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Football and the First World War
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Len Shackleton, was one of football's great entertainers. Whether for Sunderland, Newcastle or, on a mere five occasions for England, this supremely talented inside left thrilled large crowds wherever he played.
Leonard Francis Shackleton, was born in Bradford on 3 May. Although his junior school showed little interest in football Shackleton, along with his father, was an avid supporter of the local game. On passing the scholarship exam at the age of eleven he opted to go to Carlton high school, as it had a good reputation for football. Despite being small in stature he made his way into the school team and progressed to play for Bradford schools and, eventually, England schools. While still at school he signed amateur forms for Bradford Park Avenue.
In 1938 Len Shackleton joined the ground staff at Arsenal, London, only to be told at the end of the 1938–1939 season that he was ‘not good enough for Arsenal or professional football’. He returned to Bradford and spent the war years both working and playing football.
In 1946, while still at Bradford, Shackleton was chosen to play for England against Scotland in the victory match at Hampden Park, Glasgow. During the same year he was transferred to Newcastle United for a fee of £13,000. In a memorable first game he scored six goals as Newcastle defeated Newport 13–0 in a second-division fixture. He soon came to clash with the authorities over conditions for himself and the other professionals, and after eighteen months he was sold to neighbouring Sunderland in the much heralded ‘horse auction’ transfer. Sealed bids were taken for his signature, and Sunderland offered £20,050—exactly £50 more than the nearest bid.
Playing as an inside forward, During his 11 years with Sunderland, Shackleton reached two FA Cup semi-finals and narrowly missed out on a championship medal. He holds The Wearsiders' post-war record, having scored 101 times in 348 games. On one occasion, 2-1 up against Arsenal with 5 minutes to go, he dribbled the ball into The Gunner's penalty area before standing on the ball, pretending to comb his hair while looking at his watch. It was during his stay at Sunderland that he wrote his controversial autobiography, Clown Prince of Soccer (1955). An ankle injury, suffered in 1952, proved increasingly irritating and aided his decision to retire from the game after the first match of the 1957–1958 season.
As the ‘Clown Prince’, Shackleton was one of soccer's greatest characters both on and off the field. He made only five official appearances for England, a fact often credited to his charismatic individuality. England's long-standing manager Walter Winterbottom tried to make Len Shackleton conform. ‘If only Len would come half-way to meet the needs of the team there wouldn't be many to touch him,’ he once complained.
His best friend in football, Billy Elliott, admitted that Shackleton was ‘not a team player’ (Echo). On the other hand he was capable of winning games for the team single-handed. He had a wicked sense of humour, characterized by his famous autobiographical blank chapter, headlined ‘The average director's knowledge of football’.
After leaving football Shackleton remained in the north-east, at one time running his own hairdressing shop. He eventually settled down as a sports journalist for the Daily Express and, later, for the Sunday People. After retiring he moved from Sunderland to Grange over Sands, in Lancashire, and spent winters at another home, in Tenerife. He suffered a heart attack in August 2000 and died at his home in Grange over Sands on 28 November 2000, aged seventy-eight.