Forgotten no more: Patrick O’Connell, the Dubliner who managed Barca

Patrick O’Connell is to be given a memorial, five decades after the end of his turbulent life


London, Wednesday

Over in the corner by the railway line, he lies, unmarked. From beyond the green metal fence you can hear the rattle of the Bakerloo line and the hum of the No 18 bus hurrying up and down the Harrow Road. In the silent sky, planes are in that slow Heathrow holding pattern.

On the ground there is another silence – a graveyard silence. The traffic here consists of daisies and dandelions creeping across graves and headstones unkept for a generation.

There are Heffernans, O’Rourkes, Spillanes, Hearnes and Carrolls all around. The first, in 1858, was a Mulcahy, the first of 170,000 mainly Irish and Italian laid to rest at St Mary’s cemetery, Kensal Rise, northwest London.

Plot 216 contains another of those Irish men, a man who lived an epic life, though you would not know it from this scene. There is no headstone at the three-sided outline of a grave, where part of the masonry is dislodged. There is only a fading inscription that reads: “In loving memory of Emily O’Connell who died 2nd Feb 1931”.

That is the sole clue this unregarded piece of London also contains the remains of the unique Irish football man that was Patrick O’Connell.

Patrick O’Connell, born Dublin 1887, should be famous. But he is not. His life possessed the drama of a thunderous novel, yet in the St Mary’s office, when cemetery director Michael O’Shea pulls the death register from March 1959, the handwritten black ink offers merely the bare details: O’Connell’s body was “brought from” St Pancras Hospital, NW1 on the 4th of the month; the burial cost eleven guineas; he was 71; he joined sisters Emily and Christina in Plot 216.

In that old, yellowing book, there is nothing about O’Connell sporting the green of the legendary Belfast Celtic, of him captaining Ireland and Manchester United, of him managing Barcelona during the Spanish Civil War. There is no mention that 80 years ago this week Real Betis won their one and only La Liga title and that O’Connell was their manager.

And nor is there any whiff of the match-fixing allegations at United, or the barely concealed bigamy of O’Connell’s private life.

He lived six decades of such vivid colour, accomplishment and intrigue that for his seventh to have ended in obscurity and poverty is as puzzling as it is tragic.

Few things in life carry the sad smack of an unmarked grave and walking away dolefully - past Brattesani, Roffo and Sartori, a surname familiar to United fans – O’Connell’s exceptional, noisy life and his subsequent anonymity felt amazing in equal measure.

Lancashire, Thursday

Sue married Michael, who was Patrick’s grandson. Michael was brought up in Blackley, north Manchester, by his grandmother Ellen – Patrick O’Connell’s first wife – and one of her daughters, also called Ellen. This is the family Patrick left behind, without sentiment, when he headed for Spain in 1922.

“For many years I knew very little about him,” Michael says. “He deserted the family around 1920, 1921 and when I got to my teens I started to wonder why these two women still held him in such high regard. I thought he was a bit of a swine.

“He wasn’t spoken about much in the house; it was too hurtful. He left his wife penniless yet when she died at 96 I think she was still hopeful he’d turn up.

“I knew he had been captain of Ireland when they won the Home Championships for the first time, in 1914. I knew he played with a broken arm when they beat Scotland. I knew he disappeared to Spain. That’s all I knew.”

Patrick O’Connell grew up in Fitzroy Avenue next to Croke Park. He was one of 11 children.

Ellen Treston was from a different background – “very Bohemian”, according to Michael.

Nonetheless, they were married in 1908 shortly before Patrick secured his first professional contract. It was with Belfast Celtic in the Irish League, which was then 32-county and included Shelbourne and Bohemians.

It was a different Ireland, pre-partition. There was one national team and in February 1912, O’Connell was called up for the first time. He was a centre-half. Ireland played England – at Dalymount Park. England won 6-1.

Mickey Hamill scored Ireland’s goal. Hamill came from Belfast and played with O’Connell at Belfast Celtic. By 1912, Hamill was at Manchester United, where the pair would be reunited.

O’Connell had been transferred to Sheffield Wednesday by the time he won that first Ireland cap. He stayed three years before dropping to Division Two with Hull City. If that was downward, two years later he was on the up, signing on at Old Trafford, being made captain and scoring on his debut. He was the first “southern” Irishman to play for Manchester United.

United had won the league in 1911 but were now in decline. In 1914 they finished 14th and season 1914-15 – which carried on despite the start of the first World War – saw United struggle again. At the end of March they were third-bottom and about to play Liverpool. Some players met in a bar days before the game. The allegation was of a 2-0 fix – to United. Bets were laid.

O’Connell took a penalty in that game and missed so badly it looked deliberate. United won 2-0. They would have been bottom had they lost. An FA inquiry banned seven players for life, though O’Connell was not one of them.

At season’s end, United were third-bottom, Chelsea and Tottenham below them. Only Spurs were relegated.

After the war, O’Connell was in Scotland with Dumbarton and he was 34 by the time he reached Ashington, the coal town north of Newcastle.

It was 1921, the inaugural season of Third Division North. Ashington came 10th and O’Connell had his first taste of management as player-manager. His family – wife Ellen and four children – remained in Manchester, as they did when O’Connell was given a second taste: from Ashington, he moved to Santander on Spain’s north coast.

Even Sue O’Connell, an academic who has been researching O’Connell across the globe for 15 years, does not know how this came to be.

“There was a lot of trade,” she says, “Ashington had coal and Santander had iron ore.”

But there may have been a football contact – Santander’s departing manager was Fred Pentland.

Pentland played for England a couple of years before O’Connell played for Ireland. They would certainly have known of each other.

The move was also, as Sue says, “a way out” of a marriage that had broken down.

So began O’Connell’s Spanish years, which lasted until he returned to England in the mid-1950s.

Patrick O’Connell became “Don Patricio”.

He stayed seven years with Racing, then moved west to Oviedo. He left in 1931 having applied for the Barcelona job.

“There’s a letter,” says Sue, “I found it in Santander’s archive. He applied for the job at Barcelona in 1931.”

O’Connell did not get that post. Instead, the 45-year-old moved to Real Betis, in Spain’s second division, which was promptly won. After two seasons stabilising in Spain’s 10-team top flight, the Seville-based side won La Liga (as we know it) in 1935. They have not done so since.

Despite not divorcing, by now O’Connell had a second wife, also Irish, also called Ellen. This one was nanny to the king of Spain. And four years on from his formal application, Barcelona were more interested.

O’Connell was appointed by Josep Sunyol at Les Corts – Barcelona’s stadium before Camp Nou – but it was just as Spain was starting to strangle itself in civil war. Sunyol was assassinated by General Franco’s troops in 1936.

In early 1937 an offer came to tour Mexico. It was lucrative and O’Connell took 16 players with him. Only he and four of them chose to return but, crucially, O’Connell brought back a kitty.

As Sid Lowe writes in Fear and Loathing in La Liga, the tour generated $12,900 profit “clearing their [Barcelona’s] debts. The money was deposited in a French bank account to protect it from confiscation. The tour had saved them. They returned to win the Catalan Championship in 1938.”

Seville, Friday

This is why O’Connell is sometimes referred to as “the saviour of Barcelona”. Yet as Colm Farry said yesterday morning from Seville: “I did a vox pop here last year, 60-70 people, and not one of them had heard of Patrick O’Connell.”

Farry, from Sligo, has been in Seville 11 years. He has noticed an increased awareness of O’Connell within Real Betis and says the 75th anniversary of Betis’s La Liga title was celebrated animatedly – Sue and Michael O’Connell were invited over.

The 80th, this week, has been low-key by comparison. But then Farry, like Sue, sees Spain’s difficult relationship with its modern history. Sue has noticed “a lack of archive”, perhaps because even reading a particular paper during the Franco era was dangerous. Farry refers to “the Spanish attitude to the past,” and explains the significance of the recent “historical memory law” legislation.

This and the simple lack of coverage in Irish and British newspapers at the time helps explain how, after a Betis testimonial in 1954, O’Connell moved to London to be with a brother and disappeared from our consciousness. He applied for National Assistance, so he did not return wealthy.

Only due to the digging of Sue and Michael O’Connell and a campaign taken up by Farry and Dubliner Fergus Dowd has O’Connell’s story begun to find a new life.

Fittingly, to coincide with the Republic of Ireland-England game on June 7th, a plaque will be unveiled at O’Connell’s old house on Fitzroy Avenue. In August, in Belfast, a new mural to O’Connell will be unveiled.

And in September, at St Mary’s cemetery, there will be a ceremony at Plot 216. Last year Dowd set a target of £5,000 to restore the grave at St Mary’s and they have raised £4,000. It shall be done.

Patrick O’Connell’s life is like a great song we’ve never heard. Now we want to hear more. He will lie over there by the Bakerloo line, unmarked, no longer.

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