Barcelona’s miraculous comeback against Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League this season will go down as one of the most unforgettable in the history of not just football, but all sport. The deficit that had to be overcome and the manner with which they set about scaling it are factors that give the achievement greater resonance and, as such, it will live long in the memory of all who witnessed it.
Just five days prior to that historic night at Camp Nou, an individual who played a crucial role in another vital Barcelona fightback was being honoured in Seville. One thousand kilometres away at Estadio Benito Villamarin, ahead of a game between Real Betis and Real Sociedad, a small statue of a little-known Irishman called Patrick O’Connell was presented to the Andalusian club in recognition of the key role he played in bringing them their first and, to this day, only Liga title in 1935. This unlikely success with Betis was the catalyst that subsequently led him across the Iberian Peninsula to the helm of Barcelona, where he made another not insignificant contribution.
For many, if not most, of those who revelled in the Blaugrana’s incredible evisceration of PSG last week, the exploits of the team’s only Irish manager 80 years ago are unlikely to feature too highly on the agenda when it comes to idle football talk, but it is no exaggeration to say that O’Connell helped pull Barcelona back from the brink during arguably the most tumultuous period in the history of the storied club.
Yet this man, who also captained both Manchester United and Ireland during his playing career, lay for nearly 60 years in an unmarked grave and is amazingly only receiving recognition some six decades after his death.
‘Don Patricio’, as he was known, took the reins at Camp Nou during a period of sheer chaos as Spain became a brutal theatre of conflict with the outbreak of civil war in the summer of 1936. Increasing tensions in the region and the accompanying violence disrupted all aspects of society, including football, and things were particularly difficult clubs perceived to be sympathetic to the Republican cause. Barcelona, being an institution of Catalunya life, fitted this bill.
With the club’s future shrouded in uncertainty due to socio-political ructions and the associated financial tremors, O’Connell led the Catalonians on a fund-raising tour of Mexico and the United States, where they were able to soothe the club’s monetary concerns while escaping the harsh realities of war, if only temporarily.
A profit of $12,500 was accrued from the four-month excursion, which was to be used as security for the club’s future during this war-time purgatory. However, while emerging financially stronger as a result of the stateside sojourn, it ultimately came at a cost, with only four of the 16 players opting to return to war-torn Barcelona with O’Connell, as the remainder opted for sanctuary elsewhere.
Somewhat lamentably, as time passed and the Catalan giants emerged as a real force on the European stage, the bittersweet events of the 1930s were left in the past and O’Connell tragically faded from memory too, dying penniless and alone in a cramped attic apartment in London.
However, in the past two years his extraordinary achievements have been heralded, thanks, in no small part, to the efforts of the Patrick O’Connell Memorial Fund. The memorial group, which was set up with the aim of paying appropriate tribute to O’Connell, presented the sculpture of the manager to Betis at the beginning of March and they also restored his final resting place in London, giving the unique character the basic dignity of a headstone.
Fergus Dowd, who is on the group’s committee, says that it is “extremely satisfying” to finally see the Irishman receive due praise. “Spanish football would not have been covered as it is today by the UK and Irish media, so Patrick's achievements had fallen through the net,” he told Goal. “Also people in Spain are only starting to talk about the Spanish Civil War - a time which is significant to Patrick's story.”
Dowd added: “This is a man of firsts; He was the first Irishman to captain Manchester United, the first and only Irishman to win La Liga and the first Irishman to captain Ireland to silverware.”
Indeed, the Trojan efforts of those in the memorial group and others have had a ripple effect. A mural has been painted in Belfast, where O’Connell played for the famous, but now defunct Belfast Celtic, while both the Irish Football Association (IFA) and Football Association of Ireland (FAI) have formally acknowledged the magnitude of the man’s various accomplishments.
In 2015, Barcelona themselves elevated O’Connell to the same illustrious status as icons such as Johann Cruyff and Diego Maradona when they inducted him into the club’s Hall of Fame. There are other tributes planned, including the unveiling of a blue plaque at 163 Albert Street in Belfast, where O’Connell lived, on May 12.
“Both clubs (Barcelona and Betis) have endorsed our project from the start, donating items to help raise monies for a proper memorial and also to the FAI alcove [which was] unveiled in May 2016, as well as honouring Patrick,” added Dowd. “As our journey continued more and more supporters of these both sides got in touch in support. It was incredible to see hundreds of Betis fans part of the bust procession last Friday week in Seville.”
While perhaps seeming less important in the modern era, the historical roots of football clubs form the backbone of their identity and Barcelona are, we are told in gigantic letters, mes que un club. He may not rattle the emotions in the way that Neymar and co. did against PSG, but, O’Connell – the man who saved Barca – will thankfully have his achievements remembered for another few years at least. And maybe a few more.