Frank O’Farrell lives quietly in retirement these days after an eventful career in football that lasted nearly 40 years.
Frank O’Farrell’s football career seemed to be ebbing to a peaceful conclusion in 1961. As a hard-working midfielder he had played for 13 years in the Football League, first with West Ham and then Preston North End, and had represented the Republic of Ireland. He was now approaching his thirty-fourth birthday. A second cartilage had recently been removed.
‘It was then that Weymouth came in for me to be player-manager,’ O’Farrell says, and the image is, irresistibly, of a life slowing down to a soundtrack of distant seagulls and the gentle wash of surf.
‘I asked one or two people about Weymouth and they said it was a good club,’ he says. ‘It was a non-League side, of course, but they always did well and got decent gates. So I went down for an interview and was given the job.’
Apart from anything else, the economics made sense. ‘I was on £20 a week at Preston as a First Division player,’ O’Farrell says. ‘I went down to Weymouth where I got £25 a week and, being the manager, a club car and a club house. So I was better off in Southern League football than being a First Division player. That’s the way it was.’
And that’s the way O’Farrell himself thought it would stay. ‘I wasn’t seeking after things,’ he says.
But he had not reckoned with others seeking him out, which is what happened after O’Farrell, within a year of joining Weymouth, guided the Dorset club to the fourth round of the FA Cup for the first time.
Weymouth actually went into the fifth-round draw after their tie at O’Farrell’s old club Preston was abandoned after 14 minutes because of bad weather and rescheduled for two days later. With the prospect of playing Liverpool in the next round as an incentive, Weymouth failed to respond and lost the delayed match 2-0. But their Cup run had reflected well on their young manager.
‘It meant that journalists from London were now ringing me up for stories,’ O’Farrell says, ‘and I was getting talked about in the national papers.’
In 1965 he took his first manager’s job in the Football League at Fourth Division Torquay. ‘I brought a lot of First Division players down from London,’ he says, ‘which was easier then because the difference in wages between the divisions wasn’t as great as it is now.’
Specifically, he raided West Ham’s larder of veterans with whom he had once played, players such as John Bond and Ken Brown. They would travel down to the Devon resort at weekends while continuing to live and train in London.
The arrangement worked well. Torquay won promotion straightway and O’Farrell, again a target for larger clubs, moved to Leicester City in December 1968.
His stay at Leicester started eventfully. In the space of a few days at the end of his first season Leicester were relegated and appeared in the FA Cup final, which they lost 1-0 to Manchester City. But they were only briefly in the Second Division, O’Farrell taking them back up in 1971.
‘Once again this got me noticed,’ he says. ‘Next thing Matt Busby came and asked me if I’d go to Manchester United.’
At the time Busby was still a towering figure in English football. He had been Mancheser United’s manager from 1945-69, during which he was badly injured in the 1958 Munich plane crash, and since December 1970 had been temporarily back in charge while United sought a new manager.
O’Farrell’s version of his 18 months – June 1971 to December 1972 – at Old Trafford goes like this:
‘It was a difficult time to go there because the club needed rebuilding and Matt hadn’t done anything. He was very loyal to his players, including those who came through Munich with him, and I could understand that. But it meant it was a job that whoever it was who succeeded him was going to have to do. I happened to be the first one and then there were three more after me before things kind of settled down.
‘It was a difficult job, changing players, dropping someone like Bobby Charlton who then went around with a long face, but these are things you have to do as a manager.
‘And, yes, it did upset me when they got rid of me. Matt had admitted that he’d let things go and that it might take me a while to sort things out and, no, I don’t think they gave me that time.
‘One time I had a bit of an altercation with him. The club used to have an annual function, a dinner, which the players and directors went to. Ann and I went while we were there and coming back in the car Ann said to me, “Matt had a word with me.”
‘I said, “Oh, what did he say?”
‘She said that Matt had told her, “Your husband is an independent sod, Ann. Why don’t you get him to come and talk to me?”
‘I was bloody angry really. I saw him most days if he wanted to see me. He could come into my office; he knew where I was. But to go through my wife, involve my wife, when it was nothing to do with her…
‘So I waited deliberately until he was in after the weekend. I invited him into my office and said, “Matt, Ann says you told her I was an independent sod and that she should get me to come and talk to you. Here I am. What have you got to say?”
‘So he said, “I don’t think you should have dropped Bobby Charlton.”
‘He was interfering, so I stated my case and he went away.
‘But then in December 1972 we lost heavily at Crystal Palace [5-0] and the club had a board meeting on the Tuesday and they called me in. They sacked Malcolm Musgrove, my coach, as well as me and also John Aston, the chief scout. I don’t know what he had to do with the team getting beaten. He’d been a player there and came through the Munich disaster.
‘I said, “What reason are you sacking me for?”
‘The chairman, Louis Edwards, used to mumble a bit although he was all right really. Matt had him in his pocket. He said, “W… w… we’re bottom of the league.”
‘I said, “Well, we’re not bottom actually, we’re third from bottom.”
‘But that was the reason they gave, which I needed to know because I had to go to see a solicitor now and hire him because they were awkward. And they were awkward – they didn’t pay me for nine months. They stopped my money and they wouldn’t give me the remainder of my contract that was I entitled to.
‘Things dragged on and on and on and then eventually before it came to court they settled. About £17,000 I think I got.’
Other versions of this story exist and Matt Busby, or Sir Matt as he had been since United won the European Cup in 1968, is still held in the highest esteem by very many for what he achieved at Old Trafford and how he achieved it.
For Frank O’Farrell, his long journey through football would end without further ado.
‘I went down to Cardiff City for a while, before Iran came in for me to manage the national team. I enjoyed that. Then it was back to Torquay.’
And this is where he still is when I visit him. His quiet, courteous manner and contented air place him as a stereotypical Torquay retiree. The stories he has to tell, though, instantly place him outside the circle of pensioned-off bank managers and accountants who are his neighbours in the clifftop homes overlooking the English Channel.
The rancour of the manner of his parting from Old Trafford has clearly survived, but loses much of its venom when delivered in Frank O’Farrell’s sotto voce Irish brogue.