Some people believe that the only thing that matters in football is winning, whilst others would argue that the sport is there primarily to entertain. Len Shackleton is a man who would undoubtedly fall into the second camp. Shack, as he was known, never won a trophy in his career; yet he is still one of the most adored and well-remembered figures of his era. Often referred to as the ‘Crown Prince of Soccer’, or more aptly the ‘Clown Prince’, whether you call him a clown, a showman or any other such name, there can be no questioning that Shackleton was also a very fine footballer.
Born in Bradford, on the 3rd of May 1922, Shackleton showed incredible natural ability from a young age and took the traditional pre-war route of joining the ground staff at a club when too young to sign professionally. The club Shackleton joined was Arsenal, in 1938, where there were doubts over his physical prowess. At schoolboy level in the 1930’s, it tended to be the best developed youngsters, rather than the most technically gifted youngsters who made the grade, but of this tendency, Shackleton was something of an anomaly. He was released by Arsenal close to the outbreak of the war and joined second division Bradford Park Avenue.
Still progressing through the England schoolboy ranks, Shackleton fast made a name for himself at Bradford PA, even during the unsettled wartime football. Those who played with or against him at junior level spoke of his ability being head and shoulders above his peers, even though he most certainly was not in terms of stature. He worked as a minor alongside playing for Bradford PA throughout the war, in which time he scored over 160 goals, and once the normal football league system resumed, he was highly sought after.
To the surprise of many, Shackleton didn’t move to the First Division, but instead headed to fellow Second Division side Newcastle United. The transfer was not for the lack of First Division interest – Sunderland and Sheffield Wednesday had both enquired of his services – but rather because free-spending Newcastle were the only side to match his £13,000 asking price, which made him the second most expensive player in British football history at the time. He scored a stunning double hat-trick on his debut, as the Magpies thrashed Newport United 13-0, which remains the joint biggest win in football league history. Despite averaging almost a goal-a-game at St James’ Park, Shackleton did not wholly endear himself to all the playing staff at Newcastle.
The fans took to him, and he enjoyed himself, but even after his first season, having reached an FA Cup semi-final, there were undercurrents of unrest. Shack stayed a second season but not a drama-free one. His strike partner, the equally prolific Charlie Wayman, complained about his struggles playing alongside Len, before club captain Joe Harvey weighed in with even more damning comments, stating, “Newcastle would never win anything with him in the team.” It was true, Newcastle did not win anything with him in the team, because he was gone that summer. He submitted a transfer request and manager George Martin did not stand in his way, accepting a British record transfer fee of £20,500 for the inside forward from local rivals Sunderland.
Shackleton was not the only big-money signing to arrive at Roker Park, as Sunderland quickly established a reputation as Britain’s biggest spenders, picking up the nickname ‘Bank of England club’. Ivor Broadis arrived for £18,000 that same summer before the club smashed the world transfer record with a fee of £30,000 for Trevor Ford the following year. By the time Ford arrived, Shackleton was already a Sunderland hero. His goals helped stave off the threat of relegation in his first season and his not-so-kind comments about former club and local rivals Newcastle United further endeared him to the Black Cats fans.
It was at this time that Shackleton was handed his England debut; it would prove an unhappy marriage. England has had a hard time with maverick’s throughout the ages, and has found it easier to simply cut them off than face the challenge of accommodating them into the team, and Shackleton was no different. One England selector famously replied to questions of why the Sunderland star hadn’t been included in the national squad by saying, “we play at Wembley, not the London palladium”. England manager, Walter Winterbottom, was a fan of his, and repeatedly tried to tame his antics. Later commenting that although his tricks were great for the crowd, he often ignored a more simple and effective ball; essentially saying Shackleton played for himself, and not the team. The England selectors decisions were made a little easier by the plethora of gifted inside forwards England had at their disposal at the time, including the likes of Raich Carter, Eddie Baily and Wilf Mannion.
His tomfoolery only grew at Sunderland, but despite the club’s financial outlay, immediate success did not present itself. A midtable finish was followed by third place in 1950, which would prove the closest the club would get to the title whilst Shack was there. The lack of silverware meant questions had to be asked at the club, and some fingers were pointed at Shackleton. Record signing Trevor Ford left the club because of his disagreements with the prodigious forward, and despite leading the scoring charts, Shackleton was dropped to the reserves for the first time.
When he returned to the first team, Sunderland faced Arsenal. Shackleton always saved particular ridicule for the North Londoners, who he still held some resentment towards following his pre-war release. Shack was the best player on the park, but once more his antics overshadowed the game. The newspapers likened his influence to that of Stanley Matthews at Blackpool at the time, with one journalist commenting that he was a “fantastic mixture of Matthews and Charlie Chapman,” but the performance was enough to keep Shackleton in the starting XI. Matthews himself had kind things to say about the clear ability of the whimsical forward, recalling after one of Shack’s few England caps, “He swivelled and ran right through the German defence. He even beat the goalkeeper but, unluckily, the ball ran out of play. If he had scored, it would have been the greatest goal of all time. The rest of us could only stand and marvel at the cheek of him.”
Shackleton did score in that game, his only England goal coming against the West Germans, who were at the time world champions, just months after the 1954 World Cup. He made a grand total of 5 caps for the national team, between 1948 and 1954. His scathing comments on the England team in 1955 ended with words, “I have no desire to be capped again,” and he wasn’t. An ankle injury in 1957 forced him into retirement, and as well as only 5 international caps, the Crown Prince also left the game with no major trophy to his name; two FA Cup semi-finals, a fourth and a third placed finish the closest he ever came.
The end of his career was a sad one. Embroiled in a relegation scrap, the Sunderland fans stopped taking kindly to Shackleton’s buffoonery for the first time, and he was booed in the season of his retirement. Despite that, he is still heralded as a legend in the North East. As recently as 2011 he was voted into the ‘Sunderland Solid Gold XI’. Shackleton is perhaps best remembered for his wit over a half a century on. His autobiography famously having a chapter entitled ‘The Average Director’s Knowledge of Football’, consisting of a single blank page. Shack went into journalism following his retirement and brought out a second autobiography in 2000, he died just days after its release and it remains one of the most controversial publications by a British sportsperson in history.