Hugh McIlvanney’s ‘The Football Men’ revisited

First aired over the Easter weekend in 1997, Hugh McIlvanney’s The Football Men: Busby, Stein and Shankly is more than a three-part documentary about the west of Scotland’s great triumvirate. It is that, of course, but it is also much, much more. Trawling through YouTube and revisiting this BBC gem once more this past couple of weeks, it is striking just how much of a sociological document McIlvanney’s mini-masterpiece really is.

Having known each of the three personally, McIlvanney was able to go beyond football and deliver a three-part treatise on class, identity, sectarianism and comradeship. Debate can be endless, and ultimately futile, as to who was the greatest of the three, but it is in the commonality of background and location that McIlvanney teases out the uniqueness which made each man so successful.

Each programme develops chronologically with the emphasis shifting from one man to the other, rather than individual episodes devoted to each of the three. Busby, born in 1909, was the oldest of the three, with Shankly coming along in 1913, and Stein in 1922.  McIlvanney’s thesis, that harshness of circumstances and knowledge of a life outside the game was responsible for the trio leaving their imprint on the game, is carefully and atmospherically developed over the course of three 45 minute films.


Busby, although displaying academic promise at school, was down the pit in his early teens, his father a casualty in the First World War. Mining cut short his daily three mile walk to school, while his half-brother Jimmy Mathie tells McIlvanney that Matt “could handle himself” during the miners’ strikes.

The stern yet calm demeanour, indicative of a man mature beyond his years, was evidence of what McIlvanney describes as the ability to have more effect with just one look than lesser managers would have with a salvo of bellowing. The young Liam Whelan, a casualty of the Munich disaster, once informed Busby that he was not worth his place in the side and should be dropped. Busby’s reply, it is alleged, was enough to freeze the blood in the young Irishman’s veins

No one tells me who to put into my team and who to drop. I manage this side. If I keep you in it is because you are playing the way I want you to. Keep playing that way and don’t ever do this again.

That firmness, though, did not work alone. Having been so home-sick when he first arrived in Manchester as a 17-year-old, Busby knew only too well the pressures and the misery endured by young lads far from home for the first time. In a clip from the mid-1960s Busby intones that he always tries to treat his players “the way I would have liked to have been treated myself”.

Stein argues, in the same vein, that “respect ranked higher than discipline”, although the knowing grin when he describes himself as been able to “come and go” where player discipline is concerned shows a man who was no softie, no mere mortal to be trifled with. Shankly, whom McIlvanney refers to as a “warrior poet” talks less of discipline than of his own “example”. The former Liverpool manager, the Bard of Glenbuck, argues “I don’t drink, I don’t smoke…I can set an example to men”.

The roots of that “example” are fascinating. None of the three was a city boy; none came from the great city on the Clyde, Glasgow.  Instead, each was forged in villages in close proximity straddling the Lanarkshire-Ayrshire border. Busby, Stein and Shankly developed from boys into men in a setting of the most acute juxtaposition.

To earn a crust they would be down the pit. For pleasure, and for possible escape, they would be above ground, playing football and breathing in the fresh air they had been denied all week.  Jock Stein reflected on the paucity of alternative employment at the time when he said that the alternative was “a few weeks in a carpet factory”. For most men it was the pits or nothing.

It was those same pits that kept Stein in employment until he was 27. Never after, he always claimed “would he work with better men”.  The reliance on each other, the very real knowledge that it genuinely was a matter of life or death underground, acted as a form of social glue that was palpable throughout. Stein’s old mates from the colliery swill a few drinks with McIlvanney as they recall old times and regale the presenter with tales of the Big Man. It was clear: this was no long lost pal that had “got on and got out” but one of their own who had maximized his talents.

Just how much of a leveller life underground really was is made clear from Mick McGahey, former vice-president of the NUM, and like Busby and Stein, a product of Lanarkshire who had been a pitman himself. The differences in religion, though evident above ground at the time, were nothing once the helmets were donned and the cage descended to the depths. Although “all hell” may have broken loose, according to McGahey, on their days off, once parched throats had been oiled with a few pints, they were as one once back at work.


Stein’s left-wing views were never less than common knowledge, and Shankly would often extol an incisive move on the field as a perfect example of socialism at work, but Busby seems to be a man most clearly defined by his faith.

Salford artist Harold Riley argues that Busby’s Roman Catholicism was as much “a part of him as his skin”, while faith and family were his “anchor”. Just how much of that is a result of his childhood experience one can only guess, although having an Irish grandfather, Jimmy Greer, in the house must have helped the young Busby develop that strong sense of self for which he is noted.

In the footage which shows Busby receiving the Freedom of the City of Manchester in 1967, the dapper gent in his white-tied finery looks to the manor born. Later, locking the door to his Jensen Interceptor in the Old Trafford car park, the refined physical carriage and upright gait as he strolls across the tarmac is that of a natural aristocrat.

If the Orbiston of Busby and the Burnbank of Stein helped develop the character of those two managers in very specific ways, then the rural, remote Glenbuck, birthplace of Shankly, helped propagate an equally singular man. The poetic flourish, the love of allegory and hyperbole are all in some way attributed to rural Glenbuck and its tight, close-knit sense of otherness.


If the genesis of the trio of films and its presentation is down to the lucid Mcillvanney, then the evocation of time, place and mood is attributable to director Frank Hanly. Haunting and evocative in his choice of music and footage, the use of Duke Ellington’s “The Moochie” is oddly appropriate as smoke whirls over the grainy setting of a 1920s pit village. Equally emotive is the use of Paddy Reilly’s “The Fields of Athenry” as the topic turns to sectarianism and footage of a bustling Glasgow.

Each of these three great managers was, in the words of William McIlvanney, Hugh’s brother, “essentially moral men in their dealings”. The Football Men succeeds in making a case that three great managers were created in circumstances which make football seem essentially trivial. That they did not treat it as a triviality comes from a sense that they had known a way of making a living that was as far removed from the hedonistic rush of football as is possible to imagine. That sense of joi de vivre which they fostered on the field was, in part, their thanks to the communities which turned out to see them each weekend.

As Shankly himself said “to waste the public’s time is a terrible crime”. Each was, in their own way, but also collectively, proof that a life lived away from the game gave it perspective. To adjust CLR James’ old cricketing dictum, “what do they know of football who only football know?”

The Author

Gareth Bland

From Derbyshire in the English Peak District, Gareth has also written for These Football Times and Cricket Web.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *