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Patrick O’Connell: One of Ireland’s great sportsmen?

Earlier this week, a bronze bust honouring Patrick O’Connell was unveiled at Windsor Park.

Alan McLean, a spokesperson for the Patrick O’Connell Memorial Fund, told the BBC that the memorial is “another milestone in the story of remembering Patrick O’Connell as one of the greatest ever Irish soccer men.”

So who was Patrick O’Connell?

O’Connell, or ‘Don Patricio,’ lived an extraordinary double life.

He was born in Dublin in 1887, and successfully built both a playing and managerial career in football.

The Drumcondra native began his career in Dublin and earned his first professional contract with Belfast Celtic, before earning a move to England in 1909, a year after he married Ellen Treston.

The couple eventually had four kids together, and O’Connell played as a defender for Sheffield Wednesday and Hull City before earning a £1000 move to Manchester United in May 1914.

O’Connell was also an Ireland international, and made his debut in 1912. He only won six caps for what was then an all-Ireland team, but he was a member of the Irish team that won the British Home Nations Championship in 1914.

It was his international form which drew the attention of Manchester United, and O’Connell became the club’s first ever Irish captain in a difficult time for the club.

He scored two goals from centre half in 35 appearances for United in a debut season which saw the English giants battling relegation. However, O’Connell is perhaps best remembered by United fans for his participation in a match-fixing scandal on April 2nd, 1915.

A group of Liverpool and Man United players – including O’Connell – agreed to fix the game so that United won 2-0 and to place money on the outcome.

Sure enough, United won the game 2-0, and O’Connell deliberately missed a penalty to ensure that the scoreline finished as planned. The scandal was exposed, but the Dubliner managed to avoid both criminal charges and playing bans.

English football was interrupted by World War One, and O’Connell’s career drifted into obscurity until 1922, when he agreed to manage Spanish club Racing Santander.

Patrick and Ellen had become estranged by this time, and he left her and their four children behind in Manchester when he moved to Spain.

In Spain, he met another Ellen; Ellen O’Callaghan, an Irish governess working in Barcelona. They were married, and his second wife knew nothing of his other family in England.

O’Connell was well regarded at Santander, where he was manager for seven years. He then managed Real Oviedo and Real Betis for two years and three years respectively.

He became known in Spain as Don Patricio, and guided Betis to the Spanish title (today’s La Liga) in 1935, an achievement which the club have yet to repeat.

This success earned O’Connell a move to Barcelona a few months later, and the Irishman is still regarded as one of the most important managers in the club’s storied history.

The very existence of the Catalan club was under pressure in General Franco’s fascist regime in 1936, until O’Connell secured a tour of the USA and Mexico worth a staggering $15,000, which was a huge amount at the time, and guaranteed the safety of the club financially.

O’Connell managed Sevilla from 1942-45, and also returned to Racing Santander for a brief spell before retiring.

His second wife Ellen O’Callaghan – a devoutly religious woman – was distraught to learn about his second family in England, and their marriage deteriorated as a result.

Patrick reconnected with his son Dan, who came to Spain to find his father in the 1950s, but failed to make amends with the other members of his first family.

He died, aged 71, on the 27th of February, 1959.

There is a painting of Patrick O’Connell in the Barça museum, and he is remembered fondly by the Catalan giants as one of the club’s most important members.

 

David Smith

 

This article originally appeared on The Season Ticket.

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