Len Shackleton: our clown, our genius … and more golden memories

Close season seems a good time to be dipping gratefully into the archive. Here is a gem you may have missed, or rather the story surrounding it and the additional reminiscences it inspired. There are one or two links to follow but it is worth the effort …

It is not often that comments keep trickling in long after a posting has all but been forgotten, buried in the archives and popping up again only when someone does a specific Google search.

But there will be no surprise that it has happened with an article that appeared here last year, since the article was about Len Shackleton and was published not before the 10th anniversary of his death. The reason for returning to the Shack theme is simple: among the comments that were posted were three or four that added superbly to the fund of knowledge we have about one of the most gifted and also most eccentric players to grace the English game, better still in Sunderland colours.

First, an extract from the piece I wrote back then (only October but it seems longer), triggered as it was by the discovery by a fellow SAFC supporter, Mark Walton, of a priceless Jimmy Armfield documentary* for BBC Radio 5, made a few years before Shack died:

“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.

First things first: the penalty incident which so deserved to be true cannot have been, or not in the form described. You will see why when you read on through the comments that appeared – the most recent only yesterday – to tell us even more about a great Sunderland folk hero.

Bill Taylor:

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….


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.

Jeff Stoddart:

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,.


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.

Alan Hedley:

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


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.


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.

Birflatt Boy:

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.

Jeremy Robson:

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.


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!

Birflatt Boy:

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.

Alan Hedley:

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

Harry Barnes:

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.

Blind Corner:

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.


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.

To which I can add this extract from a Celebrity Supporter interview with Alan Price, of Animals and Simon Smith and His Amazing Dancing Bear fame:

Since leaving the North East, Alan has seen only occasional Sunderland games. He flew back from working in Los Angeles for the 1973 FA Cup Final. To most people, it was a fairytale, but Alan had predicted the outcome. On TV with Jack Charlton, he’d said we would win 1-0 while Jackie insisted that we had no chance.
That night, at the West End victory banquet, Shack and Jackie Milburn danced (with their wives, not each other; Shack would surely not have invited a Mag on to the floor) as Alan sang his heart out for the Lads.
Later, he rang his brother. John, sadly no longer with us, who had watched the game nervously at home. “You know,” he told Alan, “my behind was nipping the buttons off the sofa.” Hands up those WDS (Wear Down South, the London SAFCSA branch magazine for which the interview was oriignally conducted) readers who practised their own button-nipping technique as they read that.
After Alan’s biggest solo hit, Jarrow Song, the telly people took him back to make a documentary about his roots. At Shack’s home, then on the seafront at Roker, he was taken up to the loft.
“He opened a chest and tossed an England shirt at me, saying ‘do you want one of these? They never did me any good’.”
Shack later recommended Alan to Ernie Clay, then Fulham’s chairman. “He came up at a match and said ‘Len tells me you like football. Would you like to be a director?’.

Maybe more memories will now be jolted. C.an anyone shed more light on the penalty run-up from the halfway line? Additional anecdotes and observations will be hugely welcome …

* See the piece posted at Salut! Sunderland last October by clicking here. Hear the documentary at this link. Buy the Colin Malam biography at Salut! Sunderland’s Amazon bookshelf , under a fiver last time I looked.

Monsieur Salut

7 thoughts on “Len Shackleton: our clown, our genius … and more golden memories”

  1. I first saw Shack in October 1951 (a 3-1 win over Liverpool); he was – and still is – my favourite Sunderland player. Memories from childhood are certainly not infallible and can often be incorrect, but one instance of Shack’s genius I remember clearly has been ‘proved’, to my satisfaction anyway, by something I have read in last ‘ten years’ or so. It concerns a home game against Newcastle, it seems likely to have been in August 1956, we lost 2-1. I think it was 2-0 to Newcastle when Shack hammered in a shot from what seemed to me at the time, from my regular position under the scoreboard in the Fulwell End, about forty yards out, into the top right hand corner of Ronnie Simpson’s goal. About two minutes later he hit a virtually identical shot to the top left hand corner of Simpson’s goal, but only succeeded in smashing the ball against the bar. So near …
    The reason I consider my childhood memory ‘proved’ is that some time recently, I read some written comment about Shack in which he is attributed to saying to one of the Newcastle defenders, after his goal, that he was then going to put one in the other corner. So near …

  2. I met the great Shack in a pub in Tynemouth many many years ago, I happened to be with Big Bill Whitworth (RIP Bill) who was also in awe of the man, he was a true gent, funny, not arrogant in any way and absolutely superb just to listen too. I think most of these type of legend players kept their feet on the ground throughout their lives, I was also privelidged to meet the great Charlie Hurley one day in the sports bar at the SOL, he was fascinating to listen too (he was the man who made me support sunderland as a wee lad seeing a powehouse header nearly take the net off against arsenal in a 2-0 win in the sixties). Again a humble man and so funny, I asked him if he always enjoyed coming back, he smiled yes he did, and added that did I know he gets better as a player as every year goes by.

  3. I was never fortunate enough to see Shack play and (of course) there is next to no footage that shows the level of genius that he actually possessed.

    This fact, linked with the many stories about his legendary talent, leaves me with a genuine sense of loss because players of his ability are rare indeed.

    I can, though, add an anecdote from my ex father in law who played against him in a services game, during the war.

    The exact details are, somewhat, cloudy but this is what happened, to the best of my recollection.

    My ex FIL was playing in goal for the RAF against (I think) the Army who Shack was playing for and midway through the first half the ball fell to Shack, who was standing, unmarked, on (or around) the penalty spot.

    When he received it Shack turned his back on goal, then flipped the ball back over his shoulder (so he was facing goal again) and then feigned a shot into the corner – but waited for the goalkeeper to dive before, casually, rolling it into the opposite corner.

    In the second half there arose an almost identical scenario and this time my exFIL decided that he wasn’t going to be caught out the same way again so he watched Shack do the same trick (turn, flick over shoulder) but stayed on his feet at the feint.

    Shack, merely did the whole thing again and then rolled the ball into the same corner as he had before, whilst (in his words) my ex FIL stood “mesmerised”!

    I would add that it was not until after the match that he found out who had scored the two goals!

  4. I only saw shack at the end of his career but recall him playing in a testamonial after he retired – an over weight Billy Elliot (an ex half back) played in goal and shack lobbed a ball towards him standing on the goal line, the ball bounced with spin along the goal line and fat billy had to run after the ball as it bounced along the line. Hilarious but so so skilfull, and this after he had retired.

  5. In my opinion he had only one weakness he couldn’t take the game seriously and I suspect as a consequence himself and that is the only area where the great names of football might have matched him, he had too much talent to respect what he saw going on in the name of football and that was then.

    Heaven only knows what he would have thought of today’s Prima Donnas but my guess would be “a bunch of Tommy Farrs”

    For those of you who are too young to know, a talented but brutal world class boxer ruined by his life as a playboy

  6. It’s a question seldom asked. For those fans lucky enough to have seen Len play. Was he better than the other greats such as Cruyff, Platini, Best, Zidane etc?

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