Patrick O’Connell is more famous in Spain than he is in the U.K. But, he was brought to England by Sheffield Wednesday.
This Irishman had a great affinity with Spanish football. He managed Real Betis, Real Oviedo, Sevilla, Racing Santander and Barcelona in a 27 year stint as a manager in Spain.
As with most managers, O’Connell had been involved in the game as a player, he began his career at Belfast Celtic, before Sheffield Wednesday brought the talented defender to England. He immediately impressed in the English game and had a distinguished career despite him not staying at one club for longer than four seasons.
He also had stints with Hull City, Leyton Orient, Rochdale and Chesterfield, as well as one season with Manchester United in the 1914/15 season which is the only known record of games he played, scoring two goals in 34 appearances. The First World War interrupted his and many others careers, during the Great War he appeared as a guest player for Rochdale and Chesterfield. After the war, he moved to Scotland to play for Dumbarton before taking up a player coach role at Ashington AFC.
Nationally, he represented Ireland on 5 occasions captaining them to British Home Championship success in 1914.
The Dubliner moved to Spain in 1922 when he took over as manager of Cantabrian club Racing Santander. His charisma was a hit with the people of Santander, and obviously on the players who won five regional titles in 6 seasons before moving to Real Oviedo, after a mediocre two seasons however he moved to Real Betis. It was in his time at Betis that he became known to Barcelona, in the season 1934/35 he guided them to their one and only league title, thanks in part to the goals of Spanish international Simón Lecue. This national success led him to the Catalan giants and he took over as manager in 1936.
War again unsettled his career, as due to the Spanish civil war, La Liga was suspended. Clubs in Republican areas however, competed in the Medditerranean league, which Barcelona won. O’Connell took his Barcelona side on a tour of Mexico and the USA in the summer of 1937, this reportedly saved the club from going under, such were the financial problems at the time Mentioned in Peter Goulding’s poem The Ballad of Patrick O`Connell). Many of Barcelona’s players chose to leave the club after the tour, and due to a lack of organisation thanks to the ongoing disputes, Barcelona struggled to get a team and a league set up for the approaching 1937/38 season, fortunately a Liga Catalana was set up allowing just Catalan based sides to take part. Despite a depleted squad, O’Connell led them to this title. O’Connell then went back to Santander to attempt to manage through the Second World War.
As mentioned earlier, poet Peter Goulding summed up the career of O’Connell in one of his poems?
The Ballad of Patrick O`Connell
He was born in old Ireland in March ’87,
Scarce knowing the troubles that fate held in store.
For ‘ere he did grace the smooth pitches of heaven,
He found lasting fame on a faraway shore.
Patrick O’Connell, accomplished defender,
United’s first captain from Erin’s green land,
His playing days over, he kept his agenda,
And his management skills made him much in demand.
He headed to Spain to coach Racing Santander,
As Ireland imploded in fierce Civil War,
And the Catalans took to the wayward Irelander,
As for seven long years he kept them to the fore.
And then he joined Betis where, just two yeas later,
The Championship fell to this gallant young man.
By now he’d no need of a Spanish translator,
Fluent in language and charm and élan.
Then Barca came calling and Patrick responded,
Though the once mighty giants were down on their knees.
As usual, his players became tightly bonded,
With the Catalan championship won by degrees.
When the Civil War broke, he was home on vacation,
But he hurried to Spain to be there with his side.
And they triumphed again to immense adulation,
Despite all the horrors washed upon the tide.
The Barcelona president, a left politician,
Was murdered by fascists and the future looked grim.
Then Franco decreed that next year’s competition
Could only be played by clubs loyal to him.
The city in turmoil, all honour diminished,
And murder and mayhem a most constant threat,
No income, no games, Barcelona were finished,
The clubs faced a bankrupting slide into debt.
Then Patrick O’Connell led them from the city,
In order to play on a Mexican tour.
The financial offer was not made from pity,
For the Catalan team were still held in great awe.
Three weeks, it transpired, was too short a duration,
And so it was stretched, as a players’ reward.
Returning by boat to a fractious new nation,
O’Connell had only four players on board.
Now Franco was always a Real supporter,
And Barca’s officials were quickly replaced.
The logic in that didn’t hold too much water,
With talented people just going to waste.
Patrick was ousted, his permit suspended,
Never to see Barcelona again.
Sixty six years since the fairy tale ended,
He still is a hero in that part of Spain.
In London, he passed on, both penniless and friendless,
A tired old man with no will to survive.
But in the Catalan region, his legend is endless,
As the hero who kept Barcelona alive.
(Peter Goulding 31st May 2004)