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

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In the second of Kelvin Beattie’s two-part look at the divisive relationship between Len Shackleton and Trevor Ford at Sunderland, we delve into the world of backspin, overhit passes and whistleblowers.

1954 LEN SHACKLETON

Did you miss part one of the Shack-Ford story? Read it here!

The bringing together of three of the most exciting players in the country did not yield the expected success that was craved by the board, manager and fans.

After missing out on the title by a point the season before, Sunderland finished 50/51 in a disappointing 12th place.

Trevor Ford, Len Shackleton and Ivor Broadis would only play together eight times as injury forced Broadis out, before he was transferred to Manchester City in October 1951.

Ivor Broadis
Broadis joined Manchester City before returning north with Newcastle, and then journeying back to Carlisle
Photo by Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The signings kept coming though as Sunderland’s board and manager pursued a policy of trying to buy success.

Ironically, this policy may have been partly responsible for the lack of success in this era: with each new signing, a new ego/character introduced into the dressing room. Could they be moulded into a successful team by manager Bill Murray?

Season 1951/52 was little better and Sunderland finished again in 12th place.

The rancour between Ford and Shack was becoming very obvious out on the pitch.

Broadis commented:

Shack and Ford just did not gel. Maybe sometimes Len would take this out onto the field with him. Shack could play a ball through that would look like the perfect pass, but then he had the ability to play it so that it was just unreachable. I watched him do that to Fordy, leaving the lad with no chance of catching it.

Stan Anderson shared a dressing room with Ford and Shack for the duration of their time together at Sunderland. He would say in his cracking biography, Captain of the North, that he was not sure what the difficulty was about, but offered this:

Actually, I don’t think Len liked the way Trevor combed his hair. Fordy would stand in front of the mirror for ages combing his hair and tell himself how good looking he was.

Anderson also wondered whether the under-the-counter payment and part-time job that Ford had managed to acquire rankled somewhat with Shack.


Trouble in paradise

This rancour was carried out at what then would be considered one of the best grounds in the country.

Roker Park was full every home game as record-breaking crowds created a great atmosphere to play in. Our home was considered one of the places to visit and experience the entertainment on offer.

But things were coming to a head with Ford and Shack.

Ford would say of Shack, reflecting on their time together:

Shack could make the ball talk. On one occasion he got the ball on the touchline and put on a one-man act that would have won him a lifetime contract with Bertram Mills Circus. Twenty-one other players stood transfixed, but where did it get us?

Time and time again when I thought Shack was going to slip a goal-scoring pass to me, he would veer off – unlike Ivor Broadis who was like a prince to centre forwards.

A number of fans who saw Ford and Shack play together will tell you that Shack used send backspinning passes to Ford which were almost impossible to control.

The difficulties between the two had degenerated to the point that Ford requested a move, which was initially refused by the board and manager.

Paul Days Collection
A team with much promise, but too many egos
Photo by Kemsley/Mirrorpix/Mirrorpix via Getty Images

Ford then refused to play with Shackleton following a game at Aston Villa where Shack had been up to his usual trick of just over hitting passes and putting backspin on passes to Ford.

Bill Murray called the two into his office and tried to get them to shake hands and make up.

Ford allegedly replied, “not on your nelly.”

Shortly after this Shack was injured and Ford never played with Shack again, as the board agreed to his transfer request and he was sold for £29,500 to Cardiff in December 1953.

Ford spent three full seasons on Wearside he netted an impressive 70 goals in 117 appearances.

He was the club’s top goalscorer in two of these seasons, bested only by Shack in 51/52 when he scored his best-ever return for Sunderland of 22 goals.

Sunderland finished ninth in Ford’s last full season, but that was as good as it got in terms of success.

The Shack/Ford combination had not bought the desired success and now it was time for another chapter for both players and the club.

This was not to be the finish of Ford and Sunderland (and Shackleton too).


The aftermath of Mr Smith

In 1957 Ford published an autobiography called I Lead the Attack.

The first chapter in this publication was titled ‘Under the Counter’, in which he gave detail of payments that had been made to him by Sunderland and other payments he was aware of.

His intention had been to support a proposal to create an amnesty for players regarding under-the-counter payments and to bring forward a much-needed discussion about the maximum wage.

Alongside this, a letter simply signed ‘Smith’ had been published by the Sunday People and the Daily Express.

This letter detailed under-the-counter payments that had been made by Sunderland to players and led to an investigation headed up by the secretary of the league Alan Hardaker.

The consequence of this investigation upon Sunderland are well documented and has been covered by Roker Report before, but there are a number of unanswered questions in relation to this that may or may not involve our two protagonists.

‘Smith’ has never been identified.

One theory was that it was a disgruntled director.

Another theory was Ford’s book had revealed that Sunderland players were being paid far more than was being disclosed and that it was a disgruntled player who perhaps felt aggrieved that he had not been paid as much.

I do not know who ‘Smith’ was, but he or she was someone with a degree of knowledge of the club’s financial dealings.

There were two directors of the club who had requested an internal investigation into illegal payments being made and this had been refused by the board.

In 1957, after he retired due to injury, Len Shackleton went to work as a sportswriter and had regular columns in... the Daily Express and Sunday People.

Len Shackleton
Shack pulling on his boots late in his career
Photo by Allsport/ Don Morley/Getty Images

Ford certainly did not come out well from this situation and, along with five other players, he received a lifetime ban (sine die) from the game.

This was later retracted and financial penalties were enacted instead.

By this time Ford was playing for PSV Eindhoven in Holland – in typical fashion, he did not show up at the investigatory hearing and refused to retract what he had alleged in his book.


Shackleton and Ford – another missed opportunity

Clearly, Ford and Shack did not get on.

They were probably too alike – both in their own way: anti-authoritarian, confrontational and opinionated. Shack probably a bit more subtle than Ford.

The era of the maximum wage must have been difficult for players, managers and directors to work with.

Sunderland were generating huge sums of cash through their record-breaking gates and players were being paid a ‘pittance’ by comparison.

Sunderland’s board and manager Bill Murray had embarked on a policy of trying to buy success and were using under-the-counter payments and bogus part-time jobs as a means of creating attractive financial packages for players.

Soccer - Football League Division One - Sunderland
Murray played over 300 games for Sunderland before overseeing in excess of 500 games as manager.
Photo by Barratts/PA Images via Getty Images

The egos in the dressing room must have been hard to manage into a real team.

Ford’s arrival at the club was not handled well.

He dislodged a popular member of the team in Dickie Davis who had been playing well and scoring goals.

It is a fact that Davis was awarded one England schoolboy cap. In the team that day was Leonard Francis Shackleton, who had been picked to play on the right-wing instead of his favoured inside left position where Davis was playing.

Davis agreed to swap and Shack never forgot that accommodation.

We know that Shack saw himself as one of football’s entertainers. He possibly regarded Ford’s aggressive, less subtle style of play as not in the same class as his.

I don’t know if he was referring to Ford when he said while still a Sunderland player:

There is no doubt the club has made some regrettable signings through not making a thorough investigation of the material for which they were to pay such fabulous amounts.

Following his move to Sunderland in 1948, Shack stayed with the club till he retired through injury in 1957. There were no big payday moves that many other players of his era experienced/engineered. He played 348 games, scoring 100 goals.

Len Shackleton
Shack was loyal to Sunderland, retiring aged 35
Photo by Monty Fresco Jnr/Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

Shack remained loyal to the club he professed to support.

There seems to be more than enough ammunition there to facilitate Ford and Shack not getting on, and this era appears to have been a case of so close but so far!

Two FA cup semi-finals were lost and we would only seriously challenge for the title on two occasions in Shack’s time at the club, before relegation for the first time in 57/58.

There is no doubt that this era was one of great entertainment at Roker and, even when we were not challenging for the title, we could beat the top teams (only to fall the next game against lesser teams).

Ford died in 2003 aged 79. He was a centre forward of the old school – hard, aggressive and with a ferocious shot. He lived to score goals.

Despite his noted aggression on the field, Dad was right: he was never booked throughout the whole of his career.

Shack died in 2000 aged 78. He said shortly before his death, that he found it hard to watch football today and with the exception of George Best, only Gascoigne had really excited him and reminded him of the player he was.

Sunderland Tribute Shackleton
Before our League Cup tie against Manchester United in 2000, we observed a minute’s silence in memory of Shack.
Photo by John Giles - PA Images/PA Images via Getty Images

In deference to my Dad’s favourite player, I will leave the last words to Shack.

In the dressing room, we knew the wheat would have to be sorted from the chaff before Sunderland started winning matches.

In addition, we were not a team in the true sense of the word.

When eleven famous footballers, each a star in their own right, are suddenly thrown together and expected to fit in as a machine, there is bound to be some discord. It takes time to harness and control a team of thoroughbreds.

I support two teams, Sunderland and anyone playing Newcastle.