Leonard (Len) Shackleton was born in Bradford on 3rd May 1922. As he pointed out in his autobiography, Crown Prince of Soccer: "Although there was no official football session at school, I spent all my spare time kicking a ball about in the school yard, in the fields near our home and even in the house, the latter with full parental approval. In the early 1930's, when television was merely a madman's mirage, when empty pockets put the cinema out of bounds, youngsters manufactured their own entertainment with a tennis ball."
Shackleton's parents could not afford to buy him football kit: "I could not afford real football boots so my Uncle John bought some studs and hammered them into an old pair of shoes. Uncle John always wanted me to be a footballer and he realized how much I would appreciate those studded shoes."
A teacher recognized Shackleton's talents and arranged for him to play in the North against the Midlands schoolboy game at York. He was only 4 feet 11 inches tall and was the smallest boy in the game. He was a great success and was selected to play for England Schoolboys in 1936. He scored two goals in England's 6-2 victory over Wales. He was also in the England team that beat Scotland (4-2) and Northern Ireland (8-3).
In August 1938 Shackleton was persuaded by George Allison to sign for Arsenal. As he pointed out in his autobiography, Crown Prince of Soccer: "With neighbours still gossiping outside, Mr Allison painted rosy Highbury pictures inside, with Dad, Mum, and "young Leonard" hanging on every word. He had no need to "sell" Arsenal to me. At that time, any 15-year-old boy, invited to join the greatest club in the world, would have been out of his mind to think twice. So it was that I accepted his offer of a job on the ground staff and signed as an amateur."
The Arsenal team at that time included players such as Ted Drake, Cliff Bastin, Eddie Hapgood, George Male, Reg Lewis, George Swindin, Bernard Joy, Alf Kirchen, Leslie Jones, George Hunt, Leslie Compton and Dennis Compton. However, he was loaned out to Enfield Town who played in the Athenian League.
Shackleton only played two non-league games for Arsenal before he was told by George Allison that he was not going to be offered a professional contract. "Mr Allison could not have been kinder: he handled that interview with diplomacy, repeatedly assuring me that he was advising me in my own interests, and told me not to take the news too badly. One day I would be grateful." Allison added: "Go back to Bradford and get a job. You will never make the grade as a professional footballer."
Shackleton found work at the London Paper Mills at Dartford. On the outbreak of the Second World War he returned to Bradford and after playing a couple of trial games Shackleton was signed by Bradford Park Avenue in August 1940. The Football League was suspended during the war but he made his debut in a friendly game against Leeds United on 25th December 1940.
Shackleton worked on aircraft wireless for GEC during the week. He volunteered for the Royal Air Force but was turned down because his war-work was considered too important. Later, he became a Bevin Boy and worked as a miner at Fryston Colliery near Castleford.
In October 1946 Stan Seymour, the manager of Newcastle United, signed Shackleton for a record fee of £13,000. While at Bradford Park Avenue he had scored 171 goals in 217 games. However, his unusual style of playing was not always appreciated and received a fair amount of barracking from the fans. When he was sold to Newcastle Stanley Matthews commented: "The £13,000 transfer of Len Shackleton from Bradford to Newcastle United is another proof of the harm unsporting spectators can do to players and clubs."
Shackleton made his debut for his new club against Newport County on 5th October. He scored six goals in the record 13-0 win. Jackie Milburn later commented: "On his debut against Newport County he scored six goals, a Division Two record, and put the last one in off his backside. Ever the showman, Shack always preferred to get applause for some daft trick rather than scoring a straight-forward goal."
It was hoped that Shackleton would help Newcastle United get promotion to the First Division. However, they only finished in 5th place with Shackleton scoring 19 goals in 32 league games. They did much better in the FA Cup and reached the semi-final where they were beaten by Charlton Athletic 4-0.
Shackleton developed a great partnership with Jackie Milburn. He later told his son: "Len Shackleton was a master craftsman and thanks to him I got among the goals. I clicked with him because I expected the unorthodox. If he ran one way, I ran the other, and sure enough the ball always found me. On the other hand, Len's quick-witted humour often caused me to laugh outright and lose control of the ball."
Not everyone appreciated the skills of Shackleton. His captain, Joe Harvey, argued that Shackleton was developing into a crowd entertainer rather than a team footballer and seemed more interested in beating four or five men than passing the ball to a better positioned team-mate. He added that "Newcastle would never win anything with him in the team". In February 1948 Newcastle United sold Shackleton to Sunderland in the First Division for the record fee of £20,050.
Shackleton won his first international cap for England against Denmark on 26th September, 1948. England drew the game 0-0. The England team that day included Stanley Matthews, Tommy Lawton, Laurie Scott, Jimmy Hagan, Billy Wright and Frank Swift.
Shackleton retained his place for the game against Wales but over the next six years he only played in three more games for his country. A journalist asked an England selector: "Why is Len Shackleton consistently left out of the England team?" The selector replied: "Because we play at Wembley Stadium, not the London Palladium".
Stanley Matthews argued in his autobiography, The Way It Was, that Shackleton was "unpredictable, brilliantly inconsistent, flamboyant, radical and mischievous; in short, he possessed all the attributes of a footballing genius which he undoubtedly was." Matthews claimed that he had a superb game against Germany in 1954 but it was the last time he played for England. As Matthews pointed out that his behaviour did "not go down well with the blazer brigade who ran English football and had such an important say in the selection of the England team."
Sunderland finished in 3rd place in the 1949-45 season. However, over the next few seasons the club went into decline and Shackleton failed to win any league or cup medals while he was at Roker Park. He also suffered from a serious ankle injury and was forced into retirement. He had scored 101 goals in 348 games for the club.
Shackleton worked as a football journalist with the Daily Express and the Sunday People. He also wrote a controversial autobiography, Crown Prince of Soccer (1955). Chapter 9 was entitled "The Average Director's Knowledge of Football". This was followed by a note from the publisher: "This chapter has deliberately been left blank in accordance with the author's wishes."
Len Shackleton died at Grange-over-Sands on 27th November 2000.