On this day in 1948, the great Len Shackleton made his debut for Sunderland. It didn't go to plan though, as we were beaten 5-1 by Derby County.
Over his mighty 348 league appearances for the Black Cats, the 'Clown Prince of Football' racked up 100 goals - only one of them a penalty - and cemented his place as one of the top players of the 40s and 50s.
A true master of his craft, the start of his career was not quite as smooth as he turned out to be on the pitch. After a spell at Bradford Park Avenue, and a loan at Kippax United, he was released from Arsenal's books after being told he was 'too small' to play the beautiful game. During the Second World War, when he worked assembling aircraft radios, he played 209 times in various competitions and knocked in 171 goals, and went pro with Bradford Park Avenue, scoring 4 goals in his 7 Second Division appearances.
Due to heckling from Bradford's fans, who did not enjoy his individualist play, he signed for the Mags in 1946. How desperate must he have been! He scored six times on his debut, but fairly soon fell out with the club’s directors.
From this point, though, Len’s talent shone through, and in 1948 he joined the Lads for what was a record transfer fee at the time of £20,050, famously remarking “I’ve no bias against Newcastle – I don’t care who beats them.” The bids for his signature had to be made to the mags' hierarchy in sealed envelopes, but allegedly we’d been tipped off about a rival bid – hence the odd £50.
In his first game for Sunderland, Len faced off against another Sunderland great. Raich Carter had left his boyhood club to join Derby in 1945, after the club had rejected his request for a 10-year contract. Clearly, he still had a point to prove as he scored four goals against us. Luckily for us, Shack's SAFC career improved immediately - he went on to score the winner in his home debut against Huddersfield. The first of 100 for his new club.
He went on to play for the lads for the next 9 years, during our Bank of England period, gaining attention from the England setup and eventually getting a mere 5 caps and 1 goal for his country.
Back at Sunderland, he famously didn’t get on with Welsh centre forward Trevor Ford to the extent that he often refused to pass to him. One commentator described his skills 'Once in possession, and few can match his dexterity at bringing the ball under control, the ball becomes his slave'. A famous trick of Len’s was to put so much back-spin on the ball that a pass would hit the ground and return whence it came, and he was also would sit on the ball and invite an opposing defender to come and get if off him. Add to that playing one-twos with the corner flag and going back to beat someone for a second time just because he could and you get the picture of a true entertainer.
As well as his love for football, Shack also enjoyed a game of cricket, playing for Wearmouth Colliery and Northumberland, where this infamous showman would delight the crowds by pretending to have missed catches, and then would produce the ball from his pocket!
He retired from football in 1957 when a persistent ankle injury became too troublesome, and he enjoyed a long 43 years of semi-retirement while carving out a career as a journalist, before his death in 2000, aged 78. At the time of retirement, his autobiography was a big hit, running 5 editions in just 3 months, and contained the famous blank page entitled “the average director’s knowledge of football.” He also collaborated with North East writer Scott Dobson to produce the humorous book “Geordie at the Match” in 1975 – a time when most local fans didn’t mind being part of the mythical Geordie nation.
A true Sunderland legend of the game, he was inducted into the SAFC Hall of Fame in 2019, and so his legacy lives on...
RIP Len Shackleton, the 'Clown Prince of Football'