Patrick 'Don Patricio' O'Connell: The Man Who Saved Barcelona

A former Manchester United captain, a coach who led Real Betis to their only La Liga title and “the man who saved Barça.”

Not a bad resume that.

There’s plenty more to the story of Patrick “Don Patricio” O’Connell, who was born in County Westmeath in March 1887 and spent his early childhood in Dublin, living at 16 Mabel Street—a stone’s throw from where we find Croke Park today. 

He quickly understood that football was an enjoyable pastime, a way to make friends in the locale and, soon enough, that he was actually quite good at it.

As was normal at the time, any youngster showing prowess with the ball was scouted, and from around the age of 13, O’Connell played in various local youth teams to hone his skills.

Founder members of the League of Ireland, Frankfort, were his first team, followed by Stranville Rovers and Liffey Wanderers over a five-year period.

By his 18th birthday, it was clear that this well-built young man had something special, and the consistency that had marked his youth career saw Belfast Celtic decide that he was worthy of his first professional contract.

Predominantly a wing-half and center-half, he was as strong as an ox and took no prisoners on the pitch. His tenacity, drive, and excellence in both roles belied his age, and it didn’t take long for his name to become known beyond Irish shores.

In 1909, just four years after turning professional, Sheffield Wednesday asked to bring the 22-year-old to England. The decision was left to the player, and once he affirmed his intention to leave, O’Connell was sold along with teammate Peter Warren. 

Three under-par seasons followed, so when Hull City offered him a route out of his malaise, he didn’t think twice. 

Diving in feet first off of the pitch as well as on it seemed to be a habit, and the move to Humberside quickly proved to be another he could’ve done without. Though it was largely enjoyable, O’Connell couldn’t hold down a regular place in the starting XI.

He did at least have the pride of turning out for the Irish national team, something which kept his spirits up when he felt let down by his club. In the early part of 1914, he even played with a broken arm when captaining Ireland to win the British Home Championship, their first-ever victory in the tournament.

Manchester United scouts had seen him in action there and were tempted enough to shell out a transfer fee of £1,000 in May 1914, just two months before the First World War broke out.

It was at United that O’Connell began to make his name, going on to captain the side throughout the following season.

However, a betting scandal developed at the end of that campaign as United traveled to Liverpool needing to win to stay up. On April 2, 2015, amid unusual betting patterns on a 2-0 result, the match had already been flagged as potentially fixed.

With the on-pitch action between two of England’s finest teams so far below its usual level, and O’Connell firing a penalty high and wide at 2-0 to the Red Devils, the stench of foul play in the air was real. 

Eventually an FA investigation concluded that seven players (three from United, four from Liverpool) had indeed done their best to fix the game. Being captain, O’Connell would surely have known, but he managed to persuade the authorities that he played no part. 

Five years later at the end of WW1, and after having turned out for Clapton Orient, Rochdale and Chesterfield during wartime, O’Connell found himself without a club despite having not de-registered from United before the war began.

Dumbarton in the Scottish League and Ashington from the north of England, both working-class areas, were to prove the bookend of an eventful playing career, the latter becoming his first stop on a managerial journey that was even more interesting than his playing days.

“He started his managerial career as a player/manager at Ashington, and in the 1920s it was a way of escaping the pits. Unfortunately, around the same time his marriage finally collapsed,” Sue O’Connell, wife of Patrick’s grandson Mike, recalled in an interview.

“He was a man who was very able, but the marriage was very difficult. It suited him to leave at that point.”

Walking out on his wife Ellen and four children saw them left with nothing, whilst Patrick began carousing around Europe before setting up a new life in Spain.

Taking over Racing Santander, O’Connell had an almost instant impact, winning five regional titles. During his tenure the club also became one of the founders of what we know today as La Liga.

Real Oviedo were next on the list and after two unremarkable seasons, he moved on again, this time to Betis Balompie (now Real Betis).

Taking them up from the Segunda Division (2nd) to La Primera (1st) was an achievement in itself, but their top-flight title win three years later is still talked about today. 

Betis had to beat O’Connell’s former club, Racing, on the final day, to dent Real Madrid’s hopes, and a 5-0 win saw the title head to the green and white half of Andalusia for the first, and to date only, time.

FC Barcelona offered him their first team coach’s position, but within a year, football was suspended because of the Spanish Civil war. 

Unable to play regularly, the club’s financial position quickly became perilous. A Catalan businessman, Manuel Mas Serrano, through an intermediary believed to be one of the players, offered the club $15,000 if they would play some exhibition games in Mexico and the USA. 

It took all of O’Connell’s powers of persuasion, but eventually, he got everyone to agree. 

Club America (twice), Atlante, Real España, Necaxa (twice), Cidosa de Orizaba and a Mexican XI (twice) would be the opponents in Mexico, before games against Brooklyn Hispano, a combined Brooklyn Hispano and St. Mary’s Celtic team, an ASL (American Soccer League) select XI and “Jewish All-Stars,” a combined XI of players from Hatikvoh and Hakok clubs from the local Hebrew community.

Those matches, played over a three-month period, saved FC Barcelona from bankruptcy. O’Connell, credited as the man who made it possible, thereby earned the nickname of “the man who saved Barça.”

Only four players made the return journey to Catalonia, whilst O’Connell returned to Ireland. 

He was persuaded to make a move back to Betis during the Second World War, and after his stint there ended, he took charge of their rivals, Sevilla, for three seasons.

At 60 years of age, he had one last hurrah left in him, and it came, fittingly, back at Racing.

Once his work was done, O'Connell drifted off into relative obscurity. Strange when you consider how important he'd been to Spanish football at the time.

Some 20 years after he'd taken Betis to the title, the club became aware that their former "Mister" had fallen upon hard times and was in financial difficulties.

They organized a benefit match against players from other Spanish teams, and O'Connell was moved to tears as he walked toward the center circle, trademark hat on his head, to receive the adulation of a public that still adored him.

It's not known how much this game raised, but, sadly, when he died in London in 1959, just four years after that match, he was penniless and destitute.

Jason Pettigrove is an experienced freelance football journalist, editor, and published author who specializes in La Liga and the major European leagues. Find him on Twitter @jasonpettigrove.

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