Remembering: Patrick O'Connell

Thu, Apr 12 2018

An Irish international, the first Irish captain of Manchester United, a successful stint as a manger on the continent – including a job at the helm of Barcelona. You’d think with a CV like that, the name Patrick O’Connell would be instantly recognised as a giant in this nation’s footballing folklore.

For those of you who have never heard of this man, let’s go over some of the highlights of a fascinating life:

He was born in Drumcondra in 1887 and after spells with Stranville Juniors and Belfast Celtic, he crossed the water to play with Sheffield Wednesday and then Hull before the Red Devils came knocking.

The (then sizable) fee of £1,000 paid by Manchester United for him in 1914 would have been inflated by his fine performance in the Home Nations Cup where he was a standout performer in Ireland’s victory that year.

He was fortunate to avoid a lifetime ban for match-fixing while at United – which was slapped on some of his United teammates following a bizarre performance over Liverpool. O’Connell’s saving grace may well have been that he missed a penalty (so badly it seemed deliberate) at 1-0 that appeared to disassociate him with the ruse to win by just two goals. It may well have been an ingenious double bluff – he demanded to take the penalty that day despite not being renowned for his talent from the spot.

O’Connell worked in a munitions factory during the First World War before resuming his playing career with stints at Dumbarton in Scotland and as a player-manager at Ashington. This transition from player to manager would mark the beginnings of a very interesting next chapter in his life.

Racing Santander appointed him as manger in 1922, to replace Englishman Fred Pentland. During his first spell as manger there, Santander went on to win a number of regional titles and became founding members of La Liga.

His next challenge was in the second tier of the Spanish leagues. He managed Real Oviedo for two seasons before taking Real Betis to the Seguánda Division title in 1932 and then, more astoundingly, to the La Liga Title in 1935. This remains Betis’ only title and, if O’Connell is an oft overlooked character here, he certainly isn’t in Betis where they unveiled a bust to Don Patricio outside the stadium last year.

After his success at Betis, he took the managerial job at Barcelona at a difficult time in the club’s history: The Spanish Civil War and Franco’s regime were hostile for the republican Catalonian outfit so Barca withdrew into a regional Catalonian league. Some of its international players were told the club would understand if they didn’t return from their holidays.

Financial ruin seemed a very real danger if the club hadn’t sent the team on a tour of North America to gather funds. To claim O’Connell saved Barcelona might be a bit of exaggeration. But he did manage to keep the team competitive and together during the tour. Only four players would eventually return to Spain after some sought refuge in Mexico and many got off the boat at France on the return journey.

There has been a surge of interest in this mysterious character of late. Spurred on by the Patrick O’ Connell Fund which had as one of its modest aims; to raise funds for a headstone to mark the unmarked grave Patrick was buried in after dying in abject poverty – he died of pneumonia, living in a loft on welfare – a modest gravestone was at long last erected in April of 2016.

Perhaps the film, Don Patricio, premiering in May of this year, will go some way to providing a lasting memorial for this man in the consciousness of football fans.

[If you’d like a more detailed account of Patrick O’ Connell’s life why not check out his granddaughter-in-law’s book: The Man Who Saved FC Barcelona: The Remarkable Life of Patrick O’ Connell by Sue O’ Connell is available on Amazon.]