The jokes and stories are well known. “Have you heard the one about the Irishman who walks in a bar…”? Have you heard the story about the Irishman, the Englishman and the Scotsman…”? What is less well known is the story about the Irishman who saved a football club; not any old club by the way, but one of the most famous in the world. And it’s not a joke; it is, however, a great story. And it’s all true. Patrick O’Connell was his name and if you were in The Local recently, spellbound and riveted, watching “El Classico” between FC Barcelona and Real Madrid then it could be down to him.
Patrick O’Connell was born in the Drumcondra area of Dublin and died in London; however, like all life, it’s the bit in the middle that commands attention. He was born in 1887 and times where tough. People living in such times and areas looked for, and often found, many avenues of escape; sport being just one of them and Patrick O’Connell’s path was no different. Many said that he was a naturally gifted footballer; he graduated from the amateur level to the professional ranks with the, now defunct, northern giants Belfast Celtic FC.
He moved to England thereafter, and plied his trade at Sheffield Wednesday, Hull City and Ashington (home of the Charlton brothers). O’Connell signed for Manchester United in May 1914 for the princely sum of one thousand pounds and, coincidently, he was the first Irish player to appear for, and captain, the “Red Devils.” He also gained six caps for Ireland. He rounded off his playing career with a spell at Dumbarton in Scotland. Retiring in 1922, O’Connell’s time on the pitch had been varied and relatively unspectacular
He was, it must be noted, no angel. His embroilment in the notorious scandal of 1915 between Manchester United and Liverpool stayed with him long after he was cleared of any provable wrongdoing. For the uninitiated, the scandal happened on Good Friday between two groups of players from both teams. Allegedly, an approach was made by a third party that suggested a plot to rig the game for a home win. The match was at Old Trafford and the result, a 2-0 for United, allowed the Manchester team to avoid relegation. Sport and life in the U.K was now being overshadowed by the trauma of the Great War of 1914-18, which had been raging for several months and saw the cream of a generation disappear in a sea of mud, shell-fire and anguish; a case could be made that the players in the scandal thought that when the season was over, they may never see another.
Furthermore, O’Connell’s domestic affairs, while hardly relevant to his sporting ones, was marked by dysfunction and suspected infidelity. Indeed, his sad and solitary end in 1959 might not have been so bad had he not abandoned a family to poverty in his final year as a player. It was, however, the next period of his sporting life where it all gets interesting.
It was in management that O’Connell really made his name. In 1922 for still unknown reasons, he boarded a boat to Spain and arrived in Santander where he soon succeeded an English international football player, Fred Pentland, as manager of Racing Santander. Patrick O’Connell, in the seven years he managed Racing, gained a reputation for being a revolutionary maverick; he was known to utilize such innovative tactics as the offside trap, a technique that went on to be used by many teams in subsequent seasons. He left Racing for a brief two year spell at Real Oviedo before moving on to Real Betis in 1931, where he would gain his first piece of silverware. In his first season at the Seville club, O’Connell gained promotion from the Segunda División to make Betis the first Andalusian team to play in La Liga. Such was the affection and reverence that he held at Betis, O’Connell was called “Don Patricio”. He then promptly guided them to the championship in 1935, to this day, the first and only time that Real Betis have won La Liga.
However, it was political arenas more than the sporting ones that changed O’Connell’s life and with it the path of one of the most famous sporting organizations in history. Rising tensions between political parties in republican Spain precipitated his move to FC Barcelona in 1935 and one year later, the country was engulfed by a vicious civil war. In August 1936, less than a month after the hostilities began, club president Josep Sunyol, a prominent journalist and left-wing activist, was murdered by fascists. If there had been doubts before, there were none after; the regime’s attitude towards Catalonia was clear.
Against this raging backdrop, O’Connell was expected to oversee the team despite the spectre of war and the loss of personnel who had joined up to fight the dictator Francisco Franco. Starved of meaningful competition due to the suspension of La Liga, Barcelona barely scratched a living in local leagues; its existence has never been under a more deadly threat. When O’Connell agreed to take his team on an all-expenses-paid summer tour of the United States and Mexico in 1937, the decision offered more than one shred of salvation. The players, staff, owners and spectators were marked men; the club teetered on the edge of bankruptcy-hard to believe today. It was then that O’Connell struck out into the unknown once again, traversing another continent, aware of few certainties. It could have been so easy to make a return crossing home. With financial difficulties adding to the very uncertain political situation, the club grasped this lifeline with both hands and they received $15,000 to make the tour to Mexico and the United States from Manuel Mas Soriano (a former Mexican basketball player). Such are the swings and arrows of outrageous fortune.
The tour was scheduled for two weeks, but ended up taking two months as O’Connell’s conduct both at the games and away from them proved great PR for the club. The team enjoyed six victories in Mexico and won all five games while staying in New York before travelling home. The success was largely credited to O’Connell, his methods and his larger than life personality and it was his ability in keeping the team together for two months that allowed the chairman of the club to place a further $14,000 in a Paris bank and secure the club’s future. The team returned to Catalan with Nationalist troops getting ever closer to the region and ultimate victory over the Republican cause.
O’Connell was one of the few members of the touring party who returned; a number of club officials and only four players made the journey home. The tour was a profitable undertaking that ultimately saved the club. When he returned to Europe, O’Connell did so minus twelve players whose decision to remain in exile was surely fueled by the fear of fascist reprisals in their homeland.
Given his actions, O’Connell is lionized in Spain and his influence has gathered almost mythical status. Leaving “Barça”, O’Connell went on to manage FC Sevilla from 1942-45 before finishing his managerial career where it all began with Racing Santander. He left Spain much as he arrived, again for unknown reasons, and for all his fame he died penniless and destitute in squalid surroundings; he died a pauper.
He left this life alone, many years before the game’s financial boom; however, one of the greatest football clubs in the world owes him a very profound debt and he arguably saved them from extinction. Patrick O’Connell should always be remembered as one of the greatest foreign managers to have graced the Spanish game.
A commemorative statue sits in a Seville park, celebrating that distant triumph of 1935. It features O’Connell, who managed both of the city’s grand names, Betis – where he was twice in charge- and Sevilla. A painting of Patrick O’Connell by the talented Mancunian artist Tony Denton was presented to Josep Maria Bartomeau President of FC Barcelona in December 2015 at the Camp Nou stadium. The painting now hangs in the boardroom of one of the most famous sporting clubs on the planet.
He was nothing if not enigmatic and it is probable that his extended absence from home, far beyond once parochial borders, made little impression in either Britain or Ireland. Whatever O’Connell’s personal failings, his story is undoubtedly human; it is endlessly compelling. No fault can be found in seeking to recognise the deeds of a man who chose his own path in life, for better or worse. Upon discovering this story, the football world seems a more interesting place.
For many years Patrick O’Connell’s grave was unmarked and in a serious state of neglect. On April 28th 2016, 81 years after he won La Liga, the Patrick O’Connell Memorial Fund installed a new memorial at St. Mary’s Cemetery in Kensal Green, London. A new book called The Irishman who saved Barcelona chronicles his story in depth. It’s well worth a read.
So the next time you are sitting in The Local, Kieran’s, The Liffey or Cooper and somebody says “did you hear about the Irishman…?” you can stop the story teller in his tracks and say “I’ve heard it and it’s a great tale”.