IrelandNot many Irishmen have had the privilege of captaining Manchester United. There’s been a select few; Johnny Carey, Noel Cantwell, Roy Keane and, of course, Dublin native Patrick O’Connell, who donned the famous armband stretching over a brief, somewhat tumultuous couple of years for the Red Devils. Add to that the fact that he won a La Liga title with Real Betis in Spain – still their only one to this day – and had a relatively successful couple of years at Camp Nou, he had quite the CV in his day…
His tenure at Barça – and at Betis and Racing Santander – although short-lived and constantly beset by interruptions paved the way for a flurry of Irishmen to ply their trade abroad but it was his willingness to make the first move that’s seen him idolised by many in his homeland – even if there are only a handful aware of his existence – and indeed in Spain where he adopted the affectionate nickname ‘Don Patricio’, clearly making evident the love, respect and admiration his players held for him. This is the story of Patrick ‘Don Patricio’ O’Connell.

Born in Westmeath but bred in Drumcondra, Dublin, Paddy began work as early as fourteen to help provide for his family. He worked in Boland’s Mill in Ringsend, not far from where he resided, as a miller. Opportunities for football were rare enough, with working hours long and arduous, but O’Connell took full advantage of when such situations arose, joining Liffey Wanderers as an adolescent. Wanderers were a team known for their hardened and seasoned veterans. They were the stereotypical football club of yesteryear, where simulation was ill-advised and in one sense it was the perfect apprenticeship for him as it would give him a taste of what was to come in later life.

1908 was the year he was finally given his break. At twenty-one he had landed himself a professional contract up in the north with Belfast Celtic, a club who would in due time fold as the Troubles took their toll. At the time of his arrival Belfast was blossoming as an industrial and commercial centre and briefly overtook Dublin as Ireland’s largest city. Employment had risen by a staggering 100,000 in just twenty years when between 1891 and 19011 and Patrick had only just settled down, welcoming the birth of his first child, before shipping off to England to play in the First Division.

Paddy was a centre-back by trade who had originally departed Ireland for Hillsborough-based Sheffield Wednesday. In those days Irishmen who were plying their trade abroad were more or less automatically considered for the Irish national team. Playing your football in England demonstrated to the the squad selectors that you were fit to represent your country, even if game time was scarce for an individual and Paddy was one of them, even if he couldn’t secure a starting berth at club-level.

Although he may have struggled to nail down a starting place for the Owls – he mustered just twenty-one appearances over those three years in the League and Cup – his consistent displays for the national team saw him rewarded the captaincy of Ireland. His performances for Ireland were deemed so undeviating that Manchester United soon appealed for his signature. He signed immediately. Having made quite an impression in the Second Division with Hull City, United was a step up and O’Connell knew that his performances could not stray otherwise he would suffer a similar fate to what occurred at Sheffield Wednesday.

While on the pitch he was reaping the benefits, off the pitch his private life was descending into chaos. He had forced his wife, Ellen, and his children to chase him and his dream around the country as he was experiencing an extreme sense of euphoria, euphoria which soon saw his family superseded by his one and only true love, football. It was only a matter of time before he was handed an ultimatum by his wife.

It was quickly becoming evident that Paddy had lost his love for his wife. Strains had begun to show in their relationship and with a growing family times were only going to get tougher. He spent his life chasing the footballers dream, while his wife, without help, was forced to raise four children so retreated to Dublin to finally at least attempt to settle down. (The relationship had again soured since her discovery of his committing of adultery, with the finding of a hair pin that hadn’t belonged to her on their bed. Suffice to say, she remained and lived in England while he moved on to Spain.)

On the pitch, problems were surfacing too. Manchester United, a team desperately needing the two points to maintain their stay in England’s top-tier, entertained arch-rivals Liverpool who had nothing to lose having secured a place in mid-table. United ran out 2-0 victors to beat Chelsea to the drop in the 1914-15 season but the win wasn’t without its consequences. There seemed to be a growing suspicion that the match had been fixed in United’s favour as alleged by the match referee and a handful of attendees who had complained of Liverpool’s lack of commitment during the fixture.

The discovery of bets on a 2-0 scoreline was also deemed to be substantial evidence of a fix, as handbills had began to surface following the match suggesting that bets had been placed at the 2-0 scoreline at odds of 7-1. (In those days betting markets were scarce and the only ones in existence were the traditional win-draw-win, making the guilty smell of the parties involved even more palpable.)

Patrick O’Connell, United captain at the time, had also missed a penalty on the day when United led by a goal to nil. It was a well-known fact that as United’s centre-half O’Connell was not their usual taker. But he duly stepped up and fired it so blindingly wide that the miss itself had aroused a fair amount of suspicion.

Players from both sides were questioned as the Football Association instigated an inquiry into the game. The investigation concluded that seven of the players that day – three of United and four of Liverpool – were guilty and they were subsequently banned for life from the sport (though their bans were later lifted as a result of serving their country in World War I). Patrick, though, came through the incident unscathed and carried on playing football in the country until he figured it was time for a fresh challenge. However, this time in management. He had served as a player at Ashington in his first year at the club but at thirty-five and with his body tiring, he made the transition to the rank of player-manager in his second term, lending him valuable experience for such a role. It was then he set off to Spain in 1922, where he would impress in the role as head of Racing Santander in La Liga.

At Santander, it was evident from the early stages that his training methods were as revered as anyones in Spain. Showered with praise from his team and pioneering a modernistic approach to playing the game, Patrick soon adopted the nickname ‘Don Patricio’. As author and journalist Jimmy Burns recalled in El Pais, a Spanish daily in Madrid, in 2007: “O’Connell impressed the club’s owners by building on [Fred] Pentland’s methods, encouraging the native skills of dribbling with the ball, while training his defenders in the long up-field passing and crosses that he had learnt as a young player in Ireland and Britain. He also placed great emphasis on fitness, discipline and team work. This represented a cultural shift for many Spaniards, on and off the pitch.”

Indeed, it was his defensive nous that came to the fore too when a new off-side role was introduced during his fifth season at the helm. He would drill his defenders with certain roles to undertake, moving forward to nullify the threat of the oppositions forward and leave him offside when collecting a pass. He would also prove pivotal in overcoming sides such as Barcelona and Real Madrid in overturning their wish to limit the amount of clubs in Primera Liga, which under the tutelage of O’Connell, Racing were now allowed to play in. Though before entering Primera Liga, O’Connell led his team to victory in a parallel championship set up for the teams rejected into the top league. After seven years with Santander, and a brief two-year stint with Real Oviedo, he then turned his attention to Real Betis.

Betis were regarded by many as the second team in Seville, behind Sevilla. They were set up in 1909 as part of an ongoing dispute of a potential new signing who was refused entry into the team as he did not meet the “social standing” that was required for admission into the squad. Thus, Real Betis were conjured and it wasn’t long until Don Patricio was making an impact.

After qualifying Betis for Primera Liga – the first Andalusian club to do so – they preceded to win the championship in 1935, culminating with a 5-0 annihilation of Racing, his old club. It was a must-win game as any slip-up may have allowed their rivals, Real Madrid, to enter the fray and displace them as champions. The championship itself was Betis’ inaugural and to this day remains their only La Liga title, with no signs of Real Madrid or Barcelona relenting. The league title had put his name on the map and it was no surprise when Barcelona pleaded for his signature in the summer of 1935 after revisiting his homeland that he put pen to paper without a seconds thought.

It was unfortunate, though, that his time with the Catalans was riddled with disruptions as the Spanish Civil War loomed. O’Connell managed only one uninterrupted season, bringing Barca to the final of Copa del Rey, and landing them the Campionat de Catalunya (the Catalan Championship). It was then in 1936 that the outbreak of the Civil War led to the suspension of the league. O’Connell, forced to return to his native land for his own safety, soon returned, willing to see out his contractual obligations.

During that inaugural season Barcelona had become entangled in a series of crises, most notably the financial crisis as fans were forced to prioritise their income on essential goods rather than spending it for a visit to Camp Nou as the Civil War began to take its toll. Players, the board, the socios and O’Connell were soon left to ponder what would become of Barcelona as the then president, Josep Sunyol, was captured and murdered by pro-Franco forces, without trial, north of Madrid on the 6th of August 1936. And that was only the beginning.

The turmoil continued deep into the following year when Barcelona’s existence as an organisation was threatened with the lax payments from the club socios and the slump in Barca’s gate receipts from fans who had their arm forced by the pro-Franco forces. The future of the club had also been plagued by the thought of Francoiste soldiers invading the area, a thought which quickly gathered pace (only some time after returning from the US and Mexico did it come to fruition, in 1939.

It wasn’t until April 1937 that they were granted a brief, if lucky, respite via an invitation from a Mexican businessman Manuel Mas Soriano. The invitation involved Barcelona finding a temporary sanctuary in Mexico as they were to contest fixtures against a handful of local Mexican sides. As well as escaping the political unrest back home, the club was promised it would be paid a sum to the tune of $15,000( in cash) – which went a long way to repairing the financial damage the club had endured.

Though, incidentally, as soon as they arrived they were given a stark reminder of the ongoing troubles back home. Their first night in Mexico City, for example, they caught sight of a Franco flag draped over the entrance of El Casino Espanyol, a Spanish dining club. It was discovered that, like the team itself, there were Spaniards here taking refugee too and they quizzed the squad on the number of Francoiste ‘guillotine’ executions that had been made. It was perhaps ironic that presumably, they thought, in escaping Spain they would in turn escape any mentioning of Franco and his abhorrent regime that existed back home but that seemed not to be the case.

Barca would go on to compete in six matches in Mexico, winning four. While the news was reported to be worsening in Barcelona, the club ended up touring Mexico for a total of two months, exceeding a tour in normal circumstances by four or five weeks. After the conclusion of the tour, as Barca looked set to now tour America, a local newspaper, El Universal, remarked that “one of the reasons it [Barcelona] is held in such high esteem is that it played pretty well; but it is also because the players behaved like true gentlemen”, a trait most likely instilled by Patrick O’Connell.

The trip to the United States was deemed a less-profile one as the US were yet a country who played the beautiful game at a competitive standard. They competed against four makeshift teams from the US, of which one featured a couple of Irishmen, and at the end of September the initial two-month break had extended to four. Rosendo Calvet, the club secretary, had masterminded the trip but now had the uneasy task of convincing the team to return. Of the squad of sixteen, only four followed O’Connell, the team doctor and Angel Mur, the makeshift masseur, home. The others dispersed, as three exiled to France while the remaining nine remained in the US.

The restructuring process was, to say the least, initially made difficult for O’Connell. The newly-elected Barca president, Enrique Pineyro, was a man with very little experience when it came to sport. One of the precautions he took was to issue a ban on exiled sportsmen, who were faced with a six-year ban if and when they returned to Spain. The ban was subsequently reduced to just a handful of months for those who plied their trade at Barca left behind in the US and Mexico. From there, three returned. Then, with the help of the money saved from touring, they attracted a further two new forwards, one by the name of Cesar Rodriguez, who went on to become one of the most prolific goalscorers in their history, and Mariano Martin, a venerable centre-half. With his depleted squad, O’Connell triumphed in the Catalan Championship and the Mediterranean League, winning the latter having lost just one game. It was in 1940 though that he finally said goodbye and retreated to Seville, this time taking the reigns at Sevilla.

The Irishman spent three years at Sevilla and endured a memorable first year at the helm, beating Barcelona to second place but ultimately falling short of claiming his second La Liga title. Two further years were spent at Los Rojiblancos but none quite lived up to that inaugural season and so he moved back to Racing Santander as they languished between the third and second division. Enjoying scare success here the decision was taken in 1958, after 38 years in Spain, that he would come back to England and see out the rest of his life with his second wife, Ellen, whom he had met while in Spain.

He died a relatively forgotten figure in 1959, aged 71, a hero only among the ranks at Barcelona. In Ireland his contribution to the sport has received scant attention until recently as a recent documentary on TG4, an Irish-speaking TV station, shed some light on his illustrious life. It’s a shame he never got more local recognition until now and yet, for those of who recently learnt of O’Connell’s achievements, he will now primarily go down in history as one of the men who saved Barcelona from near extinction and that in itself is enough to sustain the legacy of Patrick O’Connell.

By Dylan O’Neill

This article originally appeared in In Bed with Maradona