FC Barcelona’s Irish Saviour

The generation of football fans which has grown up with the instantly recognisable and world revered and feared brand of tika-taka football which Barcelona play are familiar with a certain section of Barcelona managers who have strode back and forth in front of the touchline – Frank Rijkaard, Pep Guardiola and his successor Tito Vilanova. But rewind roughly 80 years and you would find a less continental name at the helm of a club struggling for their very lives in 1930s during the Spanish Civil war, because the Catalan club and area was associated so much with the Republican cause, and the immense pressure they came under almost caused them to fold.

Born and raised in working class Dublin, Patrick O’Connell used football as a method of escape. He joined Belfast Celtic in the early 1900s before transferring to Sheffield Wednesday, Hull City then Manchester United in May 1914, finishing his career with spells at Dumbarton and Ashlington while enjoying an international career with Ireland including captaining (with a broken arm) the side to a famous 3-0 victory at Ayrsome Park.

In 1922, for unknown reasons, Spain called to O’Connell and he left Irish shores and succeeded Englishman Fred Pentland as the manager of Racing Santander, guiding the side to five regional titles as they became founding members of La Liga in 1928. Between 1929 and 1935 as the world experience the Great Depression, O’Connell managed both Real Oviedo and Real Betis winning several titles with the latter. In the background right-wing tendencies were spreading across Spain and the Catalan region was becoming a focal point for resistance against these views. On the football pitch this manifested itself in the developing rivalry between Catalan Barcelona and the Franco-supported Real Madrid, a fierce and often bitter rivalry that still persists today. In the summer of 1935, O’Connell visited his native Ireland for a holiday and was appointed manager of Barcelona on his return after his successes with Betis hadn’t gone unnoticed. The club had gone into a decline during that decade, alongside the rising hostile political climate and success at the national level consistently evaded them. Things weren’t looking great.

What saved the club was the decision by O’Connell to take up an invitation to tour Mexico and America, for a guaranteed fee of around $15,000, a huge sum during the 1930s, throwing both the club a financial lifeline, and a period of respite and safety for the club’s players, some of whom had left to join forces in opposition to the military uprising, and who were feeling very unsafe. Thanks to O’Connell the tour was a PR success. The money was wired to a bank in Paris to ensure its safety from fascist hands, and the team eventually returned to Spain, consisting just of O’Connell and four other players from the original party which had travelled.  On his return to Spain, O’Connell left the club.

During the war years 1942-1945 O’Connell remained in Spain as the hand guiding Sevilla’s title ambitions, which never came to fruition before finishing his Spanish management career back where it all began at Racing Santander. What happened following his departure from Spain is unknown, all that is clear is that the man who ensured Barcelona’s survival through turbulent times died in obscurity in run-down lodgings in London in 1959. Today, the club still remembers the man who did so much for them; a bust of the man from Dublin sits in the Barca museum, part of their club’s history forever.

  1. had to research him after reading about Real Oveido and the shares now can anyone remember which side of the Liffey Mable street is. and his envolement with so many clubs a true footballing Legend., Very Sad ending to his life But held in high Esteem by all the clubs he was with

    • Mable street is on Dublin’s northside. Totally agree with you,the fact that Barca have a tribute to him in their museum says it all.

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