The Olympian of football backs British team for 2012

The Interview - Bill Slater: Honorary doctorate awaits a true amateur who rose to the heights with Wolves and England. Alan Hubbard on a modest man of memories
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The Independent Football

It was a different world then, a world where managers wore trilbies, not tracksuits, Hello! magazine was not even a twinkle in a Spanish publisher's eye, and his old clubmate Billy Wright, and Joy of the Beverley Sisters, were the nearest the game had gravitated towards Posh and Becks. Bill Slater was surely the original thinking man's footballer. "Undervalued, unrecognised, unspectacular - and a thoroughly nice bloke" is how one contemporary describes him.

A true amateur for much of his career. Corinthian, almost. Olympian, certainly, as a member of one of the last Great Britain teams to play in the Games.

A sprightly 77, Slater lives modestly in Ealing, west London, with Marion, his wife of 51 years, and tomorrow will receive an honorary doctorate from Wolverhampton University, one of the many tributes in a life devoted to sport on and off the field. He spent 40 years in physical education, was Footballer of the Year in 1960, the year in which he also captained Wolverhampton's FA Cup final-winning team at Wembley and achieved a BSc degree, was the last amateur to play in the full England team and also the last to play in an FA Cup final.

He appeared in both the World Cup and the Olympics (21 amateur caps and a dozen full caps) and was in three championship-winning teams for Wolves in the early 50s, never receiving a caution. He also coached his daughter Barbara to international level as a gymnast. Together they have a rare family distinction of both appearing in the Olympics - Bill in 1952 at Helsinki and Barbara, who went on to become a BBC commentator and is now a senior manager in the sports department, in Montreal in 1976. Slater also played league cricket for Blackpool.

By modern standards his football career was astonishing. It actually began as A N Other. When he first left school he worked in a bank in Blackpool, playing occasionally in one of the League club's junior teams. One day he received a surprise call-up for the first team, the name W J Slater hastily pencilled in to one of the blank spaces in the programme. There was usually a shortage of players in the war years and Slater says: "The message from the club was, 'We are playing with 10 players - can you get over here right away?' I was 16 at the time. By the time I got there and ran out of the tunnel, Blackpool were already two up against Preston North End. I took up my position at inside-right between Stan Mortensen at centre-forward and Stanley Matthews at outside-right - I could hardly believe my luck.

"At school I had been coached that it was a good tactic for an inside-forward to run up the field ahead of the winger, and wait for the ball to be passed. I did it a couple of times and nothing happened. Then Stan Matthews came over and said, very kindly, 'Sonny, don't keep running up the wing, that's where I play. You're getting in the way'. He made it clear the touchline was his territory. I got the message. I think we won 8-0 in the end."

When Slater left the Army in 1948 he became a PE student in Leeds while still an amateur with Blackpool, but playing between illustrious names was to become something of a habit. When he moved to Brentford because his wife-to-be came from Ealing, he found himself in a half-back line alongside Jimmy Hill and Ron Greenwood. Later, at Wolverhampton he partnered Billy Wright and Ron Flowers. Although normally a wing-half, he spent much of his career as what would be termed today a central defender.

When he played in the 1951 Cup final for Blackpool - on a day's leave from college and having to be back the same night - it was as the last amateur. A year later he was to appear in the British Olympic team in Helsinki and in 1958, by then a part-time pro, he was lining up in in Sweden against Brazil in the World Cup, having taken a month's unpaid leave from Birmingham University. "The £50 match fee meant I just about broke even."

In his book, Jules Rimet Still Gleaming, published this year by Virgin, my colleague Ken Jones recalls how the former Tottenham manager, Bill Nicholson, asked by the then England manager, Walter Winterbottom, to watch Brazil play Austria, had identified Didi as the key figure in a revolutionary tactical formation. Between them they decided that Slater was the best man to put on him. Says Slater: "Winterbottom told me that Didi was their play-maker, and my job was to keep him out of the game in some way - fairly of course." He did so and it ended in a goalless draw.

When his work as a lecturer took him back to the Midlands, Brentford gave him an introduction to Wolves where eventually he was offered the captaincy on condition he got permission from his university to sign as a part-time professional, at £14 a week "more than I was getting at the university".

Almost as an afterthought, the manager Stan Cullis said: "I think we are obliged to pay you a £10 signing on fee, but I'm not sure you're worth it!" Cullis had the reputation of being a martinet, something of a Fergie and George Graham rolled into one. "Yes, he had this image of being a very tough, demanding manager, but he could also be very kind. When my wife was in hospital one Christmas he invited me to lunch on Christmas Day with his family. He used to get very excited, but there was no bullying. Occasionally he would shut the dressing-room door and have a go at us, but there were no flying boots or tea cups, and he never swore. There was very little swearing at the club. He was quite religious." Naturally, after playing more than 300 games for the club in their golden years, he retains a passion for Wolves and is thrilled to see them in the Premiership after so many years in the wilderness. "Obviously to get back to the top flight hasn't been easy, but they need to be totting up one or two points. I hope they can stay up, but I am not sure. They just don't seem to be able to score, and that's going to be crucial. Perhaps I have a thing about goals, because so many more seem to have been scored in my day." Slater is not one of those rheumy-eyed codgers who yearns wistfully for the good old days. "I enjoy watching the modern game, although most if it is done on the telly. There is no question that standards are higher now, particularly at the top. The change in the transfer system has been a contribution to that. When I was playing, the majority in the Wolves team were good, sound club players. There were one or two internationals, but now because of the financial system, most teams seem to be comprised of current internationals from various countries with another half a dozen internationals on the bench too."

Slater's selection for the 1952 Olympic team came while he was playing for Brentford. "I suppose the tournament was a bit of a disaster for us really. In those days there was no professional sport in the European countries - but in fact they were professionals in all but name. We had some good players, men like George Robb who played for Tottenham, but while the others had settled international teams, ours had come together at relatively short notice. We went out in the first round 5-3 to Luxembourg, of all teams. But I'm not sure how many of them actually came from Luxembourg. Though some of them were certainly playing football in Italy and elsewhere, it was a bit embarrassing."

Ken Livingstone is now calling for a GB Olympic team to boost the London bid. Slater says: "I think that it is a pity that there is no longer a GB team in the Games, but if they can overcome the problems, say for 2012, then it is vital that they get them together for training and preparation. In Helsinki the first time we more or less gathered was on the plane.

"We stayed on to watch the rest of the tournament, which was won by the Hungarians, and later Winterbottom asked me to write a piece for FA News about it. I extolled the virtues of their football and some of their players. I remember saying that Hidegkuti had only one foot - but what a foot! I warned that this was the shape of football to come, but no one seemed to take any notice. The next year the Magyars came and whacked the full England team 6-3."

Tony Pawson, a fellow member of the '52 Olympic squad, says of Slater: "He was a very intelligent player and a very strong captain. Before one game, our professional coach said that whenever we gave away a free-kick, one of us should go and stand on the ball until we regrouped. Bill spoke up and said, 'Not in my side they won't'. Alas, there aren't many Bill Slaters in the game now. He was the absolute soul of amateurism, decency and sportsmanship."

Biography: William John Slater, OBE, CBE

Born: 29 April 1926 in Clitheroe

Family: Married to Marion for 51 years, four children, eight grandchildren.

England career: capped 21 times as an amateur and earned 12 full caps. Played for Britain in 1952 Olympics and for England in 1958 World Cup.

Club career: joined Blackpool in 1944 (also played for Yorkshire Amateurs and Leeds Univ). Signed for Brentford in 1951; joined Wolves in 1952 (339 matches, three League titles, one FA Cup). Rejoined Brentford in 1963.

Also: Director of PE at Liverpool Univ and Birmingham Univ. Director of national services (GB Sports Council). President of British Gymnastics and winner of CCPR Emeritus Award.