John Picken was born in Hurlford, Scotland in 1880. He played local football for Hurlford Thistle and Kilmarnock Shawbank.
In 1899 Picken signed for Bolton Wanderers and was a regular in the first team until he broke his leg in November 1902. He scored 22 goals in 101 games before signing for Plymouth Argyle in the Southern League in 1903. Here he teamed up with another outstanding Scottish striker, John Peddie. Over the next two years he scored 46 goals in 89 appearances.
In May 1905 Picken joined Manchester United in the Second Division of the Football League. In his first season United won promotion to the First Division when they finished second to Bristol City. The club scored 90 goals in 38 games and John Picken ended up as top of the list with 20 goals. His fellow strikers, John Peddie (18) and Charlie Sagar (16) also made major contributions that year.
Picken had more difficulty scoring in the First Division. In the 1906-07 season he only managed four goals in 26 games. The following year he lost his place to Sandy Turnbull and only played in one game in the championship winning 1907-08 season.
Picken's form was not impressive in the next two seasons scoring 3 in 13 in 1908-1909 and 7 in 19 in 1909-1910. However he did qualify for a First Division championship medal in 1910-11.
In December 1911 Picken moved to Burnley. He managed to score 10 goals in 18 games before signing for Bristol City in 1913. Picken's football career came to an end with the outbreak of the First World War.
John Picken died in Plymouth on 31st July 1952.