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Giants of the Dugout

Jonny Owen lets us in on the inspiration behind his latest football documentary, The Three Kings

interview by Thomas Sumner

The Three Kings tells the story of Matt Busby, Jock Stein and Bill Shankly, three iconic football managers all born within 30 miles of each other in Scotland. We sat down with Director Jonny Owen to talk about the making of modern football.

Where did the idea for Three Kings come from?
I was always very aware that [Matt] Busby, [Bill] Shankly and [Jock] Stein had worked underground in Scotland. My father worked underground. That wasn’t unusual in South Wales at the time, but he’d always point them out; ‘he’s a miner’, he’d say. Time and time again. Me and my brothers would roll our eyes and tell him we’d heard the story before. But he never stopped telling us. 

I always think that the place these guys came from, the world these guys grew up in, created an environment where you had to get on, you had to be close. And that’s the central tenet of management. That’s especially true of football. I was fascinated by the ways in which their mining backgrounds shaped them. The root of what made these men such great managers lies in their upbringing. I thought that was something worth talking about. 

When did sports documentaries become exciting to watch?
I think the big game changers were When We Were Kings and Senna.  Senna was all archive based; you didn’t see any talking heads. It was a new way of making film to me. I wanted to take a similar approach with Three Kings. I wanted to make something accessible, something that moves and informs, but also brings a subject back to life. The music played a big part in that, I think. 

On that note, can you tell us a little more about the music of The Three Kings?
I got very lucky with a fantastic artist, Richard Hawley, who I was a big fan of. I approached him about coming on board for this project. He’s the son of steelworkers in Sheffield, so from a similar world, in a sense. We spoke about what kind of music we’d use. There were a couple of tracks he did like ‘Standing at the Sky’s Edge’ and ‘She Brings the Sunlight’ that I already loved. They had this kind of industrial, psychedelic vibe to them. Slightly dream like, but with a kind of clanging-of-hammers-at-the-forge sound to them. It worked really well. I wanted to throw in some ‘40s and ‘50s jazz too, because I was very aware that working class people, of a weekend, would dress up and go to the pub – and of course to the match. It was the break out after a week’s work. I wanted to reflect that dynamic in the music by shifting from the industrial to the ceremonial. 

Did the age of the teenager influence a new style of player?
Absolutely. When Busby created the Busby Babes, he unknowingly created something that would coincide with the rise of cultural phenomena like the rise of rock n’ roll, and with it, the teenager. There were big changes in the air: people had disposable income for the first time ever; they could buy clothes and go to matches; they could travel away. Some people called the Busby Babes the Brylcreem Boys because they had these Tony Curtis haircuts, you know? They were culturally aware, and they echoed the cultural zeitgeist of the time perfectly. They very much encapsulated the rise of the teenager.  

The rivalry between Liverpool and Manchester United is legendary. Has it always been this way?
It’s probably the biggest rivalry in football history! Certainly, in English football. That began with Shankly and Busby, no doubt about it. Before that, there was no Liverpool-Manchester rivalry in any way like we know now. It was the Manchester Derby and the Merseyside Derby. But that’s where it all began. I mean, they swapped titles like heavyweight boxers swapped punches, didn’t they? Back and forth and back and forth. It continued into the early seventies and became arguably one of the biggest rivalries on the planet. 

Football has many historical milestones. Do you feel like you’ve lived through the creation of something significant?
That definitely feels like the case in Wales. I’ve watched Wales since I was a kid. Home and away. Wales were the forever nearly men of international football at one point. And then something happened on the pitch with the likes of John Tosh and Gary Speed coming into the equation. Off the pitch, something happened too. The amount of people that started going away to watch Wales grew and grew. The fashion of time started to morph into something uniquely Welsh – with the bucket hats and labels like The Spirit of ‘58. And then we started producing some serious world class players. It was an amazing thing to bear witness to. 

Were there any stories that didn’t make it into the film?
One that sticks out for me is the story around Shankly’s retirement. Bill Shankly was quite a passionate man, as we all know. And almost every summer he’d get fed up with football and threaten to pack it all in. They called it Bill’s summer madness. Busby almost took on the role of older brother when Bill would get wound up like that. He’d tell him to calm down and persevere. Interestingly though, Busby wasn’t around at Old Trafford in the summer of ‘74, and that’s the year he resigned! 

The Three Kings is available to buy and stream on Amazon Prime