APPROACHING the six-month anniversary of his appointment to the manager’s chair at Old Trafford, things could not have been going better for Frank O’Farrell.
By the middle of December, 1971, Manchester United were top of the table, five points clear of their nearest rivals and the bookies’ favourites for the title.
Lining out in an attack-minded 4-3-3 formation, they lost just once in their first 13 outings and George Best and Denis Law had bagged 28 goals between them.
The mood around the club was predictably effusive.
“Frank is my last great signing,” said Matt Busby of the man he’d personally head-hunted the previous summer, “perhaps the greatest of the lot.”
Almost exactly 12 months later, on December 19, 1972, O’Farrell was sacked.
At the board meeting where chairman Louis Edwards informed him of his dismissal, Busby kept the head down, refused to make eye contact and never spoke a single word.
When first offering him the job, the Scot had informed O’Farrell that the directors fully realised the task of revitalising United would take the new manager some time.
Now, not even two years later, Busby’s silence spoke volumes.
Like Wilf McGuinness before him, O’Farrell had been put to the sword by the former manager who just couldn’t bear to relinquish the reigns.
“Perhaps with more time and with Best out of the way, O’Farrell might have reversed the fortunes of the club,” wrote Stephen Kelly in Backpage United.
“Busby’s presence was also a continuing intimidation and the whole episode had been one of the most shameful in the club’s history.”
Born in Cork on October 9, 1927, the journey to the Old Trafford board room had begun on a grassy pitch in Douglas. Living in Turner’s Cross, he captained Christ the King Gaelic footballers and his first organised soccer game was with Nicholas Rovers.
From there, he progressed through minor ranks with Clapton Celtic and Western Rovers, showing enough along the way to catch the eye of the professionals.
“O’Farrell started work on the railway at 16, the first steps towards his ambition to become a train driver,” wrote Plunkett Carter in From the Lodge to the Box.
“In 1947, Cork United signed Frank to replace Tommy Moroney who had joined West Ham. With Cork United he had the best possible soccer education as he played alongside such stars as Owen Madden, Seanie McCarthy, Florrie Burke, and Davy Noonan, and was paid £3 per week for the pleasure.”
He learned so quick that he was soon following Moroney to Upton Park, taking the Innisfallen from Penrose Quay to the big-time in January, 1948.
It took him a couple of years to establish himself as a first-team wing-half but, eventually, he became club captain and an Irish international. That he won just nine caps may have had something to do with his principled stand alongside Peter Fallon during a tour of Norway and Germany in 1955.
Fallon kept his jersey after a match, and with O’Farrell backing him up, refused to give it back to the FAI until they agreed to pay the £2 per day pocket money that was the standard for international teams.
The FAI’s solution was to let them keep the jerseys. Fallon was never capped again and O’Farrell got just four more call-ups.
After nearly 200 appearances for West Ham, he moved to Preston North End in November, 1956.
Four years into his time at Deepdale, he was offered the player-manager’s job at non-league Weymouth and so began the typical climb up the managerial ladder.
He led Weymouth to the Southern League title and an historic trip to the heady reaches of the fourth round of the FA Cup. Torquay United came calling then, and during his three-and-a-half year tenure with them they were promoted to Division Three and came within two points of a ticket to Division Two in 1968.
Despite the failure, their campaign had earned them a first-ever appearance on BBC’s Match of the Day and brought O’Farrell to national prominence.
In December, 1968, he succeeded Matt Gillies at Leicester City. It was a job in the top division but a tough assignment. The club was fighting a relegation battle that they eventually lost, that pill tasting all the more bitter because it was also accompanied by a defeat in the FA Cup final against Manchester City.
O’Farrell steadied the ship, however, and secured Leicester’s return to Division One in 1971.
Unlike so many others, he didn’t have to sacrifice his principles to do so either. His team played attractive, open football.
Leicester’s style on the field and O’Farrell’s penchant for discipline off it — he once dropped Peter Shilton during a contract row — caught the eye of Busby.
When Jock Stein and then Dave Sexton turned down the United job, the Corkman got the call.
“Frank O’Farrell’s integrity was well-known in the game,” wrote Eamon Dunphy in his wonderful A Strange Kind of Glory.
“In this age of dodgy deals and Flash Harrys, O’Farrell played by the rules and eschewed big talk.
“Catholics like O’Farrell do not, as most do, regard their faith as some kind of convenience food for the soul. Their Catholicism is a way of life, its values inherent in everything they do.
“Frank O’Farrell’s character was formed by this rigorous interpretation of God’s intentions. He is a man of absolute honour, unworldly to a degree.”
His virtues may have been the very elements of his personality that left him ill-prepared for a club rife with politicking, struggling badly to cope with the aftermath of Busby’s move from manager to director in 1969.
O’Farrell’s first glimpse of that problem came during his contract negotiations. Busby told him the salary was £12,000 per year plus a Jaguar car.
A fair enough deal for the era. However, once Louis Edwards got involved in the talks, O’Farrell discovered the salary on offer was actually £15,000. Either £3,000 had slipped Busby’s mind or this didn’t bode well for the way he conducted business.
There was another disturbing cameo on his first day at Old Trafford that portended future discord.
O’Farrell discovered the manager’s office, the most symbolic piece of real estate in the ground, was still occupied by Busby and that he was expected to make do with a smaller, less auspicious space down the corridor.
Befitting a man of certain beliefs, he took a stand on the issue, and to the utter shock of many United employees, the elder statesman moved out.
A little victory. Perhaps of the sort that left a lingering scar.
“It was a tough moment, but I proved I had the courage to face,” said O’Farrell.
“I was nobody’s puppet.”
Despite the giddiness surrounding United’s impressive run during the opening months of his first season in charge, O’Farrell was a shrewd enough judge to realise their league position at Christmas was false. In truth, a bad team was being carried by the genius of George Best.
Later, it would be commonly asserted that O’Farrell didn’t grasp the nettle quickly enough when Best started to misbehave off the field.
But what could he do? Best was the sole reason the side was punching above its weight, taking over top spot in October for the first time in three years. Without him, this was a mediocre outfit.
“There were world-class players coming to the end of their careers either through time — like Bobby (Charlton) and Denis (Law) — or choice — like George — playing alongside players I did not feel were good enough to get into Aberdeen’s reserve team,” said Martin Buchan, who arrived from Scotland in March, 1972.
“Now that might seem a harsh thing to say. But we played Aberdeen in a friendly as part of my deal and we lost up there 5-2 so maybe I wasn’t far from the truth.”
By that stage in the season, United’s title challenge had already faltered, disappearing on the back of seven consecutive defeats after Christmas.
The morale-sapping effects of the slump were exacerbated/caused by the antics of the mercurial Best.
Although still capable of miraculous feats with the ball, the wayward winger was beginning to serially break the rules, embarking on a downward spiral off the field that would truncate the rest of his career.
Yet, one of O’Farrell’s first acts as manager had been to improve Best’s wages which were seriously lower than the sums being earned Charlton and Law.
He wanted to acknowledge a fundamental truth; a player should be paid what he is worth.
Best’s first disappearance on O’Farrell’s watch was prior to a cup-tie at Southampton. A fine was imposed, but he still started the game. It ended in a draw and, during the replay back at Old Trafford, United were in trouble until Best chipped in with a couple of wonder goals.
The dilemma facing the manager was acute. How could he possibly discipline the troubled talent and teach him a lesson without fatally damaging the team’s prospects and endangering his own job?
The problem was more serious because his failure to act on Best’s proclivities provided fuel for his critics within the dressing-room, most especially senior pros who resented the outsider coming in with a new approach.
The senior pros referred to the manager as “Little Boss” because, to them, Busby was still “Big Boss”, and mocked O’Farrell’s religious piety by calling him “Father Frank” behind his back.
Denis Law famously complained later that the manager had arrived as a stranger and left as one too, his refusal to cosy up to the senior pros more significant perhaps because many of them golfed with Busby on their off-days.
“I suppose with hindsight there was always a fair bit of scheming around,” said Buchan in Jim White’s Always in the Running.
“There were others more interested in destroying Frank than the good of the club. Under Sir Matt, they had grown up with the philosophy of go out and enjoy themselves.
“That’s all very well, but you can only enjoy yourself if you are doing the job right. I think a lot of them resented the efforts of Frank and Malcolm (Musgrove, O’Farrell’s coach) to bring a bit more organisation to the team. The trouble was, at the time, other teams were getting organised.”
Although many in the squad complained later that the manager didn’t spend enough time on the training ground, the player who least needed to work on his game had a peculiar take on matters.
“Frank tried to improve the side by individual coaching,” said Best.
“But the good ones among us didn’t need to be taught and resented it, and some of the others were just not good enough to be taught anything.”
The signing of Buchan — who threatened to leave if O’Farrell was sacked – was to prove the Corkman’s enduring legacy at the club.
He played over 450 games for United and captained the FA Cup-winning team of 1977.
Indeed, his initial impact was so significant that Alex Stepney contended that had the Scottish defender arrived earlier, O’Farrell’s debut season could have culminated in silverware rather than an eighth place finish in the league.
It ended, instead, with a curious postscript.
Best went to Marbella from where he announced his retirement from football the day before his 26th birthday.
“He is, like all other geniuses, difficult to understand,” observed O’Farrell at the time.
“I don’t think he can cope with his own problems and there is nobody he can really lean on for help. He is like a boy lost. He needs someone to help him. We at Old Trafford have done everything possible to help him.”
Two weeks later, O’Farrell met Best in Manchester and persuaded him out of retirement. Even with Best back in the fold, his second campaign in charge began in contrasting style to the first.
It took United 10 matches before their first league win, and his other ventures into the transfer market failed to bear fruit.
A gamble that Ted McDougall could score as freely in the top flight as he had for Bournemouth in the third was too little too late.
Wyn Davies failed to live up to his reputation for goals, and Ian Storey-Moore, a gifted winger from Nottingham Forest, couldn’t deliver on initial promise due to an injury that eventually ended his career.
At a combined cost of close to half a million quid, that trio made just 62 appearances between them for United.
Of the factors usually cited to explain O’Farrell’s demise, the poor quality of his purchases is perhaps the most justified. He made more bad signings than good, and the failure to land Alan Ball when he became available was a crucial miss.
As the team lurched from bad to worse in the autumn on 1972, O’Farrell demonstrated his mettle by dropping the fast-fading Charlton, but the Best problem continued to loom large.
That November, he went off the rails completely and, on December 5, he was suspended for a fortnight and transfer-listed by the club.
The soap opera surrounding Best’s every move wasn’t helping the manager’s own cause. When Busby re-instated Best without consulting the Corkman, the writing was on the wall.
Banquo’s ghost had hovered long enough over proceedings. His presence had just been felt.
Nine days before Christmas, United were torn apart by Crystal Palace, losing 5-0 to one of the worst teams in the league, an outfit that were relegated at the end of the season.
Ranked by some as the club’s most abject performance of the post-World War II era, it was the game that sealed the manager’s fate.
When John Aston, the chief, scout, came to pick up O’Farrell on the way to the seismic board meeting on December 19, the manager quipped, “A nice day for for an execution.”
The one-liner would later become the title for a book O’Farrell wrote bur didn’t publish about his experience at United.
The trauma of being fired was exacerbated by United’s crass handling of the severance. They reneged on an initial promise to honour the remaining three-and-a-half years of his deal and forced him to take legal action.
“They could sack me all they wanted,” said O’Farrell.
“That happens. But then to humiliate me and force me to go on the dole, that’s what really hurt. From the time I’d left school I never had to go on the labour. But I was suing the club for breach of contract and my solicitor told me I had to do it.”
There was life after Old Trafford. It was pitched in a lower key but eventful all the same.
“It was 18 months in a 74-year lifespan,” said O’Farrell in a 2001 interview with The Sunday Times, “which, when you think about it, is only a small thing.”
Once United had been forced to pay up, his comeback began at Cardiff City, a job that curiously segued into two years managing Iran.
With a national stadium housing 120,000 and the Shah bent on turning the nation into a soccer power, O’Farrell delivered early. Aside from his weekly visits to the palace in Tehran to coach the Shah’s son, he managed the national team to a win over Israel in the final of the Asian Games, a victory that earned him his place in the country’s folklore. When he departed in 1976, he had also trained his own successor.
“I, for one, benefitted greatly from the teachings of Frank O’Farrell,” said Heshmat Mohajerani, the Iranian who succeeded the Corkman and brought the country to the 1978 World Cup finals.
Two further stints at Torquay — where he eventually lived in retirement — were punctuated by a return to the Middle East where he spent six months in charge of El Al Shaab, a club in the United Arab Emirates. He stepped off the managerial treadmill for the final time in 1982 and his priorities in retirement were always very clear.
Apart from occasional work as a scout for the likes of Bruce Rioch, football took second place to his charity work. Although still revered at Plainmoor, he was unable to make a reunion of the promotion-winning team of 1966 in May, 2000.
He had a prior commitment to a religious charity walk in France that weekend and couldn’t possibly have reneged on that. Nobody who knew him would have expected anything else.