The Man Who Saved Barcelona Football Club

If you walk down a street named Calle de la Mar in the town of Denia on the Costa Blanca in Spain you will see at number 20 an Irish bar called Paddy O’Connell’s.

Normally I avoid Irish bars overseas but a friend of mine told me that the name on this bar had special significance to the supporters of Barcelona Football Club. Inside the bar didn’t disappoint my initial aversion to Ireland’s largest export.

What did arouse my curiosity though were some of the photographs on the smoke stained walls: Photographs of football teams of men who played their games during Spain’s darkest days, the years between the nineteen twenties and the nineteen forties. Men now long since dead, some from the passage of time, some from the bullets of political enemies. I was still unaware of who Paddy O’Connell was and his connection, if any, with these men. After some research I discovered who Paddy O’Connell was and his connection with the footballers in the photographs. Paddy O’Connell turned out to be a soccer player who at the end of his extraordinary career became a football manager, as many players do.

Patrick Joseph O’Connell was born in Dublin in 1887 to a working class, strongly nationalist family. He played junior football for Frankfort which was a founder member of the League of Ireland. He joined the famous Belfast Celtic Football Club in 1909, playing as a wing-half or centre-half. One of his team mates at the time was Oscar Traynor, later a revolutionary and Fianna Fail cabinet minister. Paddy was then transferred to Sheffield Wednesday in the old first division. From there he moved on to Hull City. While representing his country he came to the attention of Manchester United who signed him, for the 1914 season. Paddy went on to captain Manchester United becoming the first Irish born footballer to do so.

O’Connell’s international career saw him win six caps and captain Ireland the only time Ireland have ever won the “home” international championship. The game against Scotland, Paddy O’Connell played with a broken arm and Ireland finished the game with ten men winning the tournament!

Fixing scandal

At the time that O’Connell joined Manchester United (1914 ). World War I had begun and it was expected that the English FA would suspend all football as most of the players would be drafted into the army. The possibility of losing not only their livelihoods but also their lives resulted in players becoming involved in one of the first match-fixing scandals in English football and Paddy O’Connell was caught up in it. Manchester United were in danger of being relegated so the night before they played Liverpool a number of players from both teams met and decided that Manchester United would win the game 2-0. The odds given by a bookie were 8 to1. With United leading 2-0, as planned, they were awarded a penalty which Paddy took. It seems that he missed it and the game finished 2-0 as planned. The consequence of this betting coup was that four Liverpool and three united players were banned for life from football. Paddy O’Connell escaped any punishment.

Barcelona FC

In 1922 with the Civil War in Ireland and no football being played there was no reason to return to Ireland, so Paddy O’Connell went to Spain to manage Racing Santander. Under his management they were regional champions five times. In 1928 they were one of the founding members of La Liga. He would return to Santander between 1948 and 1949. Real Oviedo were his next club, before he moved on to Real Betis, this is where he achieved his greatest success. With Betis he won the Segunda division in 1932. In 1935 they were La Liga champions, Real Madrid (Franco’s team ) finishing second.

With political events moving toward civil war in Spain, Paddy O’Connell became manager of one of the greatest clubs in world football, Barcelona F C. Barcelona was a club being run by anarchist revolutionaries when Paddy took charge of the team. In the 1935 season Barcelona won the Catalan championship and were beaten 2-1 by Real Madrid in the Spanish Cup Final. Around that time the chairman of Barcelona, Sunyol, was captured by Fascist militia near Madrid, they executed him and his body has never been found.

Destitute and alone

With Catalonia on the verge of being overrun by the Fascists, Barcelona football club, the great symbol of the Catalan people was penniless and on the verge of being destroyed in the political madness. La Liga was suspended so the club had no hope of raising the funds which would allow it to stay in existence. Just when it seemed they had no future they received an invitation to tour Mexico and the United States playing eight friendly games. The tour would guarantee them $15, 000 which was a fortune at that time. This money is credited with saving the club for the future. Paddy O’Connell left Barcelona with 14 players and a doctor. The tour lasted two months and only four players made the journey back to Barcelona, seven stayed in Mexico, three in France preferring to live in exile than under Franco’s fascists. The money was placed in a bank in Paris as it was felt that either the anarchists or Fascist would have taken it to finance their war had it been returned to Barcelona. This is why Paddy O’ Connell has a special place in the hearts of the people of Catalonia, he saved the great symbol of their nation. To the Catalans he is Don Patricio O’Connell.

When the civil war ended O’Connell moved to Seville FC, he managed them from 1942 to 1946 they finished runners up to Real Madrid in La Liga 1942-43. In 1946 Paddy returned to Santander the club where he began his incredible Spanish odyssey. The circumstances of his life just seemed to spiral downwards when he returned to London where he died destitute and alone in St Pancras on the January 27 1959 aged 72.

(Written by John Clarke, a Derry footballer, carpenter, and coach. John lives in Salthill and has a home in Denia.

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