FIFTY years ago this week, Frank O’Farrell was sacked as manager of Manchester United.
The Cork-man was relieved from his duties at Old Trafford on December 19th 1972, three days after a 5-0 loss to Cardiff City.
He left a team that was third from bottom in the First Division and fighting for form as they entered the Christmas period deep into a relegation battle.
The story of Frank O’Farrell’s tenure is a well told tale, but his exit if often overshadowed by George Best, who left on the same day that December.
O’Farrell’s United tenure began on July 31, 1971 and he saw his team lose 2-1 to Halifax Town in the Watney Cup. His first season ended with the club finishing in 8th place in the First Division and they reached the quarter finals of the FA Cup, where they lost 2-1 in extra-time to Stoke City.
It was the 1972-73 First Division season that proved to be his downfall. The year began with a 2-1 defeat to Ipswich Town at Old Trafford and that was followed by back to back losses to Liverpool and Everton. United seemed to find form when they drew four consecutive league games in the early autumn but that run was ended by Coventry City, who won 1-0 at Old Trafford.
Their first win of the new season came from a replay against Oxford United in the League Cup. The feeling of goodwill from that result led to the team beating reigning league champions Derby County on September 23rd and for the first time that year, it looked like United had turned a corner.
United also managed to beat title chasing Liverpool 2-0 at Old Trafford and draw with Leicester City 2-2 at Filbert Street. All this good work was immediately undone by a 3-0 defeat to bitter rivals Manchester City at Maine Road on November 18th.
That loss inflamed pre-existing tensions between O’Farrell and George Best, and it led to the Ballon d'Or winner getting suspended and put on a transfer list.
This was when the Manchester Evening News published a piece telling people to ‘Be Fair To Frank’ and they backed the manager of United, despite his unpopularity on the terraces.
O’Farrell responded by masterminding back to back victories over Southampton and Norwich City, but this didn’t quell the unrest.
Two weeks after that win at Carrow Road, United were hammered 5-0 by Crystal Palace in London and O’Farrell was sacked. This was watched by Scotland manager Tommy Docherty, who went to London to get a close look at Palace’s right back. He was actually helped out that day by O’Farrell, who gave him two complimentary tickets after hearing there was none on the door for the Scot.
After the game, Docherty was invited into the boardroom and he was offered the United job. He was then told that O’Farrell was going to get sacked by United that Wednesday.
“I felt awful, so sorry for him,” Docherty told RTÉ, “Because I knew that the job was mine if I wanted it. I thought, should I tell him?” O’Farrell thought that it was a ‘lovely day for an execution’ when he went in to meet the United chairman on December 19th. He was told that his contract was terminated over the club’s position near the bottom of the league.
That wasn’t the end of O’Farrell’s story at Old Trafford, it was actually the start of another chapter with him and the club. This is because he brought them to court seeking unpaid wages, and O’Farrell signed on at the local labour exchange during the legal proceedings.
He claimed that the people he dealt with inside United ‘weren’t very nice people’ and legendary coach Sir Matt Busby was ‘one of the worst of them’. The dispute was settled out of court and O’Farrell received a small pay out.
He returned to management in in November 1973 with Cardiff City and five months later he took over the Iranian national team. He spent two years in the Middle East before returning to England to manage Torquay United.
50 years later United stand as possibly the most recognisable team in world club football and O’Farrell remains as the only Irish person to ever take charge of the football club.
While this may be looked back in anger by some, O’Farrell’s tenure was the beginning of a well-established link up between Cork and the red side of Manchester.
He started a pattern that would lead to Roy Keane and Denis Irwin winning the Champions League at Old Trafford in 1999 and Liam Miller moving to Manchester from Glasgow in 2004.
O’Farrell was the start of a steadfast relationship between the city and club that has made United one of the most popular clubs on Leeside.