RUGBY league fans gave their hero a sustained round of applause today as former captain Phil Stephenson's coffin was carried past them at Cougar Park.

The funeral service for the Keighley Cougars legend was held in a special-erected marquee on the pitch with hundreds of well-wishers watching from the Danny Jones Stand.

Fans had joined family and friends in paying tribute to the celebrated player, who last month lost his two-year battle with motor neurone disease.

Their standing ovation for Stephenson's departure, to the tones of Queen's It's A Kind of Magic, followed an official minute's applause – in true rugby tradition.

Several former colleagues of Stephenson, including former teammate James Rushworth and head coach Gary Moorby, had spoken to the assembled mourners. The emotional service saw Mick O'Neill, chairman during some of the 15 years 'Stepho' spent with the Cougars, fighting back tears as he recalled his memories of times spent with the player.

Stephenson, 47, who lived in Cowling, played more than 340 times for the Cougars through the glory years of 'Cougarmania', until his retirement at the end of the 2006 season and his induction into the club’s Hall of Fame.

The funeral service began with the arrival of the hearse onto the pitch, and the carrying of Stephenson's coffin past the Danny Jones Stand and into the marquee.

Following the hymn All Things Bright and Beautiful, mourners heard how the young Phil Stephenson had loved all sports, especially rugby league, and his adventurous spirit had led to many visits to the nearby hospital casualty department.

Growing up in Clayton, Bradford, his father John played for the Cougars while he joined the local side, the Clayton Amateur Rugby League Club.

He and his brother Andy were spotted there in 1990 by Cougars bosses and signed to the Keighley team. Mick O'Neill told how he and a colleague had noticed Stephenson's talent during a cold and snowy rugby match in Queensbury.

Mr O'Neill said: "What a man. We thought, this is a player we need. We didn't just get Phil, we got his brother Andy, and we signed them up in an old wooden hut

 "We knew we'd got two stars. We had a marvellous time – we took rugby league by storm. I reckon it was the greatest time that Keighley has ever seen in the 90s when we stormed the leagues."

Mr O'Neill related several anecdotes about his late friend, including the time they happily drank into the early hours at the Turkey Inn, Goose Eye, following Mr O'Neill's return from Australia.

James Rushworth, another former Cougars player and best man at Stephenson's wedding to Karen, spoke of his friend's bravery after being diagnosed with motor neurone disease, and praised Stephenson and Karen for their strength and unity over the past two years.

Mr Rushworth read a highly personal poem, My Bravest Friend, that he had tearfully written in recent weeks after discovering that Stephenson had taken a turn for the worse.

Gary Moorby, head coach during the latter years of Stephenson's career, told how in 2003 the Cougars reached the Grand Final against Sheffield Eagles, who had beaten the Keighley side 60-nil the previous year and already beaten them three times in the 2003 season.

The deciding moment came in the Grand Final when Keighley were winning 13-11. Mr Moorby said: "We regained possession, and Phil bust through the Sheffield defence line and ran about 50 metres. This inspired us to go on and win the match."

Mr Moorby said Stephenson had faced motor neurone disease the same way he had faced such matches, by tackling it head-on.

He added: "Phil epitomised all that is required for a good rugby player – no backward steps and a big heart. He was very popular amongst the squad and was respected by his peers and opponents."

Mr Moorby praised Stephenson's former teammates in Clayton for the help they gave to their old friend as he fought motor neurone disease.

Following a poem chosen by Stephenson's children Jamie, Laura and Jack, Karen rose to give her own personal tribute to her partner of 15 years.

She said: "I've heard him described as a legend, a warrior and a fighter. That's true, but what I'll remember is his amazing ability to spread so much joy to everybody.

"He loved life, he loved to have fun and to have a laugh. He had time for everybody. He loved the simple things, and he loved his family. He was a big friendly giant."

Following the service at Cougar Park, family and close friends departed for a second service and committal. Donations at the funeral service will be given to the Motor Neurone Disease Association.