There are few names in British football folklore that evoke such powerful emotions as Sir Matt Busby, Bill Shankly and Jock Stein.
A trio who embodies what it takes to be successful on the pitch and are indelibly etched on the histories of the clubs they managed. Mention Busby to any Manchester United fan – or similarly Shankly to Liverpool or Stein to Celtic disciples – and their eyes will glaze over with famous tales of unbridled European and domestic glory.
Giants in the dugout, the triumvirate are three of Scotland’s most-famous sons. An inspiration to a long line of managers and heroes to armies of fans, transcending generations.
“My dad worked underground and he always admired people like Busby, Shankly and Stein,” explains filmmaker Jonny Owen, who dug into each of their tales as part of his latest work The Three Kings – The Makers of Modern Football.
“When me and my brothers were kids, every time one of them appeared on television, he’d always be singing their praises. So when he sadly passed away in 2017, it got me thinking about how people of that generation were now disappearing. It had been in the back of my mind for some time to make a film about these three men anyway, one that would appeal to a modern football audience.”
Owen, the man behind I Believe in Miracles (the story of Nottingham Forest’s meteoric rise under Brian Clough) and Don’t Take Me Home (documenting Wales’ Euro 2016 adventure), is well-versed in tackling football’s most enduring tales.
And after pitching about his idea to bring the stories of Busby, Shankly and Stein to the big screen, it turned out his luck was in.
“I was approached by the lads who were responsible for the Senna, Amy and Maradona documentaries. I suggested my idea and they went for it straight away,” he recalls.
“They were keen to stress however that I had to make a film that an 18-year-old with no knowledge of sport could sit down and enjoy, although I think people are now a lot more receptive to sports documentaries than in the past.”
The Three Kings does more than simply recount the stories of success the trio achieved in their careers and delves into their humble upbringings, uncovering what made them the men they became revered for being.
Each came from coal-mining communities in Scotland and spent time in the pits before moving away to chase their dreams on a football pitch. It’s a far cry from some of the men gracing dugouts nowadays.
While there a stark similarities in aspects of their backgrounds, they’re not alone. Originating from the Welsh mining town of Merthyr Tydfil, Owen’s own roots also helped him to identify with their stories.
“My grandfathers and their fathers all worked in the pits and football was a release for them which was then passed down to my father,” Owen says.
“Once I started the herculean task of looking back at footage of how life was for Busby, Shankly and Stein in the Lanarkshire coalmines, it immediately struck a chord.”
Owen is immensely proud of his heritage and he points out whole communities grew up in the region following the discovery of coal and lead. It’s also patently clear that it was never his intention to take the viewer on a rose-tinted voyage down memory lane, but to celebrate the importance of what the Scottish mining industry, in particular, left behind on a sporting level.
“I don’t think you can emphasise enough the importance of its contribution to football in the 20th century,” Owen picks up. “For a country of five million people, it’s astonishing when you look back on the effect it had on football, particularly in England.
“I was keen to showcase this in the film because I feel that industrial Scotland’s part in shaping football and how it was played in the 20th century and how it’s currently perceived, cannot be underestimated.”
The mines must have seemed like a distant memory when the three managers were collecting winner’s medal after winner’s medal with their clubs. But their paths were far from straightforward, with layers of complexity at every turn – not least how Busby was forced to rebuild a Manchester United side left in tatters after eight of their players perished in the Munich air disaster in 1958.
Having showcased Clough’s legacy as part of I Believe in Miracles, Owen is no stranger to exploring the inner workings of football’s most fascinating personalities. But how did Old Big ‘Ead differ to Busby, Shankly and Stein?
“He was very similar in some ways,” Owen answers. “He was very good friends with all three of them and much closer to them than he was to Don Revie, who actually grew up just a few streets away from him.
“Clough bought into their philosophy on how the game should be played, especially on the man-management side. What struck me most making both films was that all of them were able to take the complexities of football and distil it into simple instructions and communicate that brilliantly to their players.”
What is apparent when you watch The Three Kings is that all three men had a ruthless streak which went against their public personas.
“Busby ruled with a rod of iron, just ask Johnny Giles,” explains Owen. “The two men never spoke again after Busby got rid of him from Old Trafford because he didn’t believe he had the right character for Manchester United.
“Shankly and Stein also dispensed with players as soon as they thought they were too old. To have the confidence to do that and not stand on ceremony takes real skill and courage and I’m certain that comes from their industrial backgrounds where you had to be really strong to survive.”
What can’t be underestimated in each man’s success story is the part played by their respective wives.
It’s long been said that behind every good man stands a good woman, and the sentiment certainly rings true in each of their stories. There’s a sense that Mrs Busby, Shankly and Stein are the real unsung heroes of the film.
“After the Munich air disaster, Busby wanted nothing more to do with the football and it was his wife Jean who told him that he owed it to the young boys killed in the crash to carry on,” Owen recalls.
“I think that’s a measure of how important she was that Busby listened to her rather than anyone directly involved at Manchester United.”
Born within 30 miles of each other, you could be forgiven for thinking that there was huge rivalry between the film’s main protagonists. Three competitors who were so hellbent on being the best on the pitch, surely there was an element of one-upmanship on a personal level as they tried to show who was best? Not according to Owen.
“They were great friends, very close, which is incredible when you think that their respective teams were such huge rivals,” he says.
“Busby actually got Shankly the job at Liverpool. He could have been far more Machiavellian and steered him away from joining one of United’s biggest rivals. Also the fact that Shankly went to watch Stein’s Celtic side win the European Cup in 1967, telling him that he was now immortal after they won it, speaks volumes in my opinion.”
Owen continues by telling the story of how Busby was desperate for Stein to take the vacant manager’s job at Manchester United in the early 70s and was given short shrift. Although the filmmaker doesn’t believe that the big man’s lack of success south of the border ever devalued his success at Celtic.
“That’s a very modern way of looking at it,” rejects Owen of the notion. “In my opinion, that 1967 season for Celtic under Stein is the most successful for any football club in the history of the game.
“In that year, Celtic won every trophy available to them, which is extraordinary in itself, never mind the fact that Stein’s entire squad grew up within a stone’s throw of Parkhead. I don’t care who you support, if you take a step back and analyse what Celtic achieved, it’s phenomenal.”
The film’s release will undoubtedly incite a debate about which of three managers was the best. Although it’s probably too easy to simply look at the trophies they won and decide Busby and Stein’s European Cup victories give them the edge over Shankly.
Yet Shankly’s legacy is more than simply a trophy cabinet, it’s the dynasty he left behind at Anfield. He shocked the football world when he stepped down as Liverpool boss in 1974 and paved the way for his successor Bob Paisley to reap the benefits during an unprecedented spell of dominance. Does Owen believe that, in hindsight, that turned out to be a huge mistake?
“I think so, yes,” he says. “The real poignant side to this is that Liverpool went on to dominate both domestically and in Europe, unlike United, whose demise after Busby stepped down has been well documented.
“There’s a great line from Emlyn Hughes, who told Kevin Keegan after Liverpool had won their first European Cup in Rome in 1977 that it felt strange that Shankly wasn’t celebrating on the pitch because effectively they were still his players. I think Joe Fagan summed it up perfectly when he told me that Shankly [who passed away in 1981] actually died of a broken heart.”
The Set Pieces is determined to find out who Owen thinks was the greatest team any of the trio managed: is his number-one Stein’s 1967 Celtic side, Busby’s 1968 Manchester United team or Shankly’s 1974 Liverpool model?
“If someone gave me a time machine and told me that my hometown club Merthyr had a billion pounds to spend on players, then there’s no doubt I’d go for that ‘67 Celtic side,” Owen replies.
“Remember Stein was successful everywhere he went. His Dunfermline team won the Scottish Cup in 1961 before he went to Hibernian and delivered the Summer Cup within months of arriving at Easter Road which sounds small by comparison to what he went on to win, but what was their first silverware for twelve years.
“Mind you, I’d love to have been in the dressing-room for one of Bill Shankly’s team talks.”
The Three Kings – The Makers of Modern Football is available on DVD and digital download.