Rugby League: A rich seam of pride and defiance: The pit closures provided a barely hidden agenda for many at Wembley yesterday. Guy Hodgson joined a party from Wakefield

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The Independent Online
THE blood-red banners of the collieries may have been swapped for Union Jacks, but Britain's most emotive industry could hardly have announced its presence more vividly at Wembley yesterday if a pithead closure ceremony had taken place on the pitch. The players were accompanied on to the field by 'Jerusalem', dark satanic mills and all, smoke billowing out of the tunnel in time to the procession. A gas-powered effect, presumably.

Twenty-five coal miners handed out leaflets on Wembley Way, Norman Willis of the TUC addressed passing spectators, and Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary, was vigorously booed as he was presented to the British and Australian teams. The second invasion of the capital by the North in four days had the pit closure programme as its hidden agenda yesterday as much as it had been the overt one last Wednesday. The fact that British Coal sponsor Great Britain merely underlined the subject that was inevitably on everyone's mind.

Many came to Wembley dressed in the red, white and blue shirts of the national side, and most had mutilated the British Coal logo with TUC stickers. The more inventive had used paper and tape to turn the slogan into 'Coal Not Dole' messages. On Wednesday miners and their families had come to London armed with anger and a cry of help for their communities. Yesterday, they insisted, was happier, but the seriousness of the situation back home could not be entirely forgotten. 'How can it be? It's the first thing people talk about when they meet,' a 25-year-old man, who had once turned down a job in a nearby colliery, said.

As dawn broke, the 200 who had met in the rain to board four coaches at the back of Wakefield Bus Station were all too aware that they were following where the miners had recently trod. Like the Great Britain team, Wakefield Trinity, the local rugby league club, are backed by British Coal, a deal which has caused much bitterness in a community that was once the centre of Yorkshire mining but now plays only a peripheral part. Locals insist the club should return the sponsorship, but in the current climate every penny is precious and new backers scarce.

'The town greeted the news of the pit closures with disbelief,' one woman, a teacher, said. 'It doesn't make economic sense to put men on the dole when coal is cheaper than gas.' She would have been marching in Pontefract to protest against the closures if she had not booked her trip to London many weeks ago. A British Gas employee in front of her added: 'People think it's our fault but we are totally behind the miners. If we burn gas to produce electricity our reserves will run out quicker. Which means more jobs gone.'

The coach yesterday was a microcosm of what has happened to Wakefield's economy in the last 60 years. In 1927 there were 110 coal mines within 10 miles of the town. Now there are only two. The chief employer makes colliery machinery, which will be under threat if the halving of the coal industry goes ahead. It has not escaped the locals either that it is wholly appropriate that the Yorkshire Mining Museum is at the nearby Caphouse Colliery, a working mine until six years ago.

There were two ex-miners among the 50 on the coach, dozens who had relatives who used to go underground, but only two who still worked at the pitface. Almost inevitably they did not work in Wakefield pits. They had travelled from Selby, a field 35 miles away that will survive the proposed national 30,000 redundancies virtually intact.

The two pitmen had not joined the protest rally in the capital on Wednesday because they were working, but around 400 of their colleagues had travelled to voice their discontent. 'There's a terrible anger,' one said. 'In places like Markham there is nothing but the pit. Where will youngsters get jobs when that goes?'

Such questions faded into the background as the Trinity contingent took their places near the players' tunnel at Wembley. 'If we can stop (Allan) Langer we've a chance,' one of the miners had said. 'They're a brilliant team but if they haven't got the ball they can't do much can they?' Almost everyone on the coach had said Britain could win, but the consensus was that Australia would prevail seven times in any 10 meetings.

The match was not outstanding, but the sense of theatre was. Every thumping home tackle was greeted with an 'Ooomph' of approval, each piece of suspected skulduggery from the visitors with a chant of 'Cheat, Cheat'. The finale was breathlessly exciting, the British bearing down on the Australian line as they defended their 10-6 lead. A great hiss of deflation and disappointment greeted the final hooter.

A great many British supporters melted away, but the area around the tunnel held its ranks to welcome the British players back from a weary lap of honour. Then the World Cup was presented to the winners by Mr Hurd, the mention of whom again brought another round of booing.

It was a last gesture of defiance before the journey home. And it had nothing to do with rugby league.