One of the true Wolves legends, Bill Slater, turns 90 on Saturday. Everyone at Wolves wishes Bill many happy returns, and here, respected author and journalist Steve Gordos, takes a close look at Bill’s career.
Bill Slater has two unique claims to football fame – he was the last amateur to play in the FA Cup final and the only part-time player to be named Footballer of the Year.
That honour, voted for by the Footballer Writers’ Association, was bestowed upon him in 1960, the year Slater captained Wolves to FA Cup final victory over Blackburn Rovers.
His appearance in the final nine years earlier, when he was still an amateur, was for Blackpool, who were beaten 2-0 by Newcastle United, thanks to two goals from centre-forward Jackie Milburn.
Slater, who will be 90 years old this Saturday, (April 29), had always made his academic career his priority which why when he turned professional with Wolves he I insisted it be on a part-time basis. His career at came first and, of course, a footballer’s wages in his day were somewhat less than today’s.
Slater was one of a trio of half-backs – midfielders we’d call them nowadays – who were a major factor in making the 1950s the greatest period in Wolves’ history. He, Eddie Clamp and Ron Flowers were all England internationals.
A stylish player, firm in the tackle and blessed with no little skill, Slater showed great versatility, playing at half back, centre-half or inside-forward. It was in the last named position that he made his first Cup Final appearance as a replacement for the Blackpool’s injured Scotland international Allan Brown.
Born in Clitheroe, Lancashire, Slater had wanted to go to university but family circumstances meant he left school at sixteen and began work in a bank. His weekends were devoted to football in winter and cricket in summer.
Having signed amateur forms with Blackpool, Slater made four appearances for them in the wartime season of 1944-45.
Slater recalled: “At that time I think I was more keen on cricket than football and at the beginning of one particular soccer season, during the period when the soccer and cricket seasons overlap, I had the unusual experience of being chosen for Blackpool FC and Blackpool CC. I chose to play cricket, but it rained heavily, the cricket match was cancelled and I played soccer after all.”
When Slater was called up for National Service he went into the Physical Training Corps and his liking for physical education meant he chose to pursue a teaching career. Although at teacher training college in Leeds, Slater still travelled to Blackpool to play football. He often played at inside forward and as an inside-left won his first amateur cap and scored the goal that enabled England to beat Wales 1-0. It was the first of 20 amateur caps.
However, it was as a left-winger that he made his First Division debut for the Seasiders against Aston Villa in a goalless draw at Villa Park in September, 1949.
Slater’s games with Blackpool saw him set a club record for their fastest goal – after only eleven seconds against Stoke in December, 1949. The record was later equalled by Jimmy Quinn.
First choice at inside-left for Blackpool at the start of the 1950-51 season, Slater’s First Division career stalled when the club signed Brown from East Fife. Brown played in every FA Cup tie that season as Blackpool reached the final but then sustained a serious injury. So Blackpool turned again to Slater.
In 1952, Slater was a member of the British team at the Olympic Games in Finland but they were beaten in the first round of the knockout tournament by minnows Luxembourg. Level 1-1 at 90 minutes, Slater and co lost 5-3 after extra-time. So their tournament was over after just one match.
Having completed his college course, Slater became a lecturer in physical education at Birmingham University, a post which would eventually benefit Wolves. However, as Slater was then courting his future wife who lived in London, he would spend weekends in the capital and for a time played for Brentford. When he got married and settled in the Midlands, Slater was anxious to keep playing football and so wrote to Wolves.
Slater was fond of telling how Wolves’ legendary boss Stan Cullis rebuked him because his letter asked only for the chance of a game in any of the club’s teams. Cullis told him he wanted players with ambition, men who wanted to play in the first team but Slater felt he would have got an even bigger telling-off if he had written demanding first-team football. It was a no-win situation but was typical of Cullis.
The outcome was that Slater signed amateur forms for Wolves in August 1952, though his university retained first call on his services. He made a sensational debut for the club, helping them beat league champions Manchester United 6-2 in October, 1952. Slater was only in the side as Billy Wright was playing for England. While Slater was at left-half that day, the right-half spot was filled by Flowers in only his second league appearance.
The following season, as Wolves became champions of England for the first time, Slater made 39 appearances and, with the consent of his university, eventually became a part-time professional.
Having helped Wolves to their famous floodlit victories over Spartak, Honved and Dynamo, he was capped for the full England side in 1954-55, helping them beat Wales and then world champions West Germany. However, he lost his place to Duncan Edwards.
As Wolves made a sparkling start to the 1957-58 season, Clamp and Flowers were the men who formed the half-back line alongside England skipper Billy Wright.
However, when Flowers went down with flu, Slater deputised for him at Tottenham on Boxing Day. So well did Slater play in that and the ensuing games that there was no way he could be dropped.
The awful tragedy that befell Manchester United at Munich cost the lives of eight players, Edwards among them. Slater was chosen by England to take over Edwards’s left-half spot. Slater, Clamp and Wright formed an all-Wolves half-back line four times for the national side, including three games in the 1958 World Cup finals in Sweden.
Slater played only 14 league games as Wolves won the title in1957-58 but 27 when they retained it in 1958-59. However, he had lost his place in the final months of the season. Not only did Slater lose his place to Flowers in the Wolves side but also in the England team.
Once again Slater’s career was stalled but it was unexpectedly revived when he was transformed into a central defender. When Wright retired just before the start of the 1959-60 season, George Showell was chosen as his successor by manager Cullis. However, Showell struggled in the role and when Slater deputised he looked a natural centre-half and Cullis, an outstanding man in that position during his playing days, realised that he had found Wright’s true successor. Showell eventually came back at right-back in place of skipper Eddie Stuart who had lost form.
Stuart’s absence meant the side then needed a new captain and Slater was the obvious choice. It was just before the FA Cup final that the Football Writers’ Association named him Footballer of the Year and he then led Wolves to Wembley glory as they beat Blackburn 3-0.
Wolves had also just missed out on the Double, finishing a point behind First Division champions Burnley. Such had been Slater’s resurgence in form that he won another England cap, his twelfth, playing in the 1-1 draw with Scotland at Hampden Park.
One man who disapproved of Slater’s choice as Footballer of the Year was Burnley chairman Bob Lloyd, a bluff no-nonsense figure, a butcher by trade. At the Football Writers’ annual dinner he was among the speakers and took the opportunity to say he thought the soccer scribes had made the wrong choice and ought to have chosen Burnley midfielder Jimmy McIlroy.
Needless to say, Lord’s crass remarks were received in silence and merely ensured Slater got a huge reception when presented with the trophy. In those days it was the only award made to an individual player. There were no PFA awards.
When Slater finally left Wolves in 1963 after 339 appearances (25 goals), he re-joined Brentford briefly before hanging up his boots. A respected sports administrator, who worked at Liverpool University as well as Birmingham, Slater was awarded an OBE in 1982 and a CBE in 1998.
He had served as president of British Gymnastics (formerly the British Amateur Gymnastics Association) for ten years, having helped his daughter Barbara become a top gymnast, following in her father’s footsteps by taking part in an Olympics (Montreal 1976). She is now BBC head of sport and was also awarded an OBE in 2014.
As a footballer, Bill Slater will always be remembered for his unflustered style and as a natural leader. A true legend of Wolverhampton Wanderers, he was inducted into the club’s Hall of Fame in 2010.
*For anyone interesting in reading more from Steve Gordos on Wolves’ history, his latest book – Cullis Club And Country – is still available in the Molineux Megastore.