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Don Patricio: the most famous Irishman you've never heard of?

A new documentary uncovers some of the many secrets of Dubliner Patrick O'Connell, who led an extraordinary life, captaining Manchester United and saving Barcelona FC, writes Aidan Fitzmaurice

Dubliner Patrick O'Connell.
Dubliner Patrick O'Connell.
A bronze bust which usually resides at the home of Spain’s Real Betis, who the Dubliner led to La Liga glory in 1935
Don Patricio’s new gravestone
Aidan Fitzmaurice

Aidan Fitzmaurice

Just one mourner was present in a small London cemetery as the coffin was lowered into a grave which would lie unmarked for almost 60 years.

In all that time there was no clue that this spot was the resting place of one of the most remarkable figures in Irish sporting history: Ireland international, Manchester United captain, title-winning manager in Spain, the saviour of Barcelona Football Club.

The life of Dubliner Patrick O'Connell (1887-1959) was no ordinary one. Sporting success, match-fixing, bigamy, civil war, crossing General Franco, alcoholism and the lonely death of one of the most famous Irishmen you've never heard of.

"There's a great quote from the Barcelona FC museum, that Barcelona are renowned for Messi, Cruyff and Maradona, but without people like Patrick O'Connell, the club as we know it today would not exist," says Fergus Dowd, a football fan from Carlow who became interested in the O'Connell story and led a project which successfully raised funds to give Don Patricio, as he's called in Spain, a fitting resting place.

O'Connell's life was complex. Extremely successful abroad as a football coach he had his personal failings; he was a gambler and an alcoholic who left behind a wife and four children in England and took a new wife in Spain.

"He was an exceptional footballer but as a husband and a father, you could see down the generations that he was terrible, he was awful," says Sue O'Connell, a historian who is married to Mike O'Connell, Patrick's grandson.

Now, O'Connell is remembered. A fundraising drive, led by Fergus Dowd, Simon Needham and Alan McClean, achieved its aim of getting a proper headstone on O'Connell's previously-unmarked grave. Pep Guardiola, Manchester City's title-winning coach and a Barcelona native, has paid a private visit to an exhibit on O'Connell. His portrait hangs on the wall of Barcelona's boardroom, and the Don Patricio Fund, backed by people like Maureen O'Sullivan TD, helped create a bronze bust of the Dubliner which is now honoured at the home of Real Betis, the Seville-based club which still recalls O'Connell as the coach of the only league-winning side (1935) in the club's history.

Figures like Martin O'Neill, Roy Keane, Franz Beckenbauer, Johann Cruyff, Andres Iniesta, Gareth Bale, David Beckham, Luis Figo and Noel Gallagher all took the time to pay tribute, even in small ways, to Patrick O'Connell, one of the buried stories of Irish football.

But it all started because of that grave. "How could a man who achieved so much get forgotten, how did clubs let this happen?" asks Dowd.

"You can't leave someone who has achieved so much in an unmarked grave: an Irish international, captain of Manchester United, a La Liga winner, the man who saved one of the biggest clubs in the world."

And the man who spent his final years adrift from his family, in obscurity and penury, having drunk the proceeds of a fund-raising game played in his honour.

TAlented footballer

Born in St Jones' Terrace, in the shadow of Croke Park, O'Connell worked in Boland's Mills but clearly had talent as a footballer and cut his teeth with Belfast Celtic. He moved to England in 1909, and was bought by Manchester United in 1914 for a then-record transfer fee, his stock high enough for the club to appoint him captain.

But there was a cloud over his spell in Manchester as he was one of eight players involved in match-fixing, for a Liverpool-Manchester United game in 1915. He escaped sanction from the authorities but it's widely accepted that O'Connell blatantly missed a late penalty to give the match the result predicted.

His marriage, to Irishwoman Ellen, had produced four children, but the relationship was in trouble and as his playing career drifted he made the move, alone, to Spain, in 1922, to coach Racing Santander, where he was a success. At first he sent money home but the envelopes stuffed with pesetas dried up. "From 1923 to 1940 there was no money, the family were constantly broke," Sue O'Connell recalls.

He won promotion with his next club (Real Oviedo) but went all the way with Real Betis, winning the league title in 1935, that success leading to an offer to manage Barcelona, which he took, though clouds of war had gathered.

O'Connell was back in Dublin on a holiday when he received a telegram from Barcelona to say that Civil War had broken out and the club would understand if O'Connell stayed in Ireland. He returned to his job, taking a 30pc pay cut.

Regular football took a back seat to war, Barça instead competing for something called the Mediterranean league, which they won. Barça now count that among their Spanish league titles. "They are playing in cities, during the war, where bombs are going off and people are being shot dead. When they won the Mediterranean league under Patrick, they could only travel by train, by night, as they were in fear of their lives. When I told Roy Keane that he just said, 'And I thought Saipan was bad'," joked Dowd.

A key moment in the club's history was a tour of the USA and Mexico in 1938. The tour raised $15,000, money that proved vital in keeping Barça alive in very harsh times. Fearful for their lives under Franco's regime, only four players from the 16-man squad returned to Barcelona with O'Connell. In Spain O'Connell had acquired a new wife, also Irish and called Ellen, having told her that he was a widower.

He moved on again, coaching Real Betis, Sevilla and Racing Santander with more success. Around 1950, he returned to England but struggled to find work. "He slipped through the net as the English media in the 50s didn't cover Spanish football so nobody knew him or what he had achieved, so he ended up begging on the streets of London. He became an alcoholic," says Dowd.

In 1954, his former club, Real Betis, heard of his plight and arranged a charity game against their city rivals Sevilla. "But it's a feature of Patrick's life that all the money is squandered, he's a compulsive gambler and an alcoholic, he drank himself into oblivion," says Dowd.

And in February 1959, his life ended, pitifully, estranged from his family

"The sad thing we discovered was that his son was living in London at the same time but they never met, which is tragic. Here was a guy who had achieved all these things but he was penniless, he died in the upstairs of a boarding house in Camden, the man who saved Barcelona," says Dowd.

The story of O'Connell's revival made it to film, as Spanish-based TV producer Michael Andersen has created Don Patricio, a 92-minute story of this Dubliner. It's warts and all, as even Don Patrico's grandson admits the flaws of a great, but troubled, man.

"I think he was a rogue," Mike O'Connell told Review after Monday's Dublin premiere of the film.

"I was brought up by his wife, my gran, and his daughter. They used to say how wonderful he was and I'd say to them, 'the bugger deserted you and left you penniless'.

"I never felt proud of him. As a youngster I used to bore the other kids at school, saying 'my grandfather played for Man United'. But he also brought his wife over to England from Ireland and then deserted her, in a strange land, where the Irish were not popular, with no money. But I don't judge him now. He was like anyone else, good and bad."

Patrick's brother, Larry, was the only mourner at his funeral, after he died from pneumonia, his deeds forgotten.

"Martin O'Neill says in the film that no one knew this man's story," Dowd sighs. "Harry Gregg was a player at Manchester United when Patrick died in '59 and he said his name was never mentioned, even though he was a former captain. It was as if the guy never existed. Hopefully, with a decent gravestone and now Michael Andersen's film, he won't be forgotten."

Don Patricio is being shown in the Sugar Club, Dublin 2, on Monday May 21 and 28. Tickets from www.sugarclubtickets.com

Don Patricio: A Life Less Ordinary

Patrick O'Connell, 1887-1959

Playing career: Belfast Celtic (1905-09), Sheffield Wednesday (1909-12), Hull City (1912-14), Manchester United (1914-19), Dumbarton (1919-20), Ashington (1920-21, player/­manager).

Five caps for pre-partition Ireland team, won British Home Championship in 1914

Coaching career: Racing Santander (1922-29, won promotion, founding member of La Liga).

Real Oviedo (1929-31, won promotion)

Real Betis (1931-35, pipped Barcelona to win the league by a point)

Barcelona (1935-40, won Mediterranean League in 1937, regular football off due to Civil War)

Real Betis (1940-42)

Sevilla (1942-45, league runner-up)

Racing Santander (1947-49)

Indo Review

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