'Wherever I went, whatever work I did, I'd never be alongside better men. It was a place where phoneys and cheats couldn't survive'

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An old collier was once asked on television for his views about the violence then evident in Welsh rugby. "When there is always a chance that the roof will come in on your head, you don't worry about a boot in the face on Saturday," he replied.

A legend in the North-east of England is that any position in a football team could be filled by shouting down a pit shaft. From the coalfields of Lanarkshire and south Ayrshire came three of the greatest managers football has known: Matt Busby, Bill Shankly and Jock Stein. Shankly's small village of Glenbuck alone sent out 30 professionals.

Numerous rugby and football internationals and such notable fighters as Jimmy Wilde, Tommy Farr, Eddie Thomas and Howard Winstone were bred in the Welsh mining valleys. The most feared of England's fast bowlers, Harold Larwood, was a Nottinghamshire collier. Rugby league recruited many of its stars from the coalfields of Yorkshire.

Doubts about the long-term future of Britain's mining industry recalls its importance in British sporting history. From the blackness of a working life underground, the perils many first endured at only 14 years old, came many heroes of the sports fields.

In many cases, one of the most significant things about their influence was understandable social awareness. "The first thing you must do is join the players' union," my father said when I left home at 17 to follow him into football. At the same age he was offered a professional contract of pounds 3 per week by Merthyr Town, who were then in the old Third Division. "When Merthyr refused to pay the extra 10 shillings [they relented a few hours later] your grandfather thought I was worth, I cried all the way home," he said.

"Not because I wasn't going to get a living from football but because it meant going back down that black hole, going to work in winter when it was dark and dark when I came up again." No wonder that he was a committed socialist and, until the horrors of Stalinism were revealed, a member of the Communist Party.

On the face of it, you might think that people of my generation and beyond dwell too much on the past, but it was from mining communities that British sport drew much of its impetus. If we look back only briefly on those times, men who had escaped from the harshest of working environments were everywhere in football, some nimble, some hard, all seeing things in the alternative light of deprivation.

Nobody in my life has conveyed a more distinct impression of genuine toughness than Wilf Copping, who played in Arsenal's great team in the 1930s and made 20 appearances for England. A Yorkshireman, his craggy, blue-scarred face could have been cut from the coalface he worked when little more than a boy. Losing blood meant nothing, cowardice appalled him.

The story goes that Copping took on Italy single-handed in an infamous encounter at Highbury in 1934 that saw three England players injured seriously after only 20 minutes. If the work of Copping was hard but fair, he quickly restored the balance.

The broad philosophy that established Stein as perhaps the leading manager in British football history was shaped underground and by the working-class values embedded in his nature.

Stein, who worked in the pits for 11 years from the age of 16, said: "I knew that wherever I went, whatever work I did, I'd never be alongside better men. It was a place where phoneys and cheats couldn't survive for long. Down there for eight hours, you're away from God's fresh air and sunshine and there's nothing that can compensate for that. I think everybody should go down the pit at least once to learn what darkness is."

If those of us whose roots are in old mining communities must guard against an overkill of sentimentality, we are entitled to argue that no environment has given more to British sport. If the pit-head wheels have almost stopped turning, the legacy lives on.

The tone of sport in the 1990s is set by the elite corps, that is to say by the richest gamesmen - the stars who have sweated their way up to prodigious salaries, are admiringly interviewed and receive on television and in popular newspapers the same adoring space as royals and rock stars.

The impulse to take up a game is now very often the impulse to earn a fortune. In that context, the contribution made by men who saw sport as a means of escaping from darkness ought not to be forgotten.