1959. He was discovered dead in his brother’s attic, pneumonia having claimed another penniless soul. Buried in St. Mary’s Churchyard, in an unmarked grave, Patrick Joseph O’Connell was gone and seemingly forgotten. It was an unremarkable end to a man who led a colourful and sometimes controversial life. He was the Manchester United captain embroiled in scandal, a title-winning manager for Real Betis and FC Barcelona’s saviour. O’Connell was many things – in Spain he was affectionately dubbed “Don Patricio.”
Born in County Westmeath, Ireland on 8 March 1887, O’Connell grew up in Dublin making a name as a central defender, earning his first professional contract in 1909 for Belfast Celtic. His performances caught the attention of Sheffield Wednesday who signed him and his teammate, Peter Warren, for a combined fee of £50.
O’Connell’s time at the Yorkshire club didn’t amount to much and after three seasons he moved to Hull City. The defender’s performances were not the catalyst for his move to United though. Instead, O’Connell caught the eye in the British Home Championship when Ireland won the title for the first time in 1914 – the Irish claimed the title with a 1-1 draw against Scotland after beating England 3-0 and Wales 2-1.
By all accounts O’Connell had an impressive game against the Scots despite playing with a broken arm – a fee of £1,000 was agreed with Hull, allowing the Irishman to make the move to Old Trafford in May 1914. Unfortunately United and O’Connell World War I would start at the end of July. O’Connell became the first player from the south to wear the red of United and he was the first Irishman to captain the club as well, donning the armband in the 1914-15 season. He scored just twice for United, but is best remembered for a missed penalty in, arguably, the most infamous game in the club’s rich history.
In the 1914-15 season O’Connell’s team was languishing in the bottom half of the First Division. With relegation a distinct possibility, players from United and Liverpool (safe in mid-table) came together to rig a match in the Manchester club’s favour.
[blockquote]Good Friday, 2 April 1915, United conspired to beat Liverpool 2-0 at Old Trafford in a match that was, by contemporary reports, a haphazard affair, with passes going astray with alarming regularity.[/blockquote]
United led 1-0 thanks to George Anderson’s strike when the referee awarded the home side a penalty. O’Connell demanded the ball – only for the spot kick to be struck so wildly that it ‘almost hit the corner flag’.
Anderson scored again to make the result 2-0, although it wasn’t long before bookmakers questioned the result’s validity, noting that large sums of money were placed on a 2-0 victory to United at odds of up to 8/1 prior to the match.
The Football Association investigated and discovered that players from both teams had agreed to rig the result. Seven people were ultimately found guilty of match fixing, including Liverpool’s Jackie Sheldon (a former United player), Tom Miller, Bob Purcell and Tom Fairfoul, and United’s Sandy Turnbull, Enoch West and Arthur Whalley.
It was with some irony that Anderson, who scored a brace, had refused to take part in the scam, whilst Old Trafford’s star player Billy Meredith admitted that he became wary when his teammates didn’t pass him the ball. Despite suspicions O’Connell was not found guilty of match fixing.
“I don’t know whether he was involved but he would have had it in him,” O’Connell’s grandson, Mike, once noted of the suspiciously poorly aimed kick. “He would have enjoyed the intrigue, and I am certain that he was a marked man after that.”
In the aftermath historians have suggested that the players involved in the fix feared that the 1915-16 season would be suspended because of war and their careers, not to mention income, would suffer. Indeed, football was suspended as the 1914-15 campaign came to a close. It became a theme in O’Connell’s career – war followed the Irishman whether playing or managing.
O’Connell’s playing career was undistinguished after departing United. He appeared as a guest for Clapton Orient, Rochdale and Chesterfield during the Great War, and then joined Dumbarton in 1919, before concluding a playing career at non-league Ashington.
His biggest achievements came in Spain, although true to a checkered history nothing was ever straightforward. O’Connell departed for Santander in 1922, leaving behind his wife and four children behind. He managed Los Racinguistas until 1929, reportedly introducing ‘the trap’ when the offside-law came into force. O’Connell won five regional titles with the club before leaving to coach Real Oviedo after seven years in charge.
The stint at Oviedo lasted until 1931 when he moved on to Real Betis, then known as Betis Balompie. O’Connell led the side to the Segunda División crown in 1932 before guiding Béticos to the club’s only La Liga success in 1935 – pipping none other than Real Madrid to the title.
Yet, even that achievement was shrouded with more than a whiff of funny business. Facing his old side Santander in the final game of the 1935 season O’Connell, allegedly, spoke to his old colleagues and players beforehand, asking them to take it easy on his side. The response was an unequivocal ‘NO’ and O’Connell was reportedly told that Santander’s President was a huge supporter of Los Merengues. It mattered not as Betis hammered Santander 5-0 to secure the league.
“He changed everything,” explains Betis public relations officer Julio Jiménez Heras. “His professionalism was amazing, his fitness and tactical ideas ahead of his time. Plus he was really warm and charismatic, his players loved him. The people loved him too as he became a well-known and respected character around the city. I think he found a second home here. He used to say that he loved Sevilla because the people here live life like it is their last day on Earth.”
As if to emphasise that observation O’Connell married again while in Betis despite still having a wife back in England.
O’Connell’s exploits at Betis were noticed by Barcelona president Josep Sunyol who appointed the Irishman as the Barca manager in 1935. In O’Connell’s first season at Camp Nou he led his new club to the Campionat de Catalunya, whilst losing 2-1 to Real Madrid in the final of the Copa de España – a game noted for Los Merengues’ keeper Ricardo Zamora’s “miraculous” save to maintain his side’s advantage.
In July 1936 the Spanish Civil War broke out – and a month later Josep Sunyol was killed by pro-Franco forces. O’Connell, who was holidaying in Ireland, received a message from the club stating they would understand if he decided not to return. O’Connell came back to the Catalan club when it needed him most. Indeed, with Barca on the brink of bankruptcy the club was offered a tour Mexico in 1937 by Catalan businessman, Manuel Mas Soriano. O’Connell rounded up his players and staff and set sail to the Central American nation.
What was meant to be a two-week tour turned into a two-month exhibition as Barcelona played six games in Mexico and a further four in New York. O’Connell played an important part, charming his hosts as the tour raised nearly $14,000, which was transferred to an account in Paris so as to prevent it from being seized by hostile forces back in Spain.
Barcelona returned with just four players – the rest either claimed asylum in Mexico or opted to live in France. However, the money earned on the tour allowed the club to clear its debts and remain afloat. Had it not been for O’Connell many historians believe that the Catalan superclub could have ceased to exist.
In later years O’Connell went on to manage Betis once again, Sevilla and Racing Santander during World War II, before returning to England in 1958. From living as a football legend in Spain, O’Connell became a forgotten man on the streets of London. Yet, after years of seemingly being lost to the annals of time ‘Don Patricio’ was inducted into the Barcelona Hall of Fame in December 2015.
It’s a story worth remembering the next time you stumble across a match featuring the Catalan giants, a club whose existence owes much to a former United captain.