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Dublin: 21 °C Tuesday 23 July, 2019

The forgotten story of the Irishman who helped save Barcelona from extinction

Patrick O’Connell was honoured in conjunction with last night’s Real Betis-Barcelona match.

Patrick O'Connell in his playing days.
Patrick O'Connell in his playing days.

Editor’s note: This article was originally published on 24 February, but we thought it would be fitting to re-publish after Patrick O’Connell was recognised and honoured by Barcelona last night.

SINCE WE’RE ALL going to die, it’s obvious — to quote Meursault in Albert Camus’ The Stranger — that when and how don’t matter. Once we’re dead though, it would be nice to have some echo of our existence ring through the ages even if it’s something as simple as a headstone.

As a man who captained Manchester United and managed Barcelona, Patrick O’Connell probably deserves more than just a marked grave. But that, at least, would be a beginning says John Collins of the Patrick O’Connell Fund.

Details of O’Connell the player remain sketchy at best. However, we do know he started his professional career with Belfast Celtic in 1908 before moving to England with Sheffield Wednesday.

While that move didn’t work out, a transfer to Hull City reinvigorated his career and, in 1914, he became the first Irishman from south of the border to sign for Manchester United.

Six months later, he was captain.

“One of the big issues for us all along is that we actually don’t know an awful lot about him as a player,” Collins told The42.

“His own grandson Mike O’Connell, who is on our committee, would have questions over whether or not he was battling defender or a more attack-minded footballer. We just don’t know.

“That said, he was captain of Manchester United – albeit during the first World War – so that does suggest that he had demonstrated leadership and he was bought for £1,000 in 1914 which was a lot of money at the time.

“But that’s part of what the POC Fund is about, trying to unearth what he was, what made him. I mean, we’re not going to war with the facts here, we’re just trying to get to the bottom of a true story. ”

POC2 O'Connell's unmarked grave. Source: POC Fund

There is much more known about O’Connell the manager. For three decades he managed a host of Spanish clubs including Racing Santander, Real Oviedo, Real Betis, Barcelona and Sevilla.

And while, in war ravaged Spain, none of these clubs were the behemoths they are today, there’s a compelling argument that he helped the Catalan giants — who take on United’s cross town rivals Manchester city in the Champions League tonight — in particular stay afloat.

With La Liga suspended due to the Spanish Civil War in 1936/37, O’Connell is credited with saving Barcelona by agreeing to take the club on a tour to Mexico, a trip that made them financially viable again.

“The teams he was involved in are two of the biggest teams in the world now. If you consider their history to be important, then you have to consider Patrick O’Connell’s involvement in their history at quite a formative stage to be important.

“Manchester United and Barcelona are pivotal in his story and he’s pivotal in theirs,” says Collins.

“We’re talking about an era when football was not the biggest show in town and an era when Europe was being ravaged by war so, understandably, football took a back seat, but it was people like O’Connell who allowed football to operate in a period when WWI, the Spanish Civil War and WWII were picking Europe apart.

“So we have to acknowledge people like him gave football a heart massage during that time.”

However, Collins — a 34-year old school librarian from Carndonagh in Donegal — believes one reason O’Connell’s legacy has fallen through the cracks in this part of the world is that he, like Camus’ Meursault, is your classic anti-hero.

“It’s extraordinary, especially as Irish people do love a flawed hero, that this guy has managed to slip through the net a bit.

“It’s difficult to pinpoint just why he’s lost in time but he did have his faults. He became a pariah to his own family and if a man is not revered by is own family, it’s hard for him to get a grip on the general population I suppose.

“Lets not beat around the bush here. He was a bit of a ‘Jack-the-Lad’, a rogue. He left his family and went to Spain to follow his dream so he was far from the perfect human being.

“He was flawed. His story contain several incidents of match-fixing scandals and there’s no doubt he was an avid gambler. That probably became part of his opportunistic approach to life but you also get the sense that he wasn’t looking for reverence either.

“He was just the right man, at the right time, in the right place but maybe that’s part of what being a genius is, taking the right opportunity at the right time?”

POC3 Johan Cruyff is just one of the names to get behind the campaign. Source: POC Fund

However, the flaws that plagued him throughout his life ultimately led to a lonely, poverty-stricken death in 1959 at his brother’s house in London and an unmarked grave in St Mary’s Cemetery to the west of the city.

That, however, is something Collins and the POC Fund are attempting to correct with famous footballers from all over Europe – Johan Cruyff, Franz Beckenbauer, Paolo Maldini and Andrea Pirlo, among others — signing jerseys for the Fund to sell at auction.

There are other tributes in the pipeline and O’Connell’s former clubs are getting behind the campaign with Barca president Josep Maria Bartomeu saying just this week:

“Barca is more than a club because, among other things, it is a club with a great history and memory. We like to remember all those people who made FC Barcelona what it is today. Everyone is important.
“Patrick O’Connell may not be as well known to younger generations, but he was a brave and loyal coach who gave himself to the club during a very difficult time here, an epoch of civil war. He left an indelible mark on every club he spent time with, greatly contributing to an increase in the popularity of football.”

Not everyone has forgotten who O’Connell is, of course. Last year TG4 produced the Paddy Don Patricio documentary and he is still revered in Seville where he won a La Liga title with Real Betis in 1934-35.

Indeed, Betis communications director Julio Jimenez Heras told the AFP recently “Betis fans know who O’Connell is. The new generations of fans do not remember players from that team, but they know who O’Connell was.

“He was a man who liked the streets, who grew fond of the city. He had a very nice phrase about Seville — the city ‘where people live as if they were to die tonight’”.

Hopefully, theirs won’t be an anonymous death.

And, with the work of Collins and the Patrick O’Connell Fund, Don Patricio’s won’t be for too much longer.

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About the author:

Steve O'Rourke

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