Patrick O’Connell: The man who saved Barcelona and triumphed with Real Betis

How did an Irishman captain Manchester United, win La Liga with Real Betis and save FC Barcelona from extinction end up dying alone and homeless on a street in London? And how, subsequently was he forgotten for a generation? This is the story of Patrick “Don Patricio” O’Connell.

Patrick O’Connell was born on Mabel Street in Dublin, March 1887, in the literal shadow of Croke Park, the home of Ireland’s three national sports: Gaelic Football, Hurling and Camogie. This year, 82,000 people packed into the gargantuan and imposing stadium for the All-Ireland Senior Football Championship Final between Dublin and Kerry for what is arguably the biggest sporting event in Ireland. However, the boy from North Dublin chose a different path, and nearly 2000km away in Spain, FC Barcelona and the green-and-white half of Seville are eternally grateful.

At the age of 14, O’Connell started working in a local mill while playing for some local amateur teams as a no-nonsense central defender before signing a professional contract for Belfast Celtic in 1908. After a few good seasons with them he was purchased by Sheffield Wednesday for a sum of fifty pounds and he, along with his wife and children, upped sticks and left for England.

Things didn’t really work out for Patrick at Sheffield Wednesday, nor at Hull City where he spent two seasons but only managed 21 first team appearances. However, his playing career highlight came in 1914 when he captained one of the last All-Ireland national teams in the British Home Championships. Ireland won the competition after a late equaliser against Scotland in their final game with O’Connell playing the full game with a broken arm.

After this triumph, he was signed by Manchester United for 1000 pounds (a world record fee at that time) and eventually went on to captain the team. It was as captain when he became entangled in one of the most controversial betting scandals to ever hit English football. A match against Liverpool was adjudged by the FA to have been fixed by members of both teams with seven players receiving lifetime bans from the sport after an investigation. Patrick, luckily for him, was not one of the players banned.

Betting was different back in those days, it would be very unusual for punters to bet on the final score of a match yet, for this match, an abnormally high volume of bets had been placed on Manchester United winning 2-0. What is intriguing is that at 1-0 the referee gave a penalty to Manchester United and O’Connell, not their usual penalty taker, demanded to take the penalty and put the ball so far wide that the referee and his assistant spoke to each other for a number or minutes about possibly retaking the penalty. The most common theory is that O’Connell deliberately missed the penalty to make it look like he wasn’t a part of the conspiracy. A little part of me sympathises with the players because with the First World War and mandatory conscription looming, footballers were worried about their livelihoods if the authorities took the decision to postpone matches until after the war.

As it turned out the FA decided to abandon the football league until the conclusion of the hostilities and Patrick got a job working in a munitions factory and this is where we add another layer of intrigue to his story. Within his family still alive today, they believe at this time he could have been siphoning off weapons and ammunition and sending them back to Ireland to help them prepare for the Irish War of Independence. Reportedly, he had a car (which was unusual for the time) and a lot of free time now that he didn’t play football.

Once the war had finished, he struggled to find a team in England and played for a season for Dumbarton in Scotland, before returning to England for a season to play with Ashingdon. Then, he suddenly disappeared. He abandoned his wife and four children, in desperate poverty, without a word. Months later, envelopes filled with Spanish Pesetas started arriving at their home with a post mark from Santander, in the north of Spain, giving them the first clue to his whereabouts.

He succeeded Fred Pentland as coach of Racing de Santander whom he guided to five regional titles. After this success, Racing were invited to be founding members of La Liga, Spain’s first national football league. However, for Patrick, it was time to move on and he spent a quiet two years at Real Oviedo.

In 1931, in a career defining move, he took charge of Real Betis. A club with a working-class background, whose fans felt disaffected by the pretentiousness of the other team in the city, Sevilla. Betis were in the Second Division at the time and O’Connell revolutionised coaching at the club. He prohibited the players from smoking (which was commonplace amongst footballers in the 1930s), he controlled what they ate, how long they slept. Despite these strict rules, the players loved him and affectionately called him “Don Patricio”.

By 1935, Betis were in the First Division and were on the brink of history. They went into the final game of the season against his old club, Racing de Santander, a point ahead of Real Madrid, needing only to avoid defeat to win La Liga. To put this achievement in today's terms, it would have been around about 10 on the Leicester Scale. No, in fact, it would have completely broken the Leicester Scale.

The night before the match, Don Patricio visited the players and staff of his old club and they had informed him that the Racing chairman was extremely pro-Madrid and had offered the players a substantial bonus if they managed to beat Real Betis and help Madrid win the league. Betis absolutely annihilated them 5-0. And it remains to this day the only time Real Betis have lifted the famous Campeonato Nacional de Liga de Primera División trophy.

Tactically, he was light-years ahead of his contemporaries, some claim he was the pioneer of the offside trap and he was at the helm of a championship winning side that conceded only 19 goals in 22 games which would even be impressive nowadays.

After this momentous achievement it was only a matter of time before one of the big boys came calling and the following season, he took charge of FC Barcelona after being personally headhunted by Josep Sunyol, then president of Barça. He inherited a good team but a club that was struggling financially. Attendances had dropped because it was a time of political unrest in both Spain and Catalonia. However, in his first season Barça reached the final of the Copa del Presidente de la Republica (now known as the Copa del Rey) and won the Campionat de Catalunya.

During the 1936 preseason, the Spanish Civil War broke out and O’Connell returned to Ireland on holiday with his new wife, who, according to his family, looked a lot like his other wife (O’Connell married twice without divorcing or annulling his first marriage) and even had the same first name as her, Ellen. It was here that he received a message from the club that the president, Sunyol, had been kidnapped and murdered by Francoist troops because of his membership of a left wing Catalan political party. The message informed that if he felt it too dangerous to return, he didn’t have to. O’Connell insisted that he had a contract and that it would be honoured.

The national league in Spain was suspended and Barça played in a regional Mediterranean league which really cemented FC Barcelona as an emblematic Catalan power against the Fascists and placed the club, and by association, O’Connell, in Franco’s sights. But by now Barça were struggling; part of their stadium had been destroyed in the bombing of Barcelona and there was an overhanging sense that the club could go under. Yet, a lifeline presented itself.

A Mexican businessman offered the Catalan team an all-expenses paid, friendly tour of Mexico, where a socialist government hostile to Franco was in place. 16 players and four members of staff sailed to Mexico and legend has it, during the Atlantic crossing, O’Connell personally trained the club’s groundsman to be a physiotherapist.

The tour of Mexico was a success, Barça won four games out of six and left with a hefty sum of money. The team then travelled north to New York where they played a further three matches against local teams representing the immigrant communities in the city.

When Don Patricio returned to Spain, he only had four players, with the rest of the squad deciding to stay in Mexico or in France, (where the ship docked) out of fear of reprisals from Franco’s forces. During a stopover in Paris, O’Connell along with the club secretary set up a secret bank account and in it, deposited the money made from the trip. This provided a nest egg for the club’s future, which ultimately saved them from bankruptcy and laid the foundations for the club FC Barcelona are today.

He retired from management in 1958 after further spells at Real Betis, Sevilla and Racing de Santander and returned to England alone. He struggled to find a job, struggled with a life without football, and was completely estranged from his family that he abandoned. Turning to alcoholism and begging, he died of pneumonia in a street in St Pancras, North London and was buried in an anonymous pauper's grave. In an Irish TV documentary about O’Connell’s life, his grandson said “as a man (he was) a bit of a lovable rogue, but as a father (he was) a complete non-starter."

Image via The Guardian