At 85-years of age, Frank O’Farrell is the oldest living player to have donned the claret and blue of West Ham United.
Had life taken a different avenue however, the Cork native could have ended up driving steam trains instead of steering the West Ham midfield.
As a 20-year-old, O’Farrell supplemented the wages he earned as a fireman on the Cork-Dublin train line by playing semi-professional football for high-flying Cork United.
O’Farrell had always held the ambition of becoming a locomotive driver like his father Patrick and was stoking his way towards that dream when West Ham scout Ben Ives spotted him at the Mardyke in 1948. At the time, the Hammers featured a string of Irish players, including international midfielder Tommy Moroney brought over from Cork United in 1947 and skilful wing-half Danny McGowan, who transferred over from Shelbourne shortly after.
No surprise then that manager Charlie Paynter was quick across the pond to inspect this latest Irish talent.
“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,” says O’Farrell. “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.”
O’Farrell was fully aware of the scale of the opportunity before him, but was hesitant to put ink to paper.
“I was a fireman on the railway and it had always been in my heart to become an engine driver, driving the Cork to Dublin express. I was earning £3 a week on the railways and £3 a week for my football, so I didn’t really want to go. I didn’t need to. I thought about it long and hard and, eventually, I decided to sign for West Ham. As it happened, steam was on the decline, so I may never have fulfilled my dream of driving a steam engine anyway!”
Clearly the right decision was made as he would go on to play 210 times for West Ham, playing alongside countrymen Moroney, McGowan and Noel Cantwell.
“Tommy was one of the most talented players I ever saw. He played for Ireland and could easily have been a rugby union international too, as he had excelled for Presentation Brothers College and the Cork Constitution club,” he told the club website.
“I loved my time at West Ham. In 1957, the manager Ted Fenton wanted Eddie Lewis from Preston North End and their manager, Cliff Britton, said he wanted me if Eddie was going to join West Ham. I went up there and we had a great time, finishing second in Division One in 1957/58.”
After 13 years in England, O’Farrell decided to hang up the boots in 1961, embarking on a managerial career that saw him coach Leicester, Cardiff, Iran’s national side and famously Manchester United after Matt Busby.
Nowadays, his responsibilities are of a less demanding nature.
“I am keeping well. I will be 86 in October but my health is good apart from a dodgy left knee! I still drive the car so I can take the wife shopping to Sainsburys and I am able to get up to Preston for the annual ex-players dinner, which I enjoy. There seem to be less of us there every year, but that is life, I suppose.”
O’Farrell was reared just yards from Turner’s Cross, where Cork City welcome the Hammers for a pre-season friendly this Sunday.
“I would love to have gone back to watch the game, but I have got something else on and I cannot make it over. I’m sure it’ll be a great weekend.”
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