A home-grown hero of the bold school

Suddenly, we are filled to our puffed-up chests with new heroes. Old foes are being stylishly trounced and we have found the confidence to stare menacingly at targets long avoided. The mocking visions of our frustrating vigil over those sporting arenas most precious to us may yet take some time to disperse but we are freshly delivered of several players of an inspirational sheen.

Cancel the big brick order for the new sports academy. Unhand those grass roots for fear of disturbing a natural growth. Something powerful is afoot and it is difficult to explain its origin. No doubt, credit will be claimed by those sweeping the country with the new broom and, who knows, one or two bristles might have poked some action into a few sporting orifices.

What if it carries on like this throughout the summer? Other countries will beat a path to our door to discover the secret. It is easy, we can say; just create a deep slough of despond and gather around it moaning and groaning and beating your breasts or, preferably, the breasts of those in charge. And, if you wait long enough, things will get better. If there's anything the gods of sport hate more than a bunch of whingers it is a vacuum.

But the question of whether or not we were witnessing a real dawn last week was left unattended while some of us mourned a hero whose lasting qualities are in no doubt. Several hundred strong, we gathered in Merthyr Tydfil's New Tabernacle Chapel on Friday to bid farewell to Eddie Thomas. Many more lined the route to the crematorium and even before the sedate cortege reached its destination plans were progressing to act on Mr Protheroe's pulpit plea for a statue of Eddie to be placed in the town centre.

It was a worthy send-off for a man who so accurately represented that fading breed of true heroes of the people. The paradox of the vast sporting orgy available to all today on television is that no generation has ever seen as much of their idols or been further apart from them. Every twist and turn of their careers can be studied and enjoyed and we are rarely denied information about their everyday lives however private they would prefer to keep them.

But the only intimacy in the relationship is a far distant one. Your modern superstar may be the people's favourite but he is not likely to be among them for long. No sooner does he or she display super- stardom potential than they are whisked away from their natural environment to inhabit a different world of big houses and high walls.

Was there ever a hero as doggedly local as Eddie Thomas? He did, however, have the advantage of belonging to Merthyr Tydfil which is an entire planet to itself. Merthyr was the industrial heart, the uncrowned capital, in effect, of Wales in the mid-19th century when Cardiff was not much more than a village.

To Eddie, Merthyr was Camelot, Eldorado and Shangri-la all rolled into one. He was its most persistent publicist. According to him, there was nothing in this world that hadn't begun or ended in that unique town. My favourite item of evidence produced by him in support of this claim was that the first man dispatched by the official hangman, Albert Pierrepoint, was a Merthyr murderer.

His right to be regarded as a sporting giant beyond the borders of Merthyr, of Wales and, indeed, throughout the world is based on the fact that he took part in every facet of the sport: boxing, training, managing, promoting and administrating. He was also renowned as the best cuts-man in the game. This set him apart from the vast majority of boxing's manipulators most of whom have been able to resist the temptation to climb into a ring.

There was never any doubt that Eddie would be on the active side of the ropes at the first opportunity. His grandfather, who died in a mining accident, was a bare-knuckle fighter and his father, who lost a hand in the same pit, also dabbled in the noble art in ignoble circumstances.

He followed them into the mines at the age of 14 but progressed through the amateur boxing ranks, winning the ABA lightweight title in 1946, before turning professional at 21. He was a brilliant welterweight and in 1951 held the British, British Empire and European titles. He should then have fought Sugar Ray Robinson for the world title but Robinson moved up a weight and Thomas's career lost its impetus.

In 1953 he ploughed his boxing earnings into an open-cast mine and took to training and managing. His first charge was Howard Winstone, the brilliant featherweight whom he guided to the world title. He then became the first Briton to manager two world title-holders when he controlled Ken Buchanan's path to becoming world lightweight champion. He narrowly failed to reach the peak with Colin Jones and Eddie Avoth but his record is unmatchable.

His capacity for heroism was not confined to boxing. In 1966 he was one of the first to the scene of the Aberfan disaster and helped organised the rescue attempts. He personally brought out the bodies of 50 children. It took him eight years to outlive the nightmares. His attempts to make a living running small mines were fraught. "Every penny I made in boxing I lost on that mountain," he said.

His businesses generally were not successful. Having been made a freeman of the town in 1992, he became mayor of Merthyr in 1994. He had to resign four months later when he was declared bankrupt. The bankruptcy order was soon overturned but he wasn't reinstated.

The repercussions of that time have survived him and his widow, Kay, is confident of putting the record straight fairly quickly. As a local boxing correspondent in the early Sixties, I was in constant touch with Eddie as he steered Winstone's career so successfully. I have never met a man so thoroughly versed in his sport or as honest and genuine in his approach to it. To all apprentice heroes recently indentured, I can offer no better example of what a real hero looks like.

DURING Thursday morning's carnage in the First Test, Steve Waugh snicked one to the wicketkeeper but neglected to make his way towards the exit. Ian Chappell, guesting on the BBC TV commentary team offered us the opinion: "If you're waiting for Steve Waugh to walk you might as well wait for Hell to thaw out."

Thus did he confirm that the Australian's conception of that place is different to ours. Fierce heat doesn't frighten them but a frozen Hell would lead to the purgatory of a non-barbecue situation.

Mind you, Hades in any form might be looking a distinct improvement on Edgbaston.

I SEE our friends the marketing men have been bouncing a few ideas around again. The brassiere builders Berlei have agreed to sponsor women's athletics in England this summer to promote their new bra for runners. The Berlei Shock Absorber Women's League will thus make its debut shortly and I trust it won't be subject to any schoolboy sniggers.

It is difficult, however, even for the more mature to stifle a smile. We must now wait for the men to announce a similar sponsorship. My money's on the Lycra Gasp Provoker Men's League.

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