Playing for the Whites has been the lifelong ambition of countless little boys growing up in and around Leeds and Shackleton was no different in that regard, he just happens to be achieving it.
The time that has elapsed since Shackleton first dreamed that dream is still relatively short. He turned 22 on Friday, just a couple of days late to have enjoyed the rare luxury of a football-season birthday falling on a day off. Shackleton and the rest of Marcelo Bielsa’s squad not heading off on international duty were given a few days to rest and recover after their win over Watford.
If it feels like he’s been around the block a bit, it’s because his age belies his experience. This is his fourth season of first-team football and the entirety of his senior career has played out under one head coach - Bielsa. The Argentine handed him a professional debut at the age of 18 and 69 further first-team appearances have followed that 4-1 win at Derby County.
Under Bielsa he has experienced the euphoria of playing a part in returning Leeds to the Premier League, lined up against world-class, world-famous footballers in the country’s biggest stadiums and worn the internationally recognised white shirt of his boyhood team in some huge games.
“I always said when I was asked as a kid that it was the dream so to be doing it is pretty special,” he told the YEP.
“It was always my aim to break into the first team and to be playing minutes here. It was always the dream as a kid. For the past four years I’ve been here, it’s been my aim.
“It probably gives my friends and family more of a buzz than me, they absolutely love it. They’re all big Leeds fans and they’re right behind me.”
The last few weeks have been especially good for Shackleton and his family. After a 2020/21 season that threatened to spark into wholescale involvement in the first team before a prolonged period as an unused substitute, Shackleton has ‘evolved’ as his boss might say.
Bielsa has used him in five of the club’s seven Premier League outings and started him in the last two, in the absence of regular right-back Luke Ayling.
“I’ve been around the first team a long time,” he said.
“This is my fourth season with the squad so it’s been a while. It’s enjoyable to be playing minutes and help the team. I think there are areas of my game that have definitely improved over the last 12 months, I think defensively playing as a right-back that area of my game has improved.”
Before any improvement is noticed by the club’s support, it takes shape on the training pitches at Thorp Arch where repetition, opposition and good examples all play a part.
“There’s specific drills in training that we’ll do,” said Shackleton. “We’ll do those repeatedly.
“It’s also coming up against better players in training. Coming up against top-class forwards and wingers that we have inside the club definitely helps. Cry Summerville, is a nightmare to mark. He’s really sharp. For his size he’s very, very strong. I do my best to keep up with him and the other wingers. We’ve got some very sharp wingers at the club.
“And Luke Ayling is a very good and a solid defender, one v one, so he’s definitely someone who I can look to learn off, particularly defensively, which is an area I’ve looked to improve.”
Shackleton’s last performance, against Watford, was one of his best in recent memory for Leeds. It earned him praise from Bielsa and former Leeds full-back Tony Dorigo.
The youngster kept things tight defensively and looked after the ball efficiently, while trying to get forward in support of Raphinha.
Having a Brazilian international playing in front of him, particularly a winger so willing to do the other side of the game so diligently, must be any full-back’s dream, although predicting what he might do next cannot be easy.
“It’s nice to have a player of his quality who can find passes and find runs in front,” said Shackleton.
“He’s someone who also works hard for the team defensively. It makes my job easier and he’s good to play with.
“I think the more time you spend with him the more you can get used to his game. Even so, there are some passes and tricks that are still a shock and surprising to me. He’s a talented player and more than capable.”
Bielsa’s use of Shackleton has at times alternated between central midfielder and full-back, trusting the academy graduate to handle the attacking and defensive responsibilities that go with either role.
The 22-year-old is thrilled to be playing, so is hardly going to quibble over a position, but in any case you have to be versatile in this team.
“I enjoy both,” he said.
“I think in midfield you have to do both anyway and even at right-back you have to be able to do both. In both positions both sides of the game are really important to me.”
One day he might be able to definitively call himself Leeds United’s central midfielder, or Leeds United’s right-back.
This season he just wants to call himself a Leeds United player, on as many occasions as possible.
“My aim is to get as many minutes as possible, 100 per cent,” he said.
“To be on the pitch and helping the team towards winning games and finishing higher in the table is the aim.”
It’s also the dream.