With the day nearing when Manchester United will have to find a replacement for Sir Alex, Frank O'Farrell's struggle with the shadow of Sir Matt Busby looming in every corner of Old Trafford may yet ring true again...
Frank O'Farrell was, and still remains, the only Irishman to have ever managed Manchester United. He took over from Wilf McGuiness in June 1971 but his tenure was short-lived as a combination of poor results and an even worse relationship with 'director' Sir Matt Busby ultimately led to his downfall. He was perhaps a touch unlucky to have been given the impossible task of dealing with an out-of-sorts George Best but, despite his best efforts, he was unable to tame the mercurial talent that was the Northern Irishman. He may be a forgotten man in the history of Manchester United but he remains one of the most successful Irish managers to have ever managed abroad. This is the definitive story of Frank O'Farrell and his life in football.
Frank had been born in Cork, in the South-West of Ireland in October 1929. From an early age, O'Farrell had wanted to become a train driver - just like his father had, however his dreams of following his dad were dashed whilst playing for Cork United when he was spotted by a scout from West Ham who had assured him he had shown plenty of promise. He crossed the Irish Sea and duly signed with the Hammers in 1948, receiving a signing-on fee of £1,000, a fee which he described as a "fortune" at the time. It took him time to settle, but once he did he was unstoppable. Tommy Docherty, once a teammate of Frank's at Preston North End, once said of Frank that he "didn't stick out like a diamond or a jewel", but if a player on the opposing team was having a tough game that was because of Frank.
When he moved to London that year it was evident that Catholicism wasn't as widely practiced as it was back at home. In other words, it was non-compulsory. Many Irishmen who had emigrated to England had noticed this and dropped practicing it altogether. And yet, despite what was becoming the norm, O'Farrell remained true to his roots and sure enough continued to be involved in the Catholic community throughout his career in England, visiting mass every Sunday and becoming involved in the Legion of Mary.
O'Farrell continued to impress and earned a move to division one side Preston North End, whom he helped finish runners up to Wolverhampton Wanderers in the 1957/58 season. He was forced to retire in 1961 due to injury and began life in management with division four side Weymouth and then Torquay, leading them to immediate promotion and successive 6th and 7th place finishes. Following the success he had in Dorset he then moved on to Leicester and led the Foxes to the FA Cup final in 1969, losing out to Manchester City. Unfortunately, that FA Cup run had hindered their league progress and at the end of the season they found themselves demoted to League Two, finishing 19th out of 20th.
However, they returned to the First Division after spending just two full seasons in England's second-tier, finishing atop of the pile having accumulated 59 points from 42 games. It was this achievement that had eventually landed him the job at Old Trafford in June 1971.
When phoned by Sir Matt Busby on whether he'd be interested in coaching United, O'Farrell couldn't have been more ecstatic. Busby was invited to O'Farrell's house to discuss contract terms and the two eventually settled on a five-year contract and a salary of £12,000. However, when O'Farrell went to finalise the deal with the then-United chairman Louis Edwards he quoted that the deal involved O'Farrell receiving a salary of £15,000 - not £12,000 as Busby had slyly suggested in previous discussions. Nonetheless, after giving the proposal some thought, O'Farrell preceded to accept the job offer and was duly presented in front of the press as the new manager of Manchester United in the Summer of 1971.
Upon his arrival Sir Matt Busby had said to Frank that he would be taking up a role as a 'director' at the club and would not become involved in the day-to-day activity of the club. What Busby said would later deemed to be just lies as his continued interfering with the club inevitably led to the Irishman's sacking just eighteen months later. He was a man clearly still cushioning the blow with the loss of retiring from management, so much so that when O'Farrell came in on his first day at work he had to reassign Busby to a different room as he had refused to move out from the managers office.
On the pitch, O'Farrell's United side began the season brightly and found themselves top of the table early on in the season. His star player, George Best, was in terrific form and United seemed in good stead by Christmas. Just as United seemed to be heading for yet another Division One title George Best took it upon himself to disappear and reappear at regular intervals. Nobody knew where he was. Tommy Docherty even said that he knew every bar in Manchester and yet was unable to locate the whereabouts of United's troubled star. Once when he returned, O'Farrell made the decision to drop him for their league game with Wolverhampton Wanderers but it backfired spectacularly as his United side lost 2-0 at home, struggling to make any sort of impression without the presence of Best.
His constant boozing was clearly a cause for concern but all O'Farrell could do was wait until he came back to deal with him. When Best did eventually come back, after enjoying a summer in Marbella where he announced he was quitting football only to retract his comments after O'Farrell said he'd take him back, the United manager took the bold move and reprimanded the Northern Ireland international by fining him £400 and announced that Best would be "losing his domestic freedom" and missing the clubs' four-match pre-season tour.
United finished that first season in a hugely disappointing 8th, so O'Farrell decided to strengthen the squad during the off-season. One of his the more controversial signings he made, Ian Storey-Moore, involved a very public tug-of-war with one of football's most eccentric and controversial characters, Brian Clough. United had had a bid of £200,000 accepted for the left-winger and both Moore and O'Farrell, along with Nottingham Forrest manager Matt Gilies and secretary Ken Smales, agreed to finalise the deal at the Edwalton Hall hotel in Nottingham. Both parties failed to agree terms and so, after hearing of the collapsed transfer via one of his many spies, Derby County manager Brian Clough swooped in and rang the hotel to tell Storey-Moore to stay where he was. Moore agreed and whilst Gilies and Smales headed home, Clough arrived in an attempt to try and bring the Forrest winger to then bottom-of-the-table division two side Derby. Clough, as became the usual, convinced Moore that Derby were destined for greatness and he subsequently signed the transfer papers. However, Ken Smales had refused to sign them so Moore technically remained a Forrest player.
This didn't stop Clough. He went on to announce that Moore had officially signed for Derby and preceded to parade his new signing around the Baseball Ground, whilst the move still remained an unofficial one. Nottingham Forrest refused to confirm the deal and so Moore eventually left Derby to return back to his home in Bingham. Upon hearing of Storey-Moore's return to Derby, both O'Farrell and Sir Matt Busby visited him at his house, and swept his wife off his feet with a surprise bouquet. It's evident that this generous gesture may have been the deciding factor in Storey-Moore eventually agreeing terms with United and officially signing in the summer of 1972.
In his second term at the helm the results largely remained the same. He began the season poorly, as did Best, and in December that year he was called in by the United board members and was delivered the news that his contract would be terminated. When he asked why they stated no reason for his dismissal. This understandably left O'Farrell furious as to why he was getting sacked but after pressing for an answer he got the reply that he was losing his job because United were "last", even though they were only third from bottom. Frank took legal action against United due to his dismissal and after nine months both parties settled out of court.
Speaking in a recent documentary providing an in-depth insight of his tenure at United, O'Farrell remembers Sir Matt Busby as a very "nasty, vindictive" man who played more than a helping hand in his eventual dismissal late on in 1972, shedding a rather dim light on a man who fans of the club have always held in the highest of regard. Paddy Crerand, who plied his trade under O'Farrell when he was in-charge at Old Trafford, defended the accusations but also declared in the same documentary that the Irishman was simply "too nice a man" to succeed at United, especially as such high standards were required of him so soon after Busby's previous successes at the club.
These days, O'Farrell resides in Torquay, England with his wife Anne. They've been together for over fifty years and he turned down the opportunity to manage Newcastle United after returning home fresh from winning Iran's first Asian Games trophy to spend more time with his partner. Sweet may the be term used to describe the Cork man's actions but one may suggest that he was just being Frank, and that he's done so for his whole life.
This was originally written for inbedwithmaradona.com