A Barry Lyndon of the world of football

Drumcondra’s Don Patricio became Barcelona’s manager just before the city was taken over by anarchists, the club’s president was shot and liquidation loomed. Richard Fitzpatrick unravels a club legend’s story

BARCELONA’S Pep Guardiola is part of a distinguished line. Some of the most famous names in football have managed the club. They include Helenio Herrera, the man synonymous with catenaccio; Dutchman Rinus Michels, the godfather of its free-flowing antithesis, Total Football; César Menotti, Argentina’s 1978 World Cup-winning coach and bon vivant; and, of course, Johan Cruyff, who these days acts as the club’s honorary life president.

Several Englishman have also held the post, including Terry Venables, who led Barça to its first league title in 11 years in 1985 and a European Cup final the following year, and Bobby Robson who, during his sole year in charge, won three trophies, including the 1997 European Cup Winners’ Cup.

But if you wander through the club’s museum, the most visited museum in the city, you won’t find busts of these two former England managers. You will, though, come across one of an Irishman. Patrick O’Connell, or Don Patricio as he was known to players and staff, was the club’s manager during the Spanish Civil War, the most tumultuous years of its 112-year history.

O’Connell led a picaresque life. He was a rogue, a Barry Lyndon of the world of football, dribbling his way through war in three countries, match-rigging scandals, heroics and acts of kindness, while leaving an abandoned wife and four children trailing in his wake.

O’Connell was born in Drumcondra, Dublin in 1887. He came to prominence as a wing-back for Belfast Celtics, the Falls Road outfit which took its name from the more enduring Glaswegian club across the Irish Sea. The 1916 Rising veteran Oscar Traynor, born a year before O’Connell, was a clubmate.

O’Connell kept his patriotism to the pitch. He won his first cap for Ireland in February 1912 in a 6-1 rout of England at Dalymount Park. He was part of the Irish team which beat England again two years later, this time by 3-0 at Ayresome Park, Middlesbrough’s old ground.

Having also beaten Wales that year, Ireland played Scotland in March 1914 in the final match of that year’s British ‘home’ Championship at a waterlogged Windsor Park in Belfast. By the second half, Ireland were under the cosh. They were losing 1-0 and their goalkeeper sent off. O’Connell was heavily injured — some reports maintain he played with a broken arm — but they eked out an equaliser in the last ten minutes. The draw was enough to win the championship, the only time an all-Ireland team has done so.

Amidst the plaudits, Manchester United came calling, luring O’Connell from Hull City for £1,000 in May 1914. The ensuing season for the club was bad. They were hovering over the relegation zone when they faced Liverpool, who were safely placed mid table, in a home league tie on Good Friday 1915.

On the night before the match, players from each team met up in a pub. Nervous that the league would be suspended the following season, given that the First World War was raging at this stage, which would scupper their incomes, they decided Manchester United should win by 2-0, and put a wad of cash on the result at odds of 8-1 with the bookies.

In the middle of the second half of the match, United were leading 2-0 when they were awarded a penalty. O’Connell, the captain, stepped up to take the spot kick but blazed it wide ‘by some distance’, ensuring the final score remained 2-0.

An investigation led to four Liverpool players, including the Dickensian-named Thomas Fairfoul, getting life suspensions. O’Connell escaped censure.

O’Connell sat out the war and finished his playing career as a player/coach with Ashington AFC in the north of England, the non-league club where Jackie and Bobby Charlton later got their starts in the game as ballboys.

O’Connell showed an aptitude for management. In 1922, following a trail of pioneers from Britain, he landed in Spain, where association football was in its infancy, to coach Racing Santander, leaving his wife and family behind in Manchester.

He took over in the job from the famous Fred Pentland who was poached by Athletic Bilbao where, it is claimed, at the start of his first training session he showed his new Basque charges how to properly tie their bootlaces. Pentland was the man who first preached possession football in Spain, a precursor, of course, of the tiki taka method Spain used to win the 2010 World Cup.

O’Connell brought his own innovations. He placed a premium on fitness, teamwork and discipline. He also tutored his players in the curious art of dribbling. His new-fangled ideas were successful, as the club won a clutch of regional titles and secured entry to the Spanish league in 1928.

O’Connell moved on, drifting along the Cantabrian coast, again following in the slipstream of Pentland, to take over at Real Oviedo and subsequently traipsed his way south to Real Betis. He dragged the club from Seville to a league victory in April 1935.

O’Connell’s stock was high. That summer he was appointed manager of Barcelona. He arrived in the Catalan capital from holidays in Ireland in July 1935, a few days after the club had appointed Josep Sunyol as its president. Sunyol was a firebrand, a Catalan separatist and a member of parliament for Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya, the left-wing Catalan nationalist party.

O’Connell steered Barcelona to the final of the Copa de España in 1936 where they met their hated rivals Real Madrid. Trailing 2-1, Ricardo Zamora, an icon of Spanish football whose name adorns the trophy given every year for the league’s best goalkeeper, pulled off a stupendous save from Josep Escolà, Barcelona’s star player of the day, which prevented a late equaliser.

Despair in the Catalan camp over the loss quickly fell into perspective. In July, General Franco’s forces launched a rising, which engulfed the country in civil war. In Barcelona, the anarchists ruled the city. In keeping to the letter of their philosophy, they removed the rules of the road, deeming one-way systems to be a hangover of the old regime.

O’Connell and his players didn’t know which way to turn. Sunyol, the club’s president, was captured and shot dead in a mountain range outside Madrid on 4 August. His body has never been found. A retired general, Joaquin Milans del Bosch, who had ordered that Barcelona’s ground be closed for six months in 1925 for whistling during the playing of the Spanish anthem, was shot without trial by the anarchists, even though he was 90, and long since out of the loop on military affairs.

Financially, the club was in chaos. It released its three foreign players or in the case of Uruguayan international Fernández, it simply advised him not to return from his holidays in Latin America. Gate receipts and membership — Barcelona, to this day, is still run by its members — collapsed. The national league was suspended; run-outs were reduced to regional tournaments and benefit matches for soldiers.

By October 1937, several of the league’s clubs had been taken over by Franco, including O’Connell’s former clubs — Racing Santander, Real Oviedo and Real Betis. Staring liquidation in the face, bread landed from heaven. Manual Mas Soriano, a Mexican basketball player-turned-entrepreneur, invited Barcelona to tour Mexico and the United States, offering to cover the club’s expenses and give them $15,000 (€10,650) to boot.

O’Connell marshalled his squad together, collaring Ángel Mur, the club’s groundsman, before setting off.

“I was on the pitch doing some gardening duties when Mr O’Connell came up and said, ‘Good day to you, Mur. I’ve got something I want to discuss with you.’ My first thought was that he was going to complain about the state of the grass, that maybe I hadn’t hosed enough or something like that. Instead, he said, ‘We’ve got a problem. We’re going to Mexico and our masseur has left us. I thought that you’d make a good replacement.’

“I stood there looking at him hardly believing him. Then I said, ‘Me? But what do I know about massage? I’m a groundsman.’ He looked at me, smiled and said, ‘Don’t worry, you can learn. I’ll teach you what to do in emergencies.’ And that’s how I ended up going to Mexico with the team, with a suit I was given by one player, and a suitcase I was given by another player.”

O’Connell and his score of men from Catalonia were feted in Mexico. As the country was in the middle of its rainy season, matches were played in the morning so the players could relax for the rest of the day. They played only six games in total, winning four, but managed to string out a tour that should have taken a couple of weeks to two months. Then they moseyed up to New York where they played another four matches, including fixtures against an American Soccer League XI and a Hebrew XI.

When, after four months away, it came time to return to Catalonia, the touring party split — 12 of the 16 players’ favoured exile, the majority of whom went back to Mexico, including Ventolra, who had fallen in love with — and subsequently married — the niece of the Mexican president, Lazaro Cardenas, while three, including Escolà, went to France.

O’Connell left Barcelona — the club and the city — on his return. He went back to Spain during the Second World War where he managed Seville — getting them to second in La Liga in his first season — and Racing Santander for a second time, but silverware eluded him. He died in London, aged 72, in run-down digs near St Pancras station in north London, long since estranged from his family.

He had sent the occasional letter with a few thousand pesetas to his wife back in Manchester over the years but she largely had to raise their family from a welfare cheque and her earnings as a charwoman. One of his sons was christened Daniel O’Connell but forsook his father’s surname in spite, going by Dan Treston, using his mother’s maiden name, and carried an aversion to soccer through his life.

He was a radio producer with RTÉ and a distinguished one, garnering a prestigious Prix Italia award, among other accolades. During a radio interview with Rodney Rice before his own death, he said he remembered seeing some mementoes from his father’s career as a footballer around the terraced house he grew up in.

“There were these green, velvet things,” he said. “They had metal, golden tassels on them. They were his international caps. My mother used to use them to lift the hot kettle off the fire.”

More in this section


Latest news from the world of sport, along with the best in opinion from our outstanding team of sports writers

Sign up

Select your favourite newsletters and get the best of Irish Examiner delivered to your inbox