For all sad words of tongue and pen, The saddest are these, ‘It might have been’.
The words of American poet John Greenleaf Whittier are rarely applied to football, but when talking about the career of Stuart Slater, they seem extremely appropriate.
Slater remains one of West Ham’s greatest ‘what if?’s. Whereas other homegrown talents who left before their time, such as Rio Ferdinand, Joe Cole and Frank Lampard, fulfilled their promise elsewhere, Slater’s move to Celtic in 1992 after botched contract negotiations was one that set his career on a path away from what it could have been, and that he instantly regretted.
But for those who saw him in his early West Ham career in the late 1980s, his name still conjures up images of a slight-framed winger running rings around the best players of his era, as part of a fantastic team that just fell short of glory.
Suffolk-born, Slater was initially on the radar of Ipswich, as they enjoyed one of their greatest ever eras in the late 70s, but once West Ham spotted him, there was no looking back.
‘I was at Ipswich when I was nine, but then I changed my Sunday league team from one in Sudbury to one in Colchester, and started playing a year above my age,’ said the 52-year-old. ‘We got loads of scouts watching us, and once they saw me, Ronnie Gayle and Eddie Bayley were hellbent on getting me to West Ham.
‘They sold it as a family club where I would get a chance, and once I went to train there in half term, we were treated really specially and straight away I developed a real affinity with the club.’
Joining as an apprentice in 1986, when John Lyall and the team achieved what remains the club’s highest-ever league finish of third in the old Division One, Slater’s first appearance came in October 1987, and the teenager was soon rubbing shoulders with senior players as the Boys of 86 began to fragment, which was a big vote of confidence in him by Lyall.
‘There were a few senior players on the way out, so John thought he could throw some youngsters in. The way he acted wasn’t that he thought that he was bullet proof, but more like “I’ve been at the club all these years, so I’ve got time to blood and develop these youngsters”, and he did.
‘Even when the results weren’t necessarily going that well, you always knew he could produce a team that were still capable of great performances. He wasn’t just a great coach, he was an amazing man.’
For a raw youngster, training with the first team from the age of 16, the first team dressing room could have intimidated Slater – but it did not.
‘Physically I probably wasn’t ready, I always needed to eat more and bulk up, but ability-wise, no-one showed any doubts, which meant I had belief in myself – if the boss believed in me, there was no higher praise,’ he said.
‘The talent in the dressing room was incredible, with such a mix of characters. You had people like Liam Brady, who was very calm, and took a real shine to me and was like a father figure, Paul Ince, who I’d grown up with and was really fiery, and then Julian Dicks, who gave me so much grief.
‘I didn’t realise it at the time but if Dicksy wound you up, that meant he liked you, if he didn’t talk to you that meant he didn’t like you. I was lucky.’
Slater’s first-team debut came away at Southampton on the opening day of the 1988-89 season, a game that set the tone for a grim campaign to come.
That summer Tony Cottee had left for Everton for a then-record British transfer fee, and opened his Toffees account 34 seconds into his debut, on his way to a hat-trick in a 4-0 win. 4-0 was also the score that West Ham lost by that same day.
‘We only had three wins before Christmas,’ said Slater. ‘Maybe if I was a bit older, I’d have been more worried, but I didn’t know what relegation was all about and just thought “if we go down, we come back”. After a poor start I knew it wasn’t going to be a good season, but I lived game-by-game, I didn’t know the consequences.’
The consequences were that Lyall’s days at the club were coming to an end, and that season, relegation was followed by Lyall’s sacking, after 34 years of service.
‘If we’d known John was going to be sacked, I think we would have done more,’ he said. ‘We all felt that he’d done so much for the club, that he would probably get another chance. I was devastated when he left. I wouldn’t have been the player I was without him.’
The announcement of Lyall’s exit came whilst the players were on holiday, and successor Lou Macari got off to a bad start with the senior pros by calling them in early for pre-season training. Fortunately for Slater, though, he clicked instantly with Macari.
‘He saw my talent and wanted to build a team around me, so from my point of view, he was great, but the way he tried to stamp his authority didn’t go down well with everyone,’ he said.
Macari did not even last the season, as in February 1990, having never been a comfortable fit at the club, he was turfed out, and Slater, still only 20, found himself face-to-face with a third manager in less than a year; Billy Bonds.
‘I once met Billy as a kid, and then got to play alongside him, so to have seen what sort of a man he was, and what sort of a player, to then have him as my manager was amazing.
‘Billy had such an aura. He was everything that the club and supporters needed, there was an instant connection with him, I had so much respect for him.’
Three managers in quick succession was not the only unwanted hat-trick that West Ham managed in those days, as fans of a certain age will need no reminding that around this same time, in three consecutive seasons, West Ham made it to Cup semi-finals – and lost.
In 1989 it was a 5-0 aggregate loss to Luton in the League Cup, a year later a 6-3 two-legged loss to Oldham in the same competition, and in 1991, most notoriously of all, it was the FA Cup, and a 4-0 defeat against Nottingham Forest on a ploughed field of a pitch at Villa Park.
But it was the round before that Forest loss, the 6th round win over Everton at Upton Park, that supplied one of the defining moments of Slater’s West Ham career.
‘It was one of my best games – the 5-0 win over Sheffield United the previous season, where I set up three goals, was pretty special too – but the Everton game was live on Sky on a Monday night, when that was still something of a novelty, so it’s the game people still talk about.
‘Everton were a division above us, and hot favourites, but it was one of those Upton Park nights, we played incredibly well, I got the winner and because it was the only game on that night, we got so much coverage.’
But any hopes of third time lucky on the road to Wembley were short lived – 20 minutes, to be precise, as that was when Tony Gale was sent off in the semi-final and West Ham’s dreams faded and died, yet again.
‘After how we beat Everton, we were optimistic against Forest, but once Galey went off, it was a huge challenge. Playing against 11 men, no matter how good you are, you were always going to struggle.’
Not that the pitch was any help for two sides so well known for their quality football. ‘It was a shocker – that same day, Spurs and Arsenal had played at Wembley on a perfect pitch, but Villa Park was awful and not conducive to playing good football at all. Everything was against us that day.’
In a parallel universe, though, Slater would not even have been playing in that game to lose it – he could have been at Manchester United.
‘I’d grown up with Paul Ince, and shortly after he left for Manchester United, he phoned me up and said Fergie’s interested in you, you need to call him – here’s his number,’ he explained.
‘He said he was loving it there and the boss had said he was interested in me, so to call him. Because I was so young and naïve, and also happy where I was, and also because United weren’t actually as good then as they went on to be later, I never did call, but a few years later I met Sir Alex and asked, and he said they had been interested.’
The nature of Ince’s departure, in the aftermath of Lyall’s, has never been forgotten, or forgiven, by West Ham fans.
‘Paul now knows it was wrong,’ said Slater, who grew up with him. ‘He owed everything to John Lyall who was a figure that he probably didn’t otherwise have in his life at that point, so when John left, he lost that.
‘I’m sure he would say John changed his life, and when John wasn’t there, he was badly advised – to put on a United shirt before he had signed, no-one would ever advise that now.
‘It was a mistake and he’s had to live with that for the rest of his life. Deep down, I think he knows other clubs might not have given him the chance West Ham, and specifically John Lyall, did, and he’ll be forever in debt for that.’
West Ham may have missed out on Wembley again that season, but Bonds did get them promoted back to the top flight. It was only a short-lived return, however, and for Slater, it was the beginning of the end.
‘We came up but didn’t make many signings, and once you get off to a bad start, you know you’re going to struggle. It was like the last season under John Lyall,’ he said.
‘It becomes self-perpetuating. We didn’t have a big squad, we didn’t add much and the bond scheme created a toxic atmosphere as well as revealing how badly the club needed money, so it was a terrible cocktail – and that’s when I left.
‘West Ham had offered me a great four-year deal and I was going to sign it. If I hadn’t had an agent, I would have. But Liam Brady, who’d really spoken up for me when I first got into the team, had put me onto a friend of his to look after me.
‘Billy offered me a great deal and even though I was very happy with it, the agent said never accept their first offer, so we said no. In the club’s eyes, I’d turned it down and didn’t want to stay, so they withdrew it.
‘Billy really wanted me to stay, and I know he felt really disappointed in me with how it was handled, but I was too young to know better, and looking back I completely understand why the club was so unhappy.
‘Liam was now Celtic boss, and very keen to sign me. I went up there on the Wednesday, and spoke to a former apprentice housemate of mine at West Ham, who was a big Celtic fan, who said it wasn’t a great time to be signing as there was a lot going on behind the scenes.
‘My heart was still with West Ham, and it took me two days to make up my mind to sign for them. On that day, the deadline for registration for European competition closed at lunchtime, so they needed to get me signed, and Liam actually said “You owe me”. So I signed, but instantly knew it was a mistake, and I went back home and cried for two days.
‘My dad wanted to call it off, even after I’d done the press conference, but I said I couldn’t as it would make me look awful – but straight away I knew I’d made the wrong move, and my heart was still at West Ham.’
Aged 23, Slater had left the club that made him, and his career, which was already plagued by achilles problems at West Ham, was never the same.
His Celtic career lasted 13 months, before he moved to Ipswich, followed by spells at Leicester, Watford, in Australia, and non-league football.
‘People say “you were so promising”, but I have high arches in my feet which made me run on my toes which put pressure on my achilles and calf, so I always had injury problems and ended up drifting,’ he said.
‘Towards the end I had offers from Cambridge and Peterborough but I knew pre-season would be too intense. I played non-league towards the end, without training, then at 35 I did my ACL and thought that was it.’
But having had his career launched by West Ham, there was still a claret and blue tinge to its finale.
‘Three or years after I’d last played, I had a call from Julian Dicks, who was managing Wivenhoe Town, asking if I wanted to play, so I spent a couple of weeks getting in shape because I didn’t want to look foolish, then as I was driving to my first game, he rang to say it was off because the pitch was frozen.
‘I thought “do I need this?” – I’d spent weeks prepping, but when it was cancelled I thought “I can’t do this any more”. And that’s how it ended.
‘All the success I had up until about 22 was great, but then I developed an injury which recurred every day.
‘I lived off my West Ham years for such a long time, but then I got fed up with constant fitness worries. I worked so hard to get to where I did, but from 22 to the end of my pro career, to have so many problems and know they would happen again – I’d just had enough.’
Slater now works in education, teaching youngsters hoping to get into football, and using his own rise and fall as a lesson.
‘I remember when I first went into the West Ham dressing room, Tony Gale said “welcome to the first team, you’re a great talent but I’m getting old, so take it all in as it goes so fast” – he was so true,’ he explained. ‘What’s old in football is still young in real life, with so much left to live, so even at academy level, I always say get an education first, because the number of you who will make it is minimal.’
Slater was an academy coach at West Ham, and is now a club ambassador. ‘My allegiance with West Ham goes back more than 30 years, and I hope it’s got a few more years left,’ he said. ‘If ever I lost that ambassadorial role, I’d still want to be a part of the club, in the crowd if necessary. West Ham have given me such an incredible life.’