Patrick O’Connell: The Irishman who saved Barcelona

Barcelona, it’s fair to say, would have been a very different football club without Patrick O’Connell. His is a story of persistence, innovation and, in the end, tragedy. For a long time the story of Don Patricio – as he was known in Catalonia – went untold, but he is now recognised as one of the most important figures in Barcelona’s history.

O’Connell was born in Dublin in March 1887, close to where Croke Park stands today. He worked at a bakery as a teenager and played football in his spare time, both casually with his friends and for a host of local teams, including Stanville Rovers, Liffey Wanderers and Frankfort. He had talent, earning a professional deal with Belfast Celtic in 1909.

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A towering centre-back, it did not take long until O’Connell was spotted by bigger clubs in England. Sheffield Wednesday won the race for his services and took him across the Irish Sea to Yorkshire, but the he struggled to make a mark and departed three years later to join Hull. He was more impressive on Humberside, playing 58 times for the club in the Second Division in a two-year stay, during which time he also earned international recognition. O’Connell may have only played six times for his country during his career, but he led Ireland to victory at the 1914 British Home Championship as captain of the team.

His displays at that tournament persuaded Manchester United to sign him from Hull, only for a betting scandal and the outbreak of the First World War to in effect end O’Connell’s playing career at the top level. He later played for Scottish side Dumbarton and for a string of English clubs in the lower leagues, before hanging up his boots at Ashington in 1922.

It was with Ashington that he began on his journey as a coach. O’Connell was alone in the northeast of England, far removed from his wife and four children. He became increasingly distant and, after a season in charge of the club, he disappeared.

His family did not know where he was until they began to receive letters from Santander, a city in northern Spain. O’Connell had embarked on a new adventure in a new country, one which would shape the rest of his life.

In 1922, he replaced Englishman Fred Pentland at Racing Santander. How he got the job remains a mystery. He had little in the way of a reputation as a coach back home, let alone in Spain, but Racing clearly saw something in the ambitious Irishman.

O’Connell spent seven years at the club, guiding Racing to five regional titles and into La Liga as one the division’s founding members in 1928. Real Oviedo was his next stop, before O’Connell joined Real Betis in 1931. It was in Seville that his reputation soared, leading the club to promotion from the second tier in his second year and then winning the La Liga crown in 1935. Betis finished a point ahead of the mighty Real Madrid that campaign – a phenomenal achievement which no one had considered possible at the start of the season. O’Connell’s men had a superb defensive record, conceding just 19 goals – comfortably the best record in the division – to scoop the trophy.

“He changed everything at the club,” Julio Jimenez Heras, Betis’ PR officer, said in an interview with the Guardian. “His professionalism was amazing, his fitness and tactical ideas ahead of his time. And he was really warm and charismatic: his players loved him.”

O’Connell’s success down south alerted the attention of Barcelona, who made him their manager shortly before the beginning of the Spanish Civil War. It was unfortunate timing, particularly given the club’s location in Catalonia. A number of foreign players were sent home as the conflict escalated, but O’Connell, despite being told he was free to return to Ireland, chose to stay put.

Barcelona could not afford to pay him, but he was determined to help the club regain some stability. In August 1936, president Josep Sunyol was killed by pro-Franco forces. For many, that was enough to prompt an exit. But not O’Connell.

Barcelona’s situation was increasingly precarious: they had run out of money and O’Connell was no longer receiving a salary. However, a crucial opportunity to raise some funds came about in 1937, when a Catalan businessman by the name of Manuel Mas Soriano arranged for the Blaugrana to tour Mexico, where he was living.

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O’Connell and his players made the long journey to North American by ship, playing six exhibition matches and another four in New York. The games generated enough money to save the club; it is not an exaggeration to say that there would have been no European Cups, no La Masia and no Camp Nou had it not been for this fundraising effort in the mid-1930s. Only four players returned to Barcelona with O’Connell – many stayed in Mexico to seek asylum from the war – but he had played a central role in securing the future of the club.

The remainder of O’Connell’s career was spent in Spain, though further accolades evaded him. He did not return to his family: he had met another woman in Seville and married her. She was, like his first wife, called Ellen and from Ireland.

His personal life was complex and revealed a darker side. He was respected in Spain, but he had sacrificed much to follow that path. Eventually O’Connell moved to London, where he lived in an attic room in his brother’s house. He had no job and lived off national assistance. In 1959 he died, destitute and largely forgotten. O’Connell’s legacy, though, lives on in Catalonia as the man who saved Barcelona.

Patrick O’Connell: The Irishman who saved Barcelona
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