Sanguine Slater still seeking his fortune

After dazzling for West Ham in the Cup, he drifted at Celtic. Now the former prodigy has a chance to rise again at Forest Green
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The Independent Football

From a packed and passionate London stadium to the verdant pastures of Forest Green Rovers' ground in a Gloucestershire village, the FA Cup's capacity to coax unusual feats from the feet of Stuart Slater remains undimmed by a decade of thwarted promise.

From a packed and passionate London stadium to the verdant pastures of Forest Green Rovers' ground in a Gloucestershire village, the FA Cup's capacity to coax unusual feats from the feet of Stuart Slater remains undimmed by a decade of thwarted promise.

Scene 1: Upton Park, E13, March 1991. West Ham, then in the old Second Division, are leading Everton 1-0 in the quarter-finals when Slater cuts inside from the left flank. Leaving Martin Keown standing in a blur of claret and blue, he beats Neville Southall from a tight angle to leave the Hammers one win from Wembley.

Scene 2: The Lawn, Nailsworth, October 2000. Forest Green, struggling in the Nationwide Conference, set up Saturday's first-round visit of Morecambe by defeating Bath City 3-1 in a card-strewn fourth qualifying round battle. Slater, making his home debut, is cautioned for only the third time ever for a foul tackle.

In the 31-year-old Slater's words, the first, much-replayed incident "pushed me into the limelight". The glare was fiercest at Celtic and Ipswich; he was both clubs' record recruit. However, after representing England at Under-21 and B level, he slipped into the shadows at Watford before disappearing off the radar in Australia.

The more recent episode, namely that rare booking, prompts him to admit that his West Ham nickname was "Chopper", bestowed by the rugged defender and dressing-room wag Paul Hilton precisely because ball-winning was never Slater's forte. He retains a strong affection for his first club.

"I absolutely loved West Ham and still do," says Slater. "I was there from the age of 11 to 23, so I was steeped in their style of football. In my last season there [1991-92], which ended in relegation, I was constantly linked with moves. The fans thought my heart wasn't in it, which wasn't true."

The goal against Everton had come a year earlier. "I've actually scored better. I didn't hit it cleanly - I just cut in and unleashed a shot - but it looked good. It's always brilliant at Upton Park under the lights.

"In the semi-final we played Nottingham Forest at Villa Park. It was 0-0 after 25 minutes when Tony Gale was controversially sent off. We couldn't hold out with 10 men and lost 4-0. I've been to five other semi-finals, in England, Scotland and Down Under, yet never reached a final."

Liam Brady, his agent and Celtic's manager, spirited him away for £1.5m. His searing pace and dribbling skill made Slater seem ideal for Glasgow's green party, though with hindsight he might have been advised to heed the warning of a Scottish friend, once a fellow West Ham apprentice.

"He told me he'd love me to go but said it wasn't the best time to join Celtic. It was a period of great upheaval, when the fans were screaming for the heads of the board. Being English and the record buy added to the pressure."

An early goal would have helped, but 23 matches passed before Slater scored. "Against Celtic or Rangers, everyone raised their game, which made it difficult to play. You had to win your battles early on, which we couldn't always do.

"That said, it was a privilege to play alongside great pros like John Collins, Paul McStay and Charlie Nicholas. And I loved the Old Firm fixtures. The noise was deafening. That kind of atmosphere gives you a real buzz."

An £800,000 fee took Slater to his native Suffolk and the club he cheered to victory in the 1978 FA Cup final. But the "big pull" at Ipswich was reuniting with his West Ham mentor, John Lyall. "Best manager I've played for. His knowledge of the game, coaching ability, aura, the respect he commanded... it's a waste that he's not in football now."

Slater's East Anglian sojourn was, alas, blighted by Achilles problems; likewise at Watford. "Graham Taylor doesn't like injured players - no manager does - and he'd rather throw a young guy in than have an older one who's out a lot, though even when I was fit he kept me on the bench."

The situation is recalled with an ebullient laugh rather than self-pity or resentment. Such resilience also served him well half-way through what should have been a two-year stint with Carlton in Melbourne. "It was a beautiful place. I loved it and so did my wife and our son. Every day we went to the beach, which was a bit different from the East End. Seeing Brisbane, Sydney, Adelaide, Perth and New Zealand was a great experience.

"Then the club hit financial trouble. We weren't getting paid and they broke promises about insurance, pension, accommodation, car etc. I stuck out a long time with Carlton owing me money, but in the end I had to get back."

Slater, whose persistent injury was cured ("touch wood") by the Watford physio, was recommended to Forest Green by ex-colleagues already at The Lawn. "No disrespect to the manager, Frank Gregan, but I'd never heard of them. First time I drove to Nailsworth I was thinking: 'How can there be a Conference club here?' It was in a deep valley and I couldn't find anywhere flat, let alone a football ground. But they're extremely professional and very friendly."

Team-mates include the former England winger Tony Daley, European Cup-winner Nigel Spink, and Dennis Bailey, whose hat-trick for Queen's Park Rangers against Manchester United in 1992 remains the last by an Old Trafford visitor. A touch of glamour, yet the build-up to Morecambe's arrival has seen the part-timers' training cancelled due to flooding and the newcomer pounding the pavements and parks of Watford, where he lives.

Fortune has often seemed to be hiding, but Slater remains bubbly. "I'm really happy with what I achieved at West Ham, although if I'm honest I feel I have under-achieved. Maybe I'd have fulfilled what was expected if I'd spent less time injured. Now I'm just desperate to play football on a Saturday instead of golf with my mates, and to repay Forest Green's faith."