Sport: Legacy of the miners

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ONCE on television, when some rather serious statements were being made about a perceived upsurge of violence in Welsh rugby, it was put to an old collier that things were getting. . .well, at least a bit much.

Having deciphered the interrogator's public school English, the collier gave himself time for reflection, adjusting cap and muffler, passing a gnarled hand over blue scars that spoke of perilous labours underground. Then he pronounced judgement. 'You see,' he wheezed, 'when the roof is liable to fall on your head every time you go down there, you don't worry too much about a boot in the face on a Saturday.'

As a philosophy for playing games some of you may find this disturbing, but out of recent events that threaten the shameful destruction of whole communities comes a reminder of how closely the mining industry has been linked to sport in this country.

This is evident from history, a host of distinguished figures whose inherited gifts provided a happier, healthier alternative to what was then the bleak prospect of a quickly debilitating working life at the coal face and wicked exploitation. They also invested British sport with natural resilience and toughness and a sense of the comradeship without which it would be impossible to survive underground.

The late Jock Stein, whose momentous achievements as manager of Celtic will forever be a rich segment in the lore of Scottish football, was never likely to concede a breath of the deep respect he held for miners from his days as a young man at work in the Ayrshire coalfield. 'There is no room for a cheat down there,' he would say.

There are many legends. It was said that if Wales were in need of an outside-half, Scotland a scheming inside-forward, England a wing-half or a fast bowler, it was only necessary to shout down a shaft. The great breeding grounds of British sport were marked by pit-head wheels.

Harold Larwood, a Nottinghamshire collier, became the grim spearhead of bodyline bowling, the tactic Douglas Jardine employed with such controversial effect against Australia's batsmen that it reached the highest levels of diplomatic procedure.

Even at the height of an awful depression in the Thirties that sent impoverished miners on hunger marches to London, the North- east of England remained famous as a rich source of football talent. From the West of Scotland came three of the great managers, Stein, Sir Matt Busby and Bill Shankly. One of the many legends that abound in Welsh boxing speaks of boys coming so angrily into an unfair world that their fists were already clenched.

More years ago than it is comfortable to remember I was introduced, as a young professional footballer, to the indelible influence of Wilf Copping, whose attitude when turning out for Arsenal, Leeds and England was shaped by the reality of harsh experiences in the Yorkshire coalfield. The most feared tackler of his time who was never once cautioned or sent off, Copping had a face that appeared to be all forehead apart from a nose that bore little resemblance to the one he started out with. I have never met a harder man.

Was it not the death struggles of the coal industry that eventually brought about the miserable speculation that Welsh rugby was in terminal decline? 'Once the players came from the people and with the dust and sweat of labour on their faces. Now they come carrying briefcases and portable telephones,' an old-timer said disgustedly.

Does it not also help to explain the dearth of talent in British football, the skills that came naturally to boys on ridged, bare pitches that had never known a blade of grass? Boys aspiring to a better life.

Set to work underground when not yet 14, my father did not see daylight for four months of the year until he was old enough to become a professional footballer. When his father rejected the first offer of pounds 3 per week, he cried all the way home. 'I didn't want to go back to that hole in the ground,' he said.

Those of us who were born and raised in mining communities are frequently given to excesses of indignant sentimentality, but the past week has reflected once again that there is more to the demise of an industry than most people imagine.

Watching the miners assemble behind their lodge banners in Hyde Park yesterday, you thought not only of great leaders from the past, Arthur Horner, Abe Moffat, Willie Gallacher. You thought also of men who brought great distinction to British sport. They, too, are part of an indestructible heritage.