.
Maurice Lindsay's most telling memory is of a match at Bradford in 1990, the third of four matches in six days as Wigan chased another Championship. 'We were losing 18-2 at half-time and everyone was down, even John Monie I think. Ellery was in great pain with an injury but just carried the side on his back to an 18-all draw.'
When Hanley turned 30, even Wigan, it seemed, doubted how much longer he could perform with such intensity. He wanted a three-year contract while the club were offering one of two years. 'I crossed swords with him many times,' Lindsay says, 'mainly when it came to contracts. He is a very competitive human being and was no different when it came to business and negotiating contracts. Once he had signed, though, there were no grudges; he gave you everything.'
Leeds were willing to pay a pounds 250,000 fee and a salary of pounds 125,000 for each of three years. It was an unhappy first year, however, during which his jaw was broken in a match at Hull, an incident which has led to his instigating recently, two and a half years on, legal action against the Hull player Andy Dannatt.
Last season was more the Hanley of folklore, when he played 31 games. This year in girding the 'Loiners', it has been 27, with 25 tries, the brace against St Helens the most crucial, as both times he breathtakingly broke free to score after Leeds had been under pressure for much of the game.
The chain linking it all has been a remarkable international career, which before this season's announcement of retirement, brought him 36 caps and 20 tries. Great Britain won 13 of 19 Tests under his inspirational captaincy, notably two over Australia, in Sydney in 1988 and at Wembley, 1990, when he was man of the match.
'Knowing about him and doing something about him are different things,' said Steve Roach, the Australian forward who played with him at the time for Balmain - Hanley also was reputed to have earned up to pounds 6,000 a game for Western Suburbs in Sydney.
'He is without doubt the best player in the world. Not the best footballer I've ever come across but balance and timing make him exceptional . . . Have you noticed the way he hands people off? Most players do that with their arm outstretched and you can knock it down and get at them. Not Ellery. He waits until the very last moment and jabs you off. I've never seen anybody else do that.'
Respect for the player's player is absolute among colleagues, even if affection may not always have been. It is not of course a requirement in team dynamics to like team-mates, only to acknowledge each other's prowess. Lindsay speaks of the silenced awe of young players in his presence.
Garry Schofield, his Leeds and Great Britain colleague who was, in the language of sport, privately disappointed to lose the captaincy when Hanley arrived at Headingley, says: 'Backing up, defence, stamina, Ellery Hanley can do it all. In my opinion he retired from international football too early; he still has plenty to offer.'
And the character of the teetotal, non-smoking fitness fanatic who is said to enjoy squash and badminton? 'I'm not going to talk about that. I know Ellery Hanley as a rugby league player.'
Hanley himself has said: 'I'm cold and calculating about rugby league. It's my whole life really. I'm always thinking about it, or watching other games or studying videos, learning things, picking up points . . . I have a good concentration level. People think that you just go to the ground, put your boots on and do something spectacular. That doesn't happen. I might spend hours preparing for the opposition, thinking about my role.'
At Leeds that is player-coach, and he took over the team for a match at Salford when Doug Laughton had flu. 'He knows the game inside out,' Laughton says. 'He will definitely make a coach.' The problem will be, he acknowledges, in Hanley's refusal hitherto to deal with the media, particularly the local outlets who are the conduit of the coach's thinking to fans eager to hear their club's viewpoint. Such considerations are likely to figure in Hanley's negotiations over a new contract to follow the one about to expire.
For now, it ultimately matters little that Hanley is withdrawn publicly and it may even have enhanced his legend. Thankfully, it is still less how you speak about the game than how you play it. Hanley may not talk up at Wembley, but expect him to play up.
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