Len Shackleton

Football's Pioneers: Len Shackleton

Dr. Neil Carter, from De Montfort University’s International Centre for Sports History & Culture, recalls the career of Len Shackleton, the ‘Clown Prince of Soccer’ who challenged authority.
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It’s safe to say that Len Shackleton (1922-2000) was a character. Born in Bradford, he had briefly been on the books at Arsenal as a youth player, before playing for Bradford Park Avenue, while working at GEC and as a miner during the war.

For two seasons, between 1946 and 1948, he played for Newcastle United, then joined local rivals Sunderland, playing 320 games for them, scoring 100 goals, before being forced to retire in 1957. 

He established a reputation as a tricky ball-playing inside-forward, who was noted for his ability to put back spin on the heavy leather balls, to backheel penalty kicks and to play one-twos with the corner flag.

In a golden era of inside-forwards, such as Wilf Mannion and Stan Mortensen, Shackleton was good enough to earn five caps for England. It could have been more, but Shackleton was probably too much of an individual and an entertainer for the selectors.

On one occasion, he sat on the ball in the middle of the game, on another, at Arsenal, he stood on the ball in the penalty area and pretended to look at his watch and comb in his hair.

Nevertheless, he also had a serious side to his personality. In 1955, his autobiography, Clown Prince of Soccer, was published and it was not a conventional autobiography. In particular, it was critical of the football industry.

The footballer’s contract was called ‘an evil document’, international selectors had ‘shortcomings’, the FA and Football League were mean with money while one chapter is titled ‘How NOT to run a football club’.

It was not all criticism as he was far-sighted enough to promote the merits of coaching and a revamping of the selection of the England team. Nevertheless, the book is famous for its ninth chapter, ‘The Average Director’s Knowledge of Football’. Underneath the title, the page was blank. 

During the post-war period, there was a decline in deference within society more generally and Shackleton’s book was the first player’s autobiography to offer a challenge to the football authorities.

It was at a time when footballers were subject to a maximum wage and their movement restricted by the retain and transfer system. It was only in the 1960s when both these labour regulations began to be repealed. 

Due to injury, Shackleton retired in 1957, but he continued his connection with the game as a journalist. For 27 years he worked for the Daily Express and then the Sunday People, and was typically unafraid to offer blunt criticisms.

Shackleton would later have a close working relationship with another football character, Brian Clough.




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