Len Shackleton is a name that is steeped in the folklore of our club. Stories of his playing days and larger than life persona have been passed down through generations. The below interview offers colourful insight into Shackleton himself as well as some interesting stories from a golden era for Sunderland AFC, as well as English football as a whole.
I would like to offer my thanks to Roger for his co-operation and enthusiasm in telling the story of his late-father and undoubted Sunderland legend, Leonard Francis Shackleton.
RR: Len was revered at Sunderland and all clubs he played for because of his showmanship, and the entertainment he provided as well as being a brilliant footballer. Despite the footballing Governing bodies having very different opinions on ‘Shack’ as he was known, did he enjoy the mantle of being ‘The Clown Prince of Soccer’?
RS: I guess he enjoyed some recognition for having an experimentally different approach to the game. ‘Clown Prince’ was a journalist’s spoof nickname that simply stuck. It displaced the family and schoolfriends’ usual ‘Shack’ and may have appealed to his dry sense of humour.
Despite the connotations of this ‘Clown Prince’ term, he was no idiot, nor did he take himself too seriously. For those who knew him at all well, he was intrinsically too reasonable and fair-minded for that!
He didn’t like the idea of over-coaching (others doing his thinking for him and where players could become human chess pieces), especially from those who had never ‘made the grade’ as skilled players themselves.
True respect is earned and not just demanded by folk who happen to be-in-charge. The latter equates more to unquestioning ‘military’ discipline but he believed in a more intelligent form of self-discipline, practising skills during training to achieve more creative play. Hence his ‘showmanship’ was probably a function of innate creativity combined with the nouse to practice ‘tricks’ off the field to avoid embarrassment! He would then have gained no little personal satisfaction when any ‘worked’ and provided crowd-pleasing entertainment!
RR: How did he see his role as a footballer? Did he feel a duty to the fans to be the entertainer or was he comfortable with being the maverick?
RS: He always claimed that he enjoyed his football from not long after he was first able to walk, and my granddad bound-up a tight ball of brown paper with elastic bands. This improvisation helped preserve my grandma’s household furniture and develop early skills, booting the thing around the family home in Queensbury, Bradford. In adolescence he regarded football as a potential means of earning a normal living. Remember that his era was well before the present ‘wealthy-celebrity’ one. Now children of all ages aspire to it simply for great wealth and vacuous celebrity, not just love of the game.
It was ironic in his case because he earned more during the summer season as a professional cricketer. The deliberately constrained level of footballers’ wages used to rankle with him. Not because he was avaricious but because he felt such constraints were arbitrary and unfair: popular clubs consistently benefited from ‘big gate money’, whilst the players’ share remained meagre.
He was very conscious of his working-class background and had great respect (patently far more than the clubs themselves) for the fans paying through the turnstiles. Despite low footballers’ wages he still regarded himself as very fortunate. He was paid to keep fit doing something that he would have done anyway in his spare time if alternatively employed in a non-sporting job. He was only a ‘maverick’ in the sense that his ‘footballing brain’ interpreted things in an unconventional way that produced a very different style of play to that espoused by orthodox coaches and managers.
As a two-sided coin, if he was a ‘maverick’ perhaps they were simply part of the ‘reactionary establishment’ without ever realising it? So, the alternative construction could be: it takes talent, creativity, great effort and self-discipline to convincingly stand out in any real crowd-pleasing way, with the paying public attracted in additional thousands.
It’s also telling to me that the sort of contemporary players who most appreciated or respected his form of play, always seemed to be from those at the more talented end of the range, who knew first-hand just how difficult it is to make something that isn’t easy, look easy!
RR: Did he feel like the war hindered his career? I suppose he had a good time playing wartime football but maybe it prevented him from becoming a bigger name, earlier?
RS: From what I understand of his wartime ‘reserved occupations’ included building radio sets for the war effort at GEC, hewing coal as a ‘Bevin Boy’, turning-out for his hometown football club, Bradford Park Avenue, plus playing cricket for Lidget Green Cricket Club, Bradford. His own father, Leonard Price Shackleton, had always been a keen all-round amateur sportsman who had only just survived the trenches of WWI, having been shot and invalided twice. He must also have scared his own children including my father with his gruesome stories of industrial-scale slaughter in the trenches because, later during the late 1940s into the 1960s, he used to scare my two brothers and myself with awful tales of the horrors that plainly never left him psychologically. Sporting activities were therefore a healthy ‘safety valve’ in the Shackleton household but the advent of WWII must have conjured-up a horrifying sense of déjà vu for my grandad.
Of all the things that would have been of interest or concern to him, being a ‘bigger name’ is unlikely to have been one of them. As far as hindering Len’s career is concerned, I’ve heard him mention numerous highly talented former colleagues whom he greatly admired, but sadly whose careers would otherwise have peaked during the wartime years. Fortunately, he was still only 23 when war ended and, in 1946, was bought by NUFC for a then-record transfer fee. In his début game he inadvertently created a club record (its unbroken 70th anniversary was on 05 October 2016) when the team beat Newport County 13-0, ‘Shack’ scoring 6 of them, apparently including a very early first-half hat-trick. So, he must have been doing something right, even though he regarded himself as more of a ‘play maker’ creating opportunities for the main strikers of the day.
As often confirmed by his contemporaries, the problem was that not all actual strikers were on the same wavelength as his ‘real time’ reading of attacking play development. This would then produce what he was fond of calling a ‘valiant flop’! His soon-to-be long-term pal, Jackie Milburn, is reported as saying that he quickly developed a close relationship with Len’s inside-forward style of play: “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!”
That, to me, seems quite an accolade from such a NE soccer legend and I know from having met Jackie so many times at either St. James’, or on many NE golf courses (where he and Shack would make-up a four-ball with Joe Harvey and my father’s close friend and golfing partner Tommy Mervin), or even at our family home, that he certainly was ‘the real deal’ without any ‘side’ whatsoever. Indeed, I often heard my Dad express some concern about those who would deliberately try to take advantage of Jackie’s better nature, being such a naïve (in the best sense of the word), trusting and well brought-up sole. Jackie is now very sadly missed by legions of NE folk.
RR: Do you think the reaction of the crowds towards his showboating was worth more to him than the potential opportunities he would’ve most likely had with the national team if he had ‘conformed’?
RS: Other than by sheer coercion, to conform, one first has to be a conformist. Against the backdrop of a maximum wage constraint, Len reasoned that job satisfaction had to be derived other than by pecuniary-means. That is where the so-called ‘showmanship’ comes in. Being able to try-out new ideas in an unconventional way then led to a popular notion that he was ‘an entertainer’. And so those on the terraces who appreciated such an approach for what it was [creative fun] then enjoyed a ‘co-lateral boost’ in value for their entrance money.
He must have figured that if his employers did not properly appreciate his abilities, then he would exercise what he used to refer to as his ‘God given talent’ (something only ever mentioned with significant humility, I should add) to amuse both himself and the crowd equally, via his spontaneous and creatively tangential approach to a match. This would especially happen if he had detected that a game was becoming dull and ‘going nowhere fast’. It would also probably mean that he was perceived as being ‘difficult to manage’.
Managers, however, were paid more anyway so would have to rise or fall on their own merits. They may therefore, opportunistically, have represented additional ‘fair game’ to Shack and maybe ‘maverick performances’ could be seen as a by-product of frustration due to some degree of myopic management. Similarly, if an even more ‘risk averse’ situation arose in management at national game level – as perhaps amplified by the over-arching influence of an even greater north/south divide in those days – then it’s no surprise that many talented northerners were unwisely ignored by those at the centre of football.
LFS often maintained that, had he been prepared early enough in his career to move to a London club or even one in the Midlands, then he would have stood a much greater chance of representing his country more often…
RR: Arriving at the naïve assumption based on any TV programmes I’ve watched about the 1950s or football from the time, he seems like the only human-being of the era who had a personality, and after reading his autobiography he’s got a sense of humour that I wouldn’t normally associate with people from the era. What was he like in general, was he the same man he was on the football pitch day-to-day, was it performance?
RS: It was Len’s good friend and NE-legend, Bob Stokoe, whom I recall saying something like: “Len was before his time…” and, that if TV coverage had been as extensive during the 1950s as it became in the 1960s & 1970s: “…he would never have been off our screens!” Many of his playing era’s sporting pals were great characters, some I remember meeting and there are those whom I remember LFS talking about. One I remember, in his retirement when I was growing up, was a genuine ‘stand-up guy’: Ken Chisholm, a former wartime pilot, who in the latter part of his career was a SAFC player of some renown.
He was the only man I ever met who had actually danced with Marilyn Monroe (at a New York party during SAFC’s 1957 tour, when she was on Broadway) accompanied by his South African teammate, Ted Purdon, another legendary lady-charmer and ‘bon viveur’. There were obviously many more great characters, but I knew Ken in person. He had great natural charisma, a brilliant sense of humour and could drink most folk under the table and beyond. Without over-egging it too much, he was a very bright bloke indeed with an almost Sean Connery-like attraction to the opposite sex. A truly much, much larger-than-life character with a generous nature too! I remember when I was about seven or eight, being brilliantly surprised when my Dad came to collect me from (Cleadon Juniors) school, accompanying Ken who had just returned to this country after living in Los Angeles, complete with a brand new (imported via Miami, Florida) second Generation 5.8 litre V8, Ford Thunderbird. In the hands of ‘The Chis’ with its brilliant white bodywork, blue upholstery and tinted windows reflecting in its chromed embellishments, it left an indelibly glamorous impression too!
Reverting to LFS it is difficult to be objective, but his great sense of humour was salient and, much more than most, it was of a rather quirky type. To ‘get it’ required being naturally attuned to a similar wavelength. His formal education only lasted until he had completed the School Certificate at 16, attending Carleton Grammar School in Bradford and, whilst not highly formally educated, he did seem naturally intelligent. However, he could possibly be the world’s worst at explaining things clearly, a trait you may have noticed I’ve inherited. He knew what he meant but it was something akin to taking an IQ test to pick-up on the exact meaning of Shack-explained things.
I remember an instance sometime during the early 1960s in our back garden at Cleadon, when he tried to explain some finer points of dribbling a football to my younger brother and myself. I didn’t ‘get it’ because I wasn’t really interested in football and he was talking in riddles as far as I was concerned. My younger brother David, though, did ‘get it’ and has always been keen on the game ever since, which led to him training with Fulham & QPR during the 1980s.
RR: Sadly, around the time of his passing was probably the most recent time when Sunderland had some success under Peter Reid. Did he ever express pleasure at seeing Sunderland doing well, considering how far they’d came from his days at Roker to the brand-new Stadium of Light?
RS: He did indeed express pleasure whenever Sunderland did well, especially so if the team beat Arsenal. I remember him mentioning at the time he cut the ribbon to open the new Stadium’s visitors’ centre for public viewing of construction work (am I the only person who thinks it should really have been called ‘New Roker Park’?), that he thought Peter Reid had done an impressive job reaching the Premiership although he did have his doubts about likely sustainability against the huge running costs of such ‘trophy possessions’ since the formation of the FA Premier League in 1992 onwards. His days at Roker Park were obviously during a different era, where different problems were encountered and at that time Wearside had the so-called ‘Bank of England’ team (featuring then-expensive transferee players like: Ray Daniel, £30,000; Trevor Ford, £30,000; Jimmy Cowan, £9,000; Billy Elliot, £26,000 & LFS, £20,000). Whenever asked about the ‘bad luck’ and lack of success to what, on paper at the time should have been a highly successful combination, his view was that SAFC had had the right idea of spending enough to get the [so called] best players but that the key to a truly successful side was getting ‘the blend’ of skilful players ‘just right’.
He would usually add that he thought it was: ‘The hardest thing in the world to play well in a bad side’. I believe that he felt – without scapegoating, rather telling it as he saw it – that coaches & management had unfortunately been unable to resolve the particular equation of blending latently talented players into the properly successful side that their potential talent should have delivered. These days it would probably be labelled ‘reverse-synergy’, much to the chagrin of the long-suffering enthusiastic Roker End loyalists who could reasonably have expected some measure of success.
RR: His final game for Sunderland came against Arsenal in the first match of the 1957/58 season, coming off early in the first half through injury. From speaking to people who remember that team or were at that game they felt like he’d lost interest or fell out of love with the game or maybe he just didn’t like Alan Brown?
RS: I was only two years old when that Arsenal match happened. LFS, fortunately, wasn’t at all a depressive person. From what I remember being talked about when I was growing-up, it would be true to say that by that stage he must have felt that he was: “On the crest of a slump…” but I don’t feel he fell out of love with the game, rather what he was experiencing simply fell within ‘normal vicissitudes’ for any badly injured player.
I only ever saw my father play once, on a remarkable occasion as one of the players gathered to honour his good friend John Edward Thompson (JET) ‘Wor Jackie’ Milburn. This testimonial occasion was in May 1967, literally some 10 years after Jackie retired from NUFC. The play was ‘serious fun’ on that day and Shack by then 45, was on good and entertaining form what I can remember. The match programme is now a firm collector’s item and demonstrates he was playing in phenomenally-excellent company supporting Jackie drawn to form teams of both Ex-NUFC and home countries’ International players.
Alan Brown was hired to do a job that involved cutting-out what the club saw as ‘dead wood’, or in other ways ‘problematic’ players. Fine as far as it goes but fast forward to Len’s newspaper column in following years when it was emphatically pointed-out that Mr. Brown had managed the club twice, unsuccessfully to the extent of repeat relegations and an unhappy time all round. I’m not 100% certain, but part of Alan Brown’s job might have been handling the fallout downstream of ‘illegal payments’ problems.
Whatever evidence there may have been for corruption, simply blaming players seems doubly unfair: firstly because they should have had a fair deal in the first place instead of forced into an invidious position (which imbalance has now been over-redressed to the astonishing levels of current players’ wages) and, secondly, because it overlooks the culpability of those in charge of the purse strings. That’s a simplistic view, I appreciate, but without knowing the full facts, I guess it’s still a point worthy of mention.
RR: Wikipedia is not always to be believed but on Len Shackleton’s page it says that following his retirement the club were reluctant to offer him a benefit match, but relented after Shack threatened to reveal the whole illegal payments scandal. There’s no source for this snippet of information so I’m sceptical. He was always outspoken, or at least not afraid to voice his then progressive ideas or speak truth to ‘power’. E.g. Mr. Seymour at Newcastle, and his general distaste for the powers at the FA. There’s no offence intended here, but could Len have been the elusive Mr. Smith?
RS: No offence taken plus it’s probably wise for anyone to adopt the maxim of: ‘never to say never’. And you’re right, Wikipedia isn’t always correct, for example, it has his date and place of death as 27 November 2000 in Grange-over-Sands but it was 28 November 2000 in Westmorland General Hospital, Kendal. In my experience he was certainly always very ‘up front’ and would only consider diverting to any circumspection if a particular person was him/herself at all cagey. Unfortunately, nor do I know much about the circumstances of the ‘Mr. Smith’ case.
The latter may have been what would now be called ‘a whistle blower’ or, alternatively, someone who had a more personal or perhaps financial ‘axe to grind’ for whatever reason? I think I knew him quite well (he was there when I was born and I was with him when he died) and, whereas none of us are perfect, I can honestly say that it was 99.50% a case of ‘WYSIWYG’ with him. So, I’d be very surprised if he was involved in anything requiring subterfuge of a ‘Mr. Smith’ sort.
No more than any of us are, LFS was not any sort of paragon but I have heard him mention many times about how shoddy NUFC’s Boardroom oversight was at the time of his arrival, when Messrs Seymour and McKeag reportedly the main protagonists. In his opinion as someone perceived as a ‘top attraction’, it had been generally shambolic and way short of what it should have been in relation to the ‘armies’ of paid-up team supporters. He thought the club’s fans deserved much better, alongside a fairer wage rate for players (£12/week was his pay then) and that both groups were taken for granted by the club despite it being so prosperous. Consequently his ‘face didn’t fit’ at St. James’ beyond the 1946/47 season, despite their record transfer fee payment in October 1946 (£13,000 no shillings & threepence) to acquire his services, though this subsequently proved to be a good investment when he was traded to SAFC in February 1948 (£20,050), where he remained until a chronic ankle injury forced his retirement after only one brief appearance in the opening game of SAFC’s 1957/58 season.
RR: He was always speaking up about the abolishment of the max wage, etc. If you have any other interesting stories that you want to pass on, I would love to hear them. I was told to ask you about his antics against Germany in 1954?
RS: LFS always had a ‘bee in his bonnet’ about the lack of freedom of contract, under which conditions he’d been transferred, and the need to abolish the maximum wage constraint. He and his contemporaries had been forced to work under these circumstances. His third & final book was also given a spoof title, this time revised to: ‘Return of the Clown Prince’ and was only released a matter of weeks before he died.
Chapter 11 of ‘Return…’ covers ‘Freedom of Contract’ and the 1963 ‘George Eastham Case’ where the Royal Courts of Justice findings meant that PFA players’ contract terms concerning the retention & transfer of players were found to be non-binding and were an unreasonable restraint to trade. Consequently the system that had tied them to their clubs, even following the end of a player’s contract, was deemed illegal. And, in wider European terms (but only concerning out-of-contract EU nationals transferring between member states), the 1988 ‘Bosman Ruling’ was determined in favour of R.F.C Liege player, Jean-Marc Bosman, by the European Court of Justice. This chapter demonstrates just how long-standing such unfairness against players had subsisted, engineered by clubs and footballing authorities alike. In LFS’s view attitudes of this sort (including the former vexed question of maximum wage constraint) perpetrated a great unfairness, effectively meaning ‘wage slavery’ because everyone, unless independently wealthy, must earn a living. Now a blindingly ironic situation exists because modern-day players have become independently wealthy, not just in the higher divisions. Additionally, ironical in my family’s household when I recall my late mother declaring that, once top players’ wages exceeded around £10,000 per week, it was obscene! My father would counter with: “No, it’s not Marje. You don’t think they are being paid that just because the club likes them as individuals, do you? It’s purely the economics of the situation that huge television and merchandising revenue has allowed the clubs and those who appear on the pitch to develop the sport into really big business”, or words to that effect!
‘New Chapter 9’ was entitled: ‘No Longer Blank!’ and included quotes from newspaper articles about Shack’s career and playing abilities by Michael Parkinson, no less… Michael had promised to provide a ‘foreword’ but had not been able to so in time for publication. ‘Parky’ had much admired LFS’s original blank Chapter 9: ‘The average director’s knowledge of football’, stating that it was, quote: “… the most famous chapter in football biography… the idea every football writer ever since wished he had thought of first.” So, since he had: (a) admired the mirthful idea so much, but (b) had not actually penned a bespoke foreword, LFS decided that fellow Yorkshireman ‘Parky’ might like the suitable accolade to of a ‘bank foreword’…
It’s now worthy of repetition that LFS was not motivated by money, rather he is on record on numerous occasions confirming that (along with cricket and to a lesser extent golf in which he was strictly only ever an amateur) it was football that he loved playing, literally from being the tot mentioned earlier with improvised ball of brown paper and elastic bands, later developing his skills with a tennis ball in the back streets, alongside his school pals. So earning a living was one thing, doing it in a way that still provided personal satisfaction and facilitated skills’ development, another. To illustrate this contextual aspect further, I can quote a personal anecdote, again from his final book: “I am sometimes reminded of the contrast in terms and conditions between ‘then’ and ‘now’ in unexpected ways. One example of this was in 1994 when I received a very nice letter from Raich Carter’s widow, Pat. Raich was a good friend; a native of Sunderland (Hendon, I think) and played inside forward for Sunderland and Derby County and, of course, England.
“He was slightly older than I was, more or less finishing his time at Sunderland when I arrived there. We kept in contact and he went on to manage Leeds United, Hull City and Middlesbrough. The last time I saw Raich was at SAFC’s ‘night of nostalgia’ in about May 1993. In September of that year he suffered a severe stroke that Pat reports he, sadly, never properly recovered from. She sent a letter to our apartment in Tenerife and recalled the time, in 1956, when Leeds United won promotion and the club gave Raich the ‘massive bonus’ of £350 that the couple spent on a cruise to Madeira and Tenerife. What a contrast, such a small payment for gaining so much for the club, compared to the truly massive financial rewards available to those involved in today’s game [sic] even given the now historical nature of Raich’s payment, it does seem almost derisory!”
Such historical accounts demonstrate how brave George Eastham was to hold out under greatly intimidating circumstances. The magnitude of the ‘ridiculous & obscene’ amounts of money now in the game, demonstrates just how unfair it had been previously. Even though I’m not a gambling man, I’d wager most reasonable people would now agree this particular ‘pendulum’ has swung more than a little too far. A way of redressing this imbalance should be exercising those involved on the supply-side of the game, to ensure future general equity and viability between players, clubs and their paying public. Or perhaps not, after all the footballing establishment did not depart from its erstwhile modus operandi until absolutely forced to change… that came rather late and led to unforeseen opportunities for some… which still does not justify not doing the right thing earlier!
The famous England v West Germany international match, 01 December 1954, was the first such post WWII at Wembley Empire Stadium. I recall a close family friend explaining something about it to me over a decade later. He described what a fantastic occasion it had been: “Your Dad was playing with a top-class line-up and the atmosphere was brilliant. The German goalie was unassailable, you could have shot a missile at him and he would have saved it! So, what did your Dad do but skilfully draw him out and neatly chip the ball over his head, at Wembley, against the top class West Germans, that’s what!” I sought verification of that from my Dad later who said, in those ‘politically incorrect times’, that he had had to try something special, thinking as it was happening: “OK Fritz, pick that out of the net…”. Well it was less than a decade after the WWII and, like later Basil Fawlty, who may have mentioned the War but believed he’d got away with it!
In drawing to our close, another quote about this from LFS’ final book ‘Return…’ by reference to Sir Stanley Matthews’ biography, wherein he is utilising quotes from Geoffrey Green of ‘The Times’ who describes: “The prince of all was Matthews. Majestically he glided across the afternoon… sliding tackles, lunging, retreating. But always that outside flick, having anchored the defender on the other foot, would carry Matthews clear. As a variation, Matthews would go inside, or merely beat him by acceleration. Here was a tour de force by the greatest player in football… Not far behind Matthews was Shackleton… Absurdly, this would be the last of Shackleton’s five caps spread over seven seasons: a player of almost unlimited technique who profited or ultimately suffered, according to your view, from a belief that the game was as much about entertainment as a victory. On this occasion he scored one of the goals, Bentley and Ronnie Allen the others… ‘Stan and Shack were poetry, they didn’t just play football’, reflects Jack Matthews’.”
Now followed by quotes from the interview with LFS by late-and-certainly-great Jimmy Armfield, Autumn 1996 Radio Five, Football legends:
Jimmy: “There is one match when England beat West Germany, who were World Champions, 3-1 at Wembley. The quotes that I read at the time say that Shackleton was the outstanding man of the day – can you remember the game?”
Len: “Well I can remember it but it [the quote] wasn’t strictly true. I wanted to prove to myself, mainly to my family, that I could hold my own at that level. And that level was that Germany had won the World Cup. The summer before that, they had beaten Hungary at the finals of the World Cup. I wanted to play against them and prove to myself that I could live in that company – which I did, and I scored what I felt was a super goal.”
A selector [manager, Walter Winterbottom] when, after dropping ‘Shack’ was asked why a man who could flick a coin with his foot into the breast pocket of his jacket was not in the England team [replied]… ‘We play at Wembley Stadium, not the London Palladium’… the selectors paid lip service to Len’s [talents]… pronouncing him too good for the rest… other players could not react to his speed of thought… greeted sceptically by his supporters, who reckoned they deserved better… his fifth and final international… an enchantingly subtle finish against World Champions, West Germany, an irony which served to encapsulate his England career.”
I have recently come across a prior-to-post-mortem piece (promulgated the month after LFS’ heart attack that was to prove terminal three months later), penned by Ivan Ponting, in the MUFC ‘United Review’ v SAFC, 09 September 2000, as suitable ‘final bookend’ views:
“In the entire roller-coaster history of SAFC no man inspired more pure, unalloyed joy at Roker Park than Len Shackleton… a sumptuous entertainer blessed with a sublime personal talent that rendered the ball his personal slave… eccentric and periodically outrageous… charming the fans who loved his puckish mastery, his spectacular talents were not always tailored ideally to team needs… By both word and deed he continually exasperated (and) sometimes affronted the conformists... unfortunately… they were in the majority, and they ran the game.”