Today’s match between Betis and Racing Santander is being played in honour of Patrick O’Connell, the Irishman who managed both clubs before the war. Under O’Connell, Betis won their only Spanish title 80 seasons ago. Now the forgotten Irishman, also saviour of FC Barcelona, is being fêted thanks to a memorial campaign led by his biographer Sue O’Connell. Peter Doyle speaks to Sue about her husband’s grandfather, one of the most remarkable characters in European football history.
History and homecoming underscore today’s Segunda División clash between Betis and Racing Santander.
In the presidential box at the Benito Villamarín, incoming Betis coach Pepe Mel returns to his self-declared ‘verdiblanco family’, before embarking on the task of leading his former charges back to La Liga.
Alongside, another guest of honour, in spirit if not in person, is his pre-war predecessor, Don Patricio O’Connell. Eighty years ago, Irishman Patrick O’Connell, known here in Seville as Don Patricio, took Betis to the only league crown in the club’s history. Back in 1934-35, O’Connell led his men on a three-day journey up to Santander, knowing that only a win would wrest the title from Real Madrid.
His achievement, a 5-0 victory over a financially motivated Santander and a solitary Spanish title, was only one of many in a simply remarkable career as a player and manager in Ireland, England and Spain.
A captain of Manchester United, the man who saved FC Barcelona from ruin during the subsequent Spanish Civil War, O’Connell died lonely and destitute in a King’s Cross attic in 1959. He was 71.
Sue O’Connell, wife of Don Patricio’s grandson Michael, has come to Seville to honour his memory.
‘It seems a tragedy that he’s in an unmarked grave,’ said Sue. ‘In April, we hope a headstone will be put in place for Patrick at St Mary’s Catholic Cemetery in Kilburn. ‘We have invited the Irish Ambassador, as well as the local MP, Oscar-winning actress Glenda Jackson.’
Sue has also researched and written a biography of O’Connell, yet to published, and met with FC Barcelona for a memorial to be erected at the Nou Camp.
To finance these initiatives, the Patrick O’Connell Memorial Fund was set up last April. Funds are being raised at today’s match, and afterwards at a gala night at the Merchant Pub in downtown Seville.
Players such as Pelé, Franz Beckenbauer and Luís Figo have donated shirts to be auctioned in Seville and at other clubs that O’Connell served.
‘The response here to the Don Patricio fund has been phenomenal,’ said Sue. ‘What he did was incredible. We were having coffee and my husband explained to the waiter that we weren’t tourists – we’d come here for a reason. The bloke who owned the bar told my husband to wait. He went upstairs and got a picture of Mike’s grandfather. The man was enchanted. He knew all about Mike’s granddad from 1935. This bloke wouldn’t even have been born then. Complete devotion.’
But, as Sue has discovered on her travels, O’Connell’s career path was one of complete devotion to the game he loved.
Sue, a retired linguist from Greater Manchester, began researching the roguish O’Connell 15 years ago. Piecing together his chequered past became her new vocation after she left her job at the University of Liverpool.
‘The more I researched, the more I realised he was involved in really high-profile teams and it just became fascinating. It became an addiction for me. I retired early and he became my profession.’
Born in County Westmeath in 1887, O’Connell learned his football growing up in Dublin before joining his first senior side Belfast Celtic as a centre-half.
In 1909 he moved to Sheffield Wednesday – Sue will hold an auction at Hillsborough on February 27 – then Hull and Manchester United. The first Irishman to play for the Red Devils, O’Connell also led his country to their only outright Home Championship title in 1914. Captain and centre-half, he led nine team-mates to victory over Scotland despite playing with a broken arm.
After the famous Victory of the Nine and a Half, Patrick finished his playing career at Ashington, where Sue first met fellow trust trust member Fergus Dowd to establish the O’Connell fund.
At 44, O’Connell left England, his wife Ellen and three children, for a new life in Spain – at… Santander. Patrick became Don Patricio, sending money back to Manchester from Santander, Oviedo, Seville and Barcelona.
Though lauded in Seville, Don Patricio’s exploits for FC Barcelona arguably outshine those at Betis. FCB having poached the mercurial coach from the 1935 Spanish champions, they faced subsequent ruin when Falangist soldiers executed club president Josep Sunyol in August 1936. O’Connell rushed over to the war-torn city from his pre-season break in Ireland.
Despite losing players enlisted to fight the Franco regime, O’Connell took Barcelona on a lucrative ten-game tour of North America – and helped secure the club’s future.
O’Connell returned to Seville, where he coached both Betis and Sevilla in the 1940s. In June 1949, Spain went to Dublin to play a friendly with Ireland. At the game, Daniel O’Connell, who hadn’t seen his father for 25 years, approached the Spanish coach, Seville-born Guillermo Eizaguirre, for any possible news. Upon hearing that Don Patricio was still living in Seville, Daniel duly raised enough funds to visit him the following year.
Daniel, Mike O’Connell’s uncle, later related his journey in his story ‘Third Class to Seville’. Father and son met in Seville’s María Luisa Park.
‘It was all very sad,’ said Sue. ‘The family really didn’t know that much about Patrick after he cleared off in the 1920s. Daniel hadn’t seen his father since he was three. They didn’t get on at all. The first question Patrick asked his son was how Manchester United were doing.’
Patrick introduced Daniel to everyone as ‘his nephew’. The suspicions were that the great Don Patricio had another family in Seville – which turned out to be the case.
In 1954, at the Tertulía Bética supporters’ bar on Calle Tetuán in downtown Seville, a reporter collared O’Connell, quizzing Don Patricio about his plans. That day, Betis were playing an exhibition match against an Andaluz XI in the Don’s honour. ‘Urgent duties,’ declared the Irishman, ‘are calling me back to the homeland’.
Within five years, Patrick O’Connell, the great Don Patricio, was destitute… and dead.