Farewell to the last hero and a lost age

Not that I ever heard Winstone complain, but you can't touch the peaks as he did without regrets about the speed with which you are returned to the ground

The funeral as a sporting event is a concept that would naturally appeal to the Welsh, which is why the laying to rest of our hero Howard Winstone in Merthyr yesterday did not appear awkwardly at the head of a list of fixtures already bulging with major events like Wales v Norway at the Millennium Stadium and a clutch of vital rugby games in the Heineken Cup.

The funeral as a sporting event is a concept that would naturally appeal to the Welsh, which is why the laying to rest of our hero Howard Winstone in Merthyr yesterday did not appear awkwardly at the head of a list of fixtures already bulging with major events like Wales v Norway at the Millennium Stadium and a clutch of vital rugby games in the Heineken Cup.

When I asked why they were holding Howard's funeral on aSaturday the answer was that they would get a bigger crowd. You make it sound like a football match, I protested, but I knew what they meant. More mourners would have been able to attend than on a weekday, and the police and their reinforcements would have a better chance of coping with the attending thousands and their cars in and around St Tydfil's Parish Church and lining the winding, uphill route to Cefn Coed cemetery.

As an official civic funeral ithad all the extra pomp of themayorality in full regalia and Welsh rugby teams have been chosen with less care than that given to the selection of the pall-bearers from the boxing fraternity, whose numbers were boosted by champions from all corners of Great Britain. Howard couldn't have had a bigger funeral if he'd been a gangster.

If Howard's departure wasn't enough to have to come to terms with, there were too many echoes eddying around the narrow streets for other sombre reflections to be avoided. We were bidding farewell to far more than a personal favourite who was worthy of all the worship he harvested during a long and admirable career as one of the best featherweights of all time.

If you want to contemplate the changing face of sport, or of life itself, there's probably no better place than Merthyr in which to do it, and no occasion more appropriate. Not the least poignant facet of yesterday's service is that it was probably the last time a congregation of such magnitude and reverence will gather in the town.

Not that we can dismiss the capacity of such a place to produce sports stars in the future, but it isn't likely, and certainly not on the scale of the past. Winstone was the last of Merthyr's mighty heroes.

Ironically, only one man of recent years could match Winstone's grip on the adoration of his countrymen and that was his manager and mentor, the late Eddie Thomas, who was lauded and lamented by the same congregation three years ago.

Thomas as a boxer was a throw-back to the legendary hungry fighters of the valleys, and as a manager was of a caring nature not too visible in the game these days. As the Olympic super-heavyweight gold medallist Audley Harrison considers a future as a professional it is to be regretted that a man of Thomas' calibre is not available to guide him. Not that Thomas was a proven expert at that level of poundage, the occupants of his prized stable being of more modest build, but we could place all our trust in Harrison's career taking a wise course.

But whoever manages Harrison will not find it difficult to reach heights of remuneration far above those Winstone ever managed. And he won't need many fights in which to achieve that. Two would be probably enough.

That's another reason why yesterday's service carried more reasons for sorrow than the obvious one. Yet again, we bury a sporting hero of the past whose life had been far from financially comfortable. The pattern is disturbinglyfamiliar - sporting nest-eggsfrittered away on failed attempts at earning a living in the licensed or catering trades - and seems mainly to blight boxers andfootballers.

The Sydney Olympics seem to have added considerably to the growing number of sports which can now sustain a full-time career and a carefree afterlife.

This is a gratifying development that no one should complain about, but it is such a cruel contrast with the fate of those we blithely refer to as legends. Perhaps the feeling of shame will decrease as they gradually fade out of our lives.

Not that I ever heard Winstone complain, but you can't touch the peaks as he did without some regrets about the speed with which you are returned to the ground. Since he never lost his humility, and wouldn't have known what airs and graces were, his permanent existence in the Merthyr of his birth would not have grated.

As for Merthyr itself, much of its own glory disappears with Winstone and Thomas. Even by Welsh standards, this is a singular place. A frontier town of the industrial revolution, it was always more of a football than a rugby establishment and could justifiably claim to have been one of the game's hotbeds.

In 1939, the year Winstone was born, no fewer than six Merthyr-born players were in the Welsh team, and most of them were miners. In the 1930s, being a Welsh international carried a little more clout than it does today. In that decade, Wales won the British championship three times and shared it once.

The side containing the six Merthyr men - the great Bryn Jones was one - beat an England team containing Stanley Matthews and Tommy Lawton 4-2 at Ninian Park in October, 1938.

This record representation was gained not by a town riding high in the football world. The very opposite. It was the town nobody wanted to play.

In 1930, Merthyr were voted out of the Football League because English clubs refused to support a team that had so few payingsupporters. Often, visiting clubs would leave Penydarren Park with less than £1 as their share of the "gate". Their crowds were low not through lack of interest. They would get thousands to watch them train, but only a few hundred could afford the ninepence to watch them play.

In those depression days, three-quarters of the town's workforce were unemployed. In 1932, by which time they were in the Southern League, the hard-pressed club announced that the unemployed would be let in for twopence. The attendance immediately leaped from 500 to 4,000.

It was a short-lived treat. Merthyr were forced to put their prices back up under threat of expulsion from the Southern League. The town that was producing more top players than any other of comparable size in Britain had to turn back supporters from the turnstiles. There's a moral there if only I could work it out.

Merthyr is not exactly bulging with high earners these days, but hardship does not appear to be as good a sporting fertiliser as once it was.

The other scene that Winstone leaves a lot poorer than when he found it is boxing. When he arrived via an Empire Games gold medal in 1958 it was a highly successful sport, especially in South Wales. I had the pleasure of observing part of his career at close hand when I was boxing correspondent of the South Wales Echo in the earlySixties. It was not a job that encouraged idleness. There was at least one major show a month and a cast of Runyanesque characters who bred stories like rabbits. Through it all, Winstone was a class apart. A stylist whose artistry won every championship available.

Boxing doesn't appeal to me as it did then, but I have the greatest admiration for boxers and the challenges they face. Unless you count duelling, boxing is the ultimate sporting test. And as the abolitionists' argument gets louder and stronger the only refuge wereactionaries have left is the memory of what great men the sport has produced.

Howard Winstone was a prince amongst them and the most natural and unaffected man I have met in sport. Now he's gone and taken so much with him.

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