The Irishman who saved Barcelona


When you look at the powerhouse that is Futbol Club Barcelona today, it is hard to believe they were once on the brink of collapse. One man saved them though, and it wasn’t a financial genius behind the scenes, but a retired footballer who hailed from Dublin, Ireland.

Patrick O’Connell was born in Dublin on March 8th, 1887. Growing up in the capital, he played for a number of local clubs, including Frankfort who later became founding members of the League of Ireland.

Patrick O'Connell

Patrick then moved up North to play with Belfast Celtic until 1909, when he was snapped by English side Sheffield Wednesday for the fee of £50. In his time with The Owls, he struggled to gain a regular place in the starting line-up and in 1912 joined Hull City. The centre-back had a lot more playing time with The Tigers, but it was his form for the Irish national team which attracted the attention of Manchester United who he signed for in 1914 for £1,000.

Despite earning the distinction of being the first player from the Republic of Ireland to play for Man United and captain the team, he was embroiled in the infamous 1915 British Football betting scandal.

On April 2nd, 1915 a relegation-threatened United recorded a 2-0 victory over mid-table Liverpool, but it subsequently emerged that the match was fixed by a group of players from both sides. Players argued their concern wasn’t their position in the table but that they would be unemployed due to the Great War as their would be no league the following season, so they set up a betting pool where they backed the Red Devils to win 2-0. O’Connell played a significant role in this as he sent a penalty well wide of goal to ensure the arranged scoreline would stay as it was. Three United players and four Liverpool players were handed life time suspensions by the FA, but O’Connell escaped punishment.

The defender went on to have short stints with Dumbarton and Ashington (player/manager) before hanging up his boots in 1922. Just months later he made the move to Spain where he was unveiled as the new manager of Racing Santander. He enjoyed a highly successful spell with the club, winning five regional titles and in 1928 they became one of the founding members of La Liga. O’Connell then went on to have a short spell with Real Oviedo before taking over at Real Betis in 1931 and guided them to their first and only La Liga title in 1935.

Following a brief holiday back home in Ireland, O’Connell was appointed as the manager of Barcelona during the summer of 1935.

Catalonia had become a centre of resistance to right-wing tendencies during the time of the Spanish Civil War, which ultimately resulted in Barca playing in Catalan competitions only, which they were successful in. Despite on-field successes however, the club’s very existance was under serious threat due to the pressures of the conflict.

With the club in a highly worrying state and desperate for ideas on how to save their beloved club, an unexpected invitation came their way from Mexican basketball star  Manuel Mas Soriano to play in a tour of Canada and the United States which would guarantee them a grand total of $15,000 which was a huge amount of money at the time.

The players saw this as a glorious opportunity to escape the troubles of Spain, as they felt increasingly unsafe. O’Connell also brought the groundsman along on the tour who also feared for his life in Catalonia.

The tour was initially meant to last two weeks, but instead ending up lasting two months as the players were in no rush to return to their war-torn country. After a packed schedule of games in New York, a meeting was held where seven of the players revealed that they quit the club and had chosen to stay in America. In an effort to avoid their money falling into the hands of the fascists to fund their war, the club secretary wired the money to an account in France where it would remain safe. The tour proved to be O’Connell’s last act as manager as he left the club upon returning from USA.

Patrick finished up his run as a manager with Sevilla where he guided them to second place in La Liga, and finally he went back to where it all began as he managed Racing Santander for two more years.

Post-management saw O’Connell fall into obscurity. The Irishman who saved FC Barcelona plunged into poverty, living in run down lodges with hardly a penny to his name. On 27 February 1959, Patrick O’Connell passed away at the age of 71 and despite his huge impact on what is now one of football’s biggest powerhouses, he lies in a pauper’s grave in north-west London. Efforts are currently being made by his grandson Mick and his wife Sue to give O’Connell a proper memorial placed at his grave, and they will be contacting both Barcelona and Man United to see if they are prepared to contribute.

Despite being revered in Barcelona for what he did over half a century ago, all that remains in his memory is a bust in the club museum and recognition on the club website. Surely a man who saved the club that continues to amaze us all today deserves more than that in acknowledgment and appreciation for what he did?

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