MOVING tributes have been paid to ‘a legend’ who has died after a courageous two-year battle against motor neurone disease.

Friends and community leaders have hailed Phil Stephenson as an inspiration, who refused to let the increasingly-debilitating condition destroy his good humour.

Mr Stephenson, who was 47, played for Keighley Cougars rugby league team for 15 years and was inducted into the club’s Hall of Fame.

But the father-of-three’s popularity transcended the sport and he earned overwhelming respect for the way he’d faced up to his illness.

“I am simply in awe of the courage and achievements of Phil Stephenson,” said Keighley MP John Grogan, a member of the All Party Parliamentary Rugby League Group.

“He was the man who more than any other symbolised a golden era for Keighley Cougars but he also captained Yorkshire and founded Silsden Storm.

“Few men leave such a legacy of admiration, respect, gratitude and love behind them.”

Cougars chairman Mick O’Neill signed the then 18-year-old Mr Stephenson.

“I was football director at the time and had spent many an hour standing on a cold touchline watching him play for Clayton – I could see his potential,” said Mr O’Neill.

“His father and brother also played for Keighley – it was a real rugby family.

“Phil was more a friend rather than a player.

“He was a fantastic, jolly character, who liked to have a laugh.

“It broke my heart to see what motor neurone disease did to him.

“He was in a lot of pain and was unable to talk when I last saw him, but despite everything he kept smiling throughout.

“We’ll miss him massively.

“My heart goes out to his wife Karen and the family. It is a lovely family, and very close.”

Mr O’Neill said the club would continue staging fundraising activities in aid of the Motor Neurone Disease (MND) Association, which supports people with the condition and funds research.

“We’ll make sure we look after the family and as a club will discuss how we could provide a lasting tribute,” he added.

Also paying tribute this week was town mayor, Councillor Peter Corkindale, a former player with Keighley Albion amateur rugby league team.

“MND is an appalling thing,” he said.

“For someone to die so young is tragic.

“My thoughts are with his family at this time.”

MND is a group of diseases that attack the nerves in the brain and spinal cord which control movement, so muscles no longer work.

Following Mr Stephenson’s diagnosis, in June 2017, a group of family and friends got together – as TeamStevo8 – to raise funds for the association.

Activities have included a Yorkshire Three Peaks challenge, runs, race nights, raffles, rugby matches, cake sales and head shaves.

TeamStevo8 posted on its Just Giving page that more than £26,000 had been raised since its campaigning began.

Karen paid tribute to the “amazing” fundraising team and said that despite her husband’ s diagnosis, he had remained cheerful “spreading laughter to everyone” and still giving to others.

She described him as “one of life’s great people”.

“One day with this vital fundraising we will find a cure or treatment for this disease,” she added.