THE FIRST MAVERICK
BY Vince Cooper
IN the 1960s and 70s the term ‘maverick’ has come to describe those footballers who defied convention, were seen as entertainers rather than mere footballers and often had a little ‘more’ about their off field lives.
George Best is undoubtedly the most famous of these but the likes of Stan Bowles, Frank Worthington and Rodney Marsh also headed a list of players who always seemed to be in the news, whether on the sports pages or elsewhere in newspapers.
Perhaps the forerunner of these was Len Shackleton, a player blessed with outstanding ability and a great nickname (The Clown Prince of Football) but also known for a controversial streak, exemplified most famously by one particular chapter in his autobiography.
Leonard Francis Shackleton was born in Bradford on 3 May 1922. Football-mad as soon as he could walk Shackleton’s formative years were spent kicking a ball around at every opportunity. When no football boots were available his Uncle John came to the rescue. “I couldn’t afford real football boots” he would later recall. “So my Uncle John bought some studs and hammered them into an old pair of shoes”.
Chosen to play for the North against the Midlands in a schoolboy match, Shackleton impressed and was soon pulling on an England schoolboy shirt. He played in three schoolboy internationals scoring twice on his debut and being a key part of a team that won all three games, scoring 18 goals.
Whilst he was playing as an amateur for local team Bradford Park Avenue, Arsenal manager George Allison was alerted of the youngster’s talents and drove north to sign him.
His parents agreed to allow their son to move to London while ‘Young Leonard’ stood by and listened. “He had no need to sell the club to me” Shackleton would later recall, “At that time any 15-year-old- boy, invited to join the greatest club in the world, would have been out of his mind to think twice”.
Shackleton during his time at Arsenal with fellow youngster Bobby Daniel. Welshman Daniel joined the R.A.F at the outbreak of WW2 and was killed in 1943
Shackleton moved down to the capital and Allison sent him out to play for the Gunners then-nursery club, Athenian League Enfield while working on the Highbury groundstaff. He made two appearances for Arsenal reserves before, in May 1939, the Gunners boss told him he was too frail and released him.
Shack cuts the Highbury grass
Although he said Allison ‘couldn’t have been kinder’ when releasing him, the words; ‘You’ll never make it as a professional footballer’ must have jolted him and Shackleton was undoubtedly upset by his treatment at Highbury, later reminiscing that he was treated as a ‘country yokel’ by the North London giants.
With fellow Bevin-Boy Jimmy Stephen
Shackleton initially stayed down south, finding work in a Kent paper mill and playing for the works team. He returned to Bradford at the outbreak of war and found work assembling aircraft radios for GEC before becoming a ‘Bevin Boy’, working in the mines whilst also turning out regularly with Bradford. He had volunteered for the RAF while employed by the electrical company but was turned down as his work was considered too important.
Shackleton re-signed with Bradford Park Avenue, inking professional forms on Christmas Day 1939 (“It was illegal to sign on Christmas Day”, he would later recall. “But I didn’t care and neither did the club. It was all I ever wanted to do”.)
Bradford days. Shack front and centre with future England manager Ron Greenwood to the right of the ‘keeper
Shackleton played for Park Avenue throughout the war and amassed 171 goals in 209 games, seeing his reputation grow, as did Shack (He was by now 5’ 9”). And during the conflict he also recorded one unique feat when appearing for both Bradford teams on the same day.
On the morning of Christmas Day 1940 Shackleton travelled to Leeds with his Park Avenue teammates and played in a 2-1 defeat. In the afternoon it was off to Huddersfield where he guested for rivals Bradford City and scored in a 4-3 win
Soon after the war ended Shackleton was chosen to represent his country alongside Tommy Lawton and Jimmy Hagan in a victory international against Scotland at Hampden Park. In front of 139,468 fans, his team lost 1-0 and ‘Shack’ gave away the free-kick that led to the only goal from Jimmy Delaney, enduring a disappointing first appearance on the big stage.
Despite this he was a wanted man and Bradford got £13,000 for Shackleton from Newcastle. He had become disenchanted with criticism from Park Avenue fans over his individual style and played just seven 2nd Division matches for the club in peacetime. On hearing that he had been transferred, Stanley Matthews said; “This is more proof of the harm unsporting spectators can do to players and clubs”.
One of Shackletons’s six on his Newcastle debut
At St James’ Park he came in as a direct replacement for Albert Stubbins who had been sold to Liverpool for the same amount. He made a remarkable debut for his new team, scoring six times in a 13-0 in a Second Division win over Newport County. After the match he was reported as saying: “They were lucky to get nil”
With a forward line that included Jackie Milburn, Charlie Wayman and Roy Bentley as well as Shackleton, Newcastle had no trouble scoring but their defence wasn’t so good. They finished 5th in the Second Division in his first campaign there and reached the F.A. Cup semi-final where they were thumped 4-0 by eventual winners Charlton Athletic.
Milburn for one was critical of Shackleton’s cavalier style saying; “He was ever the showman. Shack always preferred getting applause for doing some daft trick rather than scoring a straight-forward goal”. Despite this, ‘Wor Jackie’ added; ‘I clicked with him because I always expected the unorthodox”. Another teammate and future United manager Joe Harvey is reported to have said; “Newcastle would never win anything with him in the team” and claimed that he was more of an entertainer than a team footballer.
Shackleton became highly critical of the board during his time at St James’ Park, falling out over a number of issues including the directors reneging on their promise of a club house. That one saw him go on strike and the club eventually relented.
It became clear that he would have to move on and after he had refused to go on a Christmas scouting trip to watch future opponents Charlton Athletic his request for a transfer was accepted.
In February 1948 after just 18 months at St James’s Park he was unloaded to local rivals Sunderland of the First Division for a British record fee of £20,050. On leaving he made his feelings about his now-ex club clear saying; ‘I’ve no bias against Newcastle – I don’t care who beats them!’
Ted Purdon, Len Shackleton and Charlie Fleming of Sunderland
Shackleton quickly became a firm favourite at his new club, scoring on his home debut against Huddersfield Town in a 2-0 win. But they almost swapped places with his old one. Whilst Newcastle would go on to win a place in the top flight, Sunderland avoided relegation by a single place.
Shack in action for Sunderland
Sunderland were big spenders during the 1940s and 1950s, becoming known as ‘The Bank of England’, but the collection of good individuals failed to gel as a team. Trevor Ford was brought in to partner Shackleton up front and after one falling out said he’d never play in the same team as him again, a comment he later retracted.
To say the relationship between the pair was frosty would possibly be understating it. Ford often complained that the only times Shackleton passed to him would be with backspin on the ball making it difficult to control. One time during a friendly in Holland he dribbled through the defence before passing to the Welshman and offering a simple tap-in with the comment; ‘Don’t say I never pass to you’.
Shackleton had sublime skills and was a player fans, even those of opponents always enjoyed watching perform. One journalist said of him at the time; ‘He has adhesive ball control and a breathtaking body swerve. And his slender legs could crack the ball like a Bofors gun’ whilst a fellow pro remarked; ‘Once in his possession the ball is his slave.
His nickname as ‘The Clown Prince of Soccer’ underlined that he was always an entertainer. Once, with his team 2-1 up against Arsenal he put his foot on the ball in the penalty area then mimicked combing his hair and checking his watch until a defender approached. He promptly beat him and scored. Other times he would sit on the ball during a match. There is also the tale that he once took a long run-up before taking a penalty against Manchester City’s Bert Trautmann then stopped and waited for the German to dive before backheeling the ball into an empty net.
But the end results were often frustrating. Entertainment seemed to often get in the way of results all of which led to a career where he received many plaudits but few rewards.
Shackleton in a top England line-up
During his time at Roker Park Sunderland would finish First Division runners-up once and reach two F.A. Cup semi-finals but they were on the wane and had become embroiled in an illegal payments scandal when he retired after playing once at the start of the 1957-58 season. He ended with no major team honours to show for his time in the game.
Shackleton celebrates his goal for England against West Germany
Shackleton played five times for England scoring only on his final and best start when his country ran out 3-1 winners against World champions West Germany in 1954. He was then 32 and was only chosen after several withdrawals and the goal came when he lured the opposing ‘keeper out and audaciously chipped him.
Stanley Matthews was in the team that day and would later say in his autobiography that Shackleton was; “Unpredictable, brilliantly inconsistent, flamboyant, radical and mischievous; in short, he possessed all the attributes of a footballing genius which he undoubtedly was”.
He had made first appearance In an ‘official’ international in 1948 and seemed set to become a regular but was left out of the squad for the 1950 World Cup. When questioned about his regular omissions for the national team, one selector allegedly retorted; ‘We play at Wembley not the London Palladium’.
During his career he had a barber’s shop in Sunderland but on retiring Shackleton worked as a journalist for the Daily Express and Sunday People and wrote his autobiography, aptly called ‘The Clown Prince of Soccer’. One chapter titled ‘The Average Director’s Knowledge of Football’ featured just a blank page.
Shackleton, who also played minor counties cricket for Northumberland, completed a second book ‘Return of The Clown Prince’ before passing away in 2000 aged 78, survived by a wife and three sons
Len Shackleton can lay claim to being the original ‘maverick’. Any number of players since have been heirs to that title and many, including Paul Gascoigne, were championed by him. His approach to the game clearly produced tremendous entertainment to thousands of people on a weekly basis but sadly, had little end result for the clubs he represented.
He never won a title, never won a cup and earned just five England caps. But he did succeed in pleasing the fans and carving out a path that some of the great entertainers to have played the game faithfully followed.