Turtle Bunbury

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HISTORY - HEROES AND VILLAINS

DON PATRICIO O’CONNELL (1887-1959): THE DUBLINER WHO SAVED FC BARCELONA

At the height of the Spanish Civil War, FC Barcelona - or ‘Barça’, as the football team is known - found itself teetering on the brink of extinction as General Franco’s Fascist troops closed in on the Catalonian capital, determined to crush the Republican menace. Several players were serving in the Republican army; the club president had already been murdered by Fascists.

Step forward Patrick O’Connell, Barça’s Dublin-born manager, or ‘Don Patricio’, as he was to be revered amongst Spanish footballers. He deftly escorted his team out of Spain on a grand tour of the USA and Mexico, thereby arguably saving both the players and the club from an otherwise swift demise.

Don Patricio was an exceptional individual. Not only was he the only Irishman to manage a major Spanish football team but he was also the first Irishman to captain Manchester United.

On 30 December 2015 O’Connell was inducted into Barcelona's hall of fame when his portrait by Manchester-based artist Tony Denton was presented to the FC Barça Museum at the Camp Nou stadium. It is high praise indeed from [2016] the world’s fourth richest football cub. And yet without O’Connell FC Barça might not even exist.

Patrick O’Connell was born in Dublin in March 1887, the fifth of ten children. His father, also Patrick, was born in County Kilkenny in 1839. His mother Elizabeth hailed from County Meath and married O’Connell senior in 1875. The family initially lived in Westmeath, where Patrick’s three older sisters were born, but later moved to Dublin where the elder Patrick worked as a clerk at Boland’s Corn Mill in the Dublin Docklands.

The younger Patrick is thought to have been born in Drumcondra, possibly on Mabel Street or in a house at the corner of Fitzroy Avenue and Jones’s Terrace where they were living at the time of the 1901 census. By then, the 14-year-old was working as a glass-fitter while three of his sisters were tailoresses.

In 1908 he married Ellen Treston, a carpenter’s daughter from nearby Bayview Avenue. She was pregnant on their wedding day and they would go on to have four children, the first of whom was born in Belfast.

At the time of his wedding, O’Connell was a foreman at Boland’s Mills, where his father worked, but football was rapidly becoming his raison d’être. Having started with the Strandville Juniors on Dublin’s North Strand he went on to play for Liffey Wanderers.

Shortly after his marriage, O’Connell was signed to Belfast Celtic, who were based on Donegall Road, not far from the Harland and Wolff shipyards where Titanic was then under construction. Another Belfast FC player at about this time was Oscar Traynor, the man who led the attack on the Custom House in Dublin during the War of Independence and who later became Ireland’s Minister of Defence.

In 1909 he crossed to England where he played for Sheffield Wednesday and then for Hull City under Ambrose Langley.

He earned his first cap for Ireland in 1912 but they were hammered 1-6 by England at Dalymount Park in Dublin. Although he only won five more caps for Ireland, he captained the Irish team that defied expectation to win the British Home Nations Championship in April 1914.

The following month he was signed for Manchester United for a hefty £1,000. Within six months, he had become the first Irishman to captain Man U. It was by no means a golden era for the club, which avoided relegation by a single goal. O’Connell was a defender but managed to score two goals during his 35 appearances for the club.

His wayward inclinations emerged in April 1915 when he was named as one of a number of players from Man United and Liverpool involved in a match fixing scandal. The players had met in a pub the day before they were due to meet on the pitch for a Good Friday showdown. A series of bets were laid at odds of 8-1 that United would win 2-0. O’Connell rather gave the game away, as it were, during the match when he stepped forward to take a penalty kick and shoved the ball ‘blatantly wide’ of the goal. As the truth slipped out, the scandal brought considerable shame to O’Connell but he escaped the life ban imposed upon seven of his fellow players and no criminal charges were brought.

He continued to play for Man United until 1919 and was also player-manager for Ashington AFC, a Third Division North club from Northumberland. However, he had become estranged from his wife Ellen and in 1922 he abandoned her and their four children in Manchester and sailed for Spain where he had probably already secured his appointment as manager of Racing de Santander football club on the north coast of Spain. He remained there for nearly seven years, doing much to boost the sport’s popularity in the area. In 1928 he led the club into La Liga, Spain’s new premier league, but perhaps his most memorable legacy was to teach his players the offside trap technique following the introduction of the offside rules to the game.

In 1929 ‘Don Patricio’ began a two-year stint managing Real Oviedo in northwest Spain. However, he enjoyed his first real taste of greatness during his three years managing the small Seville club of Real Betis (then known as Betis Balompié) between 1932 and 1935. O’Connell not only helped these minnows to qualify for the Primera División - the first Andalusian to do so - but then steered them to win the entire La Liga championship in April 1935. It was to be the clubs one and only title clincher to date.

In order to beat Real Madrid to the title, they had to play one last match against Racing Santander. According to one account, O’Connell met some of his former players for a drink beforehand.

‘You've got nothing to play for tomorrow,’ he reputedly said. ‘You won’t kill yourselves to beat us will you?’

To which one of the players replied, ‘I’m sorry, mister, but Madrid wants us to win. Our president, José María Cossio, is a Madrid fan himself and is offering us 1,000 pesetas per player if we win.’

Nonetheless, Real Betis went on to smash Racing Santander 5-0.

The champion of Spanish football then returned to Ireland for a short holiday, quite possibly with his new bride. While in Seville, the handsome, flamenco-loving football manager met and married another Irish woman, Ellen O’Callaghan, from Middleton, Co. Cork, who was working as a governess. Given that he was still wed to his first wife, this marriage made him a bigamist.

In the summer of 1935 he was appointed manager of Barcelona FC where he remained for the next five years. Several of his players joined the Republican forces when the Civil War broke out in July 1936 and the following month the club president Josep Sunyol was murdered by fascists.

When La Liga was suspended on account of the war, O’Connell was among those who established the alternative La Lliga Mediterrània (Mediterranean League), which Barça duly won. As O’Connell pondered what to do next, the club received an extraordinary invitation from Manuel Mas Soriano, a prosperous former Mexican basketball player. If Barça would go on tour in Mexico and the USA, Soriano would inject the considerable sum of $15,000 into the club coffers.

And so in 1937 the team set sail across the Atlantic where they enjoyed an eight week tour of North America. It was a major success, both for the team generally and for O’Connell specifically. However, when the tour ended in September 1937, twelve Barça players opted to quit the team and remain in exile rather than return to Franco’s Spain.

O’Connell must have had cause to reflect on the famous Invasions Tour of 1888 when 20 of 51 Irish athletes on a GAA-sponsored tour of the USA decided not to go home. O’Connell returned to Spain along with the club secretary Rossend Calvet, the doctor, the groundsman and just four players. Among the players he had lost were the striker Josep Escolà and the future Spain manager Domènec Balmanya, both of whom joined FC Sète in France.

Meanwhile, Calvet wired Soriano’s $15,000 and other monies made on the tour to a bank account in Paris lest Franco’s financiers laid claim to it. The war continued to ravage Spain; the Italian airforce bombed Barcelona, killing 3000 people and destroying, amongst many other buildings, the club’s offices. There was no let up for the club’s misery when, following Franco’s victory, the regime banned all exiled sportsmen from Spain for the next six years. That said, Enrique Piñeyro, the new Barça president, managed to get several players back from exile in 1941, including Balmanya and Escolà.

Meanwhile, O’Connell left Barcelona. By 1942 he was managing Sevilla FC, securing them second place in La Liga at the end of 1943 and third place the following year. He remained at Sevilla until 1945, memorably praising Seville itself as a city ‘where people live as if they were to die tonight’. And then, coming in a near complete circle, he returned to manage Racing de Santander once again from 1947 to 1949.

His latter years are a source of ambiguity. An unhappy reunion with one of his four children from his first marriage appears to have compounded the breakup of his second marriage. The 71-year-old was apparently penniless when he died of pneumonia on 27 February 1959. At the time of his death he was living with one of his younger brothers near St. Pancras station in London.

He was buried in an unmarked grave at St. Mary's Roman Catholic Cemetery on Kensal Green. However, in 2014, Martin O'Neill, Paul McGrath, Johan Cruyff, Franz Beckenbauer, Jamie Carragher and a number of other footballing greats united with GAA icons Paul Galvin and Brian Cody to raise funds to build a permanent memorial to mark his grave. His new portrait in Barca’s hallowed grounds will surely serve to further resurrect the memory of this once forgotten Irishman.

Patrick O’Connell’s life is the subject of ‘The Man Who Played Offside’, an RTE Documentary-in-One episode produced by Richard Fitzpatrick with Ronan Kelly. Sue O'Connell, the wife of his grandson Mike O'Connell, is presently writing a book on him.

With thanks to Richard Fitzpatrick and Ronan Kelly.

FURTHER STUDIES

TG4 Documentary by Tobar Productions.

Richard Fitzpatrick, ‘Patrick O’Connell: The Irishman who managed Barcelona and played for Man Utd'.

The Patrick O’Connell Fund seeks ‘to establish suitable memorials at his birthplace in Dublin and unmarked final resting place in London.’

O’Connell on 1901 Census.

O’Connell on 1911 Census.

Treston on 1901 census.

Burns, Jimmy, ‘Don Patricio O’Connell: An Irishman and the Politics of Spanish Football’, Irish Migration Studies in Latin America, Volume 6 - Number 1, March 2008.

 

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