TONY Pidgeon sits in the corner of a café, steam rising from the drink in front of him.

He takes a sip before putting it back on the table and continuing his story.

At least now he says, with an ironic smile and plentiful gallows humour, they won’t have to close the train windows when they pass the SSI UK works at Redcar any longer.

Where once the smell from the site’s coke ovens may have forced passengers to recoil, such a threat went with SSI’s liquidation 18 months ago.

“Some of us knew the writing was on the wall”, he said.

“We had an idea that things were not going as well as they had hoped.”

Mr Pidgeon, who began his career in the late 1960s at Warrenby, was a mechanical fitter on the coke ovens.

Having started his working life in the steel industry, he spent a period in another of Teesside’s heartland employment environments, the chemicals sector, before returning to steel as a contractor and eventually a role within SSI.

The 64-year-old, who lives in Redcar, is joined at our table by David Bradley, who worked as a shift metallurgist, or as he puts it, quality control on the steelmaking side.

Mr Bradley has devoted more than 40 years of his life to the steel sector, with his time at SSI coming after a stint at the Ravenscraig steelworks, near Motherwell.

He may have spent in excess of two decades on Teesside but his Scottish burr remains strong, as does his passion for the steel sector, which he admits caused difficulties when SSI collapsed.

He said: “I’ve always been in the steel industry, that’s my background.

“When it first happened I was very short tempered and I would get angry and look at someone and say, ‘why has he got a job and I haven’t’? I realised my attitude had to change.”

Although they worked for the same company, the pair only really met during an IT training course at Redcar and Cleveland College in the aftermath of SSI’s demise.

Their stories are a snapshot of the pain and misery caused by the Thai company’s failure and of how depressed steel prices, crippling energy bills and cheaper Chinese imports became too much of a burden in its attempts to make a profitable go of the former Corus blast furnace.

The emotions are still raw.

When SSI disappeared, thousands of direct and supply chain posts went with it.

Many of the former workers are, thankfully, back in work, although the taskforce set up to assist with job applications, re-training and advice on setting up a business, has admitted a significant number are picking up lighter pay packets than they once did.

Many of them were encouraged to study for qualifications to aid their future prospects.

Such advice may be fine for young lads starting out or those in their 30s and 40s, but what do you do when you’re in your early 60s and are relying on savings because you haven’t, as Mr Bradley puts it, had “the big pay out?”

T HE pair admit they tried hard to secure work, but said they understand why some firms chose workers with greater mileage left in their careers.

“I have thrown the towel in”, says Mr Bradley, an air of dejection in his voice. “The towel is in the middle of the ring.”

The 62-year-old sent off countless CVs to companies and was given an opportunity with Virgin Media.

“It was flattering they were going to give me an interview but when I saw the kids, with their headphones on answering the phone calls for eight hours a day, I knew then it wasn’t for me.”

Mr Pidgeon speaks of a similar experience. He said: “I expected to get a job as a fitter but I realised there were 200 lads going for the same jobs and knew I would not be first in the list.”

Mr Bradley, who lives in Saltburn, sits back in his chair as he remembers the day SSI collapsed into liquidation.

It is a sobering experience to hear him speak of that moment, which came with a double meaning.

He said: “I got a phone call and was just told to go home and not come in tomorrow. The message was ‘clear your locker and go’. I had to go into the house and tell the wife I was finished.

“My son, who also worked there, was at home and he knew nothing about it. It was brutal but we knew it was coming.

We would ask the bosses how we were doing and they would say ‘we’ve got orders for the next month’.

“We were clinging on by our fingernails.”

But it is not just the workers that have felt the pain.

Redcar’s high street is a shadow of its former self, with mock shop frontages masquerading as outlets to hide empty units.

When a bastion of the local employment landscape slips away, so does disposable income.

“It’s had a devastating effect on Redcar”, says Mr Pidgeon.

“The economy has just caved in.”

Earlier this month, the situation took another twist when Lord Michael Heseltine, drafted in as a figurehead for the regeneration of the sprawling former SSI site, was sacked as a Government advisor for rebelling over Brexit in the House of Lords.

Redcar MP Anna Turley has since called on Prime Minister Theresa May to ensure the overhaul continues without the veteran Tory peer, so Conservative ministers can repair “the damage they have done”.

Yet not all hope has been lost.

Mr Pidgeon and Mr Bradley are part of the Middlesbrough Football Club Foundation’s Team Talk project, which is a support mechanism for those aged over 40 who have been made redundant.

While political posturing and uncertainties over funding for the massive clean-up of the steelworks continues, Team Talk is playing a crucial role in giving ex-workers a lift.

The scheme runs weekly ‘Boot Room’ sessions and offers expert advice on subjects such as job applications and pensions, as well as health checks and volunteering opportunities.

The programme exists in the main thanks to £12,000 funding from the Spirit of Teesside charity calendar, which was spearheaded by Middlesbrough left-back George Friend and his team-mates in response to the closure of SSI and the region’s economic difficulties.

“We are men”, says Mr Bradley, who, alongside Mr Pidgeon, is wearing an MFC Foundation hooded top. “Men do not like admitting they have problems.”

The impact of no longer being the main breadwinner weighs heavily on some of the men’s shoulders admits Claire Streeter, the programme’s social inclusion co-ordinator.

However, she says the scheme has a number of objectives to combat such reticence, pointing towards a recent visit to Newcastle Airport, where time in the base’s fire training academy was complemented by an opportunity to look at jobs across the site.

She added: “These people have been the main income earners all their lives, so these events are all about getting them out and lifting their spirits.

“This is all about showing them different things they may not have thought about or considered.”

Perhaps men don’tlike admitting their problems, but with the Foundation’s help hope remains strong that many others affected by SSI can properly start to leave those dark days behind.