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Len Shackleton: The great entertainer

Perhaps more than any other player of genuine class in football history, Len Shackleton devoted his career to the cause of entertainment. He was, as he suggested with the publication of his hugely controversial autobiography while still active in 1955, the clown prince of soccer - a player with enough natural ability to produce endless on-field tricks for the amusement of the supporters and bemusement of his own team-mates.

His repertoire was extensive. He would regularly play one-twos with the corner flag, sit on the ball or feign boredom by pretending to check his watch or comb his hair, and - most famously - could effortlessly apply enough spin on the ball to make his passes return like a yo-yo.

He was feared and revered in equal measure by his fellow professionals. Stanley Matthews was a big admirer, while Jimmy Greaves, writing in Football's Great Heroes and Entertainers, said he was his idol as a youth and added: "He was the most gifted player of his generation, able to make the ball almost sit up and talk." Ron Greenwood, a former team-mate, summed him up succinctly: "He was a showman, a crowd-pleaser, a character who was larger than life. Some of the things he did had nothing to do with the winning or losing of a game, but the crowds loved him."

Born on May 3, 1922, in West Yorkshire, the young Shackleton was rated as a player of real promise in his youth. He played for England Schoolboys and was part of the Arsenal youth set-up in the late 1930s but, though he was already being tipped for stardom in the press, manager George Allison was dubious about the physical capabilities of a diminutive 16-year-old he was to describe as "frail" in his programme notes a few years later. Shackleton, naturally opposed to authority, had clashed with Allison when the manager placed his foot on a railing and instructed the youngster to tie his shoelace. When Allison ultimately decided not to renew Shackleton's contract, he showed the player a television set in his office to impress him; Shackleton felt monumentally patronised, and was motivated to humiliate Arsenal whenever the opportunity arose in his future career.

In the short-term, he returned to his Yorkshire roots and, although a Bradford City fan, he joined up with Bradford Park Avenue. They were a Second Division club but, by the time he arrived, the war had heavily interrupted English football. He was prolific in the wartime league, though, scoring 160 goals while serving his country by working in the mines. (To the outrage of the press, he later revealed in his autobiography: "I had made a real blunder by volunteering for mining ... To be perfectly frank, I did not overwork myself.")

Post-war, he earned international recognition in April 1946 when selected for an England XI for a game against Scotland at Hampden Park, but he was poor, and gave away the free-kick that led to the only goal of the game.

When the Football League resumed for the 1946-47 season, Shackleton managed to upset his club, and complained that he was being "barracked" by the fans. Bradford PA, knowing they had a valuable asset on their hands, decided to seek out suitors. Newcastle United, Sunderland and Sheffield Wednesday were all interested, but Sunderland - the only First Division side - refused to meet the £13,000 asking price, so he plumped for big-spending promotion-chasers Newcastle.

It was a significant outlay, only £1,500 shy of the record at the time, but any doubters were silenced by a debut that had gone down in legend even before the final whistle had sounded. On October 5, three days after his arrival, Newcastle were looking to end a run of four games without a win as they hosted Newport County. They won 13-0 that day - still the joint biggest league win in English history - and Shackleton finished the game with six goals, three of them coming in a two-minute spell (one of the six goals bounced off a Newport player's backside, but it was credited to the debutant on the club secretary's insistence). It was perhaps the most productive performance of his career, but he still found time for a spot of clowning, treating the St James' Park faithful to one of his famous routines as he bounced the ball back off the corner flag to outwit the Newport defenders. He joked that "Newport were lucky to get nil" but, taking a more serious tone, suggested he had found the acceptance he been seeking at his new club. "I fitted into the scheme of things," he said after the match. "When I called for the ball, they gave it to me. The cheers I got compensated for the jeers I got at Bradford."

Newcastle finished fifth in his debut season and reached the FA Cup semi-finals, but within the first six months there were signs of trouble to come, with the enormity of his talent proving something of an Achilles' heel. There had been rumours of a bust-up with fellow Newcastle forward Charlie Wayman, who had requested a transfer in April 1947. Wayman denied it was down to problems with Shackleton but he told the Daily Mirror: "Shack is a very difficult partner to play with, simply because he is so talented and it is not always easy to understand what he wants." It was to become a familiar complaint.

By his second season, the problems were becoming more significant. Shackleton fell out with the board over several matters - living arrangements and a failure to pay his £500 signing-on fee among them - and he was dropped in September. Shackleton submitted a transfer request and, while he later claimed that the board had offered him a financial inducement to do so, the evidence would suggest the agitator had simply done too much agitating. Manager George Martin said he did not "want to keep any discontented players", while Shackleton told the press: "I like living in Newcastle but I'm not happy at Newcastle United. I want a change."

Several clubs were interested - including an Arsenal side no longer under George Allison's management - but in February 1948 he was to join Sunderland, Newcastle's great rivals, who were embarking on an era of spending that would see them dubbed the 'Bank of England club'. The price was a record-breaking £20,500.

Shackleton became a Sunderland hero, helping them escape relegation in his first months with the club and, as more signings were made, he enjoyed more comfortable seasons. He teamed up well with Ivor Broadis, a £18,000 signing from Carlisle United in January 1949, though the arrival of Trevor Ford in a record-breaking £30,000 move from Aston Villa in October 1950 worked out less well. Ford revealed the following February that his "chief reason" for joining the club was to play between Shackleton and Broadis - "surely two of the finest inside forwards in the game" - but, like Charlie Wayman at Newcastle, Shackleton was simply too good for him. To his endless amusement, Shackleton would play backspin passes for Ford in front of goal, seemingly presenting the centre-forward with the perfect through-ball only for it to suddenly reverse and return to its creator. Shackleton later told journalist Bill Bradshaw that Ford had once asked him after a game why he refused to play him in. "I looked at him innocently and said: 'Trevor, I would pass to you, mate, but every time I play it to you it comes on your wrong feet'." In 1952, in a pre-season friendly victory over a Netherlands XI, Shackleton took the ball round the entire defence and goalkeeper and then, left only to place it into an open goal, played it back to Ford on the edge of the box and said: "Don't say I never give you a pass."

Such wanton mockery was by no means reserved for his team-mates, and he took particular delight in tormenting Arsenal. In a 4-1 win over the Gunners at Roker Park in December 1951, Sunderland outside-right Billy Bingham bundled the ball past Arsenal goalkeeper George Swindin and Shackleton arrived to complete the job. As he approached the line, he put his foot on the ball and said, "Come on, George - it's not in yet". Swindin, flailing in the mud, made a desperate grab for the ball, but Shackleton rolled it away from him and allowed Bingham to tap it home.

Shackleton hit 22 goals in 44 games in the 1951-52 season, his best ever tally, but Sunderland still only finished 12th in the table. For all their spending and the showboating, the Wearsiders were unable to claim silverware, and their third-place finish in 1949-50 was the closest they came. Changes were needed, and in October 1953 - after the disgruntled Ford had been allowed to depart for Cardiff - manager Billy Murray dropped Shackleton and handed him his first appearance for Sunderland's reserves.

This chastening experience did nothing to curb Shackleton's inherent love of showboating and, when back in the team for a trip to Arsenal in January 1954, he put on what the Daily Mirror labelled "an almost non-stop variety act". The Daily Express reporter likened his influence to that of Stanley Matthews in the famous 1953 FA Cup final - calling him a "fantastic mixture of Matthews and Charlie Chaplin" - and added: "Often he juggled with his feet, putting bottom spin on the ball, to leave 21 other lesser soccer artists grinning or gaping in astonishment. Once he openly tantalised Arsenal and a linesman by tip-tapping the ball just inside the touchline." Sunderland forward Ted Purdon, on his second appearance for the club, had netted a hat-trick, but the day undoubtedly belonged to Shackleton. "Playing alongside Len Shackleton is enough to set any chap on the right road," Purdon said post-match. "The things that chap does with the ball!"

For all this undoubted ability, Shackleton would finish his career without any major trophies and having made only five appearances for his country. In an oft-repeated story, one anonymous England selector explained that his lack of international involvement was "because we play at Wembley Stadium, not the London Palladium". England manager Walter Winterbottom, setting an example that would stick so far as the national team was concerned, also found his maverick ways unworkable. "Len was the type of person who could take the stage himself and wanted to more often than not," Winterbottom said. "He'd trick a player and then he'd turn round and beat him again - there's no need to do it! And he would try fancy tricks when a good straight pass was on."

Yet he also acknowledged that "it was clever and the crowd loved it" and, in December 1954, Shackleton proved he could excel on the international stage. Taking on world champions West Germany, the 32-year-old scored his only ever international goal in a 3-1 victory at Wembley, beating two men before flicking the ball over the goalkeeper. He had earlier gone close to producing an even finer goal, as Stanley Matthews recalled: "He came over to the right and I slipped the ball to him and ran on for the expected through pass. It never came. Instead he swivelled and ran right through the German defence. He even beat the goalkeeper but, unluckily, the ball ran out of play. If he had scored, it would have been the greatest goal of all time. The rest of us could only stand and marvel at the cheek of him."

It was to be Shackleton's final England appearance, and that was in no small part down to his own refusal to conform. In 1955, he published his autobiography, Clown Prince of Soccer?, which famously contained a chapter entitled 'The average director's knowledge of football' that consisted of a blank page. More significant at the time, though, were his comments on the England team: "There are so many things wrong with British international football and so few things right that I can quite honestly state I have no desire to be capped again."

Such sentiment was near blasphemy at the time, and some felt his entire playing career would be over, but he told the Daily Express in August 1955 that, while he knew his international career was finished, Sunderland boss Murray had assured him that "whatever impressions my book may have made it has had no bearing on team selection this season".

He was still capable of greatness, but by this time his career as a top-class footballer was drawing to an end. Even the Sunderland fans began to tire of his antics. In December 1956, he was booed by the supporters at Roker Park for the first time as he refused to get stuck in to assist the relegation fight in a game against Luton.

In January 1957, the FA was tipped off that illegal payments had been made at Sunderland, and several players were suspended while Murray, who received a fine for his part in it, resigned as manager that summer with the club having narrowly avoided the drop. Murray's replacement, renowned disciplinarian Alan Brown, initially talked up Shackleton's potential involvement in the press but behind the scenes had warned the old guard their places were under threat. Shackleton did play the first game of the season in a 1-0 defeat to Arsenal, but it was to be his last: an old ankle injury flared up and he never played again. At the end of the season, Sunderland were relegated and Shackleton confirmed his retirement.

He went on to work as a football reporter for the Daily Express and The People, and in 2000 completed his second autobiography, The Return of the Clown Prince. In the days following its publication, Shackleton died at the age of 78, three months after suffering a heart attack; the book, therefore, stood as a final testament to a character that had not been dulled by the passage of time. "The England set-up was a complete shambles in those days and the manager, Walter Winterbottom, was absolutely useless," he wrote in one chapter. "I remember he always wore a tracksuit with a 'WW' on the front. I used to call him 'Washer Woman'."

That he was always so certain of himself made him unmanageable in the eyes of the international selection committee, yet that same characteristic allowed him to provide the moments of fantasy that made him a legendary figure in post-war England. In 1975, Daily Express sports editor John Morgan wrote that, had Shackleton been born on the continent, he "would have been in the class of Pele, Di Stefano and Puskas". Whether Shack would have agreed with his former colleague, though, is open to debate. "I'm planning another blank chapter in the new book," he told The Independent in July 2000. "It's called 'What the average football writer knows about the game'."

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