Interview in The Sunday Times:
Watching another tumultuous year unfold in the history of Manchester United, Frank O’Farrell wonders how he finds himself still surprised by the goings on at the world’s most storied club. The takeover by the Glazer family, the subsequent revolt by fans, the death of George Best and the showdown between Roy Keane and Sir Alex Ferguson that resulted in the sudden exit from the club of O’Farrell’s fellow son of Cork.
"Looking from afar, I think Roy misjudged his role at the club," O’Farrell says. "He overstepped into the manager’s domain. If he got away with that, Ferguson’s role would have been diminished and the manager had to act. It was an incisive strike. It didn’t drag on. I thought Fergie acted in the best interests of himself and he acted knowing he wasn’t going to damage the club by excluding Roy. He felt he could cope without him. I had the same kind of dilemma with George."
O’Farrell was most surprised by what he saw surrounding the death of Best, particularly the pictures of Bobby Charlton at the hospital in west London and the funeral in Belfast.
"Bobby certainly wasn’t the bosom pal in the way that might have come across during the funeral. But it became showbiz. Eamonn Holmes was there. Maybe I shouldn’t say this but they were saying he’ll have 120,000 people there and I couldn’t help thinking, ‘Will he show up?’ Because he had a habit of not showing up when he was expected."
"I told George that we would move his parents into a house with him over here. He agreed and I got the permission of the board to do it. I went over there on the pretext of watching an FAI team playing a German selection in Dublin and then went up to Belfast to talk to his parents. They were both happy with the idea but said they wanted to sort out their council house so they could pass it on to their daughter. When I came back George hadn’t been in training the whole week. We’re playing Wolves the next day. I’d have lost my credibility with a lot of people if I’d played him. So I dropped him and fined him and we got stuffed at home 2-0 by Wolves.
"The press really hammered him. It might have been time to say, ‘Bye bye George, thanks for everything’ but the team wasn’t good enough to say that. We had Southampton in the Cup next week, drew 0-0 down there and in the replay George scored two incredible goals. Game over. And he went over to the press box and gave them the two fingers."
Best’s absences were deeply resented in the dressing room, already riven with faction fighting. As club captain, Charlton passed complaints to O’Farrell. There was grumbling on a number of other issues; O’Farrell was previously regarded as a hands-on manager but was rarely seen on the training pitch at United. His signings, even that of Martin Buchan from Aberdeen, were dismissed as not being of the calibre expected of United players. Charlton was incensed at losing his own place in the team, but vented his frustrations with Busby rather than O’Farrell.
"They were all brought in by Busby and they all played golf with him. They knew I was brought in to give them the push when the time came. Nobody likes a new manager because they all feel threatened and they were under threat."
Matters came to a head at a club social function when Busby told O’Farrell’s wife, Anne, that her husband was "an independent sod. Why don’t you tell him to come and talk to me?". O’Farrell didn’t appreciate the sentiment or the way it was delivered but took Busby up on the offer.
"He complained about Martin Buchan and then he said, ‘I don’t think you should have dropped Bobby Charlton.’ Another niggle. I said, ‘That’s what you brought me here for, to do things. I’m doing them.’ It wasn’t a good situation to be in, especially when the team were doing badly and they were talking to Matt."
He looks at United and hopes that Ferguson will know the right time to go. The comparisons between Busby and Ferguson are inevitable, given their shared working-class Scottish roots, the similar lengths of their respective tenures, their domination at the club and the magnificent haul of trophies that each man has enjoyed. Ferguson has hinted in the past at taking a backroom role when he steps down as manager, though this would appear more unlikely under the ownership of Malcolm Glazer and is something that O’Farrell, understandably, cautions against.
"It would be better to make a clean cut. He’ll have learnt from Matt’s experience with other managers when he stayed on. That didn’t work and Ferguson won’t be unaware of that. He doesn’t have to hang around for people to remind him he was great. His record is there."
On one important score, O’Farrell reckons, Ferguson’s legacy will be the richer. "Fergie will leave the club in better shape than Busby did. That was the worst thing that happened, that Busby left the club in a poor state after being manager for 25 years. United will be able to buy and they have some brilliant young fellas in the reserves. That’s different to what I inherited."
He was handed a poisoned chalice. But happy and healthy at the age of 78, and having just celebrated Christmas with his family that now includes a first great-grandson, he has clearly made an excellent recovery.