The myth of Bert Slater

A 12-year-old fan runs away from home for the chance to see his hero, the Dundee goalkeeper, play for Scotland. Or does he?

By J. David Simons

This article first appeared in Issue 2 which was published in December 2016.

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Bert Slater had won my heart and allegiance in a game that would eventually become known in football lore as The Bert Slater Final. From that day on, I became a Bert Slater fan and a dedicated Dundee supporter.
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‘Who did you play for?’ ‘Watford. Before that, Liverpool. And Dundee.’ ‘What position?’ ‘I was a goalkeeper.’ ‘A goalkeeper for Dundee?’

A few years ago, I was asked if I would contribute a story to the Football Memories project, a partnership between Alzheimer Scotland and The Scottish Football Museum, along with Back Page Press, the publishing company that made the initial request to me. These organisations had found through practical experience that images, memorabilia and anecdotes about football clubs, players and games have the ability to stimulate the memory of male sufferers of dementia.

The idea therefore behind the Football Memories project was to construct a database of stories about various football clubs throughout the country that could be used by family members or volunteers visiting Alzheimer’s patients in the hope of re-connecting them with their memories and their forgotten selves. I was delighted to participate in the project especially as I had one particular football memory I wished to lay down in print before I forgot it. What I didn’t realise was the impact my recollection would have on my own life. 

When I was a child growing up in Glasgow, I always wanted to be a goalkeeper. I don’t know why. Goalkeeping is not the most appealing of the footballing positions to children, most youngsters preferring the adulation showered on the scorer of the winning goal, the net bulging in proof of success, the crowd going wild in celebration, the Lawman arm held aloft in acknowledgement. Such adoration is rarely directed towards the goalkeeper. He is often a lone figure prowling his area, the undervalued protector quietly going about his task, his success seldom appreciated, his failure there for all to see and mock. 

Glasgow, of course, is well known for its two famous football clubs – Rangers and Celtic – with most children being forced by parental or peer pressure to choose one or the other. I elected for Rangers for no other reason than I preferred the blue of their strip to the green of Celtic. I soon became familiar with the various well-known personalities connected with the club. The legendary manager, Scot Symon, famous players such as Wee Willie Henderson, Slim Jim Baxter, captain John Greig and, of course, their goalkeeper Billy Ritchie.

And so it was with great excitement that my ten-year-old self settled down to listen to live radio coverage of the Rangers-Dundee Scottish Cup Final on the 25th April 1964 at the national stadium, Hampden Park. My enjoyment of the occasion was to be enhanced by the fact that I lived less than a mile from the ground, so that every time a goal was scored, I could rush to open the front door and hear the roar of the crowd.

But there were no roars to be heard from the crowd of more than 120,000 supporters for the first 45 minutes of that final. It was nil-nil at half-time, thanks to the Dundee goalkeeper, Bert Slater, making wonder save after wonder save to fend off the Rangers attack. My childhood imagination was totally fired up by Slater’s heroics as I pictured his diving efforts to defend the Dundee goal. It wasn’t until well into the second half that Rangers eventually went in front, a headed goal from a corner when Slater’s sight of the ball was unfortunately impeded by a Rangers forward. Dundee fought back, however, and quickly equalised through a wonderful volley.

Again the Rangers’ onslaught came, and again Slater thwarted his opponents’ efforts. It was just 90 seconds before the end of the game that Rangers finally managed to break through to score their second goal. A third came against the dejected Dundee players a minute later. Rangers had triumphed three-one but Bert Slater had won my heart and allegiance in a game that would eventually become known in football lore as The Bert Slater Final. From that day on, I became a Bert Slater fan and a dedicated Dundee supporter.

For a ten-year old boy living in the west of Scotland, it was probably not a good idea to support a football team 80 miles away on the other side of the country. The chances of actually seeing my new-found hero Bert Slater and my new team play were very remote. Neither was there an opportunity to watch him on the small screen as only the most important matches were televised in those days. My support of Bert and Dundee was therefore confined to following their progress in the sports pages of the daily newspapers.

However, fate was soon to lend a helping hand.  Some 15 months after The Bert Slater Final, I read that the Scottish League were playing against the Irish League and had named an international side with four Dundee players in the team, including the goalkeeper. Finally, I had found my opportunity to see my hero play.

The date of the match was Wednesday, September 8, 1965. A mid-week game on a school night. Unfortunately for me, the game was to take place, not at Hampden Park just down the road, but several miles away at Ibrox Stadium, the home of my former team. There was no chance I could ask my father to take me. He was a busy doctor always back late from his surgery or from patient visits during the week. I therefore began pestering my mother as soon as I was home from school that day. The conversation went something like this:

‘I’m going to the Scotland game tonight.’

Laughter from my mother. ‘Don’t be ridiculous.’

‘It’s the only chance I’ll get to see any Dundee players.’

‘Don’t support a team on the other side of the country then.’

‘I’m going to go.’

‘It’s a school night. You’re not going anywhere.’

‘I’m going to go.’

‘I’m not letting a 12-year-old boy go off to a football match on his own.’

I’m going to go.’

‘And how are you going to get there?’

‘I don’t know. By bus.’

‘And how will you pay for that? And to get into the ground?’

‘I’ve got the birthday money grandma gave me.’

‘You’re not going.’

‘I’m going to go.’

And so the conversation went in circles until my mother, losing her patience, said:

All right. Just go then. See if I care.’

Rather than take this as a challenge I wasn’t in any way expected to accept, I chose to take my mother’s words literally as the required permission I sought. ‘All right, I will then.’

I rushed to my room, changed out of my school uniform, pocketed my birthday money, and stormed out of the house. I imagined my mother thought I would be back within the hour, hungry and chastened, ready for supper.

The only geographical information I knew about Ibrox Stadium was that it was located somewhere in an area in the southside of Glasgow known as Govan. Fortunately, buses with that very name on their destination boards passed nearby my home so when one came along, on I hopped, too scared and embarrassed to ask the driver if he could let me off at the stop nearest the stadium. Instead I hoped the bus would pick up other passengers going to the game which luckily it did. I followed these supporters with their scarves and rosettes boasting their national colours when they got off the bus and walked to the ground.

I paid my entry fee at the turnstile and entered the stadium. As I tried to find a decent viewing position within the crowd on the terracing, a helpful adult told me I would be better off in the special Boys’ Enclosure right down at the front. Off I went to mingle with other lads my own age, no doubt there with their fathers further back in the crowd. It was a cool late summer’s evening, I was standing a few feet away from the glorious green of the pitch, alongside the tunnel from which the players would emerge. I couldn’t believe what I had done. I was a tiny soul among thousands of strangers, miles away from home. As the teams jogged out of their dressing rooms to the roar of the crowd of which I was one, I was beside myself with the thrill, the fear and the audacity of it all.

Scotland won six-two that night. I don’t remember anything of the game but I returned home deeply satisfied with my adventure despite the punishment that was sure to come. My parents had been frantic with worry, my father driving up and down the bus route looking for me, my mother ready to phone the police if I hadn’t returned soon. Such was their relief at seeing me back safe that I actually escaped being disciplined for my actions. But I wouldn’t have cared anyway. I had successfully run away from home to see my hero.

The years passed, I finished school, I went to university, graduated in law, worked for a while at an Edinburgh law firm before deciding that I would like to have another adventure before I settled down. I would go off to travel at a time when taking a gap year was not the acceptable norm as it is now. I began my journey in Spain, spending some time with my friend Jenny who had a house in the tiny village of Orxeta, up in the hills behind the coastal resort of Benidorm. Jenny worked in the evening down in Benidorm and I would often drive down to meet her at a bar in the town after she had finished work and we would go off to late-night taverns to drink wine and listen to the music of the flamenco guitarists.

On one such evening when I arrived at the bar, Jenny was not off her shift yet. The bar owner mentioned that a family had just come in from Scotland and I might want to chat with them while I was waiting. The parents must have been in their early 40s, and they were there with their two young teenage daughters. I did the polite thing and went over to talk to them.

The mood was relaxed and easy, and we hit it off immediately. Names were exchanged, beers were drunk, the conversation was convivial and after about half an hour, I asked the father of this family what he did for a living.

‘I’m a golf club professional,’ he told me.

‘A professional golfer?’

‘No, no, I’m not good enough for that. I’m attached to a golf club where I give lessons, help design the course. But I did used to be a professional footballer.’

‘Oh really. Who did you play for?’

‘Watford. Before that, Liverpool. And Dundee.’

‘What position?’

‘I was a goalkeeper.’

‘A goalkeeper for Dundee?’ It took a few seconds for the words to sink in. ‘You’re not Bert Slater, are you?’

He laughed. ‘How did you know?’

‘You were my childhood hero,’ I said. ‘I once ran away from home to see you play.’

And so I told Bert the story I have just told you. It was a fabulous night, all the more special because I had been given the chance to get to know the man before I realised who he was. If I had been told I was going to meet my hero from the outset, I would have been the fawning, stuttering fan. Instead, we had already established a sort of friendship before I made my discovery. Several more beers were drunk, football stories were shared, Bert and I hugged each other goodbye. It was one of the best nights of my life.

When I came to write my contribution to the Football Memories database, I googled Bert to see if I could find out what had become of him. Sadly, I learned he had died in 2006 at the age of 70, evoking for me yet again memories of that wonderful evening I had spent with him and his family in Spain back in 1978. Later, during the course of writing my article, I wondered if I could track down details of the game to which I had run away from home to see him play. Thanks to the magic of the internet and to the devotion of some football fan who had created a website dedicated to the history of Scotland’s international football games, I found the match. Scottish League v Irish League. Wednesday, 8th September 1965. Ibrox Park. Kick-off: 7.30pm. I scanned the Scottish team sheet for the name of my hero. I couldn’t believe it. Bert Slater wasn’t listed.

I stared at the page. A Dundee goalkeeper certainly represented Scotland that night. But it was not Bert Slater. Instead, it had been Ally Donaldson. There had to be some mistake.

I googled Bert again and tracked down a timeline of his career. By the 8th September 1965, he had already left Dundee for Watford and would have therefore been ineligible to play for the Scottish League side. This was impossible. If you had put me on a witness stand and asked me to swear on my mother’s life that I had seen Bert Slater play that evening in Glasgow, I would have said without any doubt: ‘Yes, of course.’ I felt the heat rise to my face in utter embarrassment. I had been so convinced that Bert Slater and not Ally Donaldson was in goal that I had even told Bert Slater himself I had seen him play. I discovered later through my research that Bert never represented Scotland throughout his career so he would have known very easily that night in Spain that I had been mistaken. Yet, gentleman that he was, he had humoured me, allowing me to cling on to that cherished memory of my childhood. 

The impact on me of this incident has been profound. For a start, it has made me doubt the accuracy of all my own memories. Did these events really happen to me? Or did I make them up? Or did I merge them into some satisfying collage that would make for a humorous or interesting anecdote with which to embellish the tapestry of my life? And what of the memories of others? Should I believe and trust them too? What of the myths, the legends, the religious stories handed down from generation to generation over the centuries? True cornerstones of our culture or mere Chinese whispers? Or these court cases involving historical crimes? Did these events really happen or like me did these victims so much want to believe them that they convinced themselves they really occurred? Or what if they did occur, but not in the way that they recalled? Suddenly, the past for me became extremely shaky ground and remains so to this day.

And what do we know of the influence of the internet on the culture of memory?  Without instant access to all this electronic information, there is no way I would have been able to track down details of that particular football match. Not only was I able to find the game, I was eventually able to buy the official programme on eBay which yet again confirmed Bert had not played that night.

Without the internet, my running away from home to see my hero would have remained a family myth, its veracity never questioned. So what is memory? What is truth?  With the ability to confirm our recollections through the collective memory that is now the world wide web, our past has become more verifiable, and therefore will our histories become more accurate, more truthful? And does it really matter in the great scheme of things as long as I can restore to some Alzheimer’s patient the buried memory of that great goalkeeper Bert Slater, irrespective of how we both remember him? 

This article first appeared in Issue 2 which was published in December 2016.

Issue 12
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