The enduring gifts of three wise men

Ahead of the Easter weekend biographical trilogy on BBC2, Ken Jones offers his own insight into the minds and methods of three outstanding football men, born within a stone's throw of one another in the west of Scotland and each destined for managerial greatness
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The Independent Online
Any serious attempt to chronicle the impact made on football in one era by Matt Busby, Bill Shankly and Jock Stein requires an understanding of the important influences that shaped them.

Shankly's description of the marvellous teamwork central to Liverpool's success under his passionate management as "football socialism" and the bond he forged with the club's supporters were statements about working- class values, that innate sense of fairness and mutual dependence familiar to all who were born into mining communities.

In the television trilogy Arena: Busby, Stein and Shankly - The Football Men that goes out on BBC2 over Easter weekend, Hugh McIlvanney sees them not merely as great figures in the game, men of wise and independent virtue, but as representatives of the people.

Even allowing for its prolific reputation in football (the area around Shankly's birthplace, Glenbuck, sent out 50 professional players, including 11 internationals), that three such notable managers should be born within a few miles of each other in the west of Scotland coalfield is in itself remarkable.

All three knew the hardships and perils of working underground, and with their young athlete's bodies, and the intelligence, and the courage and the drive that would lead to so many triumphs, they learned what they wanted.

Stein would state that he never expected to come across better men than he worked with in the pits (sectarian differences had no currency at the coalface). If more at ease in football's upper circles, Busby too took strength from a working-class upbringing, strength that enabled him to overcome terrible injuries sustained in the Munich disaster and create another team. Shankly was never less than utterly true to his roots, carrying a deep suspicion of directors to his grave. "The only song I knew by heart was the Red Flag," he once said.

If there is more than a hint of similar political affiliation in McIlvanney's narrative, and Frank Hanly's imaginative and sensitive direction, it ought not to trouble them. The truth about Busby, Shankly and Stein, one that affects me personally, is that they gave no evidence of backsliding. Upon being made a Freeman of Manchester, resplendent in formal attire, Busby began with the words: "I was born in a pitman's cottage." Shankly with his Cagneyesque poses and acute sense of imagery - "I'll visit London again when it's completed," he said in retirement - never lost sight of boyhood experiences. Enthusiasm was all. "Players who don't dedicate themselves to the game and forget their duty to the supporters should be jailed," he snapped.

Unlike his two compatriots, both pre-World War Two internationals, Stein achieved no distinction as a player until Celtic recruited him from the Welsh non-League club Llanelli as a reserve centre-half. Selected for the first team in an emergency, he kept his place and led Celtic to victory in the Scottish Cup final.

It is Stein's return to Parkhead, after a successful apprenticeship in management with Dunfermline and Hibernian that brought him to the attention of clubs in England, that provides the most fascinating insights.

The music is emotive; the troubled Thirties blues of Duke Ellington over stark images of life in the coalfields; a forgotten music hall artist, Bob Smith, singing the "Red Flag" with stirring clarity; the haunting "Fields of Athenry" emphasising the pervading awfulness of immigrant life in the east Glasgow ghettos.

Stein's arrival back at the club he would transform into a major European force is attended by Dean Martin's version of "Return to me". It was not without pain. Only the fourth manager Celtic had ever appointed, the first non-Catholic, Stein had to suffer the resentment of fellow Protestants he had thought to be friends. Appalled by bigotry in all its forms, he took their rejection in his stride. "They proved they weren't my friends," he said.

Considering that Stein had to overcome personal difficulties imposed by sectarianism and cut through the insularity of Scottish football, there is a case for concluding that he established a slight edge in management over Busby and Shankly and such redoubtable contemporaries as Alf Ramsey, Bill Nicholson and Don Revie.

Importantly, I think, all abided by a creed of mutual loyalty. From the beginning it was Busby's resolve to treat players in a way that players of his day were not treated. The most important thing about Shankly was that he could convey his enthusiasm to the players. None of them allowed liberties to be taken, but what set Stein apart (he could be as fly as they come when dealing with problems in the dressing-room and some thought him to be bit of a bully) was the understanding that football had to be set in a wider context.

Shankly and Liverpool were made for each other. The city was Glasgow with a different accent. "It was the place in football I was looking for," he said. "There was a great passion for the game." He tapped it to such great effect that his legacy has become a legend. Bob Paisley achieved great things in succession, winning the European Cup three times, a prize that eluded Shankly, but the foundations were laid long ago in Glenbuck.

Celtic's 2-1 defeat of Internazionale to win the European Cup in 1967, the first success by a British club in the competition, brought Stein recognition throughout football. "John, you're immortal," Shankly said to him in the dressing-room afterwards. Seeing again the devastating effect of Celtic's controlled surges on the arch disciples of defensive play, you can only marvel at the improvement Stein brought about in players who, by then, would have probably drifted into obscurity but for his presence among them.

A year later, Manchester United matched Celtic's distinction when overcoming Benfica on a night of great emotion at Wembley. For Busby it was, at last, the realisation of a vision lost in the wreckage of an airliner.

The differences that emerge from the careers of Busby, Shankly and Stein make it abundantly evident that there is no absolute method of managing a team. Busby himself would have claimed no great prowess as a tactician - "too much mind will destroy the game," he once said in a moment of exasperation - but none had keener eyes for a player or a clearer idea of blend.

In Shankly's mind, enthusiasm, honesty and togetherness were essential. "Every player who comes here is under scrutiny from the moment he arrives," he can be heard saying. "I know the colour of their eyes, every one of them." The tenets he laid down were simple but inviolable: don't let attackers turn and, if they do, track them down quickly. Never run the ball out of the penalty area and always support the man in possession. What Liverpool were then they are now. Shankly's mark is still on them.

Stein was a winner because he was smarter than most of his competition, because he was an unyielding perfectionist and because he imposed his will on his players with the sheer force of his personality. He made sure that he had some pretty good players, too.

There are managers who are disciplinarians and fitness fanatics and they are pale imitations of these three men. How they would have coped with today's circumstances, ever escalating salaries and the influence of agents, is another story. Ian St John is convinced that Busby and Shankly colluded to keep matters in check after the removal of the maximum wage. "They didn't place a great deal of importance on money," he said.

Times change, maybe for the worse, maybe for the better, but this account of three tremendous careers in football reminds us that no amount of corporate development can obliterate the game's working-class history.

Arena - Busby, Stein and Shankly, the Football Men starts Friday, 9.30pm, BBC2.