Len Shackleton: a clown, maybe, but a genius too

Two months from now, we will reach the 10th anniversary of the death of Len Shackleton, one of the greatest players – and arguably the most charismatic – to wear the red and white stripes of Sunderland AFC.

Salut! Sunderland thanks Mark Walton, at the Blackcats list, for a link to a superb BBC 5 Live documentary presented by Jimmy Armfield a few years before Shack’s death.

“Football’s clown prince and soccer genius,” was how Jimmy’s item was headed and on any number of levels it is well worth a listen. The link is in my footnote.

I especially liked the Brian Redhead anecdote about the Shack penalty for Sunderland again Man City, which my records suggest must have been Aug 25 1951.

Shack scored three times against the great Frank Swift; it was to be his best season for us as a goalscorer, joint top with Trevor Ford on 22.

One of the goals was a penalty. Shack stepped back from the spot. And kept on going until he reached the halfway line. Then he began to gallop forward before aiming a mighty kick that launched Swift into a dive.

But Shack hadn’t touched the ball. He calmly turned his back to the goal and backheeled the ball into the opposite corner of the net.

The last keeper I saw chasing halfway across a field was the appalling Buffon, utterly intent on ensuring Zinedine Zidane was sent off for butting Marco “The Oaf” Materazzi. Swift’s chase was to grab Shack’s head in his huge hands and plant a kiss on it. Kindred spirits in other ways too: both became highly respected football reporters (Swifty dying in the Munich air crash).

There are not many thing I am too young to have done, but seeing Shack play for us is one of them (I was a kid of eight, and had never seen a professional match, when he turned out for SAFC for the last time).

But I do proudly possess a Philosophy Football Shack T-shirt – the famous blank page from his book, Clown Prince of Football, on the front and name and number (Shackleton/No 10) on the back.

And I have one anecdote of my own.


On a Tuesday in Nov 2000, the day after Shack’s death aged 78, Sunderland were playing Man Utd in a League Cup fourth round tie. I had manipulated a work visit from London to the North East to make sure I could be there. I think it was to interview the professor of folk music – and what else would you wish to be professor of? – at Newcastle University.

We won 2-1 after extra time, Kevin Phillips scoring the winner from the penalty spot, without taking his run-up from the halfway line.

With time to kill before the game, I had been walking through the Bridges shopping centre when I suddenly saw a Sunderland Echo newspaper billboard announcing “Shack dead”.

Saddened, I handed the news vendor my coins only for her to tell me: “It’s not in the paper, pet. It was too late for them. I just thought people would like to know.”

As I wrote on these pages a long while ago, it was a terrific gesture, in its own way a great tribute to a great man. And I naturally bought a paper anyway.

Colin Randall

* Listen to the documentary at this link

15 thoughts on “Len Shackleton: a clown, maybe, but a genius too”

  1. Harry: then Brian Redhead must have been mistaken, surely, since according to Rob Mason’s indispensable Sunderland: the complete record he scored no other penalties for us vs Man City. If it happened at all, it must have involved another keeper and another opposing team, unless it occurred at one of the clubs where Len played before joining us (I haven’t the heart to delve into Newcastle’s records).

    Great posts here. I will find a way of bumping up the article so that they can have a wider audience.

  2. I had the privilege of meeting Shack a couple of times when he had his shop next to the Infirmary and also when he was a reporter for the People.
    I saw him play in a testimonial at Sid James’ for Jackie Milburn – he did that trick where he kicks the ball about 6 foot in front of him and it bounces back to his feet, incredible, the defender had no chance. Other players in that match that I can remember were the great Puskas and Bobby Charlton – fantastic night I’ll never forget.

  3. The match at which Shackleton put this penalty past Frank Swift wasn’t the 3-0 victory over Man City on 25 August 1951 as Frank Swift retired in 1949. Bert Trautman was in goal that day. As a 14 year old I watched the match and wrote the following in a note-book I kept about Sunderland’s games. After listing the teams, this is how I wrote it. “Shackleton was brilliant not only because of his hat trick but because of his scheming, dribbling and in the last 15 minutes his clowning. He put Sunderland ahead in 30 minutes when receiving a pass from Broadis he flashed the ball into the net from 30 yards. Six minutes later Bingham shoved the ball to Shackleton who was brought down in a tackle by Rigby but Shackleton scambled to his feet and he had the ball in the net. Half-time Sunderland 2 Man City 0. Bingham was pulled down in the penalty box and Shackleton took the penalty with the outside of his right foot and had Trautman wondering where it was going. This shot gave Shack his hat trick. Others who had good games were (for Sunderland) Hudgell, Bingham and Broadis (for Man City) Trautmann (who kept the score down) Paul and Rigby. Sunderland 3 Man City 0. Attendence 45,396 (Saw this gaqme from the Roker End)”

    I saw Shackleton play over a 100 games at Roker Park (missing out for two years when I did my National Service overseas when Sunderland got to two FA Cup Semi-Finals). It was the best game I saw him play, which is saying something as was the greatest.

  4. Birflatt Boy your comment on nostalgia was so true because my signature on the Footie Chat Sunderland board which incidently has nearly 1,200 subjects and approaching 11,000 posts is


    Boy are there times when I feel financially challenged

  5. Mark; I fully understand what you mean. I felt embarrassed when I saw pictures of myself at the 1985 Milk Cup Final!

    I think that given the age of a lot of the Salut readers we’d thrive on the nostalgia.

  6. BB, mainly a lurker but I pop on here and post every now and then. I wrote the “smerking” quip a while back, for instance. I might have used my real name (Mark) instead of Sanddancer.

    As for the pictures I’ll see what I can do. There was no fancy digital stuff back then, you know. I think they were taken on slides but I do recall having a print of me with the cup. Trouble is the pictures are with my parents back in Shields and I’m in Dallas. But I’ll ask about them. Now, whether I could stand the embarrassment of having a 37 year old photo (37 years!) of me as a 15 year old on a public site is another matter!

  7. That really is a wonderful story about a true Sunderland legend.

    A couple of years ago my wife took my son (6 at the time) to meet Kenwyne Jones at the SOL shop. There were a lot of people there and Jones arrived 45 minutes late. The kids had been stood in the cold waiting for hours. When they got to the front, Jones signed my lad’s SAFC shirt and he had his picture taken with him. Jones didn’t speak a single word. My lad idolised him until he met him. He never said anything much about this brief encounter with his then hero, but has barely mentioned him since.

    Kenwyne Jones and Len Shackleton. I was going to say compare and contrast, but that would be an insult to a true great. You have to be a hero off the field as well as on it.

  8. Sanddancer. I’ve not seen you post on Salut before. Pleased to read this one if it is a first.

    What a wonderful tale. It would be great to see some of these pictures if you still have them. I’m sure that Salut visitors would get a real buzz from seeing a load of bairns with the cup (if you don’t mind that is!). You can email Colin Randall using the link in the top left corner.

  9. My cousin married one of Len’s sons. While the marriage didn’t last it did give me the opportunity to meet the great man on a couple of occasions. He was larger than life in person and a fantastic bloke to be around.
    In the summer of 1973 there was a knock on our front door in South Shields. When I answered the door there was a beaming Len – always had a smile on his face. He told me to get the family and that he had something to show us. I yelled inside that Uncle Len was here and we duly trooped out to his car. There, slung on the back seat, was the FA Cup! He spent about an hour with us and we all got our pictures taken with it before he threw it in the back seat again and set off for another family’s house. He didn’t need to do any of that but he got such a kick out of making people happy. RIP, Len.

  10. It’s such a shame that there isn’t more footage of the great man in action Alan. Sadly, outside the ranks of Sunderland supporters Shack seems to have barely caused a ripple.

    He was also of course a man of great perspicacity and wit. When accused of being biased against Newcastle Utd, he quipped. “I’m not biased! I don’t care who beats them.” A classic line to go alongside the blank page in his book. I wish I’d seen him in the flesh.

  11. There are very few old wives tales told about Shack because anything you could think of, he could do with a ball. I saw him play about four times as a child and each time he got the ball my father said watch this son you will never see anyone better.

    I never have and for all the talent today I firmly believe that with all the facilities for training and fitness the greats of yesteryear could have held their own with most of today’s top players.

    Shack would have been bettered by no one

  12. Brilliant post Jeff. When I was a bairn I used to travel to games some times with a neighbour of ours, a real gentleman of a man called Tom Bambrough. Mr Bambrough used to tell me all sorts of tales about Shack and the antics he got up to. I hadn’t heard that one of yours though.

    He used to tell me that Shack could kick the ball towards a defender with sufficient backspin to bring the ball back to him! He also used to say that Shack didn’t like Trevor Ford and ruined him by just over hitting passes so that Ford couldn’t collect the ball, making Ford look bad to the crowd.

    The clips that I saw a few years ago left me spellbound. I used to think that the stories I heard were ‘old wives tales’ embroidered time and time again over the years, but not from the bits that I saw.

  13. My dad who was the announcer at Roker Park in the 60s told me this story:

    Shack was at the Roker end I think it was against Derby in 1947 but not sure, when he collected the ball near the half way line and set off goalwards, about 10 yards out he pirouetted 180 degrees and flicked the ball up at the same time opening the top of his shorts and allowing the ball to drop in, he then danced round the goalkeeper flicked the ball out and tapped it into the net to thunderous applause.
    The referee not having spotted the incident gave the goal. My father swears he saw it with his own eyes,.

  14. I’m not old enough to have seen Len play, and unfortunately there isn’t as much footage of the ‘olden days’ as we see today.

    A few years ago I was fortunate enough to see some black and white grainy footage. It’s all too easy to look back on the past and past generations of players and claim that they were better than modern players. I can honestly say that I’ve never seen anything quite like Shack. The man was uniquely talented; a genuine one off, not only to his generation but also to all who follow. The man was simply a genius with the ball.

  15. Not a bad minor-counties cricketer in his day, either. I always wonder how these larger-than-life players from the past would fare in modern football. A different time and a very different game. Put a sodden, mud-encrusted leather ball in front of Darren Bent and give Shack a Jabulani….

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