Frank O’Farrell: Victim of United’s early 70s decline?

FRANK O’FARRELL was not only the oldest living West Ham United player until his death on March 6, 2022, he was also the last surviving manager to have Manchester United’s holy trinity of Best, Law and Charlton as part of his team. 

Admittedly, those legendary players played just seven times in O’Farrell’s second season at Old Trafford as United imploded in 1972-73, but the former Irish international deserves credit for taking over at a club that was declining by the week.

O’Farrell was widely considered to be a likeable, thoughtful character who learned his trade through the so-called West Ham academy, a group of players who moved into coaching and met-up in a local café to discuss tactics, continental football and innovative methods. This “club” included Malcolm Allison, Jimmy Andrews, Dave Sexton, John Bond and others. O’Farrell had played for the Hammers in the 1950s and also turned out for Preston North End and Weymouth. 

His managerial career began with Weymouth and then on to Torquay United, where he attracted the attention of clubs higher up the food chain. It was thought he would take over from Bill McGarry at Ipswich Town, but in December 1968, he was appointed manager of Leicester City, who were struggling near the foot of the first division and had just lost the long-serving Matt Gillies. 

Leicester were 20th in the league and had won just four games. They were just ahead of Nottingham Forest and Queens Park Rangers. By the end of March 1969, they were in a relegation place, although they had games in hand due to their FA Cup run. Leicester’s FA Cup campaign saw them beat Liverpool at Anfield in the fifth round and in the semi-finals, they overcame holders West Bromwich Albion 1-0 at Hillsborough. Leicester faced Manchester City in the final, knowing they could also suffer relegation although they still had five league games to go. They lost 1-0 at Wembley to City, and then set about trying to save their first division life. They beat Spurs and Sunderland, drew with Everton and lost against Ipswich Town. They went into the last game at Manchester United, needing a win to stay up. They lost 3-2, after leading, and finished one point behind Coventry City. This was a very capable Leicester side that included Peter Shilton, David Nish and Allan Clarke.

It took two seasons to get Leicester back to the top flight and this brought O’Farrell to the attention of bigger clubs, including Manchester United. Sir Matt Busby, who had initially retired in 1969, had returned to stabilise a ship that had gone off course, but he was stepping down in 1971. O’Farrell was one of three men seen as likely successors, Ian Greaves of Huddersfield and Brian Clough of Derby were the other leading candidates.

O’Farrell was selected as the right man, although Busby was still trying to persuade Celtic’s Jock Stein to join the club. The relationship didn’t get off to a good start, largely because Busby offered him the job with a salary of £ 12,000 plus bonuses. Louis Edwards, the chairman, saw O’Farrell was not impressed and corrected Busby with an increased salary of £ 15,000. This time he accepted, but he admitted that he never trusted Busby after that incident. It didn’t help that when O’Farrell arrived at Old Trafford, Busby was still occupying the manager’s office. O’Farrell was his own man, though, and announced publicly that “I shall be manager in every sense of the word. From July 16, United are my team.”

He also headed off the potential problem of Busby being just along the corridor. “It has been said the presence of Sir Matt Busby could be a hindrance to a new manager because of his immense prestige. I don’t see it that way.” This could have been interpreted as O’Farrell letting his predecessor know he was going to do it his way.

O’Farrell’s first season, 1971-72, saw United top the table, perhaps surprisingly, but George Best was rapidly becoming a problem, his personal life, drinking, gambling and womanising setting a bad example. United’s autumn deteriorated after being three points clear on New Year’s Day, they lost seven games in a row. Best ended the season threatening to quit the game, Bobby Charlton was showing his age and Denis Law was coming to the end of his time. 

O’Farrell bought in new faces to begin a rebuilding programme, which he said would cost a million pounds. Martin Buchan, a young defender from Aberdeen, joined United for £ 135,000. Ian Moore was signed from Nottingham Forest for £ 225,000 in March 1972, but the player, at his peak an excellent striker, was rarely fully fit. Another forward signing, Ted MacDougall, arrived from Bournemouth for £ 200,000 in September 1972. This was a move that didn’t really work out and within six months, United sold him to West Ham. Wyn Davies, the 30 year old former Newcastle forward, joined from Manchester City and spent just six months at Old Trafford.

United went into 1972-73 in some disarray and O’Farrell had to deal with Best seeking solace in Spain, hosting a press conference in the sunshine. United’s players were getting tired of the antics of their star man. Brian Kidd, for example, commented: “There’s one set of rules for George Best and one for us.”

United’s form in 1972-73 was abysmal at times and although Best was persuaded to return, he went missing again in December 1972. For O’Farrell, time was running out and after a 5-0 defeat at Crystal Palace, he was sacked. Louis Edwards told him, “We’re terminating your contract,” and O’Farrell asked why. “No reason,” replied Edwards. At the same time, United transfer listed Best while Sir Matt Busby, his great mentor, announced: “We’ve finally had enough of George.”

United were relegated at the end of 1973-74 under Tommy Docherty, but they returned with a young, vibrant team. It was O’Farrell’s misfortune to arrive at Old Trafford at a time when the team needed rebuilding and old hands needed rebuilding. And then there was Best.

O’Farrell continued in management and was employed by Cardiff, Iran, Torquay and the UAE club, Al Shaab. Needless to say, his career will always be remembered for his time at Leicester and Manchester United. Things might have been so different if United had disposed of Best far earlier and the likeable Irishman was allowed to build a team in his own image. 

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