Wednesday, 20 February 2013

From Darkness to Light

Stein spotted it right away. ‘Look at that cheeky bastard Herrera taking the bench we were assigned.’ The burly ex Miner walked purposefully over to the bench on which the wily Argentinian manager of Inter Milan had sat with his coaching staff and substitutes. He looked up as Stein approached, gauging the big Scot’s reaction to his piece of gamesmanship. ‘Fucking move,’ Stein spat in a tone unmistakable in any language. The little Argentinian shrugged his shoulders as if to say ‘I don’t understand.’ Stein stepped menacingly forward and Herrera stood and nodded his coaching staff in the direction of the other bench. Stein sat with an air of satisfaction, ‘Fuckin chancer.’ If he dominated Herrera then his players would dominate Inter. He gazed around the oddly designed stadium, noticed the preponderance of green everywhere, ‘Jesus Sean, thousands of them have travelled here. We better not let them down.’ Fallon, his vice-Captain in their playing days and still his right hand man drawled in his distinctive Sligo accent, ‘We’ve done all we can Jock, it’s in the hands of the boys now, whatever happens I’ll be proud of what we’ve done this season and so should you.’ Stein nodded, ‘I know Sean, but it’s so close, I can almost touch it. We might never get this chance again.’  The hot Portuguese sun burned down on his date with destiny. Stein’s team had come so far. So had he. As McNeil shook hands and exchanged pennants with Inter Captain Fachetti, Stein’s mind wandered to a time long ago….

Young John, stripped to the waist, covered in coal dust and already a man at 19 followed the old hands towards the seam they were working today. ‘Watch yer step John, that fuckin hutch has come aff the track again!’ said old timer Archie Fraser. Archie was the senior man in Burnbank colliery and knew well the penny pinching that went on. It might save a few bob for the owners but it endangered the miners.  A few of the older men used their shovels and sheer brute force to push the coal laden trolley back onto the rails. Hold ups cost money. ‘Right John, follow the ganger down and he’ll show you where he wants you to dig today,’ Archie went on in his fatherly tones. Archie liked to look out for the young lads. Their inexperience led to them being hurt or worse at times and he liked John, knew his family. Good people. The heat in the mine was oppressive. It may have been December above ground but here a mile below Lanarkshire the men sweated in the near darkness. It was a black dirty sweat which soaked them as they swung the picks and shovels in staccato rhythm. One of them began to sing in the darkness…

‘Twenty one years of age, full of youth and good looking,
To work down the mines of High Blantyre he came.
The wedding was fixed, all the guests were invited,
That calm summer’s evening young Johnny was slain.

The explosion was heard, all the women and children
With pale anxious face made haste to the mine.
The news was made known, the hills rang with their mourning.
Two hundred and ten young miners were slain…’

The men all knew the song about the Blantyre mine disaster from the 1870s. The price of coal was high then and it was high now.  Young John Stein worked hard. He’d earn his crust in this man’s world. He’d hold his head high with the rest. He swung his pick strongly and steadily, aiming for the very centre of the arc of light his helmet lamp produced on the ancient black wall. These long hours of labour were his time to think, although he learned quickly to concentrate, to look for the signs of danger. The rumble of shifting rocks, the hiss of gas or water and God forbid, the smell of smoke. Fire was a real killer in the mines. Everyone knew that. Today though was a sweat filled, bruised knuckle kind of day, nothing out of the ordinary. Just unrelenting work.

After 4 hours of cutting at the seam and loading the coal on the hutches, John sat with him comrades for a break. Sandwiches were produced and dirty, coal stained hands fed them into mouths made hungry by gruelling labour. ‘You still playing fitbaw John?’ one of the men asked ‘Aye, Albion Rovers, a quid a week for getting kicked all over Scotland,’ he replied with a smile. The old fella smiled back, ‘Stick at it son, anything is better than a life down these dark holes. You never know where yer fitbaw might take ye.’  Stein, young as he was, admired the stoicism and comradeship he found in the mines. There men sweated and suffered together beneath the ground. Here all the petty differences of rank, class or religion melted away. They needed to be a team down here, needed to trust and depend on each other implicitly. Their lives depended on it.  He often thought about football when he was working in the mine. If a team could be welded together into a unit like these miners, they would take some stopping. ‘Right Boys, back to work, rent to pay and beer to earn,’ the Gaffer said. Stein stood and picked up his pick again. ‘Imagine it,’ he thought to himself and he trudged back along the passage, ‘A team with the spirit and trust in each other these men had, they could achieve anything.’  As the picks began to swing again he thought over the old miner’s words…’ Stick at it son, anything is better than a life down these dark holes. You never know where yer fitbaw might take ye.’   

‘You never know right enough,’ Stein thought to himself. It had taken him out of the mines to Llanelli, Celtic Dunfermline, Hibs, back to Celtic and now all over Europe. They had played some wonderful attacking football and swept all aside in Scotland and in Europe. The English press had thought these upstarts with their brash young track suited manager were getting ideas above their station.  The first British club to win the European Cup would be English surely?  Stein had guided his team through the competition like a conductor guiding an orchestra through a great symphony. Always the team was greater than the sum of its parts. If there were great virtuoso performers like Jimmy Johnstone then they too worked for the good of the team. They trusted each other, depended on each other like the men in the Colliery. Now his team faced the toughest challenge of all beneath the unforgiving Lisbon sun. It was so bright in contrast to the darkness of the mine.

There was a roar as the game started and Stein refocused on the play. ‘Right Sean,’ he said, ‘Let’s see if Herrera has ever faced anything like these hungry young lions.’ Fallon nodded, ‘Lions,’ he said quietly to himself in his west of Ireland brogue. ‘I like that, Lions... Lisbon Lions.’


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