Len Shackleton, the clown prince of Yorkshire football who scored for Bradford City and Bradford Park Avenue one Christmas Day
Shackleton was one of the game’s mavericks, notable for his quips as well as his outrageous skills. As well as being an international inside-forward, he was also a Minor Counties cricketer, for Northumberland.
On December 25, 1940, he played for both his home-town teams on the same day.
During World War Two, footballers were allowed to appear as “guests” for other clubs, which is why Park Avenue’s Shackleton was also able to turn out for the Bantams.
The system was introduced because it was so hard to raise a team otherwise during the war, and Shackleton guested for the Terriers at times too.
The previous Christmas Day had been a big one for Shackleton too. The first Bradfordian to represent England schoolboys, his talents attracted the interest of Arsenal but he was released from the groundstaff in 1938 for being too small, growing to 5ft 9in. The boyhood City fan had been spotted playing as an amateur for Park Avenue, and returned there, signing professional forms as a 17-year-old on December 25.
“It was during the war and illegal to sign a contract on Christmas Day,” he later revealed, “but I didn’t care and neither did the club. It was all I ever wanted to do.”
The club could only afford to pay his £10 signing-on fee in instalments.
In between assembling radios for Britain’s aircraft, Shackleton squeezed 209 games for Park Avenue alone into the six-year war, scoring 171 goals.
After six seasons, he was sold to Second Division Newcastle United for £13,000, famously scoring six on his Magpies debut in a 13-0 win over Newport County.
“They were lucky to score nil,” was his legendary observation.
His 1955 autobiography, the first by a footballer, Clown Prince of Soccer famously had a chapter called: “The Average Director’s Knowledge of Football.” “This chapter has deliberately been left blank in accordance with the author’s wishes”, was all it said.
A series of arguments with the board was behind his departure from St James’s Park in February 1948. The most serious saw him go on strike when he did not get the club house he had been promised. He won that battle but the damage was done. When he and goalkeeper Jack Fairbrother refused to go on a Christmas coaching mission to watch FA Cup opponents Charlton Athletic, his transfer request was granted.
Having played for both Bradford sides, Shackleton moved from Newcastle to Sunderland for a world-record £20,500.
“I’ve no bias,” he later said of the Magpies, “I don’t care who beats them!”
He was just as willing to take the mickey on the field. Once, with Sunderland 2-1 up against Arsenal and five minutes remaining, he dribbled into the penalty area and stood on the ball as he pretended to comb his hair and look at his watch.
When an Arsenal player went to tackle him he stepped down, dribbled around him and finished the job. At other times he would taunt defenders by sitting on the ball.
There are stories of him swinging at fresh air after a very long run-up to take a penalty against Manchester City, then backheeling the ball in with Bert Trautman having already dived in anticipation. It is not the only account of him backheeling penalties.
His one-twos off corner flags were another stunt, as was kicking the ball towards an opponent with enough backspin to make sure it returned to him before the defender could lay a boot on it.
It did him few favours with England selectors suspicious of anyone with a personality. “We play at Wembley Stadium, not the London Palladium,” explained one.
“If only Len would come halfway to meet the needs of the team there wouldn’t be many to touch him,” then-manager Walter Winterbottom complained.
Five caps spread over six years was all he managed, chipping his only goal in a 3-1 win over West Germany in 1954. He never wore the Three Lions again.
Unsurprisingly, it was not the first time his frivolity cost him.
Heckling Park Avenue fans caused him to leave in October 1946, and he was booed during his final season with Sunderland. Despite all those wartime appearances he only played 15 official matches for Park Avenue, scoring five times.
Team-mates were often frustrated by his eagerness to take on opponents when a good and simple pass was available. “Where did Shackleton’s antics get us?” Sunderland team-mate Trevor Ford wrote in his autobiography. “Precisely nowhere.”
At one point he was dropped to the Rokerites reserves despite being their top scorer. Others took a more sympathetic view.
Sunderland team-mate Colin Grainger wrote: “His control was prodigious.
“No matter how you passed the ball to him, he would have it under control in one movement.
“His dexterity was such that he did not have to do much running.
“I count it as a privilege that I played alongside Shackleton, although I never actually got close to him as a person. I do not think any of us did.
“The Clown Prince of Soccer? I found him introverted and reticent, almost shy.
“I never saw anything resembling a clown.”
His status as a nearly man perhaps added to his allure. As “The Bank of England Club”, Sunderland were England’s richest side but when Shackleton played for them they missed out on the league title by a point to Portsmouth in 1950, and were FA Cup semi-finalists in 1956 and 1957.
The Newcastle side he played for perhaps better reflected his personality, scoring 95 league goals in 1946-7 but losing 13 games after conceding 62. They finished fifth and were also knocked out of the FA Cup at the last-four stage.
A niggling ankle injury he had been carrying for six years forced him to retire after the first game of the 1957-58 season and he turned his wit to the newspapers as a respected football writer and ongoing scourge of the authorities in the Daily Express and Sunday People.
When Shackleton died of a heart attack in 2000, Yorkshire may not have lost the greatest footballer it ever produced, but it lost its most charismatic – a real entertainer happy to work a double shift on Christmas Day.
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