Philip Barker: Time to celebrate Bill Slater, a footballer with a unique British sporting history

Monday, 23 April 2012
Philip Barker_Athens_2004Born in 1927, Bill Slater is the only British footballer who can be mentioned in the same breath as Lionel Messi, Ronaldinho, Michel Platini and Lev Yashin. All have graced the Olympic tournament and the World cup finals, but Slater was the first and so far only Briton to do so.

By 1952, Slater (pictured below left in 1960 and right in 2007) had already appeared in the FA Cup final - as an amateur with Blackpool. He was playing for Brentford when the selectors started thinking about the Olympic squad for Helsinki. At the 1948 Games in London the team had finished fourth, managed by Manchester United boss Matt Busby.

This time, Walter Winterbottom, manager of the full England team was put in charge.

The first public trial match was staged at Highbury on a late April evening. The opposition was an England "B" team, which included Jimmy Hill.

"The fact the team is playing professional opposition tonight is one of the first signs of the intelligent planning we can expect," wrote amateur football specialist Martin Lee in the match programme.
BIll Slater_1_April_21The Olympic team lost that match, but in May they headed to Dusseldorf to continue their preparations. As a defeated power, the Germans had not been invited to the 1948 Games, but now their Olympians were about to return to the fold.

Germany's footballers were coached by Sepp Herberger, who led them to triumph in the 1954 World Cup. Germany beat Britain 2-1. Slater scored the British goal and a few days later the Germans won again.

"Great Britain do not seem to stand much chance of success, but from what I have seen of our unpaid stars in their preparations, they may provide one of the biggest upheavals of form in Helsinki," wrote Lee optimistically in World Sports Magazine.

The tournament draw was made by the young daughter of Helsinki Olympic Organising Committee President Erik Von Frenckell. Britain were drawn against Luxembourg in a straight knockout format.

rsz bill_slater_accredThree days before the match, scheduled before the Opening Ceremony, a party of 30 gathered on a Sunday evening at RAF Bovingdon and boarded  a converted Avro York bomber decorated with the Olympic rings. The group included team manager Winterbottom, FA selection committee members and two referees.

"It was frightening, it went up so slowly. You thought you were going to hit the trees at the end of the runway and once it went up it was a very, very bumpy ride," said Slater. "The journey was not marvellous, one or two members of the team including the referees were ill."

The team touched down in Finland and headed for the winter sports resort of Lahti to play the match. Few expected Luxembourg to cause any problems.

Finchley schoolmaster George Robb – later to win a full cap while with Tottenham Hotpsur – gave the side the lead but it all went spectacularly wrong. As Dr Willy Meisl, a respected football coach and writer observed: "There is little to say in praise of the British team. In the first forty five minutes they had three or four sitters." 

Bill Slater_1958_World_Cup_Squad_April_21
The main culprit was Jim Lewis, an amateur with Chelsea at the time.

"At no time did the game reach a high standard," wrote the correspondent of the Daily Mail who basked in splendid anonymity.

As the match went to extra time, Luxembourg raced into a lead and although Slater helped reduce the deficit, Britain lost 5-3 and were out of the tournament before the Olympic flame had even been lit.

Not until the final day was there a British gold to celebrate, in team show jumping, thanks in part to Harry Llewellyn and his famous horse Foxhunter.

Bill Slater_1960_FA_Cup_April_21
Meanwhile, Slater had stayed to watch the rest of the tournament as the team played friendlies in Finland and Norway before returning home.

"I don't remember huge disappointment," he said later. "I think we were a little bit surprised just how good Luxembourg were. The main weakness was that we just had not really assembled and played together as a team. We were starting from scratch when we arrived in Helsinki, it wasn't the best of arrangements and we were found wanting."

Led by the magnificent Ferenc Puskas, eventual gold medallists Hungary swept aside all opposition, but like many teams from behind the Iron Curtain, they were professional in all but name.

"The Hungarians at the time were quite outstanding," said Slater. "I particularly remember this wonderful team playing in ways I had not really seen before. I pointed out what a marvellous team they were with some innovative tactics, but no one took any notice of this warning that they were rather special."

Bill Slater_and_Award_April_21
The Hungarian "golden" team famously beat the full England team 6-3, which included Slater's Olympic team mate George Robb at Wembley in November 1953.

They repeated the trick 7-1 in Budapest in 1954. Slater's full international career began in 1954. He played in the side which beat reigning world champions Germany at Wembley. 

He was chosen for the 1958 World Cup squad (pictured three above, front row third from left) which travelled to Sweden. England drew with the former USSR, Brazil and Austria in the group stages and were beaten by the Soviets in a play-off. Slater was ever present.

Two years later he walked up the 39 steps at Wembley to collect the FA Cup as captain of Wolverhampton Wanderers (pictured two above, centre) and was named Footballer of the Year that same year. After football he had a distinguished career as an administrator and watched his daughter Barbara compete in the 1976 Olympics as a gymnast and then become the first female director of sport at the BBC in 2009.

In 1982, Slater was awarded an OBE for his services to sport, followed by a CBE in 1998.

Philip Barker, a freelance journalist, has been on the editorial team of the Journal of Olympic History and is credited with having transformed the publication into one of the most respected historical publications on the history of the Olympic Games. 
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