Sport on TV: Pith and kin in Scotland's elegiac triplet

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The Independent Online
The camera panned across the twilit cityscape of Glasgow, warehouses black against a deep blue sky. A haunting jazz riff soared on the soundtrack as the camera switched to a close-up of a middle-aged man being driven through the streets of the city. The lights from shop windows played across his stony features. No, not a rerun of Taggart, but another uncompromising Scottish sleuth, Hugh McIlvanney, on the trail of The Football Men (BBC2).

The men concerned were Matt Busby, Jock Stein and Bill Shankly, all legendary football managers and all, like McIlvanney, from the West of Scotland. The task that the great sportswriter set himself in his three-part documentary (the last part is tonight) was to discover what strengths the three men drew from their shared background that set them apart from the other football managers of their era.

The story began - oddly, for one so loquacious as McIlvanney - in silence, as the crowds at three football grounds observed the passing of their heroes. It was a clever way to instantly establish the stature of his subjects and the awe in which they were held by their followers.

The aggression and dedication required to succeed at the lower levels of Scottish soccer, where the triumvirate cut their teeth, was demonstrated by a recent half-time visit to the changing-room of Blantyre Victoria. The coach was explaining to his team that he was not best pleased with their performance. "Apart from you, Rennie, and you, Shug, the rest of youse are a bleeping disgrace. I don't give a bleep. You're here to do a bleeping job, and you're bleeping sleeping. We've seen it right from the start, son. It was your bleeping ball and you let him bleeping have it. Soon as you've done that you're bleeped." He took a deep breath, deciding that a more conciliatory tone was called for. "It's constructive criticism," he said. "And I want to f***ing see better." Which raised an interesting question of censorship: if they don't bleep the f***, what the bleeping bleep were the bleeps?

Back on the trail, McIlvanney decided to interview his brother, the novelist William McIlvanney, on the basis that he still lives in Scotland while Hugh plies his trade down south. And, as we all know, simple residence in Scotland with an authentic accent is ample qualification to be an expert on football north of the border.

McIlvanney (H) then decamped to Manchester, where he recruited expert help in the shape of ex-bobby John Stalker to track down details of Matt Busby's early years in the city. Apparently the census-takers had a spot of trouble with Busby's accent. When they asked his occupation, they misheard and to this day he is recorded in municipal records as "M. Busby, Fruit- boiler". Well, it has been said that being a professional footballer is money for jam.

The two documentaries aired so far were gentle-paced and elegiac in tone, with judicious use of archive material and a notably enjoyable musical soundtrack. Only once did McIlvanney embark on one of his epic multi-clausal sentences, for the most part restraining himself to pithy questions and no-nonsense links, all delivered in that wonderfully emphatic voice, deep and peaty like a large glass of Lagavulin single malt whisky.

This was a series that he was born to make, both geographically and temperamentally. If, as his brother reckoned, Stein, Busby and Shankly "made their managerships an expression of where they came from", then the same was true of McIlvanney and these programmes. He was clearly blissfully happy strolling the streets that shaped his heroes. If the fact that they had also been his friends lent the enterprise an air of hagiography, it mattered little. A documentary doesn't have to be a demolition job to be enjoyable.

It is fairly well known that Stein spent many years down the mines before finally making the grade as a footballer. But not so many people know that he made the transition from part-timer with Albion Rovers to cup- winner with Celtic by way of a stint with non-League Llanelli. At least the collieries will have made him feel at home.

Inevitably, the best anecdotes concerned Shankly. Tommy Docherty remembered a chat while the great man was working his way through a succession of small clubs in the north of England. "How are things at Workington?" Docherty asked. "Great strip," Shankly replied. "Lovely shirt and stockings. The only problem is that I have 18 directors. I've got more directors than players."

Hughie Cameron, who played for Shankly at about this time, recalled an unusual pre-match ritual. "What he done was, afore you played he put 11 wee tablets down there. And he watched to see, and if you didn't take one you weren't playing next week. It gave you a buzz. After the game you couldn't eat, you were on a high until eight or nine o'clock." Earlier in the programme, Shankly outlined his healthy lifestyle. "I don't drink," he said. "And I don't smoke. I don't do anything to harm my body." He might have added: "But I always make sure that my players are stoned out of their gourds."