Tributes paid to a ‘great bloke’, after former Lion Slemen dies
There may have been more forthright men of the North in the side who toppled the mighty All Blacks at Otley in 1979, but there were none more skilful or accomplished in his typically understated way than wing Mike Slemen, who has passed away at the age of 69.
Slemen was a throwback with his neat ways, all balance and cleverness, tidy of appearance, but devastatingly effective with ball in hand and the try-line in his sights. There have been many tributes paid to the footballing heroes of Liverpool in recent weeks and Slemen belongs in the broader sporting pantheon as a native and long-term resident of those north-west parts. Slemen scores on so many counts, for his skill, but also for his good grace.
He was England’s most capped wing when his international career ended at Murrayfield in 1984, 31
Tests after his debut against Ireland at Twickenham eight years earlier. But Slemen was no one-trick sportsman. A talented schoolboy cricketer at St Edward’s in Liverpool, he was also a decent footballer. Small wonder he became the revered head of sport at Merchant Taylors’ School in Crosby.
All that talent, yet no ego. Slemen was universally popular, for his empathy as much as for his prowess. Simon Cohen, the former Leicester chief executive, tweeted, “A great player, a great coach and, more importantly, great bloke”, to which Austin Healey, who also hails from that area, echoed those sentiments when saying: “I couldn’t have said it any better. So sad.” Slemen was a virtual ever-present in the national side, very much part of a strong northern contingent led by captain Bill Beaumont that caused such an upset in beating New Zealand, England going on to claim their first Grand Slam in 23 years in 1980, and then getting due recognition with a place on the Lions tour to South Africa the same year.
Ten of the Grand Slam side went to South Africa with the Lions in 1980, under the captaincy of Beaumont, the first Englishman to lead the tourists for 50 years. Slemen started in the first Test in Cape Town which was lost 26-22. He was to be described by Reg Sweet, of the as “unquestionably the most talented allrounder of all”. Another South African scribe, Dan Retief, mined his memory vault to recall that “Slemen was on the end of one of the finest sequences on that tour for the Lions against a SA invitational XV at Olen Park in Potchefstroom, touching down after 32 passes”.
Slemen remained involved in the game through his school work, his time coaching at Orrell RFC, as well as, briefly, with England in the 1990s. He played his final first-class match in May 1986, captaining
Liverpool against Preston Grasshoppers in the last game before the club merged with St Helens. He went on to coach at the club before, in 1994, coaching the England backs as part of Geoff Cooke’s management team.
Beaumont led the tributes to his friend and former team-mate, describing him as “a great player and a great all-round sportsman”.
Beaumont added: “He gave so much to the game in his playing days, as a club and England coach and as director of sport at Merchant Taylors’ School. He will be very much missed as someone whose generous spirit and outstanding athleticism graced our sport. Our thoughts are with his wife, Eileen, and his family.”
Orrell’s president, Bill Lyon, expressed the views of many when saying: “It is with great sadness that we hear about the passing of Mike.”
Tough: Mike Slemen in action against Scotland in 1980 and in his later days coaching (left)