Michael Walker: Rangnick’s problems seen by O’Farrell nearly 50 years earlier

Only Irish man to manage United faced the similar internal problems that beset the club

Imagine you are the newly-appointed manager of Manchester United. Imagine the club's decline has been acknowledged by your legendary Scottish patriarch predecessor. Imagine your first home game cannot be played at Old Trafford due to hooliganism.

Imagine it is switched to Anfield instead. Imagine getting your new United players into the 'home' Liverpool dressing room to give your teamtalk. Imagine the opposition is Arsenal, who are reigning champions.

Frank O’Farrell did not have to imagine any of this. It all happened.

In August 1971, on a Friday night with Old Trafford closed, O’Farrell led United to Anfield as the home manager. It was his third game in charge, his first at ‘home’. Reality was against him - not the last time he would feel that at United. Despite it all, United won.


“We had the home dressing room and I said something like: ‘Obviously it looks different, but it’s a home game and it’s our fans out there. The enemy are down the other end - Arsenal’.”

The son of a Cork train driver, O'Farrell was thoughtful and measured and after more than 20 years in England, experienced

Those were O’Farrell’s words when we spoke on the phone 10 years ago about one of the most unusual United games ever.

“We won, of course,” he added, merrily. “George (Best) was playing out of his skin. We were top of the league at Christmas.”

Courteous and phlegmatic, O’Farrell had the tone of someone who had seen it and done it. Christmas came and went.

That his passing last Sunday aged 94 should coincide with United's undressing at Manchester City would have raised a sardonic smile on the Corkman's face. Nine years on from Alex Ferguson's retirement, the United of 2022 would be recognisable to the United O'Farrell inherited 51 years earlier. Big names, big issues.

O'Farrell had Denis Law, Bobby Charlton and as he said, George Best on his teamsheet; but as Ralf Rangnick knows, names alone do not a team make.

Law was 31, Charlton was 33 and Best was, well, George Best, when O'Farrell agreed to leave Leicester City for United. They had been league champions in 1967 and European champions in 1968, but at the end of season 1970-71 United had faded into eighth. Behind Southampton, they should have been worried. They were complacent.

Matt Busby, the manager, architect and hero of the club was 62 in an era when men of such age were retired. He had tried to step away from the main job once before, two years earlier, and United had promoted Wilf McGuinness from within. It had not worked, so Busby returned and sought out O'Farrell as the second replacement.

O'Farrell was 43 and had just won the Second Division with Leicester having also taken them to the 1969 FA Cup final. He had played against Law and Charlton for Preston. At West Ham before that, O'Farrell was part of a group of players including Malcolm Allison who felt English football needed to be coached more and coached better.

The son of a Cork train driver, O'Farrell was thoughtful and measured and after more than 20 years in England, experienced. He understood the stature of Manchester United - he recalled passing his driving test in Preston on the day of the Munich air disaster - but O'Farrell did not know, and could not know fully, that the United players' sense of themselves, of self-governance, would make them if not resistant, then perhaps indifferent, to notions of modern coaching.

“The United players had a kind of mindset,” O’Farrell would later write. “I can remember one particular phrase they used to say: ‘Let’s play the football’, which was a kind-of-vague concept . . . they weren’t an easy side to bring up to speed with the modern game and tactics. They felt they were free spirits, and none of them became successful managers.”

Familiar Problems

It is not a huge leap from this to, say, Louis van Gaal or Rangnick at United post-Ferguson.

Today Rangnick has problems familiar to O'Farrell, one of which could be described as cultural. O'Farrell, a church-goer who spoke politely and wore conservative suits, was not the average 1970s football man. He chose to make his Mancunian home in Salford, not Cheshire. As he said that day on the phone: "Lifestyles changed in the 1960s and 70s, some of the old ways were overthrown. I think TV smart-alecks had a lot to do with it."

Rangnick, with his modesty and belief in coaching and thinking - plus a German accent - is similar in his difference. And as O’Farrell felt often at Old Trafford, while Rangnick is in charge of the United squad, is he in command?

O’Farrell worked out that was his situation. Busby was still close to Charlton, to Law and to others. O’Farrell picked the team; the players complained to Busby when they were not in it.

Eventually - if 17 months can be referred to as eventually - O'Farrell was dismissed. He was replaced by Tommy Docherty, his good friend at Preston. O'Farrell was godfather to one of Docherty's children and vice versa. Even in 2022 it's squeamish.

Yet in August ‘71, for O’Farrell and his fresh five-year contract, it started out so well that night at Anfield.

"There was a lot of goodwill shown to United then," he said. "Most clubs had that attitude to United. Bill Shankly and Liverpool were really helpful."

O’Farrell had got to know Shankly after Leicester had drawn Liverpool in the FA Cup - “The game was postponed six times due to the weather but Shankly travelled down for every pitch inspection. We’d go for lunch after. He was a very interesting man. He may have come across as noisy but he was a kind man at heart.”

One particular thing O’Farrell admired about Shankly’s management was how he replaced aging players to refresh the Liverpool team. O’Farrell’s opinion was that Busby had been too weak to do that at United because he was so close to the squad. It gave players a feeling of authority. Busby admitted as much, telling O’Farrell it was a five-year job. Hence the contract.

And it still is a five-year job. 2027 sounds far-off and it would be 14 years post-Ferguson if that is how long it takes for United to regain the title; but it took 26 years post-Busby.

In both instances a failure of club governance led to managers such as O’Farrell being selected and discarded. Busby and Ferguson were generational figures, who personified United and ran it accordingly. That needed to be understood. It then needed - logically - to be followed by something different, by delegated responsibility, patience and strategy.

But no, good men like O’Farrell were anointed, appointed, restricted, then sacked.

Farewell Frank O’Farrell. The only Irishman to manage Manchester United. He’ll always have Anfield.