05: The Man Who Saved Barcelona

In July, 1936, The Civil War broke out in Spain. Understandably, things like football were suspended. The 1936/37 La Liga season was put on hold as tensions grew around the country. Aligning with the Republicans, FC Barcelona were a club under threat. Shortly after war broke out, a number of players enlisted to fight against the Nationalist uprising and club president, Josep Sunyol was murdered. On the verge on bankruptcy, it was the actions of the club's then manager that saved Barcelona from financial ruin. Irishman, Patrick O’Connell.

Patrick was born in Westmeath in 1887, before his family moved to Dublin where he grew up. It was here that he developed a real love for football from a young age. Football provided Patrick with an escape from what was a tough upbringing around the inner suburb of Drumcondra, a very poor area at the time. In amongst playing junior football, Patrick began working in a factory from the age of 14, which was quite common in those days. So the opportunity to play professionally was certainly a way out.

O’Connell started his playing career at Belfast Celtic as a centre forward. It was also during this time that he married his wife, Ellen, who gave birth to their first son just a few months later. He would eventually be converted to a centre half before transferring to Sheffield Wednesday in 1909, who were then in England’s First Division. He arrived with teammate, Peter Warren and the combined fee for both players was just 50 pounds.

While at Sheffield, O’Connell only made 18 appearances in three years but in 1912, as his time at The Owls was coming to a close, Patrick began his International career for Ireland. His next club was Hull City, where he spent two seasons and made 58 appearances. But it was his performances for his country in the 1914 British Home Championship that would help secure his next contract.

As captain, Patrick O’Connell led Ireland to win the tournament, which included defeating England for the first time ever, 3-0 at Ayresome Park in Middlesbrough. A 1-1 draw with Scotland in the final game secured the British Home Championship for Ireland, a match in which Patrick played the entire second half with a broken arm.

 Ireland's 1914 British Home Championship side, featuring Patrick O'Connell (back row, far right).

Ireland's 1914 British Home Championship side, featuring Patrick O'Connell (back row, far right).

This was enough to get the attention of Manchester United who paid £1,000 for his services - quite a lot of money in those days, which meant United had to pay Hull City in instalments. Patrick was appointed captain and scored on debut against Oldham Athletic on September 2nd, 1914. But his time at Man Utd wasn’t without controversy. On April 2nd, 1915 in a match against Liverpool, he was accused of being involved in a betting scandal. The game was allegedly fixed for a 2-0 result in Manchester United’s favour, who were fighting to avoid relegation.

The final result? 2-0. That was the score when Patrick had missed a penalty, something he was known to be good at. There was an FA investigation and seven players were allegedly involved. Three from United and four from Liverpool. But O’Connell was never charged. He only made two more appearances for The Red Devils before the First World War interrupted professional football in England.

During the war, Patrick actually remained a registered Manchester United player but in between working in a London factory, he completed guest appearances for non-league clubs, Clapton Orient, Rochdale and Chesterfield. When competitive football resumed in 1919, O’Connell was left to find a new club. He moved to part-timers, Dumbarton in Scotland, making 31 appearances before returning to England a year later to join non-league side, Ashington.

It was here that Patrick started his managerial journey, taking over as player-manager in his second season. This was an important period in O’Connell’s football career, but it also marked a change in his personal life. From 1919, upon leaving Dumbarton his family never saw him again, except for one son. For reasons unknown, one day Patrick just walked out on his family with no notice.

He remained at Ashington until 1922 as his playing days came to an end, before making yet another move to pursue his managerial career full time at Racing Santander in Spain. O’Connell would spend seven years as manager of Santander, winning five regional titles in the process. He then joined Real Oviedo in 1929 for two seasons before arriving at Real Betis and achieving promotion from the Second Division by winning the league in his first year at the club. Then in 1935, Patrick guided Betis to their first and only La Liga title to date.

His achievements at Real Betis were so highly regarded that it forced FC Barcelona to take notice and he was appointed their new manager for the 1935/36 season. A year later, the Civil War breaks out on July 18th, 1936. Although Barcelona itself isn’t on the front lines, it’s still subject to hardships, including many bombings and the war also provokes a social revolution within the city and La Liga is suspended. With no football and tensions building around the country, Patrick returns to Ireland. But in early 1937 he’s lured back to Barcelona when the club receives an invitation - or rather, a lifeline.

They’re offered the chance to play a series of games in the Americas, including matches in Mexico and New York. The idea is presented to Barcelona by a Catalan exile named Serrano Mas and O’Connell plays a crucial in not only convincing the players to go, but giving the tour legitimacy. The trip proved to be a success, raising the required funds that ultimately saved FC Barcelona from bankruptcy.

Patrick remained at Barca until 1940 before returning to London. Not long after, that same year he received a pardon to go back to Spain, joining Real Betis for a second stint for two seasons. He then switched to local rivals Sevilla for three years and finally finished his career where his Spanish journey started - back at Racing Santander from 1947-49.

In football terms, his achievements are beyond impressive, but his personal life was just as intriguing. During his time in Spain, Patrick actually re-married, without divorcing his first wife. Upon finding out he was a bigamist, his second wife left him. Alone and cut off from his family, Patrick returned to London in 1954 to live with his brother. By this time he was penniless and had to claim welfare benefits.

Patrick O’Connell died of pneumonia, destitute in 1959, aged 71 and he was buried in an unmarked grave in Saint Mary’s Cemetery in North-West London. For years, he remained largely forgotten in the football world, until 2014 when a couple of fans learned of his incredible story.

 Patrick O'Connell's final resting place prior to its 2016 restoration.

Patrick O'Connell's final resting place prior to its 2016 restoration.

They established the Patrick O’Connell Memorial Fund in an effort to restore his final resting place, in addition to arranging several initiatives that recognise the huge contribution he made to football. A fitting tribute for the man affectionately known as ‘Don Patricio’.