When we think of Irish football, the usual names pop up: Giles, Brady, the two Keanes (Roy and Robbie). They are the essence of our modern game and have given us treasured memories. One name that never appears is Patrick O’Connell, the man who saved FC Barcelona. His story is one of passion and enthusiasm for the game of football.
Patrick’s story begins on Mabel Street, Drumcondra in 1887. Born into a working class family, Patrick saw football as a release from the poverty suffered by his family in Dublin during the late 19th century. As a child, he played centre-half for Stranville Rovers and later, Liffey Wanderers.
The time spent with Wanderers helped O’Connell improve his game and in 1908, he earned his first professional contract with Belfast Celtic. He moved to Belfast with his wife, Ellen, and played one season with Celtic before transferring to Sheffield Wednesday with teammate Peter Warren for a combined fee of £50.
O’Connell constantly started for Wednesday in his first season. However, during the latter period of his time with the club he didn’t make many appearances and moved to Hull City. He made 58 appearances for Hull in two seasons there.
During this time, O’Connell made his debut for the Irish national team. He made only 6 appearances. Nonetheless, he was part of the squad that won the 1914 British Home Championship, which included victories against Wales and England. O’Connell captained the side that drew with Scotland with a broken arm.
O’Connell impressed during his time at Hull and caught the attention of Manchester United, who paid £1,000 for his services. United manager, Jack Robson made him captain after only six months, the first Irishman to captain the club.
Even though he was only with United for one season, O’Connell’s time there was turbulent. They had a poor season and one of the games that helped the club narrowly avoid relegation was a 2-0 win against Liverpool. It was said that members of both sides met in a pub the day before the game and agreed that United would win 2-0, a score that was an 8-1 bet.
United went 1-0 ahead in the game when they were rewarded a penalty. What made the situation suspicious was the fact that O’Connell took the penalty. His attempt went well wide of the goal. Later on in the game, O’Connell started the move that resulted in the second goal. A commission later investigated the match but found no evidence of match fixing.
O’Connell’s United career was cut short due to WWI and spent time at Dumbarton and Ashington, where he would become player-manager. This would also be one of the last times he would see his family as he drifted apart from them to further his football career.
In 1922, Patrick made the move to Spain, where he succeeded Fred Pentland as manager of Racing de Santander. In seven years at the club, O’Connell guided the side to 5 regional titles and fought for the club to be a founding member of La Liga.
O’Connell went on to manage Real Oviedo between 1929-31 before making the move to Real Betis. He guided Betis to the Segunda División title in 1932 and on the last day of the 1935 season, Betis needed to defeat Racing de Santander to win the title ahead of Real Madrid.
The night before the game, O’Connell visited the Racing players in their hotel and attempted to persuade them to allow Betis to win the match. However, the players told their former manager that their president was a Madrid fan and had offered 1,000 pesetas per player if they won. Betis went on to beat Racing 5-0 and claim the title, the club’s only La Liga title.
Patrick’s managing style and winning ways didn’t go unnoticed and was offered the manager’s job at FC Barcelona. In his first season at the club, O’Connell’s side won the Catalonia Championship and reached the Spanish Cup Final, where they lost 2-1 to Real Madrid.
Unfortunately, in the summer of 1936, war broke out in Spain. O’Connell was in Ireland at the time and received a letter from club president; Josep Sunyol saying that there was no pressure to return. Patrick received this letter a few days after Sunyol was assassinated by fascists. O’Connell decided to return to Barcelona as he had a contract with the club and felt it was his duty to be there.
In 1936, FC Barcelona found themselves financially unstable. O’Connell and the players agreed to a wage cut. Then in early 1937, Mexican businessman, Manuel Mas Soriano, offered the club $15,000 to play exhibition matches in Mexico and the USA. Barcelona agreed to the offer, as it would help save the club.
Sixteen players along with O’Connell, club secretary Rossend Calvet, team doctor Modest Amorós and groundkeeper-turned–physio Ángel Mur made the trip. Barcelona went on to win 4 of the 6 matches in Mexico. They then made their way to America and played (and won) 4 games in New York. Only, eight men returned from the trip: O’Connell, Calvaet, Amorós, Mur and four players.
On his return from Mexico, Patrick left the club. He returned to Spain during WWII and managed Sevilla before returning for a second spell with Racing de Santander. O’Connell then went to London where he lived in obscurity in run-down lodgings until his death on the 27th February 1959.
As Gerry Millar, former editor Daily Mirror in Northern Ireland, said in the TG4 documentary Paddy Don Patricio, “The Irish often make little of our greatest heroes but in Catalonia, he was revered as much as Pepe Guardiola.” He was correct in his statement regarding how the Irish see some of their heroes; after their initial success or fortunes they are soon forgotten. For a life that led from the Liffey to Camp Nou, it’s time to honour Don Patricio once again.