Patrick O’Connell – Barça’s Patron Saint B2+

We do not associate Ireland with strong footballers let alone football personalites.  Yet, Ireland has produced a number of interesting characters, even though the sport was considered to be a “garrison game” during the British occupation.

One such interesting character from the Irish football scene is Patrick O’Connell.  He was born in 1887 in Westmeath and later moved to Dublin where he took up football as an amateur.  At the age of eighteen he turned professional when he was contracted by the now extinct Belfast Celtic.  After four seasons there, he took a leap and crossed the Irish Sea to England where he played as a commanding central defender.

Patrick excelled in football both sides of the Irish Sea.  Unfortunately, his name did not only resound for his talent, but also for his embroilment in a football betting scandal involving Manchester United, which he played for, and Liverpool.

Yet, despite this shady side to him, he did not go down in football history for this reason.  Surprisingly, it was for his work as a coach in Spain. Patrick O’Connell was a mysterious person and a mystery it remains as to why he abandoned his wife and four children in England and landed in Santander to substitue Fred Pentland in Racing de Santander in 1922.

While in Santander, he not only got invovled in football, but also with romance, as it was there he met an Irish woman by the name of Ellen, who worked as a governess to Alfonso X111’s children.   Patrick remained there for seven years before being contracted by Oviedo.  Two years later he moved southwards and became coach of Betis.  It was in this hot, lively city of Sevilla where he was highly revered and given the name “Don Patricio”.

His very much advanced fitness and tactical ideas, were responsible for Betis winning the Liga in the face of Real Madrid – 5 – 0.  His extraordinary success at Betis attracted the interest of FC Barcelona.  Hence, he left Sevilla and moved to manage the team just when Spain was on the brink of Civil War.  Indeed, positioning himself on the wrong side of Franco did not seem to deter Patrick O’Connell in the least from taking on such a task.

As the Civil War raged on, Barcelona struggled to keep afloat.  The club was forced to ask some of their foreign players not to return from holiday.  The Liga was suspended, but Barcelona, with O’Connell behind them, decided to play on in a regional division, thus consolidating their resistance to the central regime.

Just as the team lurched on the brink of bankruptcy, a lifeline came in 1937, when a Catalan businessman, who had moved to Mexico, invited the club to tour his adopted country.

O’Connell accepted the offer instantly and embarked with his players and staff for Mexico where they played six games, before going on to New York for four exhibition matches.  The tour saved the team, but at a cost – only four players returned to Spain; the rest prefered to seek asylum in Mexico.

Patrick went back to Ireland but returned to Spain for a brief stage during the second world war and took charge of Sevilla.

After rescuing Barcelona from its financial situation during the Civil War, Patrick died penniless of pneumonia in London in 1959.