Paddy O'Connell Picture
On January 7th this year, Lionel Messi was awarded his fourth consecutive FIFA Ballon d’Or to add to the long list of achievements in his so-far phenomenal career. Hailed by many as the greatest player of all time, at just 26, Messi has become one of the biggest heroes ever to grace Camp Nou.
He follows in the footsteps of a significant number of superstar players and managers in FC Barcelona’s hall of fame—from Maradona and Ronaldinho to Cruyff and Guardiola. But there’s one name that is unfamiliar to many of the club’s fans; an Irishman by the name of Paddy O’Connell, who managed Barça through some of its darkest days.
Patrick Joseph O’Connell was born in County Westmeath on March 8th, 1887, and grew up in north Dublin. O’Connell enjoyed a prolific playing career as a tough central defender and skipper at both club and international level. He had his big break, aged 21, at Belfast Celtic, before moving to England in 1909, where he played for Sheffield Wednesday and Hull City. In 1914, he captained Ireland to victory in the British Home Championship, famously playing the final with a broken arm. This drew the attention of the legendary Manchester United, and he became the first (southern) Irish player to wear the Red Devils’ shirt.
O’Connell went on to captain the side in the 1914/15 season but his time at Manchester was slightly overshadowed by his alleged involvement in a match fixing scandal. O’Connell cleared his name, but with the outbreak of World War I, all competitive football in the UK was suspended, which, essentially, brought his time at the club to an abrupt end. He remained at Manchester until 1919, before moving to Ashington AFC, Northumberland in 1920.
At Ashington, O’Connell had his first taste of management when he became player-coach in 1921, before making the bold move to Spain a year later. O’Connell’s reasons for moving here remain a mystery. The post-war years were a troubled time across Europe, and in O’Connell’s homeland, a bloody civil war had broken out following the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty in 1921. Coming to Spain was by no means an escape—although it had been neutral in World War I, Spain was tied up with its own internal political struggles. Yet, despite this, football was starting to thrive here.
O’Connell was one of the first of many players and managers to move from the UK to spend time overseas. He certainly wasn’t a part of the footballing vanguard in Spain, however. Spanish football owes its very existence to immigrant workers, students and visiting sailors from the turn of the 20th century, primarily British and Irish. FC Barcelona itself was founded in 1899 by an international group of footballers, led by Swiss football fanatic Hans (or Joan) Gamper, and the club is no stranger to foreign management.
O’Connell’s first stop was managing Racing de Santander, where he succeeded Englishman Fred Pentland, fellow pioneering expat, who managed the club from 1920-22. Over the seven years that he spent at Racing, O’Connell helped the team establish its place alongside Spain’s footballing elite. Two seasons at Real Oviedo followed, then three seasons at Real Betis, where he became known, affectionately, as Don Patricio. O’Connell really proved his worth there. After qualifying for the Primera División, he led them to claim their only league title to date, on April 28th, 1935.
This incredible achievement drew the attention of what was to become one of the world’s finest sporting institutions—FC Barcelona. O’Connell became manager at Barça in summer 1935 and during his first season won the Campionat de Catalunya and reached the final of the Copa de España, only to lose 2-1 to El Clásico rival, Real Madrid. Spain, meanwhile, teetered on the brink of civil war.
Politics and football have been inextricably linked throughout Barça’s history. Despite its foreign beginnings, FC Barcelona has long been synonymous with Catalan nationalism and culture—from the days of adopted Catalan Joan Gamper to Josep Sunyol, left-wing politician and club president during O’Connell’s time, whose motto was ‘deporte y ciudadanía’, and up to the present day. Coined in 1968, the famous slogan ‘més que un club’ is testament to the long-established social importance of FC Barcelona and its evolution over time as a symbol of Catalan identity (as illustrated by the away kit for 2013/14, which bears the distinctive red and yellow stripes of the senyera, the Catalan flag).
On July 17th, 1936, the military uprising by right-wing fascists against the Spanish government marked the beginning of a bloody conflict that cast a long shadow over Catalunya and started a turbulent period for FC Barcelona. Furthermore, the club was in a precarious financial position. With escalating anarchy in the city’s streets and concerns for the club’s future, management called an emergency meeting. Both player and manager salaries were cut (Paddy’s was reduced from 1,500 to 1,000 pesetas a month) and foreign players were advised not to return from their summer break.
Then, on August 6th, 1936, FC Barcelona suffered a devastating blow when the club president, Josep Sunyol, was murdered by pro-Franco forces near Madrid, placing Barça at the heart of the political turmoil. A workers’ committee was set up shortly afterwards to prevent the club from falling into the hands of anarchists. O’Connell was on holiday at the time in Ireland. He soon returned, resolute, to get on with the job.
Amidst the chaotic turbulence of war, the club carried on, determined to keep playing. Although La Liga had been suspended, clubs in Republican parts of Spain continued to compete in the Mediterranean League, a title claimed by Barcelona in the 1936/37 season. Attendance and club membership were in decline, however, and Barça’s financial woes worsened. With little money and an increasingly dangerous situation off the field, the very future of the club was at risk.
Then, in the summer of 1937, an unexpected lifeline appeared. Mexican entrepreneur Manuel Mas Soriano invited FC Barcelona on an all-expenses-paid tour of Mexico and the US. Not only did this offer an escape from the very real dangers of war, it was also an opportunity to salvage the club’s meagre balance sheet with the very respectable payment of $15,000.
Legend has it that O’Connell himself trained the groundsman Ángel Mur to be the club physio for the tour, and the team set sail for Mexico, where they received a warm official welcome as ambassadors of democracy and liberty. The tour was played out at a leisurely pace over two months—Barça happy to be back on the field and out of harm’s way, winning four of the six matches played.
In September 1937, the team moved on to the bright lights of New York City where they played four matches against local teams from the Latin, European and Jewish communities, and further boosted their bank account. However, the time to return home was fast approaching. Club secretary Rossend Calvet and O’Connell met with players and staff in a New York hotel room where they were given a tough choice: go back to Barcelona or leave the club and remain there as exiles.
Only four of the 16 players returned home alongside O’Connell and the staff—the majority started a new life in Mexico or France. The tour, however, had been an overwhelming success and, in financial terms, it saved the club. Upon their return from New York, Calvet wisely deposited the cash in Paris to prevent it from falling into the wrong hands and to provide a nest-egg for the club’s future—money that helped to keep the club alive during the difficult post-war era.
As the Republican area had diminished drastically by the 1937/38 season, the Mediterranean League was no longer feasible, but a Lliga Catalana was assembled, in which FC Barcelona triumphed, once again, in the face of adversity. O’Connell eventually left Barcelona shortly after this final victory.
During World War II, O’Connell returned to Spain to manage Betis and Seville, before finally returning in 1947 to his debut Spanish club, Racing, where he ended his management career a decade later. In 1958, he came back to England and, without the celebrity culture that surrounds today’s football stars, he was just another face in the crowd. Despite his many successes, he had become estranged from his family and he lived out the rest of his days destitute in St Pancras, north London, where he died on February 27th, 1959, aged 71.
A bust of O’Connell can be found in the FC Barcelona museum, and a statue on the streets of Seville, although his remarkable story remains largely untold. “What makes Barça great?” pondered Catalan journalist Jordi Finestres in an interview with Irish TV channel TG4 last year. “It’s not just Messi, Cruyff, Maradona, but also figures like Paddy O’Connell. If one doesn’t understand the commitment of people like Paddy O’Connell, one cannot possibly understand why Barça is more than a club.” The courage and dedication of this unsung hero live on, his name and legacy woven inseparably into the history of the club—Barça’s very own St. Patrick, without whom the glorious FC Barcelona as we know it today might not even exist.