Friday, 21 February 2014

Sixty years ago and Len Shackleton rips apart Arsenal

When Sunderland travelled to Arsenal in January 1954 they were struggling against relegation and lay just one spot outside the drop zone. It had therefore come as something of a shock when manager Bill Murray had allowed such a lethal goalscorer as Trevor Ford to leave the club and sign for Cardiff. The striker was replaced by Birmingham City’s Ted Purdon, who by scoring after just ten seconds of the match at Highbury became the fastest to net in Sunderland’s history.

Just why did Murray replace Ford with Purdon?  Stan Anderson’s biography, Captain of the North, explains more.

‘There was generally a good spirit in the dressing room in the early 50s with one exception: the relationship between Fordie and Shack. This was a shame. They were the mainstays of the side: Shack was the provider and Ford the scorer. If they’d played together, as they should have done, then we would have won the league. 

One of the problems was that Ford was very friendly with a director, W.S Martin, and I think Shack took umbrage, thinking, ‘Does he think he’s better than the other lads?’ It  became an issue. 

Also Ford would stand in front of the mirror, combing his hair, and say: ‘You must be the best looking player in the game’ - it was only partly in jest! Shack used to cringe. He’d say, ‘Look at that silly bastard’, 

So Shack didn’t like him;  if he liked you he’d tell you. He didn’t like Ford and the feeling was mutual. There wasn’t really room for both of them in the dressing room. Now I have nothing against Ted Purdon but he was nowhere near as good as Trevor Ford. 
Shack played his finest game of the season in the 4-1 victory at Highbury. Shack was brilliant. Typically, he couldn’t keep himself from taking the mickey out of the Arsenal defenders. If only he had played like that every week away from home. In fact Len’s attitude to away games was very different to playing at Roker Park, and he wasn’t the only one. Many of the more experienced players had the attitude that as long as you did well in front of your own spectators then that was good enough.

In the Highbury win he had the ball out on the wing with the Arsenal and Wales fullback Walley Barnes twenty five yards away. Shack kept moving the ball halfway over the touchline and then back. He did this a few times as the linesman watched intently to see if the whole of the ball had gone over the line. Finally an exasperated Barnes decided to attempt to win the ball and Shack just waltzed past him and ran away up the wing. What made it better in Shack’s eyes was that this took place in front of the main stand, so the Arsenal management and dignitaries were closest to the action. He enjoyed that because he was always angry that the Londoners had turned him down as a schoolboy in the spring of 1939, only months before the start of the war. 

As is well known, Len did not think highly of directors at any club. His autobiography, Clown Prince of Soccer, famously had a chapter entitled ‘The Average Director’s Knowledge of Football’ followed by a page containing only a note at the bottom which read: ‘This Chapter has deliberately been left blank in accordance with the author’s wishes.’

There is something in Len’s book that i have never seen mentioned but which I think is worth raising. It concerns a part of the book in which Len praises two of the Sunderland directors, Bill Ditchburn and W.S Martin, for their ‘progressive approach.’ I am convinced that Len was in fact having a laugh at them, and Ditchburn in particular.

In 1953-54, when the side was playing so desperately badly despite the big-money signings such as Ray Daniel, Bill Murray said that Ditchburn wanted to speak to us. This was very unusual. Directors speaking to players - never! 

We trooped through to the away dressing room where Ditchburn said, ‘Well I don’t know what’s gannin on. It’s a poor show, but I think I know what’s the problem. It’s yer boots. I’ve had a look at them, and you’ve hammered doon the toes.’ 

Amazingly, this was true. In those days you’d get a pair of boots two sizes too small for you, put them on and sit in a hot bath to soften the leather. Then you’d hammer down the tin toecaps.

“But Mr Chairman you don’t kick the ball with your toes.’ replied Len.

‘Oh, aye, I see. Well I just think it’s a queer thing, that’s all I thought,’  said the now somewhat bemused chairman. 

Len couldn’t possibly have forgotten that incident when he wrote the book. Neither would he have forgotten that Martin had been very close to Trevor Ford. Len wasn’t daft - he didn’t name anyone in his book!’

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