Cambridge football watchers of a certain vintage were not the least bit surprised when the result of a 2016 vote to find the city’s best footballer of the 1960s was announced. Members of the Facebook group Cambridge in the good old days of the 1960s voted overwhelmingly for the man many United followers believe was the best goalkeeper they’ve ever had: Rodney Slack.
In an age when most keepers come in king-sized dimensions, it’s staggering to recall that Rodney measures up at a mere five feet nine and a half inches (‘five feet ten,’ he’ll insist) in his stockinged feet. Yet this was a man who dominated his goal and defended it like a man possessed.
He was an utterly thrilling goalkeeper to watch, capable of pulling off the most spectacular of saves while showing a truly amazing degree of bravery. In an age when keepers were afforded less protection than those of today – if they were offered any protection at all – he never hesitated to plunge in where the boots were flying, and paid many a time for his courage with a trip to the dressing room aboard a stretcher.
Rodney’s brilliance was summed up by a Cambridge Evening News reporter who declared he showed ‘all the feline grace of a panther’. He was idolised by United fans, who voted him Player of the Year three times in his first five years at the Abbey and refused to let him buy a drink after a game.
And the admiration was mutual: his performances brought lucrative offers from League clubs including Fulham and Posh, but Rodney judged his relationship with U’s supporters and the city of Cambridge more valuable than mere monetary gain, and turned them down flat.
His career at United began in 1962, after he had understudied the great Gordon Banks at Leicester and furthered his studies at QPR. By the time his U’s career was over in 1970, he had made 353 Southern League and cup appearances, forged a reputation as the best keeper outside the League and produced countless unforgettable displays. One statistic stands out: of the ten penalties he faced in one season, Rodney saved seven.
Many supporters thought manager Bill Leivers had taken leave of his senses when he decided Rodney would not be between the sticks when United played their first Football League match in August 1970. The decision, and the manner in which it was implemented, hurt both Rodney and U’s fans, and many of the latter gave full vent to their feelings in the local press. It’s nothing less than a tragedy that his prodigious ability was never showcased in League matches at the Abbey.
Still, Rodney looks back on his United career with satisfaction, gratitude and fondness. Supporters regard the King of the Keepers with the same emotions.