Len Shackleton: The Clown Prince of Soccer

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Len Shackleton had a blank page in his book, “Clown Prince of Soccer” reflecting his opinion of the men in charge of football.

He was and remains a hero of mine who made it so easy to dream of a life as a professional footballer.  His autobiography has rested comfortably on my bookshelves alongside Churchill, Marlborough, Finney and Matthews for many decades now and I never tire of reading it.  I saw him play at Deepdale against Preston North End and if memory serves me correctly I saw what was almost the last game of his career when he was injured at Maine Road against Manchester City.  His life as a young man mirrored the lives of many of us after the war when every piece of grass became Wembley until it became too dark to see and when your best friend was the one whose parents could afford a football.

What a player, what a character, he was indeed a Prince among men.

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Sunderland and England footballer Len Shackleton: The Clown Prince of Football

He signed in season 1947-48 for £20,050, and went on to score
over 100 goals for Sunderland in his 348 appearances in 10 years,
He also won 5 international caps for England

Leonard Francis (Len) Shackleton was born in Bradford on 3rd May 1922. As he pointed out in his autobiography, "Although there was no official football session at school, I spent all my spare time kicking a ball about in the school yard, in the fields near our home and even in the house, the latter with full parental approval.” In the early 1930's, when television was merely a madman's mirage, when empty pockets put the cinema out of bounds, youngsters manufactured their own entertainment with a tennis ball. Shackleton's parents could not afford to buy him football kit: "I could not afford real football boots so my Uncle John bought some studs and hammered them into an old pair of shoes. Uncle John always wanted me to be a footballer and he realized how much I would appreciate those studded shoes."

A teacher recognized Shackleton's talents and arranged for him to play in the North against the Midlands schoolboy game at York.  He was only 4 feet 11 inches tall and was the smallest boy in the game. He was a great success and was selected to play for England Schoolboys in 1936. He scored two goals in England's 6-2 victory over Wales.  He was also in the England team that beat Scotland (4-2) and Northern Ireland (8-3).

In August 1938 Shackleton was persuaded by George Allison to sign for Arsenal. As he pointed out in his autobiography, Clown Prince of Soccer: "With neighbours still gossiping outside, Mr Allison painted rosy Highbury pictures inside, with Dad, Mum, and "young Leonard" hanging on every word.  He had no need to "sell" Arsenal to me. At that time, any 15-year-old boy, invited to join the greatest club in the world, would have been out of his mind to think twice. So it was that I accepted his offer of a job on the ground staff and signed as an amateur."  Even at this age Len was never afraid to voice his opinions and an early incident at Highbury served to illustrate this.  One day George Allison, having come out to do some training with the staff, called out to Shackleton, who was sweeping the terraces with other ground-staff boys.  He shouted, “Come over here son”, Len recalled in later life, and put his foot up on a railing.  “Fasten that!” he said, pointing to his shoelace.  Len replied, “Fasten the bloody thing yourself!”  He would have cleaned his boots for him, never mind fastening his laces but Len felt he had no reason to speak to him like that even if he was manager of Arsenal.

Shackleton only played two non-league games for Arsenal before George Allison told him that he was not going to be offered a professional contract.  "Mr Allison could not have been kinder: he handled that interview with diplomacy, repeatedly assuring me that he was advising me in my own interests, and told me not to take the news too badly. One day I would be grateful." Allison added: "Go back to Bradford and get a job. You will never make the grade as a professional footballer."

Shackleton found work at the London Paper Mills at Dartford.  On the outbreak of the Second World War he returned to Bradford and after playing a couple of trial games Shackleton was signed by Bradford Park Avenue in August 1940. The Football League was suspended during the war but he made his debut in a friendly game against Leeds United on 25th December 1940.

Shackleton worked on aircraft wireless for GEC during the week. He volunteered for the Royal Air Force but was turned down because his war-work was considered too important. Later, he became a Bevin Boy and worked as a miner at Fryston Colliery near Castleford.

In October 1946 Stan Seymour, the manager of Newcastle United, signed Shackleton for a record fee of £13,000.  In actual fact it was £13,000 and threepence.  Bradford wanted to beat the current record so Newcastle director Wilfred Taylor threw a threepenny bit on the table to tip the balance. While at Bradford Park Avenue he had scored 171 goals in 217 games.  However, his unusual style of playing was not always appreciated and received a fair amount of barracking from the fans.  When he was sold to Newcastle Stanley Matthews commented: "The £13,000 transfer of Len Shackleton from Bradford to Newcastle United is another proof of the harm unsporting spectators can do to players and clubs."

Shackleton made his debut for his new club against Newport County on 5th October. He scored six goals in the record 13-0 win. Jackie Milburn later commented: "On his debut against Newport County he scored six goals, a Division Two record, and put the last one in off his backside. Ever the showman, Shack always preferred to get applause for some daft trick rather than scoring a straight-forward goal."

It was hoped that Shackleton would help Newcastle United get promotion to the First Division. However, they only finished in 5th place with Shackleton scoring 19 goals in 32 league games. They did much better in the FA Cup and reached the semi-final where they were beaten by Charlton Athletic 4-0.

Shackleton developed a great partnership with Jackie Milburn.  He later told his son: "Len Shackleton was a master craftsman and thanks to him I got among the goals. I clicked with him because I expected the unorthodox. If he ran one way, I ran the other, and sure enough the ball always found me. On the other hand, Len's quick-witted humour often caused me to laugh outright and lose control of the ball."  Not everyone appreciated the skills of Shackleton. His captain, Joe Harvey, argued that Shackleton was developing into a crowd entertainer rather than a team footballer and seemed more interested in beating four or five men than passing the ball to a better-positioned teammate. He added that "Newcastle would never win anything with him in the team". In February 1948 Newcastle United sold Shackleton to Sunderland in the First Division for the record fee of £20,050.

Shackleton won his first international cap for England against Denmark on 26th September 1948. England drew the game 0-0. The England team that day included Stanley Matthews, Tommy Lawton, Laurie Scott, Jimmy Hagan, Billy Wright, and Frank Swift.

Stanley Matthews argued in his autobiography that Shackleton was "unpredictable, brilliantly inconsistent, flamboyant, radical and mischievous; in short, he possessed all the attributes of a footballing genius which he undoubtedly was." Matthews claimed that he had a superb game against Germany in 1954 but it was the last time he played for England.  As Matthews pointed out his behaviour did "not go down well with the blazer brigade who ran English football and had such an important say in the selection of the England team”.

Sunderland finished in 3rd place in the 1949-50 season. However, over the next few seasons the club went into decline and Shackleton failed to win any league or cup medals while he was at Roker Park.  He also suffered from a serious ankle injury and was forced into retirement. He had scored 101 goals in 348 games for the club.

Sunderland in the 1950s acquired the name “The Bank of England Club” in the press
and here we see five new players added to their payroll for a total of £45,000

From left to right they are, Ray Daniel, Trevor Ford, Jimmy Cowan, Billy Elliot and Len Shackleton

Exactly where Leonard Francis Shackleton got his extraordinary skills from is anybody’s guess but much of his repertoire has never been repeated on a football field even 60 years after he enthralled thousands of fans every week.  Len was one of those players you only saw once in a lifetime and his ball control was mesmeric; he had this wonderful backspin where he would go up to a classy defender and apparently lose control of the ball as it went four or five yards ahead of him.  The defender would think, “Right, I’ve got him!” and go for the ball but it would suddenly disappear from his reach as “Shack” had put loads of backspin on it.  The ball would come back to “Shack” and he would be past them before they could recover, fantastic stuff.  The other great skill he had was the wonderful ability to aim the ball over short as well as long distances.  Many times when a defender had him pinned in near the corner flag he would bounce the ball off the corner flag by playing a one - two with it, incredible stuff.  He also became quite an expert at dropping corner kicks on to the crossbar where the ball would bounce out towards the penalty spot for an incoming Sunderland player to head straight into the net.  Ron Greenwood, the former West Ham and England manager recalled, “There was no one quite like our Len.  He was a showman, a crowd pleaser and a character who was larger than life.  Some of the things he did had nothing to do with the winning and losing of a game but the crowds loved him.  He had this great trick where he could cut his foot under the ball so sharply that it would spin towards an opponent and then come back to him as if on a piece of string”.  Later in his career an England selector was asked why Len had been consistently left out of the England team and his reply was, “Because we play at Wembley Stadium and not the London Palladium”.  In the 1950’s the England team was picked by a board of selectors and managed by Walter Winterbottom who could only recommend his choices.  Len thought the England set-up was a complete shambles and Walter always had a tracksuit with his initials on it “WW”, so Len called him “Washer-Woman”.  Len was even more dismissive of the selectors and he belittled their qualifications as selectors. They were:

Arthur Drewry, in the Grimsby fishing industry

Harold Shentall, a Chesterfield provision merchant

Harry French, a Middlesbrough greengrocer

Sir Amos Brookhirst, a Huddersfield solicitor

Arthur Oakley, a retired Wolverhampton businessman

Joe Mears, a London transport contractor

All of them had one thing in common, Shackleton observed, and that was “a striking absence of any football playing background of any note”.

Penalties were one of Len’s specialities and in a game against Manchester City with Frank Swift in goal he placed the ball on the spot and then walked almost to the halfway line before turning and running like a train at the ball.  He took a tremendous kick at it and Swift dived full length but the ball was still on the spot!  He hadn’t actually touched it and when he turned round and back-heeled it into the net the crowd went raving mad.  Big Frank picked himself up and walked out to Len and took his head in between those huge hands and kissed him.

During the war, Len and a Bradford Park Avenue team-mate, Jimmy Stephen were on holiday with their wives in Morecambe when Jimmy announced he was going to enter the open tennis tournament in Regent’s Park.  A very keen tennis player, Jimmy invited Len to join him using his wife’s racket.  The trouble was that Len had never played the game before and in the absence of television coverage didn’t even know how to score.  Needless to say, the complete novice went on to win the tournament by virtue of his ability to control and manipulate a moving ball better than 99% of people.  Somewhere in Morecambe is a hotel or boarding house that had one of the greatest football players of all time as a guest; I wonder which one it was?

Leonard Francis Shackleton passed away in Grange-over-Sands on November 28th 2000 and a week later on a cold and wet wintry day he was cremated just across the bay in Lancaster.

© Soccer Nostalgia 2017

Design: David Ainsworth