Stuart Moriarty-Patten celebrates the colourful career of the clown prince king.
5 October 1946: “The Clown Prince” Len Shackleton scores six on his debut as Newcastle hammer Newport 13-0
Len Shackleton, who was one of footballer’s great entertainers and earned himself the title “The Clown Prince of Soccer,” had only signed for Newcastle from Bradford Park Avenue four days before the second division game against Newport. He cost a substantial fee of £13,000, which was only £1,500 short of the record, but he quickly started repaying the money by becoming the first Newcastle player to score six goals in a league game, and help the Geordie fans forget the loss of previous hero Albert Stubbins who had recently been sold to Liverpool.
Over 50,000 fans were in attendance hoping to see Newcastle improve on a poor display in the previous home game, a 2-1 loss to Burnley, and end a run of four games without a win. It did not take long for Newcastle to get on the scoresheet and for Shackleton to make an impression. His pass set up forward Charlie Wayman for the first goal after 5 minutes, and just two minutes later Shackleton himself scored his first goal in a Newcastle shirt by lobbing the keeper in a manner in what the reporter for the Sunday Sun described as “masterly.” The goals continued to flow with four coming in a six-minute spell, with Shackleton getting three more in just over two minutes, leaving Newcastle 7-0 up by the half-time break. There was no easing up and by the end of the 90 minutes Newcastle had 13 goals, one from Roy Bentley, two from Jackie Milburn, four from Wayman, but the undisputed star of the day was Shackleton who bagged six, scoring his last off his backside leaving Milburn to later remark, “Ever the showman, Shack always preferred to get applause for some daft trick rather than scoring a straight-forward goal.”
The result, on which Shackleton commented that Newport “were lucky to get nil,” saw Newcastle become the third, and last, team to score 13 goals in a league game after Stockport had also won 13-0 over Halifax in 1934, and Tranmere had beaten Oldham 13-4 in an epic game in 1935. Newport were to win the return match over Newcastle 4-2 but it wasn’t enough to save them from finishing bottom of the division and relegation at the end of the season. Shackleton scored 19 goals in total that season but Newcastle missed out on promotion as they finished a disappointing fifth, although they did make the semi-finals of that season’s FA Cup, which they lost 4-0 to the eventual winners Charlton.
Shackleton would stay at Newcastle for 18 months and score 25 goals in total for Newcastle in 57 league appearances before signing for rivals Sunderland in February 1948 for a then record £20,500. He would spend the rest of his career here and was to become adored by the fans and achieve legendary status. He held the Wearsiders’ post-war scoring record of 101 goals, which came in 348 games, until 2001 when it was beaten by Kevin Phillips, but it was his rapport with the fans that gave him his status as much as his undoubted talent, and tales of his antics have passed into folklore. On one occasion with Sunderland 2-1 up against Arsenal at Highbury and with five minutes to go he dribbled into the Gunners’ penalty area before putting his foot on the ball and acted as if looking at his watch while also pretending to comb his hair.
Throughout his career Shackleton always was at his best against Arsenal, no doubt spurned on by their rejection of him when he was a young trainee at the club. Probably his best performance against them was in a 7-1 thrashing at Roker Park in 1953 although during a 3-1 Sunderland win in a trip to Highbury in the next season saw him treat the crowd to what the Daily Mirror called “an almost non-stop variety act,” and left the Daily Mail to describe him as a cross between Stanley Matthews and Charlie Chaplin.
In his career, on more than one occasion he was witnessed beating a defender courtesy of a one-two played with the corner flag. He was also known to play a pass to himself by applying so much spin to the ball that it would return to him after he had kicked it away. Once he did this to a referee who had asked for the ball at a free kick, when the ref bent down to pick the ball up only to see it zip back to Shackleton the crowd were delighted. He may have caused some annoyance to his fellow professionals but more than anything else he saw his duty as to entertain the fans, and stories, possibly apocryphal but demonstrating the measure of the man, abound about him doing just that. He would book referees, shake hands with policemen on the touchline, pull sweets out of his shorts and offer them to crowds when he was going to take a throw in, and he would have lengthy conversations with the crowd when he should have been taking a corner kick.
He once scored a penalty against Man City whereby he took a run from the halfway line before taking a huge kick at the ball which saw the keeper dive to stop it, only he hadn’t actually touched the ball and he calmly turned around and back-heeled it into the goal on the opposite side of the prostrate keeper. Some claim the keeper was Swift others Trautmann, but either way the story goes that the keeper chased him up the park to grab hold of him and plant a kiss on the top of his head.
Another story tells how he collected the ball on the halfway line and ran towards goal when, having got within ten yards of the goal, he span in a circle while flicking the ball up and catching it in his shorts as he ran past the keeper before dropping the ball out and slotting it home into the net.
Shackleton’s lighthearted approach to the game often meant he clashed with the football establishment, and in reality given the level of his talent he should have won more than his five England caps. However, as Stanley Matthews remarked, his behaviour did “not go down well with the blazer brigade who ran English football.” Shackleton famously demonstrated his opinion of those in charge when in 1955 he published his autobiography in which there was a chapter entitled “The Average Director’s Knowledge of Football” and which consisted of a blank page. England manager Walter Winterbottom desperately tried to make Shackleton act acceptably for the stuffed shirts of the FA, one of whom had once remarked we don’t pick him “because we play at Wembley stadium not the London Palladium,” a remark that delighted Shackleton. Winterbottom’s efforts though were to be largely in vain and he was left to lament, “If Only Len would meet us halfway.”
A niggling ankle injury that he had carried for a number of years saw Shackleton eventually retire from playing in 1957, but in his new role as a journalist for the Daily Express and the Sunday People he continued to be a thorn in the side of those in charge of the game, who he always held responsible for taking the joy out of football.
Len Shackleton passed away in 2000, aged 78. Another legend of the North-East, Bob Stokoe has said if he had been more of a team player he could have been the greatest player this country has ever produced, but he was who he was and, to be honest, he could infuriate his team-mates as much as he delighted the fans. His captain while at Newcastle, Joe Harvey, said that he was an entertainer rather than a footballer and added that Newcastle “would have never won anything with him in the team.” For Shackleton though winning was secondary to entertainment. He was truly a maverick, and a genius and remains a genuine legend.