The modern version of Liverpool may be shaped as much by executives in Boston as it is by the man in the dugout, but could it be the manager who most embodies the spirit of Shankly who finally brings them deliverance? asks
If you’re like me, then you will have just emerged from a week-long Hugh McIlvanney rabbit hole. The great man’s death was an excuse to trawl through his peerless back catalogue, the accompanying tributes testifying that we would not, and could not, see his like again.
Many of his obituaries were written by current sportswriters, who lamented the loss of access to great sporting figures and, for that matter, the great sporting expense accounts that McIlvanney enjoyed. They conjured the image of the swaggering, roistering alpha-journo dispensing exquisite prose and withering putdowns through a cloud of Cuban cigar smoke, a man from the golden age who never had to write about the five things he’d learned from Southampton v Leicester or live tweet a Neil Warnock press conference.
Still, the internet has its advantages. As well as providing easy access to those majestic sentences crafted at the 20th century’s defining sporting events, those who really wanted to wallow in his royal Hughness could head for YouTube, where The Football Men: Busby, Shankly & Stein lay waiting in all its grainy, VHS-quality glory.
The three-part series was broadcast in 1997 under the banner of Arena, the BBC’s arty documentary strand, and saw McIlvanney profile the background and monumental influence of the three legendary Scottish managers.
Of course, it’s brilliant. To the soundtrack of Duke Ellington’s jazz trumpet, McIlvanney prowls the mean streets of British cities in the style of a film noir gumshoe, speaking to old men who knew the trio, intoning great slabs of world-weary voiceover like a Caledonian Bogart. McIlvanney is seen rifling through his own old copy in oak-panelled reading rooms, the inference being: I knew these men, now you will too.
He argues that the shared background of Busby, Stein, and Shankly — all three were from west of Scotland mining villages — was the defining trait in their managerial success. All experienced, first-hand, the dangers of pit life, but also its solidarity, and, McIlvanney concludes, “one of the most basic gifts that they brought to the management of football teams was a profound comprehension of the huge power of genuine camaraderie, an understanding of teamwork learned from people whose lives could depend upon it”.
When news of McIlvanney’s death was announced, I had, entirely coincidentally, just finished reading an old, dog-eared copy of A Strange Kind of Glory, the biography of Busby written in 1991 by that other well-known roisterer-scribe, Eamon Dunphy.
It’s also brilliant — I read the original paperback version, not the edition reissued in 2007 for the anniversary of the Munich air disaster, and it is a jolt to the modern mind to read an exhaustive account of Manchester United in that period that does not foreshadow what was to come.
Alex Ferguson’s name is not mentioned once, although he had been manager at Old Trafford for five years at that point, and the effect is to underline just how much Busby shaped the club’s modern identity.
For Dunphy, Busby was “the one great man… to emerge from more than a century of professional soccer in Britiain”.
Prior to Busby, football clubs were controlled by petty-minded merchants, slave-masters in Dunphy’s eyes. Footballers were treated cruelly, abused by their owners as chattel, bullied in the dressing room, their wages capped and their contracts locked away.
Busby was the first to build a club — almost literally, given Old Trafford was a bombed-out ruin when he took over in 1945 — by the template of his own vision. He saw a club with values, that brought through its own youngsters to play beautiful, expressive football and would treat them with respect. For McIlvanney and Dunphy the ‘Great Man’ view of history becomes the ‘Great Man’ view of football. Both writers saw their heroes as hard men but romantics, all committed to football as a means of expression, all aware what could be achieved if individual needs were subservient to the collective. All were either suspicious or ignorant of money: none of the clubs they managed paid well, a source of grievance for many ex-players.
And, from their vantage point, both writers thought the day of the great football men was done. For Dunphy, the spivs and money-grabbers had seized back the game. No longer could a visionary manager ask players to throw their lot in for a great cause. Talk to my agent — and while we’re at it, about that pay rise?
McIlvanney closes his series with an elegy. “The working and social environments they sprang from no longer exist in this country,” he reasons, “and today football men tend to be shaped by purely football experiences. The very harshness of the shared origins of these three men enabled them to tap richer sources of strength.”
Whatever about the 1990s perspective of McIlvanney and Dunphy, it is accepted today that the great football man can no longer exist, when big clubs are multi-layered corporate structures in which football is a mere department. The rules of modern football dictate that those who spend most on wages and transfer fees will succeed, and that the coach must merely arrange the pieces in a vaguely sensible order.
And yet the great men’s influence lingers. United’s post-Busby suffering was only ended when Ferguson came along, a very different man but one who also mixed steely strength with a buccaneering spirit. United still pine for that combination — the current Ole Gunnar Solskjaer interregnum has thrived by acting as an emergency hit to the club’s romantic, Busby-moulded heart.
They cast a jealous eye toward Tottenham’s Mauricio Pochettino, and wonder if he might just have the right blend of toughness and tenderness.
Celtic may never find another Stein — there may never be another Stein — but their more celebrated managers since have either had some of his inspiration and cunning — Martin O’Neill in his heyday — or in Brendan Rodgers’ case, the same love of expressive football.
But it is at Liverpool that the shadow looms longest. It was impossible to listen to Shankly talk about the “Holy Trinity of a football club” — the manager, the players, and the fans — and not think of how Jurgen Klopp tries to hard-wire the Anfield fervour into everything the club does. The modern version of Liverpool may be shaped as much by executives in Boston as it is by the man in the dugout, but could it be the manager who most embodies the spirit of Shankly who finally brings them deliverance?
The days of the football men and the globe-trotting sportswriters are both gone, but there’s still a rich seam in mining their old stories.