Patrick O’Connell: The Irishman who saved Barcelona

Updated: 22/04/2024

Barcelona would have been a very different football club without Patrick O’Connell. His is a story of persistence, innovation and, by 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.

Born in 1887 in Dublin, O’Connell spent his teenage years working at a bakery. He played football whenever he could for several local clubs –Frankfort, Stranville Rovers and Liffey Wanderers –  and impressed enough to earn a professional contract with Belfast Celtic in 1909.

An imposing central defender, he was soon noticed by clubs in England. Sheffield Wednesday secured his signature, but he struggled to establish himself in Yorkshire and left after three years to join Hull City.

With Hull, O’Connell played more often and performed more consistently. But it was his displays at international level that truly caught the eye. For Ireland he excelled: he was part of the team that won the British Home Championship in 1914 – the first and last in the country’s history.

A move to Manchester United followed, but a betting scandal and the disruption of the First World War effectively ended O’Connell’s playing career at the top level. He later played in Scotland and for a string of English clubs in the lower leagues, before retiring at Ashington.

It was with Ashington that he began on his journey as a coach. In the northeast of England, O’Connell was alone, away from his wife and four children. He became increasingly distant. Then, 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 that 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.

O’Connell stayed for seven years, before moving to Real Oviedo. Then it was on to Real Betis, where, after three successful years, his reputation soared. He guided the club to promotion from the second division in 1932; by 1935 they had won La Liga. It was an extraordinary achievement. The team that won the title – and finished a point ahead of the mighty Real Madrid – was built on an almost impermeable defence: they conceded just 19 goals, far fewer than any other team.

“He changed everything at the club,” Julio Jimenez Heras, Real Betis’ public relations officer, said in a 2014 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 achievement alerted the attention of Barcelona, and he was appointed by the Catalans shortly before the beginning of the Spanish Civil War. It was unfortunate timing. The situation was so tumultuous that Barcelona were struggling to continue. A number of foreign players were sent home as the conflict escalated, but O’Connell, despite being told he could return to Ireland, chose to stay.

Barcelona could not afford to pay him, but he was determined to help the club regain some stability. In August 1936, the 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. They were, crucially, offered a chance to raise funds in 1937 when a Catalan businessman who had moved to Mexico, Manuel Mas Soriano, asked the club to tour North America.

Barcelona agreed, and O’Connell and his players sailed to Mexico, where they played six exhibition matches. Four more were played in New York, and the funds raised were enough to save the club. 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 at Real Betis and Barcelona.

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