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2013-06-30T09:00:00 Updated 2015-02-19T00:27:37

Full steam ahead for Frank

Had things turned out differently, Frank O'Farrell could have ended up driving steam trains across Ireland instead of driving the West Ham United midfield.

Sixty-five years ago, the 20-year-old supplemented the wages he earned as a fireman on the Cork-Dublin main line by playing semi-professional football for five-times League of Ireland champions Cork United.

As a schoolboy, the young Irishman grew up dreaming of becoming a locomotive driver like his father Patrick. He was stoking his way towards that dream when a West Ham scout named Ben Ives spotted him playing at Cork United's Mardyke stadium in 1948.

The Hammers had already successfully brought Ireland international midfielder Tommy Moroney over from Cork United in 1947 and a skilful wing-half Danny McGowan from Dublin-based Shelbourne in early 1948, so manager Charlie Paynter was quick to travel to Ireland to check out O'Farrell personally.

Now 85 and the oldest living former West Ham player, O'Farrell is enjoying his retirement with wife Ann at home in Devon, but he is happy to share his amazing story of how he ended up at the Boleyn Ground.


"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," he confirmed. "They have a lot of support in the city.

"Back then, Cork had one of the best teams in Ireland . We used to play at the Mardyke at University College Cork. Tommy and Danny had both gone over in 1947 at the start of the season and they were the first Cork people to play for West Ham.

"They 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.

"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!"

O'Farrell clearly made the right decision, going on to play 210 times for West Ham, many of them alongside fellow countrymen Moroney, McGowan and fellow Corkman and Ireland international full-back 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.

"Danny was unlucky with injuries and his knee just wouldn't allow him to show his best, so he didn't make the first team as much as he would have liked and he returned to Ireland.

"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."

O'Farrell retired from playing with Preston in 1961 and embarked on a successful managerial career that saw him coach, among others, Leicester City, Manchester United, Cardiff City and the Iranian national team.

Nowadays, his responsibilities are rather less complicated.

"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 Sainsbury's 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 last returned to the Boleyn Ground in early 2012, when he joined his former team-mates to pay his respects to long-serving goalkeeper Ernie Gregory, who had died at the age of 90.

He is planning to come back to east London again soon, both to watch his old club and to catch up with his relatives.

"I'd love to come back and I will do so this season. I have relatives living in Colchester, so I'll be able to see my family too.

"I think West Ham have done well in the last two years. Obviously, it is very difficult to compete with the likes of Manchester City, Chelsea and Manchester United in terms of resources and budget, but they have matched them on the pitch.

"If the fans keep supporting the club as they have done, there is no reason why they can't do that again this coming season. If they do, then I think they can challenge for the top six and that would represent a brilliant season."

O'Farrell grew up just yards from current League of Ireland side Cork City's Turner's Cross stadium, where West Ham will contest a pre-season match on Sunday 7 July.

The proud Corkman was invited to the match and a special dinner at the city's SilverSprings Moran Hotel the previous evening, but is unfortunately unable to attend.

"I was living in Turner's Cross when I grew up in Cork, not far at all from where the stadium is now. 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 have written a letter explaining that I am sorry I will not be there and wishing all the best to everyone involved. I'm sure it'll be a great weekend."

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