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Born: Wednesday 3 May 1922, Bradford, England
Died: Monday 27 November 2000, Grange-over-Sands, England (aged 78)
Position: Inside Forward
One of the great entertainers in the history of English football, Len Shackleton's style of play and sense of humour endeared him to crowds all across the country despite the fact that he never won any major trophies. His attitude did not however impress the ultra-conservative regime at the FA, who considered some of his 'tricks' to be unsportsmanlike, leading to only five international caps during his career.
Shackleton was born in Bradford on 3 May 1922 and grew up supporting local team Bradford City. Although he had no proper boots as a boy, playing in shoes which had studs hammered into the soles, he would play football wherever and whenever he could. One of his teachers soon spotted his potential, leading to a debut for England schoolboys in 1936 where as a slightly built 14-year old he was by far the smallest player on the pitch.
In 1938 Shackleton received an offer to join Arsenal as an amateur and a member of the groundstaff. He jumped at the chance to sign, but subsequently struggled at Arsenal, progressing only as far as the club's 'A' team. Shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War he was released, with the club telling him that he did not have what it took to make it as a professional footballer. After working for a short time in London, he returned to Bradford and in 1940 signed his first professional contract, with Second Division side Bradford Park Avenue.
Shackleton remained with Avenue for the remainder of the war, although he still made a handful of guest appearances for local rivals City. During the war he worked as a wireless operator and later down mines as a 'Bevin Boy'. He also clocked up more than 200 appearances in unofficial matches for Bradford Park Avenue, usually at inside-left but occasionally on the left wing. Having scored 171 goals during his wartime career, Shackleton was one of the hottest prospects in the English game when official matches resumed. He was picked to play for England for the first time in the unofficial 'victory' international against Scotland in April 1946.
Early in the first season of post-war league football, Shackleton was identified by Avenue's Second Division rivals Newcastle United as one of the players who could help to return them to the top flight. He signed for £13,000 and made his debut in a match against Newport County in early October, incredibly scoring six goals in a 13-0 win which remains jointly a Football League record. Although Shackleton scored 19 goals that season, Newcastle finished only fifth but the next year were pushing hard for promotion. Shackleton however was falling out of favour with the club.
Questions were raised over his highly individualistic style and even some of his Newcastle team-mates were beginning to question whether the team was ever likely to achieve success with Shackleton in the side. In February 1948 Newcastle decided to sell him and accepted sealed bids for his signature. Local rivals Sunderland bid £20,050, £50 more than any other club and a British record fee at the time. In his absence, Newcastle eventually went on to win promotion to the First Division.
Playing top division football with Sunderland, Shackleton broke into the England team in September 1948, making his official debut in a goalless draw with Denmark in Copenhagen. However, international opportunities were to prove rare as neither the national selectors of the time nor manager Walter Winterbottom approved of his style. Tricks and jokes were a regular part of Shackleton's game, including regular one-twos with the corner flag to beat defenders, backheeling penalties and stopping and waiting on the goal line after beating an opposing keeper before eventually putting the ball in the net. He was also known to go back and beat defenders two or three times, just for show.
Although he was dubbed 'the clown prince of football', Shackleton was not all about tricks however, possessing fantastic ball control and an exceptional body swerve which enabled him to beat opponents with ease. He also had the combination of positioning, passing ability and powerful shooting which was perfect for an inside forward. As well as his footballing abilities, Shackleton was a gifted all-round sportsman who regularly played cricket, even appearing in the Minor Counties Championship for Northumberland in 1948.
Opinion was split as to whether Shackleton, who had little time for the game's administrators, should have been a regular in the England team, but his popularity with the average fan was unquestionable. His time at Sunderland was often characterised by frustation, as despite playing very attractive football the club always fell just short of major honours. Top of the league in early April 1950, Sunderland lost three of their last five games and eventually finished third, just one point behind Portsmouth and Wolves in what would prove to be the best position of Shackleton's time at the club.
Over the next few seasons Sunderland could only finish in mid-table, even though Shackleton scored 22 league goals in 1951-52, breaking the 20-goal barrier for the only time in his career. Towards the end of 1954, England faced a friendly international against world champions West Germany for which several of their usual starters were unavailable. Shackleton was selected for only his fifth international appearance and the revamped England side beat the Germans 3-1 with an excellent performance. Shackleton scored the clinching goal with an audacious chip, but that would prove to be both his only international goal and his last game for England.
Although Sunderland finished fourth in the league in 1955 and reached the semi-final of the FA Cup a year later, success would always prove elusive. In 1956-57 the team really struggled, having been bottom of the league in December and only escaping relegation thanks to an impressive run through the spring. Shackleton was in his mid-30s and was suffering from a persistent ankle injury. He played one game at the start of 1957-58 before deciding to retire after 348 league games for Sunderland, scoring 101 goals. At the end of that season, Sunderland were relegated for the first time in their history.
Shortly before retiring, Shackleton had become the first player to release an autobiography, in which he courted controversy by including a chapter entitled 'The Average Director's Knowledge of Football', which consisted of a single blank page. Having retired he became a journalist and continued to be outspoken in his criticism of the game's administrators as he had been during his career. He had always refused to conform to the standards of behaviour such people expected of him and was not about to change, feeling that such people took much of the joy out of the game. After retiring to live in Cumbria, Shackleton died on 27 November 2000, aged 78.
References (all accessed 5 March 2012):
- Published on Monday, 05 March 2012 16:54