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Blogger In Residence @ Irish Executives Network Turtle Bunbury : DON PATRICIO O’CONNELL: THE DUBLINER WHO SAVED FC BARCELONA March 24, 2016

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FC Barca

 DON PATRICIO O’CONNELL: THE DUBLINER WHO SAVED FC BARCELONA  

 

In June 2015, Barca became the first European club in history to achieve the continental treble twice. With 11 straight La Liga win and a record run of 35 games unbeaten in all competitions, many are already predicting a repeat of last season’s treble.

In this article, Turtle Bunbury profiles a lesser known Irishman who played a pivotal role in keeping Barca alive during the Spanish Civil War.

At the height of the Spanish Civil War, FC Barcelona – or ‘Barça’, as the football team is known – found itself teetering on the brink of extinction as General Franco’s Fascist troops closed in on the Catalonian capital, determined to crush their Republican opponents. Several Barça’ players were serving in the Republican army and the club president had already been murdered by the Fascists.

Step forward Patrick O’Connell, Barça’s Dublin-born manager, or ‘Don Patricio’, as he was became known, who deftly escorted his team out of Spain on a grand tour of the USA and Mexico, thereby arguably saving both the players and the club from an otherwise swift demise.

Don Patricio was an exceptional individual. Not only was he the only Irishman to manage a major Spanish football team but he was also the first Irishman to serve as captain of Manchester United.

On 30 December 2015 O’Connell was inducted into Barcelona’s hall of fame when his portrait by Manchester-based artist Tony Denton was presented to the FC Barça Museum at the Camp Nou stadium.  High praise indeed from the world’s fourth richest football cub and yet, without O’Connell, FC Barça might not even exist.

Patrick O’Connell was born in Dublin in March 1887, the fifth of ten children. His father, also Patrick, was born in County Kilkenny in 1839. His mother Elizabeth hailed from County Meath and married O’Connell senior in 1875. The family initially lived in Westmeath, where Patrick’s three older sisters were born, but later moved to Dublin where the elder Patrick worked as a clerk at Boland’s Corn Mill in the Dublin Docklands.

The younger Patrick was probably born in Drumcondra, possibly on Mabel Street or in a house on Jones’s Terrace where the family were living at the time of the 1901 census. By then, the 14-year-old was working as a glass-fitter; three of his sisters were tailoresses.

In 1908 he married Ellen Treston, a carpenter’s daughter from nearby Bayview Avenue. She was pregnant on their wedding day and they would go on to have four children, the first of whom was born in Belfast.

At the time of his wedding, O’Connell was a foreman at Boland’s Mills, where his father worked, but football was rapidly becoming his raison d’être. Having started with the Strandville Juniors on Dublin’s North Strand he went on to play for Liffey Wanderers.

Shortly after his marriage, O’Connell was signed to Belfast Celtic but within a year he had crossed to England where he played for Sheffield Wednesday and then for Hull City.

He earned his first cap for Ireland in 1912 but they were hammered 1-6 by England at Dalymount Park in Dublin. Although he only won five more caps for Ireland, he captained the Irish team that won the British Home Nations Championship in April 1914.

The following month he was signed for Manchester United for a hefty £1,000. Six months later, he became the first Irishman to captain Man U. It was by no means a golden era for the club, which avoided relegation by a single goal. O’Connell was a defender but managed to score two goals during his 35 appearances for the club.

His wayward inclinations emerged in April 1915 when he was named as one of a number of players from Man United and Liverpool involved in a match fixing scandal. The players had met in a pub the day before a match between them laid a series of bets at odds of 8-1 that United would win 2-0. During the match, O’Connell rather gave the game away, as it were, when he stepped forward to take a penalty kick and shoved the ball ‘blatantly wide’ of the goal. As the truth slipped out, the scandal brought considerable shame to O’Connell but he escaped the life ban imposed upon seven fellow players and no criminal charges were brought.

He continued to play for Man United until 1919 and was also player-manager for Ashington AFC, a lower tier club from Northumberland. However, he was by now estranged from his wife Ellen and their four children. In 1922 he abandoned his family and sailed for the north coast of Spain where he had probably already secured his appointment as manager of the Racing de Santander football club.

Over the next seven years, he did much to boost the sport’s popularity in the area. In 1928 he led the club into La Liga, Spain’s new premier league, but perhaps his most memorable legacy was to teach his players the offside trap technique following the introduction of the offside rules to the game.

In 1929 ‘Don Patricio’ began a two-year stint managing Real Oviedo in northwest Spain. However, his first real taste of greatness came during his three years managing the small Seville club of Real Betis (then known as Betis Balompié) between 1932 and 1935. O’Connell not only helped these minnows to qualify for the Primera División – the first Andalusian to do so – but then steered them to win the entire La Liga championship in April 1935. It was to be their one and only title clincher to date.

The champion of Spanish football then returned to Ireland for a short holiday, quite possibly with his new bride Ellen O’Callaghan, from Middleton, Co. Cork. The handsome, flamenco-loving football manager had met her in Seville while she was working as a governess. Given that he was still wed to his first wife, this marriage made him a bigamist.

In the summer of 1935 he was appointed manager of Barcelona FC where he remained for the next five years. Several of his players joined the Republican forces when the Civil War broke out in July 1936 and the following month the club president Josep Sunyol was murdered by fascists.

When La Liga was suspended on account of the war, O’Connell was among those who established the alternative La Lliga Mediterrània (Mediterranean League), which Barça duly won. The Civil War was rapidly hotting up and the club was certainly in the firing line for Franco’s army. As O’Connell pondered his next steps, the club received an extraordinary invitation from Manuel Mas Soriano, a Mexican millionaire, who promised to inject the considerable sum of $15,000 into the coffers if Barça would go on tour in Mexico and the USA.

And so in 1937 O’Connell led his team across the Atlantic where they enjoyed a very successful eight-week tour of North America. However, when the time came to voyage home, twelve Barça players opted to remain in exile rather than return to Franco’s Spain. Only four players were with O’Connell when he returned to Barcelona. The situation must have reminded him of the famous Invasions Tour of 1888 when 20 out of 51 Irish athletes on a GAA-sponsored tour of the USA likewise decided not to go home.

Meanwhile, the club secretary wired Soriano’s $15,000 to a bank account in Paris lest Franco’s financiers laid claim to it. The war continued to ravage Spain; the Italian airforce bombed Barcelona, killing 3000 people and destroying, amongst many other buildings, the club’s offices.  There was no let up for the club’s misery when, following Franco’s victory, the regime banned all exiled sportsmen from Spain for the next six years.

All this may have prompted O’Connell’s departure from Barça and by 1942 he was managing Sevilla FC. He secured his new team second place in La Liga at the end of 1943 and third place the following year. He remained at Sevilla until 1945, memorably praising Seville itself as a city ‘where people live as if they were to die tonight’. And then, coming in a near complete circle, he returned to manage Racing de Santander once again from 1947 to 1949.

His latter years are a source of ambiguity. An unhappy reunion with one of his children from his first marriage appears to have compounded the breakup of his second marriage.  The 71-year-old was apparently penniless when he died of pneumonia on 27 February 1959. At the time of his death he was living with a younger brother near St. Pancras station in London.

He was buried in an unmarked grave at St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Cemetery on Kensal Green. However, in 2014, Martin O’Neill, Paul McGrath, Johan Cruyff, Franz Beckenbauer, Jamie Carragher and a number of other footballing greats who united with GAA icons Paul Galvin and Brian Cody to raise funds to build a permanent memorial to mark his grave. His new portrait in Barca’s hallowed grounds will surely serve to further resurrect the memory of this once forgotten Irishman.

Patrick O’Connell’s life is the subject of ‘The Man Who Played Offside’, an RTE Documentary-in-One episode produced by Richard Fitzpatrick with Ronan Kelly. For more on the Patrick O’Connell Memorial Fund, see http://www.pocfund.com

——————————————

Turtle Bunbury

  www.turtlebunbury.com

‘Easter Dawn – The 1916 Rising’ (Mercier / Rowman & Littlefield) – launched 15 October 2015.

‘The Glorious Madness – Tales of the Irish & the Great War’ (Gill & Macmillan) – short-listed for the Best Irish-published Book of the Year 2014.

‘Vanishing Ireland’ (Hachette) – short-listed for Best Irish Published Book of the Year 2013.

Turtle’s book are available from all good bookshops or from his aStore via Amazon.co.uk  or Amazon.com  Turtle’s historical blog is at www.facebook.com/Wistorical

 

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