BIG INTERVIEW: Ex-Morecambe defender Gerry Farrell on his adventure in aparthied South Africa

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Craig Salmon talks to former Morecambe and Blackburn Rovers defender Gerry Farrell, who spent five years playing in apartheid South Africa

Twenty-years-old and with his football career stagnating, Gerry Farrell was handed a once-in-a-liftetime opportunity.

A youth team player at Wolverhampton Wanderers, the Liverpudlian departed Molineux without featuring in a single first-team game.

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And a subsequent move to Blackburn Rovers saw him make his Football League debut, but he soon found himself surplus to requirements at Ewood Park after 21 games and one goal.

Former Morecambe defender Gerry Farrell with his treasured letter from Sir Stanley Matthews (photo: Dan Martino)Former Morecambe defender Gerry Farrell with his treasured letter from Sir Stanley Matthews (photo: Dan Martino)
Former Morecambe defender Gerry Farrell with his treasured letter from Sir Stanley Matthews (photo: Dan Martino)

With his football career at a crossroads, Farrell received a chance phone call from a sports journalist working on a national newspaper.

The beautiful game in South Africa was certainly on the rise in the 1960s and 1970s due to the inception of the National Football League.

The NFL was enticing some of the greatest players from across the world, with many British superstars enjoying a stint in the country towards the end of their careers.

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Greats of the game such as Sir Stanley Matthews, Sir Bobby Charlton, Gordon Banks, Bobby Moore, Kevin Keegan and George Best had a spell playing in South Africa

And future England manager Roy Hodgson turned out for Pretoria-based outfit 
Berea Park from 1973 to 1974.

South Africa at the time was, of course, ruled by an apartheid regime and the NFL was a competition for white players only, while black players had a separate league.

Farrell – who went on to play for Morecambe and later settled in the town becoming a prominent businessman in the area – had been recommended to the Johannesburg Rangers.

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Despite the controversy of playing in apartheid South Africa, many footballers felt their presence encouraged racial harmony.

There were examples of touring teams playing teams of different creeds, while Sir Stanley Matthews emigrated to the country and formed a team of black schoolboys who were known as Stan’s men. As far as Farrell is concerned, he has nothing but fond memories of his five-year stint in South Africa.

A young man at the time, he saw it as an opportunity to see another part of the world and in any case, his main reason for going to South Africa was the promise of a full-time job working for a glass plate company.

“I got a phone call from a sports reporter called Harry Miller who was working for the Daily Mirror,” said Farrell.

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“He said, ‘Look, there is a team in Johannesburg, South Africa, who are looking for a defender and I have put your name forward.

“I asked him what it was all about and he told me that it was semi-professional, we would be training in the evening and then flying off all over the country to Cape Town, Port Elizabeth, Durban, places like, that to play.

“I asked him if there was a job out there and he said the sponsors were a plate glass company so I could get work with them.

“I was more interested in the job because I needed something to provide me with some back-up away from football.

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“But anyway I went there and the football side of things turned out to be fantastic.

“There were players like Geoff Hurst, Bobby Moore, George Best, Roger Hunt.

“The standard of football was amazing and it was the best decision I ever made to go there.

“I was only 20 when I went and the apartheid didn’t bother me.

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“The NFL was for white players and the black players had their own league, that’s how it was.

“The black players had the two big clubs – the Kaizer Chiefs and the Orlando Pirates who were based in Soweto. Towards the end of my time there, we did start to play against teams made up of black footballers.

“I played in one of the first ever games between a team of white players and a team of black players.

“We played Orlando Pirates and they had 40,000 supporters, we had 5,000 supporters – we were the home team as well!

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“A little bit after I left, the teams were starting to be mixed and so there was white and black players playing in the same team which was nice to see that sort of progression.

“But I remember when I first went out, there were separate buses for white and black people.

“I know some footballers incurred criticism for going out to play in a country under an apartheid regime but that never really bothered me because the job I went out there for – I was a supervisor at the glass plate company – I treated everybody the same.

“I used to get called ‘boss’ or ‘master’ but I would just say, ‘Look, just call me Gerry’.

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After five years, Farrell returned to England in his mid-20s and he was enticed to Morecambe by great friend Mick Heaton, who he had played alongside at Rovers.

“I had just come off the plane from South Africa and I rung my mate Mick Heaton – we were best mates,” said Farrell.

“I just said when are we going for a pint?

“He said, ‘I can’t, I have got a game tomorrow night – I’m playing for Morecambe’.

“Mick said, ‘Come up to ours and put your boots in the back of your car – you’ll get a game.

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“As football in South Africa was not affiliated to FIFA, I was able to sign for Morecambe, played that night and the rest is history.

“I have been in Morecambe ever since. It’s crazy how fate can drop like that.”

Farrell ended up playing three seasons with the Shrimps, who were then of the Northern Premier League.

He went on to become the club’s first ever commercial director – while still playing – and over the years his various businesses have provided sponsorship.

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Once living in Morecambe, Farrell began working as an estate agent and eventually set up his own independent firms in the ensuing years.

His businesses include Farrell Heyworth and GF Property .

The footballer-turned-house seller admits the thick-skin, determination and wise head he developed during his playing days have helped him make a success of his career in business.

“I always remember during my football career that it would be something like £100 bonus if we won the game,” said Farrell.

“I learned very quickly that you can’t afford to think about that £100, else it would affect your performance and hinder you in terms of winning the game.

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“What you had to do was go out and win the game, then somebody nudges you afterwards and says, ‘Here is your £100’.

“Then you would go, ‘Oh yeah I forgot about that’.

“I used the same principle when I went into estate agency.

“If I was selling a property for let’s say a £1,000 commission, you can’t afford to think about that.

“You have to do the job for the client first and foremost. You have to make sure they are happy and then once everything is done – £1,000 goes into your bank account.”

Farrell freely admits he was never the greatest of footballers, but he is still proud of what he managed to achieve in the game.

One of his most treasured mementos was a letter written by Sir Stanley Matthews to his father asking for permission to take his son on trial when the former England winger was manager of Port Vale.