Frank O'Farrell

Former Manager Remembers: Frank O’Farrell

Following on from Brendan Rodgers becoming the first manager in Leicester City’s long history to win the FA Cup, we publish in full for the first time Club Historian John Hutchinson’s interview with Frank O’Farrell, who was the last manager to take a Leicester City side to an FA Cup Final 52 years ago.
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Amongst other things, Frank spoke about his move to Leicester City and his two-and-a-half seasons at Filbert Street. This time included the 1969 FA Cup Final, relegation from the top flight and winning the Second Division title. He also told the story of how he left Leicester to become the manager of Manchester United and the difficult situation he inherited at Old Trafford.

In November 1968, Leicester City’s manager Matt Gillies resigned. He had managed the team for 10 successful years in the top flight and had taken the Club to two FA Cup Finals, two League Cup Finals (winning one of them) and into European competition for the first time.

The following month, he was replaced by O’Farrell, who despite Leicester City facing a relegation battle, nevertheless guided his new team to the 1969 FA Cup Final against Manchester City 106 days after his appointment. 

“My time at Leicester was a very exciting and rewarding time,” Frank began. “I came from Torquay on 19 December, 1968. I had turned down an opportunity to go to Ipswich. I chose to come to Leicester City because I felt it was a progressive club within a big area, the Midlands, which meant that, based in Leicester, I could see a lot of games and follow other teams and keep in touch with other teams and players.

“It was a battle against relegation for the rest of the season, but the players responded well and worked very hard, although Allan Clarke (for whom Leicester City had paid a British record transfer fee six months earlier) was a bit unsettled for a while.

"When we were on our cup run, we got behind on our fixtures. When we got drawn against Liverpool in the sixth round, the pitch was in such a bad state that the match was postponed several times. When Bill Shankly (Liverpool’s legendary manager) came down to inspect the pitch with the referee and myself to see if the game could be played, I used to take him for lunch at the Midland Hotel.

"I found him to be a very interesting character and a very kind man. He might have given the impression of being otherwise when being interviewed but he spoke very lovingly about his family and friends.

“When the match was eventually played it was a 0-0 draw on a very heavy pitch. Then we went to Anfield and won 1-0. Peter [Shilton] saved a penalty. Shanks was on the touchline and when he replaced (England World Cup winner) Roger Hunt, he wasn’t well pleased and took off his shirt and threw it down. It was a great win, but people said at the time that Liverpool never liked to play against Leicester City.

“It was a wonderful occasion when we got to Wembley against Manchester City. It was a very tight game which we could have won. We had a few chances but lost to a great shot by Neil Young. It was a disappointment to lose but we enjoyed the experience of being there.

“After the final, due to the postponed league fixtures caused by the poor state of the Filbert Street pitch, we had five games to play in three weeks. We needed seven points and it all depended on the last match at Old Trafford. We took the lead and then George Best had a couple of brilliant moments and we eventually lost 3-2 and got relegated. It was a double whammy: to lose the cup final and then to get relegated. The gods were cruel to us.”

I’d always preached to players like Peter Shilton that if you have a contract, you have to honour it. I remember once he said to me: ‘Well, managers break their contracts’ and I said: ’I know Peter, but I’ve never done it'. I had the high moral ground.

Frank O'Farrell LCFC.com

Frank was nevertheless optimistic about the future, as he explained.

He said: “Despite going down we had the makings of a very good First Division team and provided we applied ourselves, had the right attitude and worked hard, there was a good chance we would go back up reasonably quickly.

“The thing about relegation is that the top players feel it damages their prospects of playing for England. I explained to the players that I didn’t want to be in the Second Division any longer than I had to to be and that I wanted to be a First Division manager as well.

“We had a bit of a problem with Allan Clarke. He just didn’t want to play for Leicester. He’d left relegated Fulham to come to Leicester where he found himself involved in relegation again. I let him go to Leeds. It was in the best interests of the Club, because we got money which helped me bring in other players.

“We had a good youth policy with a number of local lads in the team like David Nish, Rodney Fern, Alan Woollett, Steve Whitworth and Peter Shilton who was the most famous of them all. He was very ambitious and felt that being relegated would damage his England prospects, but I told him that if he was the best goalkeeper Alf Ramsey would pick him, which he did of course. Peter got his first cap playing in the Second Division and settled down eventually.

“We finished third in that first season, missing promotion by two points. We had a good run towards the end of the season but just couldn’t quite make it. The Filbert Street pitch hindered us as it didn’t suit our football. We had some good footballers but the Filbert Street pitch was very heavy, the ball stuck in the mud and we had to overcome these conditions as well as competition from the opposition.

"Doug the groundsman did a fantastic job. I appreciated the work he had to do to try to keep the pitch in playing order for us. I never asked to use the pitch unless it was absolutely necessary because I knew what a hard job it was getting it rolled and ready and that it would cut up again if we used it. When I visualise the Filbert Street pitch now after all these years, I don’t see grass, I just see mud.”

The following season, in 1970/71, Frank’s Leicester City team won the Second Division title.

“For the second season I signed (midfielders) Willie Carlin and Bobby Kellard," he said. "I called them my little street fighters, they’d been around. They had ability and they had that little bit of aggression. The Leicester players were good, but they were a bit quiet in some ways. They lacked a little bit of nastiness.

"In football you need some nastiness in one or two areas. We needed extra competitiveness and Carlin and Kellard provided it. They fulfilled their obligations and duties and were very good signings. I had tried to sign Carlin when I first managed Weymouth in 1961. He had been released by Liverpool at the time when the maximum wage was abolished.

"Clubs had big staffs then and they released a lot of players to avoid having to pay more money to the players they retained. I’d got his address from the Players’ Union office but he told me that although he appreciated me asking him, he wanted to stay in the league, which I understood. So, I didn’t get him until nine years later when he signed for me at Leicester.”

With Carlin and Kellard in the side, Leicester City won the Second Division title in 1971. But that summer, Frank left Filbert Street to become Manchester United’s new manager.

I didn’t give him an answer and said I’d have to talk to my Chairman Len Shipman on the Monday. He said: ‘Well, my Chairman and I spoke to Len Shipman when we were in London for a meeting, and said that you weren’t interested'. How could he say that? In his defence, Len probably didn’t want to lose me and was trying to fend Manchester United off.

Frank O'Farrell LCFC.com

“If I’d been on contract, I wouldn’t have been interested in moving to Manchester United,” Frank explained. “I’d always preached to players like Peter Shilton that if you have a contract, you have to honour it. I remember once he said to me: ‘Well, managers break their contracts’ and I said: ’I know Peter, but I’ve never done it'. I had the high moral ground.

“I wouldn’t have broken my contract with Leicester but I was at the end of mine. I got a phone call from Matt Gillies, who was a friend of Matt Busby (the famous Manchester United manager) telling me that Busby wanted to talk to me. The papers had speculated about who Busby’s successor would be and he himself had written complimentary things about me, as had others who had been following my career.

“Busby contacted me I met him on the motorway on the Saturday and brought him to my house in Eccles Road in Birstall. He said there was a lot of work to be done and offered me the job. He told me they would give me time to do this and offered me a long five-year contract at £12,000-a-year.

“I didn’t give him an answer and said I’d have to talk to my Chairman Len Shipman on the Monday. He said: ‘Well, my Chairman and I spoke to Len Shipman when we were in London for a meeting, and said that you weren’t interested'. How could he say that? In his defence, Len probably didn’t want to lose me and was trying to fend Manchester United off.

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Frank O'Farrell
Frank O'Farrell

Frank joined Manchester United from Leicester City, but only spent a year as manager.

“On the Monday, without telling Len Shipman I’d already met Busby and had been offered the job, I asked for permission to speak to Manchester United. I then rang Matt Busby and arranged to meet him at a hotel between Derby and Manchester the following Tuesday.

“On the Tuesday, as I got into the hotel carpark, a Rolls Royce pulled up. I recognised Louis Edwards, the Manchester United Chairman, and Matt Busby in the car. I went over to them and they said: ‘There are a few people round, we might be seen’. I said: ‘I’ll drive out, you follow me and we’ll find some place down the road to meet’.

"So, I drove out of the carpark, turned off into a little B road and pulled into a lay-by opposite a farm. The Rolls Royce pulled in behind me. I went into the Rolls and was introduced to Louis Edwards. I asked Busby to repeat the terms he had offered and he said it was a five-year contract at £12,000-a-year plus bonuses for winning the league or cup, at which point Louis Edwards said: ‘No Matt, it’s £15,000’.

“Busby had been sent to negotiate with me for £15,000 but had offered me £12,000. I can’t understand that. I accepted the offer but then there was another issue before I even started the job. I was told that they were building a new little office for me down the corridor from the manager’s office which had Matt Busby’s name on the door.

"Never one to not state my case I said I needed Busby’s manager’s office because that’s where people would expect to find the manager. So, the foundations weren’t good when I went there, but then we had a good start. We went to the top of the league and Matt Busby was claiming that I was the best signing he’d ever made. Twelve months after that he sacked me!

I accepted the offer but then there was another issue before I even started the job. I was told that they were building a new little office for me down the corridor from the manager’s office which had Matt Busby’s name on the door. Never one to not state my case I said I needed Busby’s manager’s office because that’s where people would expect to find the manager.

Frank O'Farrell LCFC.com

“He had a big influence in the board room. At a function Matt told my wife that I was ‘an independent sod’ and why didn’t I go to see him. So I did. He started finding fault with one of my signings Martin Buchan, which I disagreed with. He also said that I shouldn’t have dropped Bobby Charlton. I knew that when I did he was unhappy and had gone to see Matt. It was an impossible situation.

“Also, George Best was playing out of his skin in the first half of the season when we went to the top of the table but then he started missing training and going away and the team wasn’t good enough without him. Manchester United wasn’t going to be rebuilt until George Best, Bobby Charlton and Denis Law, who had all been great players in their day, all left Old Trafford. We needed to rebuild but you can’t do that overnight. I wasn’t given the chance.”

After leaving Manchester United in December 1972, Frank went onto manage Cardiff City and the Iranian national team. He later returned to manage Torquay United for two more spells, as well as managing Al Shaab in the United Arab Emirates.

He is currently living in Torquay, having celebrated his 93rd birthday last October.

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