For most Sunderland fans, there is nothing finer than taking a player from Newcastle and making him one of your own. When the Mackems broke the transfer record in 1948 by paying £20,500 to bring Shackleton to Roker Park, they captured one of English football’s most mercurial talents. Shackleton was a mould breaker, a player who refused to conform and loved to entertain the public.
Born in Bradford in 1922, Shackleton ended up as a trainee at Arsenal but was freed, aged 17 as the Second World War started. Managing to avoid being drafted, he signed a contract on Christmas Day with Bradford Park Avenue. At the time, it was illegal to sign a contract on Christmas Day, but Shackleton reminisced about breaking the law when he signed. “I didn’t care and neither did the club. It was all I wanted to do”
Park Avenue, whilst now stuck in the Unibond League, were a steady lower league side at the time and throughout the war Shackleton used to play twice a day. He’d turn out for B.P.A in the morning and then appear as a guest for Bradford City in the afternoons. He hit 171 goals during 6 seasons of war time football and he became an idol at Park Avenue. At the end of the war, Shackleton was highly sought after and the club turned down several offers but they eventually received an offer they couldn’t turn down from Newcastle United and Len made his way to St James Park for £13,000.
As debut’s go, Shackleton’s first game for Newcastle couldn’t have gone much better as he scored six and set up four in a 13-0 romp against Newport County. Yet, Shackleton didn’t enjoy his time at the Geordies at all. Asked later in his career about his feelings towards them he summed it up as “I’m not biased when it comes to Newcastle United, I don’t care who beats them”
In February 1948, Shackleton made the move which would make him a legend and joined Sunderland. The club was earning a reputation for spending big money, becoming known as the Bank of England club throughout the early 50’s, but Shackleton perhaps never received the credit he deserved as Sunderland simply couldn’t win a trophy that they’re investment suggested they should. Adored by the fans and management at Sunderland, he was not popular with power brokers of English football.
You see, Shackleton was known as the “Clown Prince of Football”; he loved to entertain the crowd and bamboozle any opponent that came up against him. Scoring the simply goal was not enough, he needed to entertain. He would dribble once, twice, even three times past a defender just to show he was completely in control of the ball. Famously against Arsenal, he dribbled his way into the box, stood on the ball and looked at an imaginary watch on his arm. As the defender came flying in, he simply rolled the ball to one side and continued dribbling around the mystified Arsenal defenders.
Against Sheffield United, he once held up play by smashing the ball in to a snowdrift to waste time and his most famous trick was to play a one two with the corner flag, leaving many a full back on their behinds, cursing their luck to marking him. Yet, for his popularity with the general public, he was despised by the F.A. The England manager of the time, Walter Winterbottom once remarked “I wish Len would come half way to meet the needs of the team, there wouldn’t be anyone to touch him.”
It is clear to anyone who knew about football in the late 40’s and early 50’s that for Shackleton to only ever have received 5 caps for England was a disgrace, but the man himself didn’t care. “England play at Wembley Stadium, not the London Palladium.” In 1955, he published his controversial autobiography that included the now legendary chapter entitled “The Average Director’s Knowledge of Football”. It was a blank page.
A niggling ankle injury sustained in the 1951-52 season eventually caught up with Shackleton and he was forced to retire after the first game of the 1957-58 season. In retirement, Shackleton continued to be a thorn in the football authorities side, comparing footballers in the 1940’s and 50’s as modern day slaves and as a journalist for both the Daily Express and the Sunday People continued to criticise the suits he felt ruined the sheer joy of football.
The Prince passed away in 2000, in Grange upon Sands after suffering a heart attack and his legacy still continues to bring joy to the legions of fans that saw him at his pomp in the 1940’s and 50’s. A true maverick of the English game, he claimed that Paul Gascoigne was the only player he’d ever pay to see as he was the only one who almost as talented as he was.
- The world record transfer in 1948 of £20,500 when he joined Sunderland
- 309 goals in 612 games
- 1 goal in 5 England Appearances
- First footballer to publish his autobiography