Football

"I Have A Very Poor Opinion Of Matt Busby" - The Story Of The Only Irishman To Manage Manchester United

"I Have A Very Poor Opinion Of Matt Busby" - The Story Of The Only Irishman To Manage Manchester United

When Ireland played Iran in the Azadi Stadium in November 2001, the local crowd turned characteristically nasty as realisation dawned that they weren't going to the World Cup.

No expressions of gratitude towards the country which produced one of their most successful managers. It's a footnote in most biographies but Cork's Frank O'Farrell led Iran to the Asian Cup in 1976, the third and last time they've won it.

He became a national hero in Iran.

Immediately afterwards, he was offered the top job at Newcastle United. But previous experience had soured him. He turned down the job. Instead he choose the relative anonymity of Torquay United. He still lives in Torquay.

It was his eighteen months at Old Trafford that robbed him of his passion for football management.

Modern fans may recognise him as that genial but peripheral figure from all those George Best documentaries. The one who failed to rein in his increasingly wayward star player. He was never painted as the worst ogre in those Best-centred programmes, mind. That was reserved for O'Farrell's successor Tommy Docherty, who Best accused of lying about him.

When poor David Moyes was crashing and burning at Old Trafford, a number of reporters gave Frank a buzz for his take. They figured he might be able to empathise with Moyesy's predicament, having replaced Matt Busby in 1971.

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In fact, Louis Van Gaal is the more appropriate analogy. Busby had already quit in 1969 and was replaced by reserve team manager Wilf McGuinness. Man United slipped alarmingly down the table and, after eighteen months, McGuinness was sacked.

Matt Busby simply re-took the job, ostensibly on an interim basis. After an indifferent 1970-71 season, Busby retired again.

Frank O'Farrell had just led Leicester City to the Second Division title. He had attracted the attention of Leicester by lifting Torquay United from the 4th Division to the top 6 in the 3rd. Busby hand-picked O'Farrell to replace him. He became the first - and only - Irishman to manage Manchester United.

Born in Cork in 1927, he grew up yards away from Turner's Cross. O'Farrell played his first senior football with Cork United. He went to play professionally with West Ham and Preston between 1948 and 1961.

He told the Examiner how West Ham came to sign him a few years ago.

West Ham has always been a favourite of the people of Cork since Tommy Moroney, Danny McGowan and Noel Cantwell went over in the 1940s and 1950s. They have a lot of support in the city.

Back then, Cork had one of the best teams in Ireland.

They (West Ham) had people there to watch us and there was a scout called Ben Ives who spotted me. Charlie Paynter came over and watched me and they came to my house and asked me to sign.

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A diligent 'wing-half' (full-back in modern parlance), he was a teammate of Tom Finney's for five seasons. Earned nine caps for the Republic of Ireland in the 1950s, scoring two goals.

According to O'Farrell's wife, Busby told the couple that it would take him at least five years to sort out Manchester United.

Busby, revered as a great football manager and regarded as a kindly grandfather figure at the club, told O'Farrell he'd be getting a salary of £12,000. When Louis Edwards blurted out to O'Farrell that the salary would be £15,000, Busby affected surprise and said he'd made a mistake.

But O'Farrell was suspicious that Busby was pulling a fast one and trying to rip him off. It was the beginning of a rancourous relationship between the pair.

In Frank's telling, Busby behaved like the predecessor from hell. Early doors, he tried to retain possession of the roomy manager's dressing room at United's training ground. He directed O'Farrell down the hall to a pokey coach's room.

Unlike poor deferential Wilf McGuinness, O'Farrell put his foot down and told Busby to 'do one'. If he was the manager, he was getting the manager's room.

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All went swimmingly at the beginning. Manchester United got off to a rip-roaring start in 1971-72. They went 10-points clear at one stage. In October '71, a bullish Busby was moved to tell the Daily Mirror that O'Farrell was "the best signing I've ever made."

The fifth Beatle was not yet totally exasperated by the limitations of his teammates and was playing as well as ever in the final months of 1971.

By Christmas 1971, Manchester United were still top of the League. Things turned sour in the second half of the season when Bestie, in flying form up to that point, started going AWOL. They slumped to 8th in the League by the end of the season, the same position as the year before.

Relaxing in his spiritual home in Marbella in the summer of '72, Best announced that he'd had it with football. He took back his retirement soon after and returned for the 1972-73 season.

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But Best was only half-present. He picked and chose his training sessions. He played only 19 games and scored 4 goals. Frank O'Farrell wouldn't see out the season.

After a terribly poor start, United found themselves third from bottom of the table. The final straw was a 5-0 defeat to Crystal Palace just before Christmas in 1972. O'Farrell was sacked following the game.

For a time afterwards, he was first to collect the dole. This was difficult for O'Farrell to stomach, not least because he feared the press might photo him walking in and out. Fortunately, Cardiff City came calling and helped the club avoid relegation from the Second Division in 1973-74. With Cardiff dangling a job in front of him, he was intirigued by the possibilities in (pre-revoltion) Iran and headed east.

It was far from Old Trafford though. Manchester United were relegated to the Second Division the following season under his successor Tommy Docherty.

He told an RTE documentary - see above - that he was still bitter about his treatment at Old Trafford, particularly at the hands of Matt Busby.

The club has a great reputation. But the people I was dealing with at that time weren't very nice people. And they were vindictive, punitive, and nasty people. Matt Busby was one of the worst of them.

I have a very poor opinion of Matt Busby. I'm not taking away what he's achieved as a manager, but as a person, he doesn't come out top of my list of good people.

Read more: Roy Keane's Cobh Ramblers Career In Contemporary Press Cuttings And Stats

Conor Neville
Article written by
Perennial finalist in stand-up comedy competitions and former Contract Lawyer/ Coal Salesman with Corless, Corless and Sweeney

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