The story behind the forgotten Irishman who managed Barcelona and captained United

The story behind the forgotten Irishman who managed Barcelona and captained United

WHO would have ever noticed the old picture? There were only a couple of people in the bar of the social club in Ashington. It was a dreary afternoon only eight years ago. Glum.

It was probably like this every day. Mike O’Connell reckoned the picture always went unnoticed.

There was nothing remarkable about the still; nothing to suggest the framed face of his grandfather, the man with the strong features, had done anything, been anyone. Or that years later, a recognition campaign would find support with names like David Beckham, Roy Keane, Gareth Bale, Franz Beckenbauer, Johan Cruyff, Bobby Charlton et al.

This was Ashington in the North of England, a place the Charltons, Bobby and Jack, helped to put on the map — a tough mining town to cut your managerial teeth.

Patrick O’Connell had captained Manchester United before he arrived. When he signed at Old Trafford in 1914, the £1,000 fee was the second highest in United’s history. It’s the type of fact that could frame a sportsman, if there weren’t others far more noteworthy. Because the picture on the wall would not go unnoticed in the north of Spain.

In clubs like Real Betis and Barcelona, the Dubliner, the one they call ‘Don Patricio’ is revered and respected, his memory preserved by a La Liga title in 1935; his pivotal role in preserving Barcelona football club when manager, secure.

It’s Wednesday evening and Mike O’Connell wants to share just one more story about his Dublin-born grandfather.

“My wife is telling me to shut up now,” he said. “But you have to talk to Sue… Sue has done all the research into him, me granddad, she has enough to write a book.

“The family grew up in Manchester, but then he just disappeared. The only clue they had was that small amounts of money were coming from Spain.”

After playing with Belfast Celtic, Patrick O’Connell moved to Britain and signed with Sheffield Wednesday before joining Hull and then going on to captain Manchester United. There were sojourns at Dumbarton in Scotland and then the player-manager role at Third Division Ashington — the setting for the picture frame.

Mike and Sue don’t know why he left for Spain but regardless of O’Connell’s reasoning, it would have taken courage to make such a move, said Sue.

“At that time it would have been like going to the dark side of the Moon. There was hardly anyone there [from England]. It would have been quite brave.”

Family commitments aside, fortune favoured O’Connell. In 1922 he succeeded Englishman Fred Pentland as manager of Racing Santander, guiding the team to five regional titles before becoming one of the founding fathers of La Liga.

In 1931 he would take charge of Real Betis, leading the side to their first and only La Liga title. The win sparked interest from Barcelona who signed O’Connell just as Spain was descending into civil war. With the league suspended, and amid mounting debt, Barcelona and O’Connell accepted an offer to tour Mexico in 1937 and play a series of exhibition matches. The estimated $15,000 they earned secured the future of the club.

Of the 20 players that toured, just four returned. The rest went into exile in Mexico and France.

“They stopped off in Cuba,” explained Mike. “When they were there, some street urchins challenged the Barcelona players to a game — and Patrick accepted. But they were beaten 1-0.”

At Seville, the contradictions of the chain-smoking manager were framed by a strict no-smoking policy. “He forbid it,” said Mike. “He caught one player smoking and banned him for two weeks.”

But the complications weren’t only professional. Patrick O’Connell had a family in England and a son keen to renew the relationship with his estranged father.

“When he was manager of Seville, his son contacted the club by letter and an arrangement was made to meet,” said Mike.

“When they did meet, Patrick was under the impression he was meeting his nephew — he had married for a second time! But when he did, the first thing he asked his son was: ‘How were United doing?’ It was different times. Information didn’t move like it does today.”

However O’Connell would leave Spain and return to London, moving into the attic room of his brother’s home in Argyll Street.

“He had had his day,” said Mike. “He was getting poor. He moved in with his brother who worked for the British Civil Service.”

But now removed to England, O’Connell’s legacy failed to follow.

“He was a celebrity with some of the neighbours, but he wasn’t really known,” said Sue. “News didn’t travel then. It was tragic really; he would end up claiming assistance.”

The Patrick O’Connell memorial fund are campaigning for a statue to be erected in honour of Don Patricio in Belfast. Sheffield Wednesday will hold an event to honour their former player in February 2015. To contribute to the campaign, log-on to