Len Shackleton: ‘The Joker of Roker’

Shack learned his trade at Arsenal & Bradford, became a footballer at Newcastle, but it was Sunderland that got under his skin – Shack loved Wearside.

Shack – thedaisycutter.com

Leonard Francis ‘Len’ Shackleton was born in 1922 and came from very modest beginnings. The 1920s are sometimes referred to as the ‘roaring twenties’ over in the United States. However, back in Britain, the 1920s were defined by depression, deflation and a steady decline in the great Britain’s former economic pre-eminence.

By the time Shack was beginning to play football, Britain’s economy was struggling. This was particularly apparent in the coal industry. The declining industry led to lower wages and increasingly bitter trades disputes causing a general strike in 1926. Miners went on strike to gain better pay and conditions and were joined by other trade unions. However, the general strike was only partial and led to the defeat of the miners. During the general strike, the middle class enthusiastically filled in for jobs helping to break the strike and increase a sense of class and social division.

Shackleton would eventually come to be among these miners when he first came to the North-East, working as a Labourer in Hazelrigg Colliery – ‘the clown prince’ knew what it was to be a working-class man in the North-East, and it was this as well as flamboyant playing style that endeared him to the predominantly working class community in Sunderland.

Like most kids in his generation, Len’s parents felt this economic instability in Britain. His parents couldn’t even afford to buy him a proper football kit. Shack commented upon being unable to afford ‘real football boots’ his Uncle John ‘bought some studs and hammered them into an old pair of shoes.’ This gesture would stay with Shack and gave him a deep love and appreciation of football and a drive to do well.

The Joker of Roker – thedaisycutter.com

Shackleton could play at both the inside and outside forward positions. He scored 134 goals in 427 league and cup appearances in just over 11 seasons in the Football League, and before that scored 171 goals in league and cup 209 appearances during wartime football. His individualistic style was a joy to watch and his gift at controlling a football made him one of the most technically gifted footballers of his generation.

After a brief youth spell with Arsenal, he re-joined his former youth team Bradford Park Avenue in 1940, only to have his footballing career interrupted by the Second World War. Following Allied victory. Shackleton signed for Newcastle United for a record fee of £13,000 in the October of 1946.

Yes, you read correctly. The Len Shackleton, Our hero, Shack, donned the black & white stripes. Of course, the Wear-Tyne rivalry was not as nearly as bitter as it has become in modern times. Nevertheless, Shackleton was on course to become a Geordie Messiah by scoring six goals against Newport County upon his arrival at the club.

The greatest of all Geordie legends, Jackie Milburn, described:

On his debut against Newport County he scored six goals, a Division Two record, and put the last one in off his backside. Ever the showman, Shack always preferred to get applause for some daft trick rather than scoring a straight-forward goal.

Shack was no ordinary player, and the fact that a man as respected as Jackie Milburn was thought to single him out for praise tells you just how magnificent he was with a ball at his feet.

Milburn also quipped:

Len Shackleton was a master craftsman and thanks to him I got among the goals. I clicked with him because I expected the unorthodox. If he ran one way, I ran the other, and sure enough the ball always found me. On the other hand, Len’s quick-witted humour often caused me to laugh outright and lose control of the ball.

There you have it – by Milburn’s reckoning, Shack was equal to him. His quality was indisputable.

As much as I respect the words of such a talented footballer, it would be loathe of me to allow a Geordie the last word on Shackleton. But fear not – the praise for Shackleton was universal.

The legendary Stoke City and Blackpool outside-right Stanley Matthews was widely regarded to be the best British football player of his generation – his words carry much weight and his opinion of footballing matters of the day was undisputable. Matthews stated that Shack was‘unpredictable, brilliantly inconsistent, flamboyant, radical and mischievous; in short, he possessed all the attributes of a footballing genius which he undoubtedly was.’

Matthews placed more value on Shack than the short-sighted Geordies. Following a row at board level and after just two years in Newcastle, Shack was sold to their bigger rivals Sunderland in the First Division for the record fee of £20,050 and is said to have taken an illegal backhand payment in doing so. He had scored 26 goals in 57 appearances for the Tynesiders.

Shackleton was one of many big-name players signed by the club for a total outlay of around £250,000 during the post-war era, earning Sunderland the nickname of the ‘Bank of England’ club. And Len – regarded by the Mackem faithful as ‘the joker of Roker’ – stated that ‘joining Sunderland was the best thing I ever did’. He proceeded to become the shining light in the flickering embers of a Sunderland side in decline.

The Clown Prince failed to win silverware in his time on Wearside but featured in two FA Cup semi-final sides and narrowly missed out on a First Division Championship medal in the mid-1950s.
An ankle injury in 1957 eventually brought Len’s flamboyant career to an abrupt end. He made 348 appearances for Sunderland and scored 101 goals.

Much like Bobby Gurney, Raich Carter and Brian Clough – Shackleton was overlooked for international honours by the England selectors, despite being universally acknowledged as a player of international quality. Len made only 5 caps for England, the most famous coming against the then World Champions, West Germany, in 1954. Sadly, his style was dubbed too individualistic by the historically-conservative and southern-centric Football Association.

Len Shackleton shakes hands with the Duke of Gloucester at Wembley-http://gimmefutbol.blogspot.co.uk

Shack opened a barber’s shop in the town during his time in Sunderland, illuminating his entrenchment in our culture and history. On retirement, he became a sports journalist. He moved to Grange-over-Sands, in Cumbria.

Shack’s autobiography, The Clown Prince of Soccer, became celebrated for its ninth chapter, entitled ‘The Average Director’s Knowledge of Football’. A blank page lay underneath. Such distain towards directors endeared him to another Sunderland legend, Brain Clough. It is written that Shack even helped to fix Clough up with his first forays into football management.

Len Shackleton passed away November 28th 2000. He was aged 78. Testament to his talent as a football player and skill as a journalist, Shack received obituaries in The Telegraph and The Guardian. A true Sunderland great.

 I leave it to Shack himself to round off:

Even though I was born in Bradford and now live in Cumbria, I still consider the North East to be home. I love the place and the people are smashing. Newcastle people always tell me that I’m biased towards Sunderland but really I’ve nothing against Newcastle – I don’t care who beats them.

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