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Irishman who saved Barca finally getting recognition


Patrick O'Connell, 'the Irishman who saved Barcelona'

Patrick O'Connell, 'the Irishman who saved Barcelona'

Patrick O'Connell, 'the Irishman who saved Barcelona'

No Irishman has a reputation like this in Spain. Not John Aldridge, who was much admired at Real Sociedad. Not Kevin Moran, whose tenacity was loved at Sporting Gijón. Not even Michael Robinson, who, after finishing as a player at Osasuna, became a renowned Spanish television pundit, El Gary Lineker to his friends.

None of them, however, was in the same league as Patrick O'Connell. After all, this was the Irishman who saved Barcelona.

A week on Friday, a bust of O'Connell (right) is to be unveiled ahead of Real Betis' home game with Real Sociedad. All pomp and ceremony will be gifted to the man who has a unique standing in Seville: he is the manager who steered Betis to their only La Liga title.

Even back in 1935 when he did it, only Real Madrid or Barcelona won the honours. But O'Connell, who had been of British football's first £1,000 players when he joined Manchester United from Hull City in 1914, was a master tactician.

A pioneer of the offside trap, the Dubliner drilled the Betis players to such an extent they conceded only 19 goals in their 22 league games that season. He also banned them from smoking, which was regarded as revolutionary at the time.

So good was O'Connell he was immediately poached by the big boys. In 1935 he moved to Barcelona. His timing was not propitious. Almost as soon as he arrived in the city, Spain was engulfed in civil war. General Franco sought to destroy all sense of Catalan independence, of which FC Barcelona was a significant totem. Battered and blitzed, with their bank account frozen, in 1937 the club faced what appeared to be certain bankruptcy.

O'Connell took it upon himself to find a fresh source of funds. In contact with an émigré Barcelona fan living in Mexico City, he took the team on a tour of Mexico and the United States.

It was a triumphant trip, the team feted and lauded, so much so that at its conclusion 12 of the 16 players decided not to return to their homeland. But O'Connell went back, with $15,000 in his holdall. It was more than enough to stave off extinction.

After the civil war, he stayed one more season in Barcelona, leaving in 1940, driven out by Franco.

Fortunately he had friends in high places. His wife (he had two, one in Spain, one in Ireland) was nanny to the king of Spain. And the king arranged for him to take over again at Betis, where he won the second division title.

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He then became the only manager in history to move across town and take charge of Sevilla. In 1950, after winning the second division with Santander, he returned to Britain, hoping his record might land him a job in the English game.

It did not. He ended up destitute, spending the last few years of his life begging on the streets of London. He was buried in an unmarked grave in Kilburn, the only mourner at his funeral his brother.

His tale might have died with him were it not for the efforts of the Patrick O'Connell Trust, which was formed three years ago when a group of Irish fans got wind of his tale.

Looking to raise the capital for a headstone over his grave, their first donation came from Johann Cruyff, who sent a signed shirt. Then a bust was commissioned. In the summer, the president of Barcelona is coming to Belfast to unveil a blue plaque to record the moment O'Connell captained Ireland to the last British championship before the First World War.

At last, a fitting testimonial is being arranged for the man known wherever he went in Spain by the simple moniker: Don Patricio.

Telegraph Media Group Limited [2021]

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