ONE OF OURS
Clitheroe-born Bill Slater was the last amateur footballer to play in an FA Cup final. He went on to be selected for England more than 20 times and also captained Wolverhampton Wanderers in the 1960 FA Cup Final against Blackburn Rovers, writes Michael J Hodkinson
Back in the 1930s, entrance to a grammar school was either by passing a scholarship examination or by fee paying, with a number at Clitheroe Royal Grammar School from moneyed families. One such boy, definitely from the first category, was William J Slater, who enrolled at the school at the age of 11 in 1938.
Born in Clitheroe, he lived down the road in Waddington. He was academically bright and outstanding athletically, captaining the school cricket team and gaining selection to the 1st XI football team alongside boys who were up to three years older than himself. He also gained the Headmaster’s Prize for Public Spirited Service, a sure sign that later down the line, he would spend time helping others to achieve their maximum potential in both sport and education.
According to his daughter Barbara, now Head of Sport at BBC TV, they were a poor, working class family and he had to walk a mile to school and back, often in clogs because there was no money for shoes. His mother worked in the mill and he had to leave school at the statutory minimum age of 15, because the family needed extra income. Consequently, he started to work at the Williams Deacon’s Bank in Blackpool, his chances of improving his education seemingly minimal.
He attracted the attention of Blackpool FC in 1944, making his first team debut in 1949 as an amateur. Fortunately, the post-war government wanted to encourage young people back into education and he enrolled as a student at Carnegie College, the renowned PE teaching facility in Leeds.
His opportunities to play regularly for the seaside club were extremely limited, but in 1951, Allan Brown broke his leg and Bill Slater was thrust into the starting 11 at Wembley. He was the last amateur player to take part in an FA Cup final.
Alongside him were legends of the game, Stanley Matthews and Stan Mortensen. They were paid but for young Bill, nothing except the honour of playing in the game that Newcastle United won 2-0. By this stage he had been selected 20 times for England at amateur level and was an Olympian, representing Great Britain at the 1952 Helsinki Games.
He was then appointed to a PE teaching post at Birmingham University and he made an appointment to see Stan Cullis, the famed manager of Wolverhampton Wanderers – then England’s foremost club. “Just give me a game please, I’m not bothered about the level, I just need to play,” was the gist of his request. Cullis, never slow to look a gift horse in the mouth, immediately signed him as an amateur. The occasional international cap followed and he was first choice in the formidable Wolves half back line.
He was now married to Marion with the first of their four children on the way. He worked full time, squeezing training into any spare moment and if he could be suitably persuasive, his employer would give him an afternoon off occasionally to enable him to make it to away midweek games. For a game at Sheffield United, Cullis arranged him a lift but it turned up at the wrong address so he hitch hiked to Sheffield. Another time he was in danger of being late for a match. However the bus driver recognised him, taking short cuts to enable him to arrive on time. He was an international footballer, playing in the world’s strongest league and his only football remuneration was a free turkey at Christmas.
He was recalled to the England team for the 1958 World Cup in Sweden, helping to subdue the legendary Pelé as England drew 0-0 with Brazil. Now part-time professional, he captained Wolves in the 1960 FA Cup Final against Blackburn Rovers. There, to the chagrin of many around here, the Clitheroe boy held the cup after a humiliating 90 minutes for the Blues. The same season, he was voted Footballer of the Year before retiring in 1963. He then showed his academic prowess, rising to the post of Director of PE at both Liverpool and Birmingham Universities. His daughter Barbara represented Great Britain as a gymnast in the Montreal Olympics of 1976. Meanwhile, because her father had coached her, he became so totally immersed in the organisation of the sport nationally that he was elected to the post of President of the British Gymnastics Association, holding the position for 10 years. He was awarded the OBE for his Services to Sport in 1982 and a CBE in 1998.
In 2018, on his death at the age of 91, the Gymnastics Association said: “Bill was a man of multiple talents, integrity, wisdom and style.”
Part of the Wolverhampton Wanderers FC Museum is dedicated to him in a city where he is remembered with great fondness. And those of us from the Ribble Valley need to know about one of our own, who set such high standards of decency, humility and supreme sportsmanship coupled with service to so many others.