Busby, Shankly and Stein – the three kings bearing gifts and wisdom

FOOTBALL films invariably disappoint, but the documentary about three legends, Matt Busby, Bill Shankly and Jock Stein, is a chapter from the rich history of the game that reminds us it has not always been about corporatisation and hubris. Three humble men in many ways, confident of their own ability but very clear about to whom they were accountable.

Three Kings is about three giant men, whose power was built on the public respect for their abilities, their ethos and the fact they cared. All Scots from working class, mining backgrounds, these three men created the modern post-war game long before the likes of Wenger, Ferguson and Mourinho. They were the forerunners.

Shankly has always come across as slightly boyish and a little naïve, but here was a man as hard as granite, who identified with the fans on the terraces. There was no divide between capital and labour with Shankly – he worked for the people of Liverpool – “it’s you who pays our wages” – and he created a communion between the players, the supporters and those that ran the club. Liverpool under Shankly were not pioneers of a style of play, but they perfected a machine-like efficiency that fed-off the passion of the manager and the locals. 

Shankly’s record was overtaken by his successor, Bob Paisley – Shanks won six major honours with Liverpool to Paisley’s 13, but the cultural impact of Shankly was greater than anyone who took the role after him. Likewise, Kevin Keegan was never the player that Kenny Dalglish was, but Keegan is credited with kick-starting a revolution. Did Shankly retire too early? There’s no doubt he regretted leaving Anfield when he did, a strange move given he had just won the FA Cup for the second time. Given he was a football man through and through, whose life had been devoted to the sport, it was no surprise that he found himself lacking purpose in retirement. 

Similarly, Sir Matt Busby’s record at Manchester United was overwhelmed by Sir Alex Ferguson’s trophy-winning habits – eight versus 25. But Busby’s contribution was transformational in that he nurtured the concept of developing players, “polishing oiur diamonds”, and built a string of good teams. All teams built from within became “babes” after Busby’s creation of a near 100% home-grown side in the 1950s. They were the “Busby Babes”, many of whom died in the Munich air crash of 1958. While Shankly was more about the dynamic between him and the fans, Busby was like a father figure to his players. 

While Shankly’s departure clearly didn’t prohibit Paisley in 1974, Busby’s retirement, initially in 1969, left a gap that prevented his successors from fulfilling their potential. Nobody wanted to admit it, but Busby’s huge presence was a problem for Manchester United – certainly for Wilf McGuinness and Frank O’Farrell.

Celtic’s Jock Stein will forever be known as “the big man”, an imposing figure who could match Busby for presence – little wonder that when the United job became available, the club wanted Stein to take charge. At the time, Celtic were every bit as big as United, and certainly more successful. Stein was another manager who respected the role of the people in creating a club. “Without the fans, football is nothing,” he would say.

Stein’s record at Celtic was incredible, 10 league titles, nine Scottish Cup wins, six league cup victories and of course, the European Cup in 1967. Shankly loved Stein and said he had become immortal by winning the European Cup in Lisbon against an Inter Milan side he had no love for. “Jock has the blood of [Robert] Bruce,” he claimed. Stein died in 1985, suffering a heart attack at the World Cup qualifier between Scotland and Wales. He had left Celtic in 1978 – with a win rate of 70% – becoming full-time Scotland manager. 

Busby, Shankly and Stein all have statues in memory of their monumental contribution to football and to the people at their respective clubs. Much-loved figures, their achievements in terms of silverware may have been bettered by others, but no matter how many prizes future managers of Liverpool, Manchester United and Celtic win, their legends will live on. Three Kings is a fitting tribute to these decent, principled men who, to quote the inscription on Shankly’s statue, “made people happy”.


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