Rather astonishingly, we learn from sportswriter Leo Moynihan that all three semi-sacred men were born within a 50-kilometre radius of each other in the central lowlands of Scotland: Busby at Bellshilll, North Lanarkshire, on May 26, 1909, Shankly at Glenbuck, East Ayrshire, on September 2, 1913 and Stein at Burnbank, South Lanarkshire, on October 5, 1922. And so, within a baker’s dozen of years, too.

Equally surprising is to discover that Busby, Shankly and Stein all started out as coal miners toiling underground in dangerous and dirty conditions. It was frightening work, the bad air caused lung problems and there were rats. But that’s the way it was in Scottish mining country those decades ago: it was accepted that lads mostly went straight from school to the pits, and they returned to the surface after each shift as black as, well, coal.

“There were only two ways for boys to go in those days: down, working in the pits, or up if you happened to be good at football,” Matt Busby was to recall. All three managed to leave the mines behind and go on to become professional football players and then legendary team managers.

Leo Moynihan’s triple biography hops from one man to the other, intertwining the three stellar careers. These were simply among the greatest managers the game of football has known, a triumvirate of inspirational Scottish managers who each lifted their clubs from relative anonymity to almost mythical status.

Matt Busby was relieved to make the grade and escape. He started out as a youth team player at Alpine Villa where he won the under-18 Scottish Cup before moving to Denny Hibernian. He was watched by scouts from Rangers and Celtic, but when Busby went for a trial with Rangers they found out he was a Catholic, and then Celtic weren’t impressed that he had tried out at Rangers, which was Protestant.

The religious divide was strong and difficult to evade. Stein came from a strictly Protestant background, and one old friend from his childhood turned and walked out of his mother’s house on seeing that Stein, a new Celtic player, was visiting. Stein eventually became the first Protestant manager of Celtic.

Busby moved south to Manchester City as an inside-forward in February 1928 but they moulded him into a classy half-back. In seven years he played 226 Football League games for City. His biggest disappointment was losing the FA Cup final 3-0 to Everton in 1933 but the highlight was winning the cup a year later when Portsmouth were beaten 2-1.

At 26, Busby was an experienced professional when he was signed by Liverpool in March 1936 for £8000. He almost immediately took over the right-half position from Robert Savage. Busby didn’t miss many matches over the next three seasons when Liverpool were a mediocre First Division team. But like so many of his contemporaries, his playing career was cut short by World War II.

Along with Tiny Bradshaw and Jimmy McDougall he formed an all-Scottish half-back line that ranks with the best Liverpool has ever had in those three positions at any one time in its history.

Busby was appointed as coach and assistant manager to George Kay at Anfield for £10 a week in May 1944. However, his views on how football should be played and governed were not shared by Liverpool’s board. In February 1945, Busby, who was at this time an instructor at the Royal Military College, was released.

A few days later he accepted the manager’s position at Manchester United, whose ground Old Trafford had been reduced to rubble by German air raids. It was a bold step for him to take but his achievements there were nothing short of astonishing, with the birth of the “Busby Babes”, five First Division Championships and two FA Cups.

He survived the Munich air disaster of February 1958 in which eight United players died, and then a decade later masterminded the European Cup-winning team of 1968. Busby transformed United into one of the greatest clubs in the world, winning 13 trophies in 25 years. He was knighted in 1968, retired in 1969 and died on January 20, 1994.

Jock Stein began his football career playing part-time for Albion Rovers. The best spell of his playing career came at Celtic, where he won the Coronation Cup in 1953 followed by a league and cup double in 1954. But persistent injury to his ankle led to his retirement at age 35 in 1957.

It was as manager of Celtic though that Stein made his mark on football, turning them into the pre-eminent club in Scotland. After taking over in March 1965, over the next 13 years he won the Scottish League 10 times, Scottish Cup eight times and Scottish League Cup six times.

His greatest achievement was in 1967 when Celtic won an unprecedented (and since unequalled) quadruple. In addition to the domestic treble, they became the first British side to make a European Cup final, beating the fancied Internazionale of Milan in Lisbon. And the most amazing fact was that Stein achieved this with a team whose players all came from within a 45-kilometre radius of Glasgow.

Stein became the manager of Scotland on his 56th birthday. During the qualifying campaign for the 1986 World Cup Scotland played Wales in Cardiff, with Stein collapsing from a heart attack at the side of the pitch at the final whistle. He died shortly afterwards in the stadium’s medical room, age 62.

Bill Shankly epitomised an irresistible force: charismatic with a sharp tongue that was famously quotable and, simply, the most iconic figure in the history of Liverpool Football Club. He took charge of a failing Second Division outfit on December 1, 1959 and set about turning them into English football's most dominant force.

Under Shankly, Liverpool won three First Division titles, one Division Two title, two FA Cups and one UEFA Cup. But beyond the impressive list of trophies he set up an enduring legacy that saw even more dominance under successors Bob Paisley, Joe Fagan and Kenny Dalglish. Despite suddenly retiring in July 1974, to this day Bill Shankly has an untouchable Anfield legacy.

Author Moynihan says these three men never felt their crowns made them taller than others, treating everyone as equals. Forged in the pits, they valued the people they worked with, whether they were backroom staff who operated in the shadows or revered players. They introduced fresh and innovative coaching with tactical nous. Under them their clubs exuded warmth and camaraderie. Moynihan lays out a convincing case that these three imposing men, these three kings, made modern football.


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