BY MARK GODFREY
In recent years, the story of Patrick O’Connell has been highlighted on various websites and blogs across the internet. However, if you still haven’t heard about the Dubliner who was a key figure in the history of one of the world’s biggest clubs before, then soon there will be an opportunity to learn more.
O’Connell began his football career at Belfast Celtic before eventually going on to be the first Irishman to captain Manchester United. He was also a part of the first Ireland team to win the Home Championship in 1914.
His managerial career began at Ashington in Northumberland – home of Jackie Milburn and the Charlton brothers – before Fred Pentland – legendary coach of Athletic Bilbao in Spain – recommended him for the Racing Santander job in 1923. Leaving his wife and children behind in England (he would never see them again, preferring only to send them money home to support their upkeep) O’Connell departed for Spain where footballing success followed him wherever he went.
He guided Real Betis to their one and only Spanish title victory in 1934/35 which earned him the nickname Don Patricio in Seville, and persuaded FC Barcelona president, Josep Sunyol, to take him to Catalonia to coach the Blaugrana.
Unfortunately for O’Connell, the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War soon after would play a massive part in football and his life, and by 1937 the club found itself on the brink of bankruptcy. Famously, he took the penniless Barcelona team on a tour of Mexico and the United States, and the monies generated by those exhibition matches essentially saved them from financial oblivion. He is rightly credited with being the saviour of FC Barcelona.
After battling on with Barca for another few years he returned first to Santander and then to Sevilla (building the team that would eventually win their only La Liga title in 1947). Wishing to try his luck back in England, O’Connell moved to London in 1949. However, his impressive CV failed to earn him a crack at any manager’s jobs and he ended up broke and destitute, wandering the streets around King’s Cross railway station until he passed away in 1959 aged 72. His financial predicament meant he was buried in an unmarked grave in St. Mary’s Cemetery, Kensal Green. His resting place remained unrecognised for 57 years.
That was until the Patrick O’Connell Memorial Fund kicked into action. Another Dubliner, Fergus Dowd, was instrumental in the fund’s creation in 2014, and through various fundraising efforts enough money was raised to erect a new memorial to O’Connell in the cemetery that was his last resting place in London.
Along the way, Dowd and his co-campaigners were able to have O’Connell formally recognised by the clubs he served so auspiciously, including being inducted into FC Barcelona’s hall of fame.
And now, 59 years after his death, a 90-minute documentary detailing O’Connell’s extraordinary life is to be released. The film – produced by Michael Andersen – also chronicles the work of the Memorial Fund and is set for its premiere in Dublin, Belfast and Manchester in April before screenings in Barcelona and Seville in May. The trailer will be launched today (January 16th) in the Sugar Club in Dublin.
The film was aided by support and contributions by a list of well-known names including Martin O’Neill, Roy Keane, Gerry Adams, Luis Figo and Josep Maria Bartomeau amongst many others.