People from this tiny little island have helped to shape great institutions all across the globe from the White House to Hollywood, however, their impact on the world of football has been perceived to have mostly been confined to these isles.
What many people do not know however, is that one of sport’s biggest and most successful clubs was once on the verge of going out of business and it was an Irishman, Patrick O’Connell, that stepped in to help rescue the club. O’Connell will probably be a name that is not too widely known throughout Ireland, or indeed, the world of football. A man who captained both Ireland and Manchester United, was born in Dublin but started his professional career here in Belfast when he signed for Belfast Celtics in 1909. After a playing career that was interrupted by the First World War and was plagued with accusations of match-fixing, O’Connell left both his playing career and his family to move to Spain where his name will be more recognisable than anywhere else.
O’Connell’s success in Spain really came to national attention when he brought minnows Real Betis, previously outshone by city rivals Sevilla, to their first ever league title. This unexpected and incredible achievement inevitably attracted interest from bigger clubs, most notably Barcelona. On the eve of the Spanish Civil War, O’Connell was named the new manager of the club from the Catalan capital. As civil war raged on in Spain, Barcelona began to struggle. A victory for Franco and the fascists looked more and more likely which meant the ground was giving in for clubs that had backed the Republican campaign. Barcelona were the ultimate symbol of the regionalism and socialism that Franco truly detested and naturally, the economic situation of the club began to deteriorate rapidly as he secured his rise to power. The contempt held towards the club was demonstrated when Franco had the club’s President, Josep Sunyol, executed.
As the situation worsened and Barcelona stood on the brink of bankruptcy, several foreign based players were advised not to return to the club. O’Connell stood by the club however and was able to secure a lucrative tour of Mexico and then New York where the club took part in several exhibition matches. O’Connell was helped by a Catalan activist and businessman, Manuel Mas Soriano, who had emigrated to Mexico at the start of the Civil War in Spain. The money gained from the tour ensured the survival of the club but it did come with a catch as only 4 players returned to Barcelona with O’Connell with the majority either electing to stay in the socialist-leaning Mexico or move to France on the way back to Spain. After the expedition, ‘Don Patricio’ , as he was affectionally known, decided to return to Ireland.
Afterwards his managerial career died out and Patrick passed away in 1959 in London. What has managed to continue living however, is his legacy. While not a name that is widely known across the sport, Patrick O’Connell will always have the place in history as the man who went from playing for Belfast Celtics, earning just £5 a week, to the man who went on to save the now four-time European Champions. A remarkable feat and one which has lead figures such as Johan Cruyff and Luis Figo to campaign for a memorial to be put in place at the club to appropriately mark his dedication and effort in making sure the club survived.
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