Working class heroes

On the 25th anniversary of the start of the national miners’ strike, Jon Spurling looks at the industry’s long-established links with professional football that have since been swept away

Twenty-five years ago football and coal mining had in common the fact that Margaret Thatcher clearly didn’t see a long-term future for either within British society. In 1985, a Socialist Worker article drew parallels between the 1984 “Battle of Orgreave”, where around 10,000 pickets squared up to as many police, with the violence at Kenilworth Road during a Luton v Millwall FA Cup tie in 1985: “The images of violence and of raging anger (although those witless football fans have no cause at all) lead us to question whether the fabric of society is close to collapse in Thatcher’s Britain.” Two years after the strike ended, at a time when the minister for sport Colin Moynihan mooted the idea of a compulsory membership scheme to curb hooliganism, a letter to the Guardian expressed a fear that “a high handed government, with sheer contempt for the working classes, is, if one looks at recent events, attempting to utterly destroy two bastions of working class Britain.” To take the comparison to its conclusion, both industries had been irrevocably altered by the late 1980s. In the wake of the Taylor Report into the Hillsborough disaster, and Italia 90, football would become gentrified, and machines replaced workers as colliery closures continued apace. “The working class’s links with both football and mining were, directly or  indirectly, rightly or wrongly, severed by Thatcher’s government,” remarked former Labour MP Roy Hattersley in 1992.

The strike and its aftermath produced a raft of bizarre footnotes in English football history, with Brian Clough refuting a journalist’s claim that he was a “champagne Socialist”, and arguing that “all right-minded working class fans should contribute towards the miners’ fund”. Billy Bragg, poised to form Red Wedge, suggested that football grounds in northern England would be “hotbeds of support” for striking miners. In 1985, a rally for miners’ wives organised at Chesterfield’s Saltergate drew 2,000 people: “It was more bloody inspiring than watching the team,” joked one of the fans/campaigners. Chumbawamba later recorded Frickley, about the travails of the football club that grew out of the colliery of the same name – they finished runners-up in the Alliance Premier League (forerunner of the Conference) in 1985-86 before falling back into regional football. Later, ­Banner Theatre’s Here We Go, a ditty telling the story of the demise of the West Midlands mining industry, got a bizarre airing on the St Andrew’s PA system in the mid-1990s. Most startlingly of all, Alex Ferguson recalled in Managing My Life that, after he walked past some miners who were campaigning for strike funds with cans and buckets, Jock Stein ticked him off, and demanded that he give them a fiver, saying: “I’m surprised at you of all people forgetting these lads.” “It was an important message, and I have never forgotten it,” admitted Ferguson.

It was all a far cry from the 1930s when professional teams across the country were chock full of ex-miners who looked on football as a means of escaping a life of extreme danger underground. Even ­Arsenal, “the Bank of England club”, who appeared to symbolise opulence during the Great Depression, were shaped by a product of a Yorkshire pit village. Manager Herbert Chapman recalled that his illiterate parents, who wanted their son to avoid a life in the mines, “urged me to be a success in football to avoid spending my life in the dark. I never forgot how lucky I was to be doing something I loved, and it drove me onwards.”

Arsenal centre-forward Ted Drake later recalled that his Yorkshire-born team-mates Jack ­Lambert and Wilf Copping tended to look on football in the same way Richard Burton, the son of a Welsh miner, viewed acting: “Wilf in particular often said that he couldn’t believe how cushy a life London footballers’ had. He almost seemed ­embarrassed sometimes,” recalled Drake. In the close season, Copping occasionally put in a shift at the ­Middlecliffe mine near Barnsley to assuage his guilt.

Prior to the early 1950s, when pits across the country began to lay off miners, there were hundreds of examples of retired players returning to work underground. By the time the maximum wage was abolished, and players became more upwardly mobile, the days of the footballing miner were almost over. Jackie Charlton was one of the last well-known players to have begun his working life at a colliery; his father, John, did a Saturday shift on the day of the 1966 World Cup final. In 1984 both the Charlton brothers were signatories to a national newspaper advertisement in support of the NUM strike. By the 1970s the ties were rapidly loosening, although in the build up to the 1973 FA Cup final, a callow John Motson was dispatched to the Wearside colliery to gauge the opinions of Sunderland-supporting miners. “Can Sunderland beat Leeds?” asked Motty. “Aye,” came the terse response. “Why?” pushed the mildly flustered BBC reporter. “Cos we’re a better team,” harrumphed a soot-covered interviewee, who looked desperate to escape Motson’s clutches and get bathed. Sunderland’s Stadium of Light, built on the site of the Wearside colliery, has a statue of a Humphry Davy lamp outside to mark the site of one of the region’s former main industries.

Although the era when clubs such as Barnsley and Sunderland estimated that around 25 per cent of their crowds were drawn from mining communities is long gone, the lingering bitterness from the Eighties strikes manifests itself during Chesterfield v Mansfield clashes, currently mothballed due to the latter’s relegation to the Blue Square Premier. Home fans at Saltergate have long taunted the visitors with “scab” chants; a reminder that 25 years ago miners in Mansfield and across Nottinghamshire continued to work, unlike in the Derbyshire mines near Chesterfield, where workers responded to Arthur Scargill and the NUM’s plea to walk out. “I can’t remember a time when one of these games didn’t end without police sirens going off,” remarked a Mansfield fan last season. The wailing of sirens remains a poignant reminder of the “battles” at Orgreave and Kenilworth Road, and the radical changes to both industries that would soon follow.

From WSC 268 June 2009