Tuesday 20 March 2018

The mystery of the Man Utd star, Irish captain, and Barcelona manager who died a pauper

Patrick O’Connell in his playing days for Hull City
Patrick O’Connell in his playing days for Hull City
Patrick O'Connell on the bench at Barcelona (in middle)
The Real Betis squad that won the league in 1935 with O’Connell as manager

Sam Griffin

IN 1937, as a brutal Civil War raged in Spain, Irishman Patrick O'Connell led Barcelona Football Club on a tour of the USA and Mexico to raise much-need funds for his team who, at the time, were faced with the distinct possibility of extinction.

The trip proved a major success and allowed the club to continue to become the footballing powerhouse it is today.

The success was just one in a career of highs for Dublin-born O'Connell, who captained both Manchester United and Ireland and also won the Spanish La Liga with Real Betis - the only time the club has managed such a feat.

But 20 years after those successes, 'Don Patricio' died destitute in ramshackle conditions in a London flat and for the last 40 years has remained in an unmarked pauper's grave.

"No one really knew what had happened to him for a very, very long time. It was a bit of a mystery," explains Sue O'Connell, who is married to Patrick's grandson Mike.

Some years ago, Sue set out to explore Patrick's legacy and decided to commemorate his life and achievements. There were quite a few, as she quickly discovered.

Patrick O'Connell grew up on Jones Terrace, near Croke Park. He impressed on the football pitch at a young age and joined Belfast Celtic before going to Sheffield Wednesday in England and then eventually signing with Manchester United - as one of the first ever "thousand pound transfers" - for a British record fee, according to Fergus Dowd, who is also involved in the Patrick O'Connell Memorial Fund.

"He was the first Irishman to play for Manchester United and captain the club and this year is actually his 100th anniversary after he did so in 1914," Fergus told the Irish Independent.

"He earned a reputation as a no-nonsense defender. On one occasion, he actually played with a broken arm against Scotland in the final of the British home Championship. That was the first trophy Ireland ever won."

From there, O'Connell upped sticks and left for Spain - leaving behind his wife and four children, who would never see him again.


Patrick managed Real Betis to its first and only La Liga title in 1935. Soon after the giants of Spanish football came calling and he duly answered the summons.

"He's probably best remembered for saving Barcelona from extinction during the Franco era when he took the club on a tour of Mexico. The money raised was wired to a Paris account and these monies ultimately saved the club," Fergus explained.

But after all those successes, with even a bust erected at the Camp Nou in Barcelona and a statue in his honour in a park in Seville, the story ended with 'Don Patricio' dying destitute in London in 1959.

Sue's research, which did dig up some allegations of match-fixing, has helped fill in the blanks about Patrick's latter years.

"Things were very tough after Franco won. He came back to London and lived with his brother. After his death, he was buried with his sisters but he was never marked as being there.

Patrick's grandson Mike says he is "a little bewildered" by the interest in his granddad after he left his grandmother and remarried without ever telling either woman.

"My whole life was affected by it because after he left, my granny became very anti-establishment, very anti-Church having come from a traditional family. That was the impact he had," Mike joked.

However, he adds that he is glad Patrick is getting the recognition he deserved. A fund has now been set up to properly honour Patrick's memory with dozens of some of the biggest names in world football, including Franz Beckenbauer, Johann Cruyff, Bobby Charlton, and David Beckham all lending their support. Last month he was inducted into the Football Museum in the UK and the Professional Footballers Association will donate €1,000 to the fund later this month.

Other events are also planned for 2015. More information is available on www.pocfund.com

Irish Independent

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