The Irish footballer who left his family to manage FC Barcelona

I was beguiled by my husband’s tales of the grandfather he had never met, so I wrote a book about him

Patrick O’Connell managed both FC Barcelona and Real Betis, and is still referred to there as ‘Don Patricio’ O’Connell.

Patrick O’Connell managed both FC Barcelona and Real Betis, and is still referred to there as ‘Don Patricio’ O’Connell.

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Some women are romanced with flowers or chocolates, but when I met Mike, the man that would become my husband, I was beguiled by tales of the grandfather he had never met, the missing footballer who had abandoned his family and absconded for a life of adventure in Spain.

Mike knew a little about his grandfather, but only because his uncle Dan had tracked his father down in Seville after over 30 years of estrangement. The meeting was not a success, as the football-obsessed father and the actor and writer son had little in common. They parted, leaving Dan with little more than a wealth of entertaining anecdotes.

These stories were told and re-told in the family, to such an extent that one was never quite sure what was true and what wasn’t.

Things might have remained that way; a family spinning stories and reminiscences into myth, had I not gone on to develop Multiple Sclerosis and had to give up work. Researching O’Connell’s life seemed as good a way as any of keeping busy. Somewhat naïvely, I thought that finding the information might take a year or two. As it is, it’s been two decades and new details continue to come to light.

When I began this work I have to confess I had little interest in football, but I knew enough to know that Patrick O’Connell had a unique professional life.

Starting out I had to ask myself, what did I know for certain about the man? Not a lot, really. I knew the O’Connell family had left Dublin and settled in Manchester when Patrick had played for Manchester United. I knew the O’Connell family had got a little money from Spain after Patrick O’Connell had abandoned them. It helped the family to get through some difficult times. But I didn’t know much else; the heights he’d scaled as a football manager with FC Barcelona, his close shave with the Franco regime, or the isolation of his final days.

My sleuthing skills developed, and the pieces of the jigsaw began to fit together.

I made a major decision. I was going to write a book about O’Connell, from the point of view of his family; of how they managed to survive in a land where they never felt at home, and where they were always struggling to get by with money arriving only sporadically.

My research caused other people to learn about Patrick O’Connell. His name appeared in newspaper articles, in magazines and fanzines and he was even mentioned in a television sports quiz. The documentary Paddy, Don Patricio was made for TG4.

Mike and I went to Ashington, in north-east England, where Patrick O’Connell had played for two seasons from 1920-1922, becoming player-manager for the 1921-1922 season. By this time his marriage had irrevocably broken down and he and Ellen, Mike’s grandmother, were never to meet again. Everything was pushing Patrick away from England and he decided to migrate again, this time to Spain.

When we were staying in Ashington Mike and I met Fergus Dowd and Alan McLean. They were fascinated by the story of Patrick and were sad to hear his grave was unmarked. Selling autographed football shirts would raise some money. Fergus and Alan gathered an impressive range of shirts to sell online from the great and the good in football: Franz Beckenbauer, Pelé and Demetrio Albertini to name but three. Not surprisingly, they raised most of the money needed. Fergus’s wife lost the use of her wardrobe for quite some time, but it was all for a worthy cause.

Maureen O’Sullivan, TD for Drumcondra, the area in Dublin where Patrick O’Connell had lived as a child, became interested in the story and in due course a blue plaque was put up on Patrick O’Connell’s family home.

Mike and I joined members of the Patrick O’Connell Memorial Fund and Maureen O’Sullivan to visit FC Barcelona for the match against Real Betis. These were both clubs Patrick O’Connell had managed and even now, he is referred to there with pride as ‘Don Patricio’ O’Connell, as he had taken Real Betis to win La Liga for the only time in their history to date.

The celebration continued closer to home. Patrick O’Connell’s first full-time professional club was Belfast Celtic. To commemorate this, a mural was unveiled just off the Falls Road in Belfast. The mural is the first of a planned series: Belfast, Dublin, Manchester, Santander, Seville and Barcelona, all cities where Patrick O’Connell had either played or managed.

Most fittingly of all given his stratospheric rise from local boy to international football manager, Belfast now hosts the Patrick O’Connell Cup for teenage boys, another important reminder of his footballing legacy.

Building on all of this momentum, an exhibition was put together by the Patrick O’Connell Memorial Fund. It first went on show in Stormont, Belfast, before moving to Manchester and in November 2017, it opened at the Pearse Street Library. After years of absence, Patrick O’Connell had finally come home.

But of course, the story doesn’t end there. The Danish documentary maker Michael Andersen, came across the story of Patrick O’Connell and began filming a documentary on his life, calling it Don Patricio. Andersen was particularly interested in O’Connell’s 1937 Tour of Mexico and the USA. This was the fund-raising tour that effectively saved FC Barcelona from bankruptcy and allowed it to survive the dark days of Francoism.

After two or three years of filming from Dublin to Mexico, Andersen and his crew also felt that Patrick O’Connell had taken over their lives. He has that effect on people.

Patrick O’Connell truly is a man worth getting to know.

Sue O’Connell is the author of ‘The Man Who Saved FC Barcelona, The Remarkable Life of Patrick O’Connell’. She will be speaking about his life at EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum in Dublin on May 15th at 5.30pm.

Tickets for the talk cost €5 and are available at eventbrite.com. The Patrick O’Connell exhibition is currently on display at EPIC and the documentary ‘Don Patricio’ will screen at The Sugar Club in Dublin on May 21st and 28th.

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