The fate of professional players after their playing careers has ended has always proved fascinating to football fans. Perhaps it’s simple curiosity, a desire to see how an old favourite is faring. Or perhaps it’s something else, a voyeuristic trip into the abyss? Rags-to-riches-to-rags-again stories have always held a grim satisfaction and where footballers are concerned, there seems to have been no shortage of fallen idols: once proud stars found making tea on building sites.

In the summer of 1908, the Athletic News investigated what had happened to the players of the all-conquering Preston North End team of the late 1880s and the Sunderland ‘Team of all the Talents’ of the 1890s. Of the twelve former Preston players, three had died, two were in football management, one was working as a coal miner in Scotland, one was a solicitor and one had migrated to South Africa. The remaining four were said to be “living” here and there. Of the 10 ex-Sunderland men listed, two were dead, two kept pubs, one had a “large shop” in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, one was in farming, one an electrical engineer, one was employed at a printing works, one was in football management and another was “living on Tyneside”.

In 1930, the Topical Times conducted a similar survey of Manchester’s two pre-First World War Cup-winning sides, City of 1904 and United of 1909. It discovered that City could boast one electrician, four publicans, three men still in the game as coaches or trainers and one land surveyor, while two were dead. United had two men working in manual trades, four had built up their own businesses, three were in pubs, one was a trainer and two had died.

Three of the United team had done particularly well for themselves: Jimmy Turnbull was a wealthy pawnbroker, Harry Moger had built up a flourishing bookmakers, while Charlie Roberts had established a wholesale/retail tobacconist business that would continue into the 1980s. However, as the surveys suggest, the vast majority of ex-players would find employment in manual trades, sweet shops, pubs or would remain in the game in some capacity or other. 

The great Herbert Chapman, manager of both Huddersfield Town and Arsenal and a professional player before the First World War, recalled in 1931, “In my days as a player, football was regarded as a career with a dead end, and I remember the hard luck stories that used to be told of the old-timers who hung about the entrance of the dressing-room on match days, hoping for help. A few seasons ago, before an away match, one of these old timers, with hair turned grey, made an appeal to us for assistance, and, as has long been the custom, we had a whip round for him. Afterwards, when we were travelling home at night, the tragic plight of the old fellow was discussed, and a young player with some imagination remarked, ‘Is that the end? Is that what we all come to?’”

The reasons were simple enough. The maximum wage cap restricted the amount that even the best players could earn and although fewer than a third of players actually received the maximum, the spread of wages from the top men to the journeymen was not particularly wide. The process would continue well into the twentieth century due to a combination of factors. Social class, education, income, plus the fact that a player would be almost 30 or older upon retirement and past the first flush of youth saw few men rise to any prominence whether in business or in public life.

One man, however, stands out as a startling exception. John ‘Jack’ Slater, Bolton Wanderers full-back between 1905 and 1914, would, once his playing career was over, take control of one of Britain’s largest industrial conglomerates. He survived financial crashes involving many millions of pounds and went on to become a prominent politician with ambitions to serve at the highest levels. 

Slater was born in Adlington, Lancashire, on 6 April 1889, the son of William Slater, a mill worker. Jack attended Adlington Congregational School and as a youth played for Adlington White Star football team. Aged 16, he was spotted by Bolton Wanderers, who offered him a full-time contract the following year, making him one of the youngest players in first-class football. “As a boy,” he said, “football was my hobby and at the age of 16 I was asked to sign as a full-back for Bolton Wanderers. A wage of £4 a week was too much of a temptation for a boy to resist and I signed.”

His first-team debut came in March 1906 in a 1-0 defeat at Everton when he came in at left-back for the injured John Stanley. Slater then became a regular for the Trotters, showing his versatility by appearing in either full-back position. 

Bolton were something of a yo-yo side during Slater’s decade in the first team. They suffered two relegations but won the Second Division championship in 1909. During this time Slater played with and against some of the best in the top divisions. The Bolton team featured the young Albert Shepherd, later to become an England international, while the free-scoring Wales forward Ted Vizard made his league debut for the club and formed a partnership on the left wing with the prolific Joe Smith (tenth in the list of England’s all-time top-flight goal scorers with 243 league goals to his name).

As a full-back Slater encountered forwards such as the great Billy Meredith, Steve Bloomer, George Hilsdon, Alf Common and Jimmy Settle. In match reports he regularly earned praise, being described as a “dashing full-back, the best on the field,” and “going out like a lion to face opposition.”

The pinnacle of his playing career coincided with the rise of the Player’s Union – in fact, he was a member of Bolton’s first team during the troubled season of 1909 when the Football Association attempted to crush the Union. Bolton were one of the teams that voted to defy the FA. While there is no evidence that Slater served as a Union official, a couple of years later his name appeared on a circular along with various Bolton civic and educational dignitaries as well as Bolton Wanderers’ directors and prominent football legislators such as JT Howcroft of the Lancashire Football Association calling for support in suppressing football coupon betting. Their fear was that the pursuit encouraged too many gullible people to lose money while also threatening the integrity of League football. 

Slater clearly had a sense of social responsibility and was very much his own man. When he lost his place in the first team in early 1914, he stepped out of League football and joined South Liverpool, then playing in the First Division of the Lancashire Combination at Dingle Park against the likes of Chester City, Tranmere Rovers, Barrow and Accrington Stanley. This move to a non-League side deprived Bolton Wanderers of a transfer fee.

The onset of war, however, effectively ended his playing career but by this time, and despite his love of playing, Slater was already much more than a professional footballer.

In 1903, aged 14 and well before he’d signed as a professional footballer, Slater had started working part-time as an office boy in a local colliery. At the age of 17, as he signed for Bolton Wanderers, he was appointed managing salesman by Messrs Pearson and Knowles, a large Lancashire coal firm. “After that,” he said, “I never looked back.” In 1909, he married and became a business partner in his father-in-law’s coal firm, increasing the turnover dramatically. So successful was he that, in 1914, he was able go into business on his own, buying up Pearson and Knowles and soon afterwards the Berry Hill collieries and brickworks in North Staffordshire.

The First World War provided him with further lucrative opportunities. By early 1918 he’d created his own company, John Slater Ltd, and, by 1919, aged just 30 and only five years after signing for South Liverpool, he owned nine collieries, an iron and steel works, various blast furnaces, plus three shipbuilding yards. By then he had moved south and was living in some style in London in a large Hampstead mansion.

How he’d managed such a startling transformation in such a short time is a puzzle. He was obviously a very hard worker and the war made vast profits available to industrialists, especially where steel was concerned. He himself, in a rare comment, once said, “I attribute my success to the fact that I have always made a point of taking my old colleagues with me, making them co-directors and helpers, and putting money from dividends back into the business instead of making a big splash.” 

In October 1919, however, he couldn’t have made a bigger splash. Beneath headlines such as, “A Five- Million Deal. Footballer to Millionaire,” it was announced that “Mr John Slater, of John Slater (London), Limited, has acquired from Mr Clarence C Hatry, managing director of the Commercial Bank of London, Limited the controlling interest in Amalgamated Industrials, Limited. This deal involves in all a sum of £5,000,000.”

To put that sum into a modern context, £5m in 1919 would equate to £225m today. No wonder Slater was immediately referred to in the press as the “Mystery Man of Millions”. One clue to his spectacular rise, however, lies in the identity of the vendor, the notorious Clarence C Hatry. 

Hatry was born on 16 December 1888 in Belsize Park, London, the eldest of four sons of Julius Hatry, a silk merchant. In March 1910 he took over the family business which had been conducted by his mother since his father’s death. Shortly afterwards, he was stricken with rheumatic fever and the business failed with Hatry going bankrupt for personal guarantees of £8000. Despite this setback, he paid off all the debts in less than two years. Henceforth, his nickname would be, “The Man Who Always Pays”. Well, almost always…

Around 1911 Hatry became an insurance broker and developed a knack for making a great deal of money in a very short time. For instance, after acquiring control of City Equitable Fire Insurance for £60,000 in 1914, he reorganised it before selling it for £250,000 in 1915. In the false boom at the end of the First World War, Hatry proved a keen and successful speculator. In 1919 he bought Leyland Motors for a reputed £350,000 and immediately resold it for double that figure. The key to his success was the enthusiasm he engendered in others to take on questionable ventures. He professed a belief in strength through consolidation but, according to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, there was little strategic logic or managerial vigour in such creations as British Glass Industries (formed in 1919) and, sadly for John Slater, Amalgamated Industrials. 

Amalgamated Industrials was an investment and finance holding company consisting of a hotchpotch of cotton spinning, shipbuilding, and pig farming. As with all Hatry’s ventures, it was massively over-subscribed even though, as the Daily Mail’s City Editor noted, the scheme was characterised by vagueness and was notable for the fact that it did not state of what industrials the company was the amalgamate. That would have been of no consequence to Hatry, whose technique was, as with Leyland Motors, quickly to sell such financial ventures on to others, thus making a large killing for himself with little responsibility as to the eventual outcome. 

How Jack Slater became involved with Hatry is unknown, although in 1919 they were living just a couple of streets apart in Hampstead. Although Slater himself lived in some style in a large house in Lyndhurst Road, he displayed none of the ostentatious tendencies of Hatry, a man never shy of exhibiting his wealth. His office suite boasted ornate bathrooms, he raced one of the largest yachts in British waters and in one of his increasingly ostentatious homes he installed a swimming bath on the principal bedroom floor – not to mention a stone-floored Tudor-style cocktail bar in the sub-basement which he called “Ye Old Stanhope Arms - Free House.” It all contributed to the glamorous image that persuaded investors to put their money into his schemes. In 1929, however, Hatry would spectacularly overreach himself and would be found guilty of massive fraud, forging stocks and issuing unauthorised shares in an attempt to acquire control of the United Steel companies. Private investors in Hatry’s companies lost around £15m and he was sentenced to 14 years in jail. Such a shock was his downfall, it was considered by some as a contributory factor to the erosion of investor confidence that triggered the Wall Street Crash later that year.

Even in the early days, financial commentators in the City had been suspicious of Hatry. John Slater seems to have had no such misgivings. His announcement at the first extraordinary meeting of Amalgamated Industrials that Clarence Hatry, along with his regular partner Peter Haig-Thomas, would be “financial advisers” to the company via their Commercial Corporation of London was greeted with cheers by shareholders. 

Slater himself was in no doubt as to the good times ahead. He declared that, “Ever since I went into business, I made up my mind that the right and successful thing was to control an undertaking which comprised the complete business circle. The great circle of undertakings, to my mind, is this: coal, iron, steel, shipbuilding, ship-owning, coal exporting, timber exporting and mercantile insurance. We do all that now. Every stage of the circle is under our control. I believe, too, in one man holding all the strings in his own hand. One other stage is necessary to make the business circle final and complete – banking. That will come: I intend to get that.” 

There were more cheers from shareholders when Slater declared that, “as it stands today you have the foundation at least of one of the greatest industrial undertakings that has ever been formed in this country.” 

At first, everything proceeded swimmingly. Within a year, various prestigious, well-established companies – shipping lines, shipbuilders, potteries and insurance companies – were purchased. Indeed, 20 or more such industrial enterprises including all of those originally owned by John Slater himself were added to the company. Significantly, in order to emphasise his commitment to the business and to counter rumours of a potential scam, Slater revealed to shareholders that he had converted his management shares into ordinary shares, thus forgoing a vast future profit for himself. He was not happy with preferential arrangements for directors: he would sink or swim with the ordinary investor. For this he was congratulated by fellow director Sir Thomas Wilton who felt that Slater was “proving himself to be what we have felt him to be up to now, namely, what is commonly termed in America, a ‘real white man’”.

Slater’s new prominence had consequences for his first love, professional football. In 1920 he bought an estate near Newcastle-under-Lyme, close to some of his coal-mines and started to take an interest in nearby Stoke City football club. That same year he applied to the Football Association for permission to join the board, a necessary step because at that stage in football history, former professional footballers were barred from joining club directorates. A writer in the Glasgow Evening Times, summed up the reasoning: “The real danger lies in handing over the domestic government of a club or of the game to men who have a mind that looks at every point from the view of a paid player. It would be to the advantage of football in every country if it was entirely ruled by real amateurs, and in the genuine spirit of amateurism.”

The FA disagreed and Slater joined the board. Within a year he was chairman, aged just 30. He wasted no time in applying his business principles to the club, reducing the number of board members from twelve to five and even attempting to merge Stoke with nearby Port Vale. Port Vale supporters successfully resisted the move, but for some three years Slater was the considerable financial muscle behind an attempt to promote Stoke City into the First Division. With his money, the club invested in top-class players such as the Broad brothers, Tommy and Jimmy, and for a time the strategy worked. The 1921–22 season saw Stoke gain promotion with Jimmy Broad top-scoring with 27 goals. However, the Potters struggled in the First Division and, despite Broad scoring another 26 goals, they were relegated back to the Second Division. The manager Arthur Shallcross was sacked, the ex-England international Jock Rutherford took over but lasted only a month before Slater brought in Tom Mather from Bolton to stabilise matters. In 1923–24 a promotion challenge failed to materialise and at the end of the season the board decided to reduce the wage bill by releasing 10 players – including the Broad brothers. Jimmy and eight other unwanted teammates arrived at the club’s Victoria Ground and ransacked the offices, causing a considerable amount of damage. It wasn’t the only damage being done to Slater’s investments, however.

Following an early post-war boom, economic conditions in Britain changed radically. When foreign countries began to take steps to stimulate their own production and European markets were once more thrown open to American and Asian production, the result in Britain was a depression of production and of employment.  By July 1921, unemployment reached 2 million, constituting 22.4% of all insured workers; in the shipbuilding and the iron and steel trades the figure was 27%. Crippling strikes undermined the staple industries – coal in particular, which hit Amalgamated Industrials especially hard.

In May 1921 Slater addressed the company’s AGM and accused the miners of holding the nation to ransom. He also made a startling admission: that for the next 10 years, “we are going to have a very cruel time in this country in regard to the question of doing any business at a profit…” He concluded by expressing the hope that the shareholders would retain confidence in the directors’ ability to “guide the ship through whatever troubled waters it may meet to success in the future…”.

The ship soon hit the rocks, however. Hatry’s Commercial Corporation of London, which had been under-pinning Amalgamated, failed. Starved of capital, by 1924 Amalgamated itself was being wound up, its debenture holders eventually receiving £30 for every £100 invested. Slater himself was said to have lost up to £2m. 

It was at this stage that Slater left Stoke City football club but it was by no means the end of his business career. Though Amalgamated had failed, Slater somehow managed to retain control of almost all his own individual companies consisting of brickworks, fishing fleets, coalmines and sanitary-ware manufacturers which would continue to make him a very rich man indeed. In fact, so successful was he in rebuilding his industrial empire that it would eventually extend to France, Germany and Denmark. In 1932 the Daily Mail, referring to his earlier sobriquet as the “Mystery Man of Millions”, suggested that he now, “uses aeroplanes to keep in touch with his various businesses like most people use taxi-cabs.” 

In 1927, Slater moved with his family to Eastbourne on the south coast, where he bought a fine house. It was there that he was to embark on the final phase of his remarkable career. While living in the Midlands, he had won a Conservative seat on Stafford County Council, serving between 1917 and 1920. In Eastbourne he was soon a leading light in local affairs, becoming Chairman of Eastbourne Conservative Association in 1929. Fate quickly propelled him even higher in public life. 

In April 1932, Eastbourne’s Conservative MP Edward Marjoribanks committed suicide by shooting himself in the chest in the billiard room of his stepfather Lord Hailsham’s house in Sussex. Slater was nominated to replace him. A by-election took place in May 1932 and, aged just 43, Slater was returned – unopposed – to the Houses of Parliament.

Few British ex-footballers have made any sort of mark in politics. In the 19th century, three Old Etonian and Oxbridge graduates who played for England became Conservative MPs while the Old Etonian England international the Honourable Alfred Lyttelton was a Liberal Unionist and later Secretary of State for the Colonies. Slightly lower down the social scale, the Sheffield solicitor and Sheffield Wednesday and England half-back William Clegg became a local Liberal politician of note, rising to become Lord Mayor of Sheffield. All these, of course, were amateurs. Football had been a hobby rather than a living and their education and class equipped them for their subsequent political elevation.

Since that time, however, no professional player had risen higher than local councillor. By contrast, John Slater found himself selected for a prime parliamentary seat, the usual preserve of men such as Marjoribanks who, at the time of his death, was heir presumptive to a peerage. What’s more, Slater was the only candidate, more or less ushered into the seat by an admiring party. In many ways, it was even more remarkable a leap than his rise in the business world and speaks volumes for his personality and ambition.

True to form, he was by no means overawed and took to the parliamentary stage with considerable ease. A firm supporter of Ramsey McDonald’s National Government, then just a year old, he became a member of the Carlton Club but was no hard-line Tory. He called himself a “real Labour man” and in his many speeches in Parliament he stressed a “cross-party” approach to economic matters. At one point Hansard quotes him suggesting that, “We can afford to learn from Socialists if a thing is right. [An hon. Member: ‘It is a Radical idea!’] An hon. Member says that we got the idea from the Radicals, but I do not care to whom the credit belongs.”

He was at home in a political world populated by near-legendary figures: arguing with Emanuel Shinwell, Aneurin Bevan and Clydeside’s ‘Red’ Jimmy Maxton about coal-mining; being congratulated by Isaac Foot, the father of Michael Foot, on his knowledgeable speeches concerning fisheries; supporting the likes of Winston Churchill, Anthony Eden and Sir Stafford Cripps in their foreign policy initiatives.

He had a head-start, of course, over many of his colleagues, regularly prefacing his speeches with reference to his experience and knowledge gained over many years of exporting coal to Germany, running the largest fishing fleet in the North Sea, overseeing cotton and steel mills and employing anything up to 35,000 workers.

Whenever he stood to speak, (and he made over 80 speeches in just three years) he was accorded the respect due to someone who had very specific opinions on where the country should go economically and how it should set about getting there. 

What had been notable about Slater’s career from the very start was his genuine concern for British trade interests and especially the fate of the Empire. In 1919, addressing Amalgamated’s shareholders, he’d revealed that he was serving on the Executive Committee of the Grand Council of the Federation of British Industries: “I am giving all the time I can for the benefit of the country but men in charge of huge interests must look after their own businesses…”

The Federation had been formed in 1916 by a Midlands industrialist called Frank Dudley Docker. A firm believer in private enterprise capitalism (more or less regulated by the state) and international trade, he and his organisation were concerned about protecting Britain’s overseas markets and securing her sources of food and raw materials. Working closely with the Foreign Office’s Commercial Section to expand Britain’s foreign trade during and after the war, the Grand Council discussed Britain’s international trading and financial interests and thus had a view and a voice regarding Britain’s foreign relations. Slater had been significantly involved in these efforts and he brought this perspective to Parliament, regularly stressing the need for British industry to be protected and for British workers to given preference at a time of mass unemployment. 

Likeable, extremely able and increasingly influential, there seemed to be no barrier between Slater and a post in a future Conservative government – indeed, he was widely regarded as a possible Chancellor of the Exchequer. Unfortunately, fate had one last twist in store for him. 

He was, as might have been expected, an extremely hard-working constituency MP, but balancing his new political obligations with overseeing his widespread financial and industrial interests in Britain and abroad soon took its toll on his health. He developed serious heart problems and spent some months toward the end of 1934 convalescing. Following a speech given at his annual constituency dinner on Friday, 15 February 1935, he suffered a final, fatal heart attack and died aged just 46.

Slater’s success in business and politics was certainly atypical of members of the football profession before the ending of financial restrictions in the 1960s, although he remains the profession’s only MP to this day. Nevertheless, his story might help redress the routinely drab narrative of ‘exploited’ players ending their lives in sad poverty. 

There used to be a saying that if a Football League scout was to appear at a coalmine pit head, and shout down asking for a footballer, the cry would come back, “what position do you want?” and a top-class player would emerge. John Slater subverted that adage, being a top-class player who just happened to own the coal mine.

This article appeared on Episode Nine of the Blizzard Podcast. You can see which other articles we have featured by searching the Podcast tag, but we'd really like you to subscribe which you can do through iTunes, Soundcloud, our RSS feed or wherever you usually get your podcasts of choice.