This is a testament to cinema. This was the last film I saw in a cinema before the current (second lockdown) and as the year draws to a close I would like to remember the days when it was common to visit the cinema once or twice a week. Not to be confused with David O. Russell’s similarly-titled Persian Gulf War picture starring George Clooney from 1999, from which this picture could not be further removed given that it is the study of three Scottish football managerial geniuses who in their way created the basis for the business empires of Manchester United, Liverpool and Glasgow’s Celtic F.C.
The death of Diego Maradona and the subsequent grief that swept Argentina is the most recent example of the power of football. The Three Kings demonstrates that this is anything but a new phenomenon. And it also very much a story of the 1960s when these three kings of football ascended their thrones.
Jock Stein (of Celtic), Matt Busby (of Manchester Utd) and Bill Shankly (of Liverpool) were born within 30 miles of each other in grim Scottish mining communities. Busby and Shankly played at international level for their country but Stein, after a career in the lower echelons of football, was surprisingly hired by Celtic in the early 1950s where his leadership skills led him to be made captain of a team he subsequently led to the Scottish championship. As managers, they reached fabulous heights, Stein and Busby leading their teams to European Cup glory, Shankly’s Liverpool dominating English football for several seasons.
As much as it is about their individual triumphs and tragedies – Busby lost most of his team and nearly his own life in the Munich Air Disaster, Stein nearly died in a car crash – it is also most pertinently about the importance of football to a community. Shankly saw his team as in service to the city. But it was also about their combined global reach.
This is a personal film for me. I grew up in and around Glasgow just as Stein’s team was reaching its peak. My father used to take me and my brother all over Scotland in his car to support the team. (My knowledge of geography owes much to the teams Celtic played in Scotland and Europe.) We were at Motherwell in 1966 when in the dying minutes Celtic won the game to clinch their first title in a dozen years. We were at Celtic Park the following year when in the dying minutes our team won the quarter-final against the Yugoslavian champions Vojvodina Novi Sad and of course we sat glued to the television on May 25, 1967, when Celtic became the first British team to win the European Cup (the fore-runner of the Champions League).
In winning the European Cup, the first time anyone outside outside the Latin heartlands of Spain and Italy and Portugal did so, Celtic – with a team drawn from 30 miles around Glasgow rather than global galacticos – joined Europe’s elite, in the company of such names as Real Madrid, Benfica, AC Milan and Inter Milan. Celtic’s verve and audacity appealed to neutrals around the world. Manchester Utd’s fabled trio of Best, Law and Charlton, plus the legacy of the Busby Babes killed at Munich, gave that team a global platform. In Shankly Liverpool had a master of the soundbite who talked like James Cagney and did the spadework for the Liverpool teams that would dominate Europe in the 1970s and 1980s.
Whether they realised it or not, the trio put their teams on a pedestal few have reached and the film estimated that a quarter of the globe’s entire population currently supports one of the three. It is also a testament to the burden carried by the managers. By the age of 62 both Busby and Shankly had retired while Jock Stein Stein died from a heart attack in the dying seconds of a vital World Cup qualifying game while managing Scotland.
The film also captures the unique circumstances of each of the working-class cities where football was the lifeblood. All three had other major football teams and it would not be unusual for a quarter of the city’s populations to attend football matches on a Saturday afternoon. Cities that had been destroyed by the Second World War and suffered from a contraction of the workforce in the recessions of the 1960s turned to football as a lifeline. Men who otherwise contained their emotions would let them loose in raucous fashion when following their favoured teams.
Directed with at times great subtlety by Jonny Owen, also responsible for the film about Brian Clough’s Eurropean Cup-winning Nottingham Forest I Believe in Miracles (2015), and incorporating rare archive footage, the documentary looks back to a time when football passion could transcend adversity.