This is a long piece. I hope you will find it worthwhile. Frank O’Farrell was in Cork on Friday June 15th, 2012 last. I did a hour-long interview with with him. He is a fascinating person. I planned to write a shorter piece but there was so much to Frank O’Farrell and his story that I asked my editor John McHale to give me more space. He agreed. This is the result.
I BUMPED into William Geoghegan of Liam Ruiséal’s Bookshop one day recently. In the course our chit-chat he told me that former Irish international, and Manchester United manager Frank O’Farrell was coming to the bookshop to sign copies of his book, All Change at Old Trafford, The Frank O’Farrell Story.
I asked William if he could arrange an interview for me. He said he would try. He contacted Frank O’Farrell who said yes and we agreed to meet at 3pm in Ruiséal’s Bookshop.
Frank O’Farrell was a great player. He made his reputation firstly here in Cork and later with West Ham and Preston North End.
He then went into football management and in the late 1960s, when I reached the age of sporting consciousness, I saw him on the TV.
The front cover of Frank O’Farrell’s book
That was the era when RTE used to broadcast two live soccer games each year, the FA Cup final and the European Cup final.
I remember him as manager of Leicester City in the 1969 FA Cup final.
Two years after that he became manager of Manchester United and although they were not my favourite team, I knew even then, that they were the most famous club in English football. Just the mention of the name Manchester United conjured up soccer magic and thoughts of roaring crowds.
I remember hearing adults talk sport about that time. “Isn’t Frankie Farrell doing well for himself,” they used to say.
They were proud, as all Cork people were, that one of their own had reached the top of English football.
When I entered the Ruiséal’s Bookshop Frank O’Farrell was standing off to the right, in conversation with a customer. Although he is 84 years old, he looks almost the same as he does on the front cover of his book. He is a little greyer, and there may be a few extra wrinkles (not many), but the aura and the features have not changed.
He is still the man who played in the Mardyke, who moved to West Ham, then played at Preston with the great Tom Finney, managed Leicester to an FA Cup final, took charge of Manchester United, the most famous club in Britain, took on George Best during his hell-raisin’ days and coached Iran to win the 1974 Asian Games.
He has been through a lot but he remains, calm, neatly dressed, attentive and enjoys a chat.
There were other people to be met so I stood back and observed while he spoke with Tony Drummond, an old teammate from his Cork United days, Plunkett Carter, a regular contributor to the Evening Echo and several more. William Geoghegan did the introductions and we sat down to talk.
Frank O’Farrell was born into a Cork City that was very different to the one we know today.
He was born in 1927 and grew up in the economically depressed 1930s and Emergency years of the 1940s. Born in Lower Dublin Hill, Blackpool. His father, Patrick worked as a train driver. When Frank was five, the family moved to Turner’s Cross and Frank went to school in the South Mon and later Christ the King in Turner’s Cross.
He led a normal childhood for that time. He was good in school, won prizes for doing well in exams, played soccer, hurling and football, swam in the Lee Baths, picked blackberries in September, threw bowls (His granduncle “Buck” McGrath was a bowling legend) and generally made the best of life.
Gradually, soccer became his sporting focus. He played for Nicholas Rovers, Clapton Celtic, Western Rovers and finally Cork United. Workwise he followed his father into the railway.
The Western Rovers minor soccer team pictured at Turners Cross. Included is Frank O’Farrell (back row, third from left). 22/06/1945 Order this photograph from the Evening Echo Ref. 899C
“I wanted to become a train driver like my father,” he said.
When he finally joined the railway, the young Frankie Farrell was stationed in Mallow.
“I sometimes would get the train up to Cork and play for Cork United and then borrow my brother’s bike and cycle in the dark back to Mallow to be on duty for midnight.”
He was getting £3 a week from the railway and another £3 plus bonuses from Cork United. I was doing very well, I had two jobs.” Then as he says with a touch of irony, “West Ham came calling and spoilt it.”
“I found it very hard to leave. I loved the trains. It was the steam engines I really loved. Steam was great. One day the 800 or the 801 (steam engines) would be running smoothly, and everything would be flying. The next day it was impossible to get them going properly. You would be totally frustrated. It was great preparation for football management actually.”
But the call of professional football won and the move to England is a move that Frank O’Farrell has never regretted. He brought his strong Catholic faith with him and although he was often slagged for not eating meat on Fridays and getting up early for Mass, he is as strong a Catholic today as he was the day he left Cork.
Frank learned a lot about football during his years at West Ham. The club were very progressive in their approach to the game. There is a photograph in the book of a West Ham team in the 1955-56 season. Of the six players in the back row, five, Dave Sexton, John Bond, Malcolm Allison, Noel Cantwell and Frank O’Farrell, went on to become successful First Division managers. “We used to sit around for hours and discuss ideas about how the game was played. It was also while he was playing with West Ham that he met his wife, Ann.
He played with West Ham until 1957. That summer he moved to Preston and in 1957-58 Preston finished runners-up to Wolves in the old First Division. During his years with Preston, Frank played with England international Tom Finney. He was affectionately known as “The Preston Plumber” because that was his trade.
“He always had his tools with him” Frank said, “and he would go up to your house after training and fix any plumbing issues you might have.”
How good a player was he? “He was the best I ever played with. He was marvellous. I drove to the north of England for his 90th birthday party recently. I wouldn’t do that for many.”
All good things must eventually end and when Frank was in his early 30s he was let go by Preston. He was picked up by Weymouth of the Southern League as their player manager and spent four seasons with Weymouth during which time they finished sixth, third, seventh and finally won the league.
“I went there as player/manager which I found difficult at first. You had to think about the team you picked and then back up picking yourself by the way you played.”
After four seasons at Weymouth, he moved to Torquay.
“We won promotion from the Fourth Division in the first year and finished near the top of the third for the next two seasons.”
This was the 1965 to ’68 era and, presumably because of the lack of live football on the TV and the afterglow of England’s 1966 World Cup triumph, Torquay could have a home crowd of 9,000 on a Saturday.
Midway through the 1968-69 season, Leicester came calling for Frank. Leicester were struggling near the bottom of the First Division and were hoping that O’Farrell would save them from relegation. He failed, but they did get to the FA Cup final where they lost 0-1 to Manchester City.
They had some very good players like Peter Shilton and Allan Clarke but they had a very bad start to the season and it eventually cost them their place in the First Division.
Leicester just missed out on promotion in the 1969-70 season when they finished third. The following season they finished in first place and won back their place at the top table.
Promotion coincided with the end of Frank’s contract. Negotiations on the new contract were slow and during the summer of 1971 he received a phone call from Matt Gillis, whom he had succeeded as Leicester manager, telling him that Sir Matt Busby wanted to talk to him.
Frank met Matt Busby privately. “He (Busby) told me that he wanted to step back from managing Manchester United. The team had been together too long, some players were getting old and the team needed to be rebuilt. He said it was a five-year job and that he wanted me to take it on.”
“I asked him what the terms of the contract would be. He said, ‘so many thousand bonus if you win the league, so many thousand if you win the cup, so many thousand for the European Cup and so on and a basic pay of £12,000.’ I said I’d think about it over the weekend, talk to my chairman at Leicester, and get back to him on Monday.
“I spoke to my chairman and he wasn’t happy about it, but I had not signed a new contract so agreed I could talk to Manchester.
“I then arranged to meet Matt Busby and the Manchester United chairman, Louis Edwards to discuss the matter again. We were to meet in a hotel but Busby wasn’t happy with that so I drove out the country, found a lane where we parked and I sat into Louis Edwards Rolls Royce to discuss the matter with them.
I asked Matt would he repeat the terms again and he said ‘so many thousand for the league and so on…’ and he finished with £12,000 your wages. At that point Louis Edwards interrupted and said ‘No Matt your wrong, it’s £15,000.’
“Of course I knew I was in trouble at that point, but what could you do? Manchester United was such a big club. I was happy at Leicester but I couldn’t turn Manchester down.”
He received a further indication that Matt Busby had not fully retired on his first day on the job.
“I was met by Matt and he showed me a new office they were building down the hall from the office that Matt Busby had always used and where he intended to stay.
“I told him that this wouldn’t do. People would think that he was still the manager. He reluctantly agreed to move out of the office.”
Frank set about making changes at Old Trafford. Not big changes at first, but changes that needed to be made. He changed things that were not seen by the public but things that suggested that Matt Busby was not really the nice guy people saw on TV.
Frank gives a few examples in the book. “I noticed that George Best was not the best paid player on the staff. So I made him the best-paid player. The physio Laurie Brown did not have all the equipment he needed to treat players. I made sure he got all the equipment he needed.”
At Christmas of the 1971-’72 season, his first at Old Trafford, Manchester United were five points clear at the top of the league. Things were going so well that Matt Busby declared, “Frank O’Farrell is probably the best signing I ever made.”
“They (Manchester United) were a difficult team,” Frank said.
“They had a funny attitude to tactics. ‘If they score four, we’ll score five was their attitude’. That was all very well when they were 24 or 25 years old, now the team was in its early 30s. George Best was easily our best player. He was carrying the team.”
But if Best was the team’s best player, he was also the most disruptive element within it.
“He would go missing. Nobody knew if he was going to turn up.
“Denis Law was another peculiar person. If he wasn’t playing he wasn’t even interested in watching the game. Eventually, I dropped Bobby Charlton for three games. He was not playing well and Matt Busby was very unhappy about that.”
Results were poor during the second season. It was also Bobby Charlton’s testimonial year. Charlton wanted to arrange a game against Benfica as part of the celebration but the Portuguese side would not play. Frank help organise Glasgow Celtic as a replacements. But Celtic wanted a fee and Matt Busby was furious.
There was a testimonial dinner arranged for December. Frank and his wife Ann attended as guests. Even though he was the manager, and as such Bobby Charlton’s boss he was not afforded a seat at the top table. After nearly 25 years in professional football, Frank O’Farrell knew what was coming next; the sack.
It is not the fact that he was sacked that rankles most with Frank.
He was told it would take five years and he was only given a season and a half; that annoyed him.
Tommy Docherty succeeded him and Manchester United were relegated in Docherty’s second season; that annoyed him too. It was the way Manchester United behaved after he was sacked. That really bothered him.
The club refused to pay up his contract. He was forced to instigate legal proceedings to recover his payment. He could not work while the case was waiting to be heard and this meant he had to sign on for the dole. He was also worried that because many of the local judges were regulars at Old Trafford he would not get a fair hearing.
“Don’t worry Mr O’Farrell” his Queens Council told him, “I’m a Manchester City fan, I’m looking forward to getting Matt Busby in the witness box.”
Eventually Manchester United settled the case and by then Frank O’Farrell had been out of work for nine months.
After the case he picked up work at Cardiff City and in 1974 became manager of Iran’s national team where he led them to victory in the Asia Games.
He returned to Torquay for short spells in the late 1970s and eventually retired from football. He began to work with the St Vincent de Paul Society and still serves Mass as an altar boy.
Would he like to be involved as a manager in football now, especially with all the coaching aids they have?
“I don’t think all the coaching aids make a difference to the good players. What could they teach the likes of Tom Finney?”
Well could the coaching aids teach defenders to cope with Tom Finney? “Not really.” Frank said. “The really good players will always find a way to beat you.”
Do you watch much soccer now? “Well I don’t have Sky. I don’t like it when the commentators are bigger than the game. I go to Torquay a lot. I have a seat in the director’s box there. They’re a good team but the capacity of the ground is too small 2,400. Every time they get promoted they come right back down again because they cannot raise the money to survive.”
I asked Frank if he kept an eye on Cork sport? “I still keep an eye on the Cork teams, but I don’t know who the players are any more. I liked to go to hurling and football games when I was young. I was at the 1945 All-Ireland football final when Cork beat Cavan.”
I couldn’t resist asking him about his GAA club loyalties. Born in Blackpool, but raised in Turner’s Cross, did he support the Glen or the Barrs?”
He smiled, “Oh! The Barrs of course. Mick Kenefick was a great player.”
Are there any other players you liked? “Micka Brennan, Alan Lotty, Sean Condon, Batt Thornhill and Jack Lynch, there were more but I cannot think of them right now.”
More than an hour had passed since we began talking. I thanked Frank for his time. I bought the last available copy of his book; he signed it for me. Most of the print run of All Change at Old Trafford has been sold out and it is difficult to find a copy for sale. It is a fabulous account of football in a different era. With surprising stories about Bill Shankly, Brian Clough and some of the other giant personalities of the 1960s and ‘70s era.
Would Frank O’Farrell do it all again? I won’t spoil the end of the book, except to say he would make one change, and it has nothing to do with football. Suffice to say you will never knock the steam out of Frank O’Farrell.