What, for example, are they to make of Bill Slater, who turned out as a 24-year-old amateur for Blackpool in the 1951 FA Cup final against Newcastle on the understanding that he would make it back to Carnegie College in Leeds before midnight?
Unable to attend the customary club banquet, Slater travelled back north on a train packed with supporters celebrating Newcastle's 2-0 victory, none giving him a second glance. "My problem was that we were only allowed two weekends off during term time, and I'd used up both mine when Blackpool selected me to play at Wembley as a replacement for the regular inside- left, Allan Brown, who broke a leg in the semi-final," Slater said last week during a long conversation we had on a rail journey from Liverpool to London.
I came across Slater sitting alone in what started off as a near deserted carriage and, rather foolishly in view of what I knew about him, asked if he had been watching the match between Liverpool and Blackburn at Anfield. A tall, lean man, now in his 70th year, Slater had in fact been attending a conference as chairman of the British Amateur Gymnastics Association.
It was soon clear that Slater has lost none of the earnestness that characterised him as a player, and is understandably proud of his sporting achievements along with those of his daughter, Barbara, now a BBC television producer, who represented Great Britain as a gymnast at the 1976 Montreal Olympics.
The reason for this tale, and being a modest sort of guy Slater might be embarrassed by its telling, is that few alive today can look back on a career in football that captures more vividly the difference between what used to be and extravagances the majority of people today have come to accept as normal.
Older readers may recall that Slater, who went on to play as a part-time professional, appeared for England in the 1958 World Cup finals, and was voted Footballer of the Year in 1960 as centre-half and captain of Wolverhampton Wanderers when they defeated Blackburn in the FA Cup final.
It is events leading up to those distinctions that show how greatly football has changed since Slater's potential first came to Blackpool's attention.
Blackpool agreed to cancel Slater's amateur registration when he moved south to be near his future wife, who lived in Ealing but, in keeping with way things were in football then, there was no immediate prospect for a footballer whose CV included an FA Cup final appearance alongside such notable figures as Stanley Matthews and Stan Mortensen.
Taking along a reference from Blackpool, and holding out no great hopes for himself, Slater approached Brentford, the nearest League club to Ealing. "The manager, Jack Gibbons, gave me a trial and I got into the first team, making up a half-back line with Ron Greenwood and Jimmy Hill," he said.
Qualified by then as a lecturer in physical education, Slater took up a post in the Midlands and got in touch with the famously stern Wolverhampton manager, Stan Cullis, presenting a letter of recommendation from Brentford. "I told Stan that I was looking for a game no matter which of the Wolves teams I played for," he said. "Stan, who was a decent man beneath that gruff exterior, said bluntly that he wasn't interested in players who weren't set on making the first team."
Proving his worth in yet another trial - by then he had also played for Great Britain in the 1952 Helsinki Olympics - Slater was soon turning out regularly in the First Division and after a while decided that he might as well get paid for playing. "I cleared it with my employers and put the idea to Stan," he said. "In those days there was a signing-on fee of pounds 10 and, typically, Stan replied that he couldn't be sure I was worth it. My goodness, when you think of what players get now!"
As the train approached London, I introduced Slater to a couple of football writers who are making their way in the business. They were respectful although doubtless the name meant no more to them than it would have done to the players of Dover Athletic, who were also on the journey. Probably it does not matter very much but, in not showing up sooner, my young colleagues missed an opportunity to broaden their education.Reuse content