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Let’s get ready to rumble: The story of Len Shackleton and Trevor Ford’s tough relationship (part one)

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It was hoped the controversial arrival of Trevor Ford in 1950 would turn Sunderland into a title-winning side. Instead, it marked the beginning of a tumultuous relationship between Ford and Roker talisman, Len Shackleton. In part one of this two-part look back at this period of Sunderland’s history, Kelvin Beattie explores the build-up to Ford’s arrival, and the early days of the Welshman’s Sunderland career.

Paul Days Collection Photo by Kemsley/Mirrorpix/Mirrorpix via Getty Images

I was born into a ‘Mudblood House’.

My Dad as a boy and young man was a Newcastle fan, as was one of my younger brothers. My youngest brother and I were Sunderland. My Dad’s era of going to games was the late ’40s and ’50s.

Despite his black and white allegiance, I always enjoyed hearing Dad talk about his idols.

Milburn and Robledo were prominent, but most talked-about was Len Shackleton or ‘Shack’ as he was more commonly known.

Shack was, according to Dad, the most skilful player he had ever seen.

He would recount incidents of Shack playing a one-two with the corner flag, sitting on the ball during games and going back to beat his tackler a second time just because he could.

He also swore that he could put backspin on the ball and confuse the opposition by playing a ball towards them that then comes back to him.

Soccer - Football League Division Two - West Ham United v Newcastle United
Shackleton had spent two years at St James’ Park after joining from Bradford Park Avenue
Photo by Barratts/PA Images via Getty Images

More on backspin later.

Dad admitted he was gutted when Shack signed for Sunderland but continued to follow the career of his idol. In direct relevance to this article, Dad would also say Sunderland had the most skilful players of that era, but Newcastle had the better team. He would tell me about Sunderland having the most entertaining forward line of Shack, Broadis and Davis.

Bingham, Elliot and Chisholm would also get a grudging acknowledgement.

He also would mention Trevor Ford through gritted teeth, describing him as ‘an aggressive money-grabbing Welsh bugger, bloody good but one of the dirtiest players to never be booked’.

In a synchronistic turn of events, one of my colleagues at Roker Report happened to mention talk of a feud between Shack and Ford. It was too good to resist.

With my Dad’s words (and gritted teeth) resonating I set off in search of the evidence to support this claim.


The arrival of the ‘clown prince’

Len Francis Shackleton signed for Sunderland in February 1948 for £20,050. This was a record signing at the time and arguably commenced the Bank of England era at Sunderland.

That said, there was clearly a policy at the time by the club and manager post-war to sign locally-born players and bring them back to the area.

It was typical of the controversial Shack’s arrival that bids for him were accepted by Newcastle in sealed envelopes – and allegedly Sunderland had been tipped off to add the extra £50 and so the transfer was done.

Soccer - Football League Division One - Sunderland Training
Shack suited red and white far better
Photo by S&G/PA Images via Getty Images

His capture certainly appears to have excited the support, who were already cramming into Roker Park in record-breaking numbers.

His time at Newcastle had not been without difficulty, and run-ins with the hierarchy at Newcastle had been rumoured.

Interestingly Jackie Milburn said at the time of Shack’s transfer, “great player, but we will win nowt with him in the team”.

The inference appeared to be clear: Shack was not a team player.

Milburn appears to have been able to put this concern to one side as a few seasons later he was very close (and very keen) to joining Sunderland and Shack. Money – and being paid what he felt he was worth – did appear to be part of the difficulty at Newcastle.

Shackleton himself was to say about his move to Sunderland:

I always admired Bill Murray (Sunderland manager) for sticking to his guns and trying to bring in players that would entertain the fans.

He would have undoubtedly included himself in this category. Never short of confidence he once said of himself:

I was not big-headed, I was given a gift and you cannot be big-headed about that.

Shackleton must have wondered if he had made the right decision as Sunderland were hammered on his debut by Derby 5-1 at the Baseball Ground – four of the goals being scored by Sunderland legend Raich Carter!

Ivor (Ivan) Broadis was to join Shack at Sunderland for the start of the 49/50 season and the team were to miss out on the title by one point.

Ivor Broadis
Broadis was actually player manager of Carlisle when he transferred himself to Sunderland, aged 26. He was replaced as Carlisle manager by Bill Shankly.
Photo by Ted Heanley/Mirrorpix/Getty Images

With Dickie Davis at centre forward and Broadis and Shack playing either side of him at inside forward Sunderland fell at the final hurdle, in a home game against the already relegated Man City and inspired Bert Trautman who beat us 2-1.

Had we won that game we would have won the title. The very reliable Jackie Stelling was to have a penalty saved twice by Trautman that day in a game that was our only home defeat of the season, and City’s only away win.

None the less, with Davis the top scorer in the first division that season, Shack, Sunderland and their fans approached the 50/51 season with high anticipation and optimism.


Fiery Ford signed to take place of top scorer Davis

The 50/51 season had reached October with the surprise announcement that Trevor Ford had been brought in for a fee of £29,500 from Aston Villa. Ford was described at the time as one of the fiercest and most aggressive centre forwards of his generation.

His arrival does seem to have at least raised an eyebrow in the dressing room. Davis was a popular member of the team.

Broadis remembers the timing of the signing as “odd” and went on to say:

Dickie had been the first division’s top scorer the previous season.

Fordy was a good player, probably the best centre forward in the country at the time. But Dickie had done nothing wrong.

John McSeveney a left-winger who was at Sunderland for most of Ford’s time at the club, would reflect

I knew Fordy well, I played with him at three different clubs… I thought he had his limitations and that Dickie Davis was a better player at Sunderland.

Ford’s home debut gave little hint of the difficulties to come.

Sunderland hammered Sheffield Wednesday 5-1 and Ford not only scored a hat-trick but uprooted a post at the Fulwell End with one of his ferocious shots. He also managed to break the jaw one of the opposition defenders.

1950 TREVOR FORD
Ford warms up pre match

It is worth noting that Ford, like Shack, was never shy to project himself and his views.

He let it be known upon his arrival that it was the offer of a house and a well-paid job outside of football (as a car salesman), that had bought him to Sunderland.

Ford would often arrive at training with a new car on a regular basis and delighted in showing these off to his teammates. You can only imagine that this might rub some of his colleagues up the wrong way. Was Shack one of these?

We have to bear in mind also that we were still in the era of the maximum wage, which in 1950 was £12 with a maximum £10 signing on fee.

Ford was ‘allegedly’ given £250 in a brown paper package by manager Bill Murray as an ‘under the counter’ payment, an illegal but common practice by many teams at the time, which along with bogus part-time jobs were used to augment the maximum wage.

Ford was so open about his transfer to Sunderland and the package he was offered that he was fined by the FA for asking more for a signing on fee than he was legally entitled to.

He was fined £100 for transgressing, but in typically characteristic fashion let it be known that he had sold the story to a national newspaper for £100 and an anonymous Welsh fan had paid the £100 fine for him.

Shack was later to remark that this fining incident was to be the only real highlight of Ford’s career at Roker Park...


Join us tomorrow for Part 2, as we explore how this difficult relationship manifested itself on and off the field – and spelled disaster for Sunderland.