The Three Kings review – Scotland's managerial titans in the spotlight

Matt Busby, Bill Shankly and Jock Stein, European champions from the same tiny region, are lovingly rendered in a smart doc

Though there’s quite a bit of familiar material on show here, this exercise in football nostalgia has an interesting, original focus: the three Scottish managers who dominated British football in the 1960s and who – amazingly – were born within a few dozen miles of each other on the outskirts of Glasgow. The achievements of Matt Busby and Bill Shankly have been fairly comprehensively anthologised, with both covered in recent feature-length documentaries – Busby and Shankly: Nature’s Fire – so it’s the third member of this troika, Jock Stein, who is perhaps the most revelatory figure, relatively speaking.

Though their mining-village backgrounds are remarkably similar, the three are a study in contrasts: Busby kindly and avuncular, Shankly intense and pugnaciously poetic, and Stein a poker-faced bear of a man. The film traces their common ability to reshape their teams in their own image, and their dogged rise to trophy-winning dominance. Interesting nuggets emerge: Stein backing out of the Manchester United job as Busby’s successor, preferring to stay at Celtic; Shankly, apparently, the only English First Division manager to travel to Lisbon to watch Celtic win the European Cup in 1967.

The Three Kings isn’t perhaps as revealing about Scottish football culture as might have been hoped – compared with, say, the BBC’s excellent Scotland 78: A Love Story – and has little to say about the contrast its story bears to the current quality crisis in the SPL. It also might have made a little more of Scotland’s fourth managerial colossus, Alex Ferguson, who himself hailed from only a few miles north-west of this celebrated trio. Ferguson provides a few quotes, principally about Stein – alongside whom he is, of course, pictured during the devastating scenes when Stein collapsed and died at the end of Scotland’s 1985 qualifying game with Wales.

Nevertheless, this film’s loving attention to its subjects is a good fit for the current mood of unease and distrust of the modern game and where it might be heading; a restatement of the old certainties is always welcome.

• The Three Kings is in cinemas from 1 November.


Andrew Pulver

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Shankly: Nature's Fire review – reverent portrait of Liverpool FC legend
Liverpool greats line up to pay tribute to tough-nosed Scottish football manager Bill Shankly in this sweeping, melancholic documentary

Andrew Pulver

04, Nov, 2017 @6:00 AM

Article image
Sir Alex Ferguson: Never Give In review – less hairdryer treatment than crowning glory
Really, you can’t go wrong with this material: a working-class Scot becomes the most decorated manager in football, yet age and illness cannot dim his gleam

Peter Bradshaw

27, May, 2021 @12:00 PM

Article image
Bobby Robson: More Than a Manager review – portrait of an England icon
José Mourinho leads the tributes in this uncompromising and elegant doc about a man who rose above football’s ruthlessness

Andrew Pulver

01, Jun, 2018 @10:00 AM

Article image
The Manager by Mike Carson and Harry's Games by John Crace – review
Richard Williams on the changing role of football's denizens of the dugout

Richard Williams

05, Sep, 2013 @7:01 AM

Article image
You've Been Trumped Too review – Scottish widow defies future president
Resistance builds to Donald Trump’s attempts to build a golf resort near Aberdeen in this prescient documentary sequel

Peter Bradshaw

12, Aug, 2020 @3:00 PM

Article image
Prophecy review – mesmerising portrait of painter Peter Howson
This fascinating documentary observes Howson creating a large orgiastic scene while talking about how he banished the demons in his life

Leslie Felperin

13, Jun, 2019 @10:00 AM

Article image
Iorram (Boat Song) review – swims with the ghosts of Scottish fishermen past
Sensitive documentary combines historic audio of Western Isles Gaelic-speaking fishermen with footage of their modern counterparts

Peter Bradshaw

04, Mar, 2021 @9:00 AM

Article image
The Amber Light review – warming treatise on whisky's liquid gold
This agreeable documentary combines the social history of drinking whisky with a tour of Scotland

Mike McCahill

22, Nov, 2019 @10:00 AM

Article image
True Stories: Spaces review – impressive short docs from folk horror to a Lebanese marvel
This short film collection from the True Story platform ranges across continents to look at how we interact with our environments

Phuong Le

08, Aug, 2021 @12:54 PM

Article image
Eminent Monsters: A Manual for Modern Torture review – the cycle of shame
This effective documentary examines why no one is held to account over torture and how close the UK is to adopting techniques used in Guantánamo

Leslie Felperin

13, Feb, 2020 @12:00 PM