Sunday, 2 September 2012

Frank O'Farrell

1974 - 75 : Iran
1980 : Al-Shaab (UAE)

Born in Cork in 1927, this proud Irishman went on to a respected and lauded career as a wing half with West Ham United and Preston North End between 1948 and 1961. Quietly spoken and devoutly Catholic, he never won a trophy as a player, but achieved a few minor success as a manager in England, and a major success as a manager in the Middle East.

Between 1952 and 1959, Frank O'Farrell would also represent the Republic of Ireland on 9 occasions, scoring 2 goals. He finished his playing career with non-league outfit Weymouth Town in 1961 and immediately went on to coach the side, after retirement. With Weymouth he won the Southern League in 1965, and was snapped up by Fourth Division club Torquay United. In his first season in charge of the Gulls he led them to the Third Division, and his stock as a talented young manager grew. In 1968 he was hired by Leicester City and took them to the First Division (then England's top-flight) three years later.

In June 1969, the legendary Sir Matt Busby retired from his managerial position at Manchester United. In a 24 year long career at the helm at Old Trafford, Busby had guided United to 5 League titles, 2 FA Cups and a European Cup in 1968, as well as establishing them as one of Europe's greatest sides. Wilf McGuinness took the reins but failed to retain the club's success, and so they turned to O'Farrell in 1971.
O'Farrell and Busby at Old Trafford

This stint in Manchester battered O'Farrell's self-esteem and haunted him for years. He was never able to get to grips with George Best's lavish lifestyle, his impersonal approach was at odds with Busby's fatherly status and what's more, after a promising start, results began to go against the Cork man. In December 1972, he was sacked. O'Farrell has always maintained that his job was made impossible by the constant presence of Busby at the club, not just in a metaphorical sense. A few months later, he took charge of Cardiff City.

He left Cardiff, and Britain, in April 1974, to take the job as Iran manager, replacing Scotsman Danny McLennan, who had led Iran to the 1972 Olympics. He was appointed personally by the Shah himself, who had wanted Brian Clough, but had to settle for O'Farrell. 

Although as a devout Catholic, going to live in an Islamic country might have seemed daunting, it was O'Farrell's deep love of ancient history and general spirituality that led him to accept the job. "They're a great people with wonderful traditions", he would later say. "A very intelligent people".

Pre-revolution Iran was rather more western and socially liberal than the Islamic Republic of today. Soccer had been played in the country since 1898 when an exhibition match between British sailors and Armenian merchants took place in Isfahan. By the 1960s it had become the national sport of the country and success at national level soon followed. They won the Asian Cup in 1968 and 1972, as well as qualifying for the Olympic Football Tournament in 1964 and '72. Since 1971, the national team has played home matches at the 90,000 capacity Azadi Stadium (known as the Aryamehr Stadium until the Revolution in 1979).

Iran's Azadi Stadium

When O'Farrell arrived, Iranian football was dominated by three big players; Gholam Hossein MazloumiParviz Ghelichkhani and Ali Parvin, all of whom would play a major part in O'Farrell's Persian adventure. Upon arriving in the country, one of O'Farrell's first tasks was to appoint as Assistant Manager, and his choice was a defining one for Iranian football. He picked the coach of the country's Under-23 side, Heshmat Mohajerani, who had done wonders with the junior players. Mohajerani would cut his teeth under the Irishman over the following 12 months.

His arrival in September 1974 was just before Iran was about to host the 1974 edition of the Asian Games, which Iran was hosting. O'Farrell was told that nothing less than Gold in the soccer would suffice. 

"They'd built this big new stadium that could hold 120,000 people and the success of the games hinged around the football team. They were good at other sports like weightlifting and wrestling but football was number one".

O'Farrell's Iran in 1974
His first match in charge was against Pakistan at the Amjadieh Stadium in front of 20,000 passionate Iranians. O'Farrell's charges ran out 7-0 winners in an emphatic display in which Parvin and Ghelichkhani netted three between them. This was followed two days later by a hard fought 2-1 win over then-fancied Burma before a crowd of 72,000 people at the Aryamehr. They topped the group on September 7 by trouncing bottom-side Bahrain 6-0 at the Amjadieh. Second Round wins over South Korea, Malaysia and bitter rivals Iraq pitted Iran against another fierce rival, Israel, in the final. Before 100,000 screaming Persians in Tehran, O'Farrell's boys ran out 1-0 winners thanks to an Itzhak Shum own goal.

The Corkman had delivered, and is still regarded as a hero to Iranian football fans today. 

Beyond the football pitch, his life in Tehran with his wife Ann was a happy one. Once a week he met with the Shah to discuss the future of Iranian football, and even used to coach the ruler's young son at the palace.

Following the Asian Games triumph, O'Farrell then managed the country in the 1975 Iran Cup, where he recorded a win and a loss against the Soviet Union Under 23 side. Later that year, he led Iran successfully through the 1976 Olympic Games Qualifiers, with wins over Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. His last match in charge was a 1-1 home draw with Iraq on August 24 1975.

Due to family reasons, he decided not to stay however and handed the job to his young assistant Mohajerani. This would spell the beginning of a Golden Age for Iranian soccer, as the former understudy went on to guide them to the Asian Cup in 1976 and qualification for the World Cup in 1978. Although the reaper of these fine rewards of hard work, Mohajerani always credited his mentor O'Farrell as the true architect of Iran's rise.

He left, in friendly circumstances; "They appreciated me being there and treated me very well. They gave me a nice party going away and a beautiful Persian rug. It all ended very friendly, a better experience than I had in Manchester anyway". His record stands at 10 wins from 15 matches, with 2 draws and 3 losses.

Football in the country would suffer after the Islamic Revolution and subsequent Iran-Iraq War, events which affected O'Farrell deeply. "It showed these 13 generals laid on the floor, with no clothes, having been executed by the revolutionary forces. I don't know what their crimes were just that no-one deserved a fate like that. I knew one or two of them through football and that shocked me deeply".

Football in the country resurfaced in the late 1990s. However, Iran's place as Asia's powerhouse have never been truly retaken, as the rise of Japan and South Korea since the same period has shifted the balance of power in the continent.

He returned to Torquay for a brief period but after just over a year, he travelled to the United Arab Emirates to take the reigns of Sharjah based club Al-Shaab. Sharjah is a former British colonial port, and Al-Shaab has played matches since 1974. Their home stadium is the 10,000 capacity Khalid Bin Mohammed Stadium. By O'Farrell's arrival in July 1980, the club were 6 years old and had yet to win a trophy. 

Although he signed a two year contract, he only lasted 6 months in the Emirates. "I only fancied it on a short term basis, nothing happened really". He did manage to get an $80,000 pay-out upon leaving however. 

Today, O'Farrell fondly recalls his time in Iran
He briefly returned to Torquay for a third time, before retiring completely from football in 1982. Today he lives in Devon and when asked about his time in the Middle East, O'Farrell fondly recalls his happy days back in Shiraz or Tehran. To Frank O'Farrell, a true Wild Goose.