Bill Slater CBE | A tribute

After consultation with the family of FA Cup winning Wolves hero Bill Slater who passed away earlier this week, the club will be dedicating its FA Cup fixture against Liverpool on Monday 7th January to celebrating Bill’s memory and huge achievements at the club.

With his family in attendance and the FA Cup that Bill so famously lifted in attendance at Molineux that evening, Bill’s legacy and contribution to Wolves will be honoured with a number of fitting tributes ahead of the game.

Following his passing earlier this week, former Express and Star sports editor Steve Gordos reflects on the career and life of one of Wolves’ all-time greats...

Twice the career of Bill Slater seemed to have come to a halt and twice it was gloriously revived.

The first occasion ended with him playing in the World Cup finals and the second saw him named Footballer of the Year and lead Wolves to FA Cup glory.

Slater, who has died aged 91, was one of a quartet of half-backs who were a major factor in making the 1950s the greatest period in the club’s history. He, Billy Wright, 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 was the last amateur to play in an FA Cup final. In today’s terminology, he was a midfielder who became a central defender.

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 1944-5.

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 at Bangor in January, 1950. 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, 1959.

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 1950-1 season, Slater’s First Division career stalled when the club signed Allan Brown from East Fife. The Scottish international played in every FA Cup tie that season as Blackpool reached the final but then sustained a serious injury. Brown’s absence brought an unexpected recall for Slater to play at Wembley. There was no happy ending as Newcastle won 2-0 thanks to two Jackie Milburn goals. Slater remains the last amateur to play in the FA Cup final.

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.

A scorer against Luxembourg, Slater stayed on for the rest of the tournament and marvelled at the skill of the eventual winners Hungary. He wrote a report for the FA about the methods of Puskas, Hidegkuti and the rest but got little or no response. He was one man not surprised when England were sensationally beaten 6-3 by the “Magical Magyars” at Wembley a year later.

Having completed his college course, Slater was appointed as 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.

In later years 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 that was the enigmatic 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 that day but his display prompted Express & Star man Commentator (Phil Morgan) to write that Slater “looked as though he was playing with an open text book in his hand.” 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 in1954-5, 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 1957-8 season, Clamp and Flowers were the men who formed the half-back line alongside England skipper 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.

When the awful tragedy that befell Manchester United at Munich robbed England of Edwards, Slater was chosen to take over the left-half spot. He 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 in1957-8 but 27 when they retained it in 1958-9. However, he had lost his place in the final months of the season.

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 Stan 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.

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.