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The Three Kings: Busby, Shankly & Stein transformed the footballing landscape

New documentary The Three Kings shows how their shared mining heritage was key, says director Jonny Owen
Jock Stein manager Celtic FC arm around Bill Shankly Liverpool FC at Billy McNeill testimonial game August 1974.

The Scottish football commentator Archie Macpherson, when talking about these three great men all born within 30 miles of each other, famously said that in the early part of the 20th century working in mining built camaraderie in a way that actually doesn’t translate into our modern world.

What he was trying to get across is that when your life could be lost in a minute, working together, closely, intensely and as a team becomes an absolute necessity.

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Matthew Busby, William Shankly and John (Jock) Stein were all coal miners in their teens. Clawing out a meagre living with no welfare state as a safety net, poverty breathed on your neck just like the hot, coal dust-filled air that was your daily existence.

The miners quite simply had to be close. Their union had to be tight. They’re mostly all gone now of course. Miners. Becoming lost to us like cowboys to the United States, relics of another age, the industrial age, but they still (like cowboys for Americans) loom large in our popular memory and in ordinary people’s DNA.

They were organised, they could argue a point and they really believed in one another. Already you can see all the central tenets needed for great leadership. Management. You had to be tough, inspire tough people to believe in you and, most importantly of all, you had to know your stuff. Inside out. There was no time for bluffers. Bullshit could see you killed underground.

It’s also worth talking about Scotland at this time. Football took off in a way in industrial Scotland that has very few rivals in history. Record crowds were always broken in Glasgow. Two clubs emerged and loomed large over that great city of the empire like the cranes in their teeming docks.

The men were born in that forge that made them into the greatest managers of their age. Rarely, if ever, does anything just emerge. Bill Gates had access to one of the few terminals in America in the late Sixties, The Beatles had the offer to go to Hamburg to hone their craft. The key is always if you take your chance, if you’re willing to put in the graft. Again, all three men did both and then some.

These Scottish miners with insatiable ambition and a unique connection with their players and crowds left their stamp.

Manchester United was literally a bomb site when Matt Busby took over. He had to play his first few seasons at his old club Man City. Within a decade he had created the Babes and was pioneering in Europe. Shankly went to a mid-table second division provincial club in Liverpool. They had no running water in the ground. It was the first thing he sorted. Within five years they had won the First Division title. 

Stein’s impact was, if possible, even more remarkable. In 1967 he had the greatest season of any football team in history. He won every single cup available to win. Including, what’s still the most difficult trophy to win in the world, the European Cup. And, get this, he did it with a team all born within a 30 mile-radius of Glasgow.

Their legacy is that they’ve left three leviathans of football clubs and the greatest rivalry in English sport. Liverpool vs Manchester United began with Shankly and Busby.

They are now international clubs with a fanbase that reaches out across the world. Celtic are forever immortalised as the first British team to win the European Cup.

People will now argue that the game and clubs have changed out of all recognition from what the men came from and what they believed in but I would argue the DNA is still there. 

After all, we still see the green and gold scarves of protest at Old Trafford, the famous walk out of the Kop during a Premier League game in an argument about ticket prices and Celtic’s proud political convictions. Refugees are welcome. That’s them. That’s the Three Kings. That’s their legacy. They are their clubs. 

The Three Kings is available on digital and DVD