THE York sporting community is in mourning following the death of one of York RL’s inaugural Hall of Fame inductees, Willie Hargreaves, at the age of 82.

Thought to be one of the greatest full-backs never to represent Great Britain, and certainly one of the best tacklers, Hargreaves played a record 449 times for York, with 444 starts, scoring 61 tries and 21 goals. It is a record club statistician Stuart Evans believes will never be beaten.

Originally from Stanley in West Yorkshire, Hargreaves was being tipped for a career in professional football after leaving the Army but instead turned to rugby league with local amateurs Stanley Rangers. He signed for York after a short trial and made his debut on November 3, 1952. His last game was on November 20, 1966.

In a tribute to the player in his benefit year with the club, a special programme titled The Willie Hargreaves Story was produced, in which it was written: “From one end of the rugby league to the other, he is known as a hard, rugged and, in a game where players can be excused a loss of temper or an occasional outburst, a remarkably fair player.

“His play has been as clear and clean cut as his tackling, an example to any young follower of the game, and yet it has not detracted from his efficiency.”

It added: “For ten years his motto has been ‘They shall not pass’.”

Of then rivals Hull, Hargreaves himself was quoted as saying: “They had big forwards who began by thinking they could barge me out of the way. But they soon found they couldn’t.”

He played in the 1957 Yorkshire Cup final loss to Huddersfield, while personal accolades included topping the Best Tackler in the League poll and being voted the Fairest and Most Loyal Player by the Yorkshire Federation of Supporters’ Clubs.

Among press praise at the time, Derek Marshall wrote in the Daily Mail: “It’s an old rugby league maxim that a good big ’un will always beat a good little ’un. But whenever I see Willie Hargreaves I begin to wonder. For Willie has been busy undermining the theory for years with a cheerful disregard for both the size and the reputation of his rivals.

“If his play has often been an inspiration to York, so has his loyalty.”

Hargreaves attended the club’s first-ever Hall of Fame dinner, along with his family, in March this year, where he was among the first seven players to be inducted.

Lifelong York fan Gary Hall, an organiser of the dinner, said: “I’m so pleased we had that night. He loved the occasion and I think his family enjoyed it too.

“He was my first rugby league hero. He was just an outstanding full-back. His tackling was superb. Not many players got past him.

“He would have been a Great Britain regular had he not been up against Frank Dyson of Huddersfield. In those days they picked two squads – a first squad and a shadow squad – and Willie was always in the shadow squad. It might be controversial but I think if he had played for a bigger club he would have been in the first squad.”

Evans added: “He was one of the best. He made the most appearances by any York player and I don’t think that record will ever be beaten.”

Hargreaves stayed in York after moving to the city, living in Heworth. He worked at York Waterworks and York Carriageworks.

He leaves behind a widow Shirley, children Graham, Stephanie and Julie, three grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. A date has yet to be set for his funeral.