The Three Kings: The Makers of Modern Football

Leo Moynihan

Quercus £20

Review by Hugh MacDonald

A MATE coaches young footballers and was somewhat abashed when his instruction to one of his charges to play the Beckenbauer role was met with the reply: “Who’s he?”

Franz of that ilk was, of course, the most lauded German footballer and then manager but his heyday on the park was half a century ago. His relevance, it seems, has to be explained to the youngest generation.

Three Kings has a similar purpose. It anticipates the release of a film next year with the same name. Coming from the team behind Senna and Amy, it has solid credentials and three outstanding subjects in Bill Shankly, Jock Stein and Matt Busby.

Moynihan’s book thus serves as primer and explainer. It can do no more. The three Scottish managers have been brilliantly served by their biographers. If one wants to read a book about one of them then Archie MacPherson (Stein), Stephen F Kelly (Shankly) and Eamon Dunphy and Patrick Barclay (Busby) offer books of precision, passion and insight. All three, too, were chronicled in print by Hugh McIlvanney, the poet laureate of fitba’.

Moynihan’s task is to blend the stories. This can be straightforward in that all were working-class of mining stock and all made such contributions as managers that they have statues outside the stadiums where they precipitated days of glory: Anfield, Celtic Park and Old Trafford.

The project is helped by Moynihan’s facility as a writer and Three Kings buzzes along at a brisk pace with only the occasional stumble. Mistakes (the European Cup semi-final between Leeds United and Celtic is miscalled, for example) can be forgiven as the author makes sincere and sometimes insightful introductions to the three principals.

The most extraordinary achievement of all three men is that they changed clubs, making them the institutions they are now. Manchester United, Liverpool and Celtic were all in a sorry state when they arrived and gained extraordinary and sustained success under them. Stein, then Busby, won the European Cup and although it eluded Shankly he laid the template for the Liverpool teams under Joe Fagan and Bob Paisley that dominated the continent.

All three were nudged towards the door. Shankly was wounded by this exclusion, despite helping to bring it about. Stein and Busby would work on: the former with Scotland, the latter behind the scenes at Old Trafford.

Moynihan is assured at pointing to what made all three great. There was purpose to their work and certainty in their beliefs. They had what all great managers must possess: the ability to make players perform for them, whether through fear, respect or affection or a mixture of all three. They were blessedly wedded to the notion of football as an entertainment. No one was ever bored watching one of their sides.

But they shared one trait that continues to bemuse. All were self-professed socialists yet they acceded to boards in keeping the wages of footballers down in an era where the clubs held registrations, so preventing players going elsewhere. Why? Did they still retain some of the old-style deference to bosses? Did they believe that footballers “should not get above themselves”? Did they have a repressed resentment at the growing wages of footballers? The issue is only briefly explored but Moynihan in fairness has much to pack into just more than 200 pages.

However, he succeeds in bringing to life to these extraordinary characters for the benefit of the modern generation. Subtly, too, he paints an arresting portrait of a game that has now gone, drowned in saturation coverage and bloated by hype. Yet the essential wonder of football remains. The Three Kings were responsible for much of that brilliance enduring, even prospering. It is impossible not to look at the great teams of the present and not see their influence in terms of quickness and enterprise.

They are, therefore, more than worth another book and a subsequent film. They are also due the thanks of every supporter, particularly those who can’t remember Beckenbauer.