The "Shack Interview" part 2
Brian: Compared to the ball used in the modern game, how difficult was the old leather ‘casey’ to control?
Len: I would have really loved to have played with the ball we have today. I was pretty good with the old leather ball but with the modern ball I would have been an absolute sensation, believe me! You also have to remember that in my day the weight of the ball varied dramatically depending on the weather conditions. For example, whenever the fixtures were announced, I would always check to see when were playing Bolton away. If it was in the middle of the season around February say, then Shack wasn’t playing!
Burnden Park was a notoriously heavy pitch at the best of times and Bolton used to soak the ball in a bucket of water from the Thursday to Saturday and by kick-off time it was like a ball of lead. And then you would have Tommy Banks, the Wanderers full-back kicking seven bells out of you. No, if it was Bolton in February, no way was I playing!
Brian: Bearing in mind that there were quite a few hard men around in those days; didn’t anyone try to hammer you during games?
Len: Of course they did, in fact in just about every game we played there was always someone who would set out to kick Shack, but fortunately very few did. Roy Paul of Manchester City was a typical example. He was a fearsome looking character who wouldn’t shave from a Wednesday and would frighten the living daylights out of you.
He would kick an opponent over the stand if he got the chance – he never managed to kick Shack though!
Mind you, probably the hardest of the lot was one of my own team-mates at Roker Park, Billy Elliott (pictured, right) Billy and I had played together as kids at Bradford and I recommended him to Bill Murray, the Sunderland manager. Nothing happened for a while so I got in touch with Billy and he said he would be keen to come, but then Burnley appeared on the scene and he ended up signing for them. It was another two years before he eventually joined Sunderland and by then Bill Murray had to fork out £30,000 for him!
Billy was a great player to have on your side and, in my opinion, was every bit as good, if not better than, the likes of Roy Keane, Norman Hunter and Billy Bremner. He stopped other players playing, that was his strength, to stop those that could play. Billy could play in a variety of roles but I reckon left-half was far and away his best position. Having said that, he was capped for England at outside-left although that didn’t really prove anything, such were the talents of the England selectors at the time!
Brian: Throughout your career you were always something of a showman, hence your nickname, ‘The Clown Prince of Soccer’ - were you conscious that the crowds were turning up in their thousands just to witness your special brand of football skills?
Len: I used to love to entertain the fans, certainly, but more often than not it was a time-wasting tactic. For example, when I sat on the ball at Arsenal it was my way of saying to the home fans: ‘we’ve got the ball, we’re winning and if we’ve got the ball, your lot are not going to score!’ So it was a tactical thing, not just playing to the crowd.
Mind you that sort of thing can sometimes backfire on you. I remember one year playing against Charlton at The Valley and receiving the ball on the touchline in front of the massive open terracing packed with home supporters. So I dribbled up the line, showing a bit of ball control and just keeping the ball in play. I was enjoying myself, having a bit of fun and really annoying the supporters when the blinking linesman flags for a throw-in, anticipating the ball going out of play, even though it never actually did. Now, what can you do when the linesman makes a decision like that? I looked a right Charlie in front of the 30,000 or so fans on The Kop I can tell you!
The sequel to that story happened a week later against Arsenal at Roker Park. Our right-winger Billy Bingham managed to break through just before half-time and fire in a shot which George Swindon in the Arsenal goal could only parry. The ball broke to me inside the six-yard box with an open goal in front of me. All I needed to do was stick it into the empty net but I noticed George, on all fours, scrambling towards me in the mud. So I took the ball to the goal-line, beckoned him towards me saying: “Haway George, it’s not in yet!” Then, as he lunged for the ball, I rolled it over the line.
Now, that was my way of paying-back the linesman for the week before. And, as if in confirmation of the point I was making, the referee had already given a goal and was heading back to the centre-circle. He’d anticipated the ball was in, even though it hadn’t crossed the line.
Unfortunately, when we returned to the dressing room at half-time I was immediately confronted by Bill Murray who was really annoyed. “Hey Shack,” he shouted, “If the referee had only been half as clever as you thought you were, he would have given a bounce-up, because once he had blown the whistle the ball was dead, and that was before it had crossed the line!”
Well, you do things sometimes and you learn by your mistakes when you realise how they can rebound on you. Fortunately, the referee hadn’t been as quick as Bill Murray!
Brian: Apart from your tricks with a football you were also famous for one particular piece of skill with a half-a-crown – how did that come about?
Len: It was actually when Don Revie arrived at the club and he was in the dressing-room bragging to the lads about his latest trick. He was flicking a sixpence up in the air, catching it on his foot and, after about the third attempt, flicking back up in the air and catching it in his blazer pocket. Ray Daniel (pictured right) was having a go, because his ego was enormous, but he couldn’t manage it because you’ve got to practice it.
So, after a few days Revie says to me, “Hey, Shack, are you not going to have a go?” He must have imagined I would be keen to have a go the first time he demonstrated it, but I didn’t want to, not until I had practised it first! So I practised at home for a few days using a half-a-crown. Then, one morning when all the lads were in the dressing room getting ready for training, I said to Revie: “Hey Revie, have a look at this will you, what about this?” I wasn’t flicking it a foot-and-a-half in the air as Revie had, but right up to the ceiling, catching it on my foot, and then lobbing it back up into my blazer pocket. That was great – stealing the thunder from Revie, ‘the show-off’.
The follow-up to that story is that many years later I was invited to do an interview on the ‘One O’Clock Show’ at Tyne Tees Television. Before the show the interviewer asked: “Can you do the trick with the sixpence?” I corrected him joking: “It’s not a sixpence, it’s half-a-crown – do you mind?” I agreed to do it though and during rehearsals decided to have a bit of fun. Two or three times I tried the trick and failed, on purpose of course, just to see the reaction of the interviewer. I assured him that I would be okay, but because the show was live, the poor guy was worried sick. Fortunately, when the show went out everything went to plan, but I would have looked an awful fool if I hadn’t done it properly!
Brian: As well as being football’s greatest showman during the 1950’s you also had a reputation for being something of a rebel – would you say that was a fair description?
Len: Not really a rebel, frustrated yes, because the game was run wrongly, wasn’t it?
I can remember that I played one season for £17 a week and that was the biggest wage I ever received as a professional footballer. Now, money didn’t motivate me then and it doesn’t motivate me now, but it’s all about fairness. I would say that nobody fought harder than I did to get the maximum wage lifted, because it was wrong, it’s a simple as that.
Brian: You weren’t exactly popular with the authorities, particularly after the ‘blank page’ hit the bookshelves – did that bother you?
Len: Not in the least, in fact I think they were half expecting me to have a go at them. I remember Bill Murray pulling me to one side and asking: “I hear you’re writing a book Shack, I hope it’s not going to be too naughty.” When I asked him to elaborate, he told me that Alan Hardaker, the secretary of The Football League, had been in touch and had indicated that they were going to come down on me really hard if my literary efforts were ‘over the top’, as he put it.
But that didn’t deter me, I was determined to write what I felt, what I believed in. I told Bill the book was intended to be constructive, not destructive, but if they didn’t like it, they could do what they liked, even if that meant putting me out of the game.
Brian: How did the idea of the blank page come about?
Len: Completely out of the blue really. A chap called David Jack helped me write the book and we used to meet up at our house in Seaburn every Friday night. He would stay with us over the weekend and we would do a few pages together. One weekend, after we had been working at it for a few weeks, I said: “Hey David, we’re going to have a break, let’s take the day off and go out somewhere.” I then threw a blank sheet of paper onto the table. “What’s that supposed to be?” he asked, to which I replied, “The average directors knowledge of football!” He thought that was a great idea, even though I had only intended it as a joke. But he had the journalistic mind about the situation and insisted that we include the blank page in the book.