Australian midfielder Robbie Slater’s West Ham career may only have lasted one season, but it was one that wrote his name in the record books and has helped him maintain a high profile in his homeland as a television pundit, long after he hung up his boots. The now 58-year-old spent the 1995-96 season at Upton Park and was one of the pioneers of Australian players coming to ply their trade in England’s top flight, enabling him to claim a place in Premier League history.
‘When I was playing in England, the only other Australian was Mark Bosnich, who was a goalkeeper, so when I scored my first goal in English football, against Nottingham Forest, I became the first Aussie to score in the Premier League. That’s a big deal,’ he said. Despite his place in Australian football history and his 44 caps for the Socceroos, Slater was born in Ormkirk before his parents moved to Australia as part of the £10 Poms settlement scheme of the 1960s, and despite growing up as a proper Australian kid, deep in rugby league country, English football was never far away.
‘My dad was Liverpool, which I inherited – mum was Everton but that didn’t get a lot of air time,’ he said. ‘Not many of my friends realised I played football growing up, and when they found out, they would give me some stick because it was pretty low down the sporting pecking order then. It was a very ethnic sport then – the Greek community supported the local Greek team, the Italians supported the local Italian side, and so on. I was always amazed that it wasn’t the number one sport, though, considering how Australia had been a British colony.’
Australia’s first World Cup appearance in 1974 made little impact on the young Slater, and he rarely went to local games, but with Liverpool entering their golden age in the mid-1970s, it was a good time to be a Reds fan, wherever you were in the world – something that would end up shaping his professional career in later life. ‘Liverpool were always a part of my life, from as young as I could remember I would get woken up in the middle of the night to watch their cup finals,’ he said.
He blossomed as a player in his mid-teens, getting noticed by local side St George Saints, and this gave Slater his first taste of the big time, and English football. ‘When I was 17, I got a chance to go to Nottingham Forest because someone on the board of St George had a friend there,’ he said. ‘It was an unbelievable, frightening experience. It was a couple of years after they’d been European champions but a lot of that team were still around, and Brian Clough still absolutely terrified everyone, even the senior pros.
‘I was there for six months, sharing digs with Des Walker, and it was an amazing time. Clough really wanted me to stay but they thought they could pull a fast one on those Aussies, who don’t really play football, and tried to get me for free, but my club were having none of it, so the move never happened. But the experience taught me that I just wanted to get to wherever I could to play professionally.’
Wherever turned out to be Belgium, after he was spotted playing for Australia at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, and from there he soon moved on to France, for five successful years with Lens. But it was still England that really fired his imagination. ‘My time in Lens was the height of my career – Marseille were kings of Europe and Arsene Wenger was at Monaco, so it was a great time to be playing in France. I’d married a local girl, I was going to sign a new deal and they’d offered me a coaching pathway, but then in 1993 Australia played Argentina in a two-game World Cup play-off where Diego Maradona said very positive things about me, and that’s when English clubs took an interest.’
Slater came close to ending up in claret and blue when Aston Villa manager Ron Atkinson came calling, where he would have teamed up with Bosnich, and with a deal all but agreed – but, crucially, not signed – a phone call came that changed his life and career forever. ‘In the Villa Park car park, my agent took a call and said “That was Kenny Dalglish, he wants to sign you for Blackburn”, and as soon as I heard his name, that was it. He had been on my wall as a kid and now he wanted to sign me. I said “well we better hurry up then”.’
Slater’s time at Blackburn was short but could not have been sweeter, as it coincided with everything falling into place for Blackburn, and, with a little help from Manchester United’s inspiration Eric Cantona ruling himself out for a large part of the season following his kung-fu assault on a fan at Crystal Palace, Slater making history by becoming the first Australian to win a Premier League winner’s medal – although coincidentally, he was also the most locally-born player in the Rovers team. ‘I played 18 games that season, and we only used about 16 players,’ he said. ‘Being born in Ormskirk, I was the nearest thing they had to a local in the team – and I’d come all the way from Australia.’
Dalglish’s team lost their last game of the 1994-95 season – ironically, at Liverpool – but it was West Ham who won them the title, as they held title rivals United to a draw at Upton Park. ‘Weeks before it happened, when it looked like Manchester United might catch us, Tony Gale said we would lose at Liverpool on the final day, but United won’t beat West Ham, so we’d be champions – he was very sure of that, and sure enough, that’s how it turned out.’
Although Slater was looking forward to a long future at Rovers, fate intervened when Dalglish unexpectedly resigned in the summer, and when Ray Harford took over, Slater knew his time was up. ‘You only get to find out someone is interested in you if the club wants to let you go,’ he said. ‘The night before the Charity Shield against Everton, I was told that West Ham were interested, and as soon as I met Harry Redknapp, he was very enthusiastic and let me know what he wanted me to do, so that was it, pretty much done and dusted in one meeting at the Swallow Hotel, which was where I ended up living for a few weeks after I signed. He didn’t need to sell the club to me at all because I’d had it drummed into my head all year at Blackburn by Tony Gale about how great West Ham were, he never stopped going on about them.’
At West Ham, Slater joined fellow Aussies Chris Coyne and Steve Mautone, who he did now know, but who were compatriots, which helped him settle, and later international team-mate Stan Lazaridis turned up. With Redknapp having taken over from Billy Bonds during the close season the previous year, the 1995-96 season was the first time Redknapp had the whole summer to build the team exactly as he wanted it, and it made for an interesting mix.
‘It was an odd squad, and I certainly didn’t add youth to it – I was about 31. Alvin Martin was still playing at the back, Steve Potts, Marc Rieper, Ludek Miklosko were all there, Ian Bishop and John Moncur – Harry’s favourites, he absolutely loved those two – were the heart of the team and Frank Lampard and Rio Ferdinand were on the fringes, too.’
Another overseas signing that summer, who certainly made an impact on the club, and on Manchester United defender Gary Neville, was Dutch striker Marco Boogers. ‘That was hilarious. Me, Stan and Marco used to drive to training together and he was such a pain in the arse – he complained about everything the whole way. He wasn’t a bad lad but he was an incredible moaner,’ said Slater. ‘I was injured for that Manchester United game, so I was watching from the side, and that tackle on Neville was more an assassination attempt than a challenge. That was pretty much it for him at the club – to be honest, in training you could see he wasn’t much cop, you don’t like to be nasty, but he didn’t really look up to standard.’
Fans who saw that side play will remember they had a feelgood factor, and Slater confirms that on the training ground, this was definitely the case. ‘West Ham was a fun place to be – it was a good group of players having a good time,’ he said. ‘There was one time we were training the day before the game, and we used to play five-a-side, English against the foreigners. There were so many overseas players that Harry asked Stan and I to play for the English team – he said “you’re a colony, so that’s near enough, play for us”.’
Unfortunately the good times were not to last too long at West Ham, as in similar circumstances to how he left Blackburn, just as Slater was gearing up for a second season and consolidating his place, he was on the move again – but not before being involved in a famous part of West Ham folklore. ‘At the start of the next season, we signed Paulo Futre, a Ballon D’or runner-up and a seriously good player. His first game was supposed to be against Arsenal, but he couldn’t believe it when he saw Moncur was wearing the number 10 shirt – his number 10 shirt,’ Slater explained. ‘Paulo spoke a bit of French, but not much, so I had to be his interpreter and he said “I’m always number 10, why am I number 16 here, I refuse to play”, so I had to tell Harry, “Paulo says he can’t play because he’s not number 10”. You can imagine his reaction to that.
‘Paulo went out the door and got a taxi back to the Swallow Hotel, so Adrian Whitbread was dragged in to sit on the bench against Arsenal, and famously that’s how John Moncur became 16 for the rest of his career. He got a free holiday out of it, too, for giving up the shirt!’
Slater scored two goals West Ham goals, against Blackburn, his old club, and Forest, his nearly club, before he was on his way to play for another of my childhood heroes, Graeme Souness, at Southampton. ‘It all happened very quickly – I think it was before an international break, we’d beaten Southampton 2-1 and afterwards, Frank Lampard Senior came into the players’ bar and said Harry wanted a word with me. I had no idea what it was about so I asked Stan to hold my beer, went to see Harry downstairs and he said Graeme’s in the away dressing room and wants to talk to you. He almost literally said I don’t want to sell you but I’ve got to sell someone, because he’d brought a few in, and so after a quick chat, it was pretty much done on the spot. I didn’t even get to say goodbye to my team-mates properly, I was gone.’
But once again, a change of management a year later – from Souness to Dave Jones – was the beginning of the end of his time on the south coast. ‘My time at Saints was great, but I was playing a lot of games for Australia trying to qualify for the 1998 World Cup, with Terry Venables as our manager, and it was a long campaign culminating in a play-off defeat, and it was obvious Dave Jones was growing impatient with me being away – he even said so in the matchday programme. Then when we were playing in the Confederations Cup as Oceania champions, Terry wanted me involved in that too, and it was the last straw for Jones. In March 19989 I signed for Wolves, but as soon as I did it, I realised it was the wrong move, and that really I wanted to go back home.’
Slater had been away a long time, in Belgium and France before England, but says it is having played in the Premier League that carries most weight on his CV. ‘I was already 29 when I got to England, but I’d grown up watching the English game and my parents were living there then, so I thought “it’s now or never”, and it turned out to be a great move for my playing career, and my after career, too,’ he said. ‘Aussies don’t really follow other leagues unless your family roots are from that country. They’re obsessed with the Premier League, though, so my profile in Australia when I signed for Blackburn went through the roof.
‘Playing in France is nice but frankly, they only care about the English game. I know an Aussie player who spent his whole life in Europe, won multiple titles at PSV Eindhoven and he’s upset he doesn’t get the recognition because he didn’t play in England. It’s harsh, but it’s reality. Going to England was the best thing I could have ever done. West Ham have supporters everywhere. They’re an iconic club, the name is known worldwide, and when you say you’ve played for them people are instantly impressed. Even though I was only there one year, I get huge recognition out of it. It was a big part of my life.’