The "Shack Interview" part 3

Reproduced with kind permission from Roger Shackleton

Brian: How much interest in the book do you think the blank page generated?

Len: I don’t think it was just the blank page that created the interest; it was also the first book that had been written by a footballer playing hell about the game. Sales were phenomenal really but, unfortunately, the publishers had not anticipated such a huge demand and had printed insufficient copies. They were printing it as fast as they could. This was in the September and by Christmas they were on the 5th Edition!

Brian: How did the people running the game react?

Len: There was a load of publicity about the authorities putting me out of the game and stupid stuff like that, but whenever I met directors from other clubs their reaction was just the opposite. For example, shortly after the book was published we played Portsmouth at Roker and before the game I went down to the foyer to meet one or two of their players who I knew personally. Then one of the Portsmouth directors came over and introduced himself and then added: “I think the book is great Len, absolutely brilliant!” At first that surprised me, but then it suddenly dawned on me what was happening. He obviously didn’t think of himself as the average director – none of them did. They obviously thought: “Oh, he’s not talking about me, it’s the other lot.” They were so niave they didn’t realise they were included as well!

Brian: On reflection, do you think your outspoken approach cost you the England caps your talent clearly deserved?

Len Shackleton - front row, second from left

Len: Without doubt, and whilst I did manage to win five full caps, I have always felt I should have won more. To be honest, the England set-up was a complete shambles in those days and the manager, Walter Winterbottom (pictured, below) was absolutely useless. I remember he always wore a tracksuit with ‘WW’ on the front – I use to call him ‘Washer-Woman’!

As a typical example, we were playing the League of Ireland in Dublin and on the morning of the match Walter proceeded to give us his tactical talk. Starting with our keeper, big Frank Swift, he said: “Frank, when you get the ball, throw it out to Eric Westwood…. Eric you pass it to Harry Johnston…..Harry move it up to Peter Harris…” He went through the entire team, mimicking all the playing actions as he spoke, until finally the ball ends up in the box. “And you Shack,” he nodded to me, “You kick it in!” Can you credit it at such a level, “You kick it in!” he couldn’t even say shoot! Apart from that he’d ignored one minor detail – the opposition, where were they in all this. So I couldn’t resist it and replied: “Which corner would you like it in, Walter?”

If I remember rightly, we won 5-0, I scored 2 goals, but it was another 4 years before I got a cap!

Brian: Of course, you were playing in a team of internationals virtually every week at Roker and it was widely rumoured that Sunderland were able to attract the best players simply because they paid a little extra – was that the case?

Len: Well, I have no idea what the club might have paid the rest of the lads, but I’ll tell you of one little incident and you can draw your own conclusions.

It happened just after Joe McDonald, (pictured, right)the Scottish international full-back, had joined us from had joined us from Falkirk. Joe was a lovely guy but very naive and one morning before training, Ken Chisholm decided to wind him up about his signing-on fee. Of course, Joe hadn’t actually received a penny, but Chis was telling him that all the lads had received substantial sums when they joined Sunderland and he should demand the same.

One by one, Joe went around the dressing-room asking each player how much they had received. Of course, by now all the lads were joining in on the joke until eventually Joe says: “I’m going up to see the boss and demand a signing-on fee, how much should I ask for Chis?” Chis replied: “A grand, you’ve got to ask for at least a grand!”

“Right, I’m going up to see him now!” said Joe, storming out of the dressing room. As you can imagine, all the lads were waiting for the raised voices from Bill Murray’s room when suddenly Joe pops his head around the door and says: “Er, sorry Chis, but whats a grand?”

Poor Joe was so niave – I mean you’ve got to be naive to try for a signing on fee three weeks after you’ve signed!

Brian: Eventually, however, Sunderland’s alleged ‘under the counter payments’ to players landed the club in serious bother with the authorities – what do you recall about the events surrounding the so called ‘illegal payments scandal’?

Len: I can remember the Football League held a commission which resulted in our chairman, Bill Ditchburn, and the players involved being banned from the game sine die. I wasn’t involved personally because the investigation didn’t go back as far as the time I joined the club.

Brian: How do you think the scandal affected the club?

Len: Most of the players involved had already moved on to other clubs so it didn’t affect the playing side too much. Soon afterwards, of course, the bans were overturned by the courts so the players were able resume their careers. Unfortunately, Bill Ditchburn never managed to regain power because by then Syd Collings had taken over as chairman and eventually went on to become chairman of the England International Selection Committee as well. I remember upsetting him years later when I called him a ‘laundry-man’ in one of my newspaper articles. Well, he owned and ran a laundry and as far as I was concerned, that’s exactly what he was – a ‘laundry-man’! Imagine that qualifying him to be in charge of the England set-up. In my view, such things are too important than to be operated as someone’s hobby.

Brian: Your final season with Sunderland also coincided with the arrival of Alan Brown as manager and the club being relegated to the Second Division for the first time in it’s entire history – how much of a disappointment was that to you personally?

Len: A big disappointment, naturally, although I only played one game that season, against Arsenal at Roker Park, so you can’t blame me!

As far as Alan Brown was concerned, I thought he was a terrible manager and events proved it – he took them down in his first season, and as if that wasn’t bad enough, he came back 12 years later and did it again!

Brian: It was a troublesome ankle injury that eventually forced you to quit the game – when did you first realise that your playing career might be coming to an end?

Len: I’d had the bad ankle for about five years before Brown joined Sunderland. I suppose you could say I was only functioning by using my natural ability and, basically, that’s what kept me going. As I mentioned earlier, the last match I played was against Arsenal on the opening day of the 1957-58 season and my ankle ‘went’ completely in the first-half. After the match, Johnny Watters, our physiotherapist, assessed the damage and recommended I should see a specialist consultant in Barnsley the following Monday.

As soon as I returned home that night, I called my family doctor who was also a personal friend and asked for his opinion. To me, Barnsley was a strange location for a so-called expert and, seeing that my career was on the line, I wanted to make absolutely certain I was getting the very best advice. But our doctor advised that not even the best authority in the world could tell us anything we didn’t already know. He also suggested that if I didn’t follow the club’s advice and see their specialist, then it could be misconstrued as a way out of the game of my own making.

So on the Monday I headed down to Barnsley to keep the appointment, but the specialist decided that I should come back that Wednesday for a manipulative operation under anaesthetic. I received the results of the operation on the Thursday and it really came as no surprise when I was told I must quit the game immediately. “If you don’t,” the specialist concluded, “You’ll almost certainly end your days as a cripple.”

I tried to be phylosophical about the situation. After all, at 35 I had lasted for a good while and had enjoyed a marvellous career.

Brian: Having been a great servant to the club for ten years, how did Sunderland reward your efforts?

Len: In those days you didn’t qualify for a testimonial match automatically as they do today, it was very much at the discretion of the club. I had asked Alan Brown about the prospects of a benefit match, as they were called in those days, and he said he would enquire about it but I soon formed the impression that he was stalling. I then went to see one of the directors, Jack Parker, who I believed to be a decent sort and he said he would put it to the board, but never did.

Finally, somewhat in desperation, I decided to approach the chairman, Syd Collings. I had remembered that when I was transferred from Newcastle to Sunderland it was Collings who had approached me and said: “Look, you’re going to get £1,500 but, if you don’t get it by any chance, come and see me and I’ll sort it out.” I thought that was decent of him at the time, but I had never had the need to put him to the test. They might have been empty words, perhaps.

I actually confronted him in the dressing-room in front of one or two of the lads and, having stated my case, I reminded him: “Mr. Collings, isn’t it fortunate that the Football League enquiry didn’t go back as far as when you and I joined the club?” I can still see him today as I looked right under his collar button and watched him begin to sweat visibly. “Well, Mr. Collings,” I continued, “What about a benefit match?” And, would you believe it, it was passed by the board within a week!

But don’t you think it’s terrible when you have resort to those sort of tactics with the so-called pillars of respectability in the establishment simply to claim something that you should be entitled to as a matter of course. And can you understand why, having discovered what really lies behind that apparent respectability, I have become labelled as something of a rebel? It’s quite ironical because I’m not really, but fortunately God-given talent enabled me to win back a little against the otherwise quite blatant exploitation.

Brian: Finally, does the man who began his football career in Bradford all those years ago have any regrets about moving to the North-East and spending the best part of his playing career with Sunderland?

Len: Not in the least. I love the place and, more especially, I love the people. Even though I was born in Yorkshire and now live in Cumbria, I still consider the North-East to be my home. The only problem is, whenever I return to the area the Newcastle fans always accuse of being biased towards Sunderland but I always tell them: “Listen, I’ve nothing against Newcastle – I don’t care who beats them!”