The World Game resumes its monthly series on Socceroos stars who left their mark on football in Australia. Robbie Slater achieved his lifelong ambition of playing in England and recalled the extraordinary day he signed for Blackburn Rovers ... when he was supposed to join Aston Villa.
Life was never meant to be easy for Socceroos star Robbie Slater who survived a harrowing experience on his first foray into European football before forging a remarkable career at club and international level.
Slater, the combative winger known as 'Bulldog', said he achieved his boyhood dream of playing in England through sheer self-belief and determination and declared he would for ever be grateful to the game for making him a stronger person and changing his life.
Slater went on to win the English Premier League with Blackburn Rovers to become one of only two Socceroos to win the coveted competition. Manchester United's Mark Bosnich was the other.
Slater also represented Australia 37 times, of which 28 were in full internationals.
Slater considers himself very lucky that he was able to fulfil his ambition after emerging from a rough initiation in Belgium as an Anderlecht player.
"I had a lot of difficult times in my early career and some of the problems were caused by myself," Slater admitted.
"I was fortunate to get through them. The year I played for Anderlecht was the lowest point in my career without a doubt.
"It was tough and lots of thoughts went through my mind. Today I probably would have been diagnosed as having depression.
"Being alone in Brussels, with the way I was mentally, was challenging. I did not think there was a way out. You just tried to get through it the best way you could. In the end I came out of it so I must have had some mental strength ... but It was a tough year.
"A lot of people don't realise how hard and lonely life as a professional in Europe can be. They think it's all glory and lots of money but it's not ... it's a struggle. Even guys like Tim Cahill and Lucas Neill had difficult times at Millwall before making it elsewhere. It is not always a 'Harry Kewell story', if you know what I mean. Harry was an exceptional talent who instantly burst onto the scene at Leeds United.
"In my early playing days my behaviour was not the best but I learned from my mistakes and I can now look back on a rewarding career. I got very lucky but I deserved it because I always had the belief even though not many believed in me.
"Football has given me everything, more than I ever imagined when kicking a ball in the backyard of our home at Picnic Point in Sydney's south-west. I owe football ... the game owes me nothing.
"This is why I get annoyed when I see players get disenchanted by how things pan out towards the end of their career and start complaining. I cannot understand how that can be even if it does not end the way you want it. It often doesn't and not everyone gets the perfect farewell. What I'm saying is that footballers should be thankful for being able to say they have been professionals for a number of years and to everyone that supported them and helped them lead such a privileged life ... which they would have worked hard for and fully deserved, mind you."
Slater, who is now 56, was happy to share his experiences as a professional footballer.
What are you doing now?
"I have been working for Fox Sports basically since I retired. I have had a good and long run commentating and analysing the A-League since its inception in 2005. I consider myself very fortunate to be doing that ... staying involved in the game and enjoying it."
You would have been deeply saddened by the recent passing of Frank Arok, who gave you your break with St George.
"It was very sad to learn of his death. I would not have had the fantastic career I had were it not for Frank who showed extraordinary faith in this kid playing third grade for Auburn. As a 17-year-old I got into the first team shortly after and I stayed there. It was the stuff of dreams, really. I was very lucky and I cannot understate the effect he had on my career."
Your best years in Australia probably were with Sydney United. Tell us about your three seasons at Edensor Park.
"Just brilliant. After doing my grounding at St George, where I won my only NSL title, playing for 'Croatia' was just fantastic because I was playing week in week out alongside some fantastic players who were among the best in the country. We were a top team and we should have won the league but it was very enjoyable nonetheless. To be honest, I should have joined 'Croatia' a year earlier but it was a poor decision on my part to sign for Blacktown after finishing up with St George in 1984."
Was that the time you said to yourself 'hey, I reckon I'm good enough and ready to play in Europe'?
"I always dreamed of going overseas ever since I started playing for St George. In fact I had two trials with Nottingham Forest while I was at the Saints but my club and Forest manager Brian Clough could not agree on a fee so nothing happened. I was a Liverpool fan growing up and after watching them win so many European Cups, English championships and FA Cups I yearned to be part of the scene abroad but, coming from Sydney's west, I saw all that as a dream. However after I did well at the 1988 Olympics, Anderlecht's Australian striker Eddy Krncevic got me to organise a video cassette. Six months later his agent contacted my club and soon after I was off to Belgium. And my European odyssey started there."
You must have fond memories of your four seasons with Lens. France was good to you, wasn't it?
"After a short spell at Anderlecht, who probably signed me to sell me because they had too many foreigners, Lens was a huge experience and like a new lease of life because I had the best years of my career, not just from a football perspective but also because I learned more about life. I loved the culture, learned the language and married a local girl.
"The football we played was extraordinary. When I got there we were in the second division but we went up that season after an amazing run. Yet we were favourites to go straight back down because the club had no money despite having one of the biggest supporter bases in the country. Lens is a coal-mining town with crazy fans who lived for Saturday nights at the football. We did some amazing things as a team which helped me win two Oceania player of the year awards. And that is what got me a move to England, actually."
Yet you will always be remembered for the premiership you won with Blackburn. Tell us about how that season unfolded.
"Getting a Premier League contract was a dream come true ... but I was supposed to sign for Aston Villa, whose goalkeeper at the time of course was Mark Bosnich. My agent had already done a deal with manager Ron Atkinson. However immediately after coming out of a meeting with the Villa boss where we basically agreed on terms without me signing, my agent got a call in the carpark and he told me 'guess who that was'. It was Blackburn manager Kenny Dalglish who wanted us to go up the motorway straight away because he wanted to sign me. Of course, it was a very easy decision for me because of who Dalglish was. How could I say no to one of my childhood heroes? So we went up the M6 and signed for Rovers.
"It would turn out to be a surreal experience. My first competitive game for Blackburn, for example, was at Wembley against Manchester United in the then Charity Shield. I was in the first team for the first six or seven games before I flew back to France to assist my first wife in the birth of our child Victoria. When I came back to Blackburn the team had won and Dalglish was reluctant to make changes so for the rest of the season I found it very hard to get into the matchday squad because those days you were only allowed two substitutes plus a goalkeeper.
"However I still racked up 20-odd appearances for the season and my nine assists contributed to what was for all of us a very special moment."
The English game is renowned for its pace. Did France provide you with the preparation you needed for England?
"Most definitely. When I was in France the country's top league was flying with teams like Marseille, Monaco, Bordeaux and Paris Saint-Germain replete with superstar players, some of whom helped the French win the World Cup in 1998. It was an incredibly hard league to play in and it certainly did prepare me for England."
National duty must have caused you some anxious moments at your clubs. Tell us what happened when your then West Ham manager Harry Redknapp was asked to release you for two weeks to play for Australia.
"We in Australia did not enjoy too much respect those days. One day Socceroos coach Eddie Thomson asked for the release of myself and Stan Lazaridis so we could play in a four-team tournament in South Africa featuring Kenya, Ghana and the home team.
"Harry wasn't having it. He called us into his office and started reading a fax from then Soccer Australia requesting our release. When he saw the name of Kenya he snapped: 'We pay your wages and we've got a game against Manchester United and you guys want to go and play Kenya! Why would you want to play Kenya. They don't play football in Kenya'. We sheepishly started walked out of his office after a roasting that was mixed with some colourful language and Harry got his head out of his office and yelled: 'Don't pack your bags, you ain't going'. In the end we did not go.
"Every time you played for Australia those days it was a fight and a risk because there was no international window. There was a genuine threat of losing your spot in the team if you went away for the Socceroos but I always tried my best to come back and take the risk. I got bitten twice, though.
"To be honest I don't think the public in Australia fully realised the pressures we were under from our clubs not to go away. Today things are clear cut but that does not mean clubs are happy about it."
You took part in three failed World Cup campaigns. How far off were the Socceroos from knocking off Diego Maradona's Argentina?
"You know what? I had never seen a replay of the two matches until recently because as a player you just do not watch your matches again. I tell you, we were close. They had four world-class players in their side ... what chance did we have? But we pushed them all the way. We had them under the pump in the last 15 minutes in Buenos Aires and should have scored but it was not to be."
You were on fire in the first leg in Sydney. Was that your best game for Australia?
"Yes, no doubt."
You guys were even closer to reaching France '98. Thoughts of cafes au lait and croissants must have been flooding through your mind during that game versus Iran in 1997 before disaster struck.
"Funnily enough, it's been almost 25 years but not one week goes by without somebody mentioning that game to me. That's the sort of impact it had on the general public.
"That 2-2 draw in Melbourne was a total collapse. I do not know if we choked or not but we should have won easily and qualified. Then when the fan ran onto the field in the second half and ripped the net from the goalpost and forced a long stoppage we lost our concentration. We were two goals up and some of us were even joking around in the belief that the job had been done. In the meantime coach Terry Venables kept telling us to 'keep warm, keep warm' but by then we had lost our momentum.
"As we all know, Iran bravely came back thanks mainly to a goal scored from offside that would have been disallowed today by technology. It was an extraordinary and unlucky night for us but to be fair we were not good enough and it became a fantastic night for Iran and the Iranian people."
Was that the biggest disappointment of your career?
"From an international perspective it was because, as I said, we should have won that tie. It was the one that got away big time. It also would have been very special for me to go back to France to play in a World Cup. Lens, which was my home for four years, was one of the cup venues."
You had some famous players as teammates. Which ones were the best?
"There were three who stood out from my time in England. Obviously Alan Shearer at Blackburn, Matt Le Tissier at Southampton and Paulo Futre at West Ham. It was a privilege to play alongside those guys. I was lucky to play with and against some of the best players in the world."
Who was the most difficult fullback you had to deal with?
"This might come as a surprise. The guy I dreaded playing against was a fullback who would become a very famous and World Cup-winning midfielder: Emanuel Petit. He was an absolute beast and you could not get past him.
"In Australia I played about 180 NSL matches before I went overseas and I reckon the toughest opponent would have to be Jean-Paul de Marigny. He was tough and he could play. I hated playing against him."
ROBBIE SLATER FACTFILE
1982-1984: St George
1985: Blacktown City
1986-1989: Sydney United
1994-1995: Blackburn Rovers
1995-1996: West Ham United
1998: Wolverhampton Wanderers
1998-2001: Northern Spirit
1988-1997: Australia: 28 matches
St George: National Soccer League 1983; Sydney United: NSL Cup 1987; Blackburn Rovers: Premier League 1994-95.