The man who captained Man Utd, managed Barcelona and died penniless in London

Sat, Jul 30 2016

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MANY Irishmen have become legends at Man Utd over the years, but few can have had a story to rival that of Dubliner Paddy O’Connell.

 

Born into a working class family in Drumcondra, O’Connell was the first Irishman to captain Manchester United, won La Liga as manager of Real Betis, and is a hero in Barcelona for helping to save the Catalan giants from financial ruin during his time as manager.

 

Born in 1887 Patrick’s story is one of triumph and ultimately tragedy, as despite his mammoth sporting achievements, he died penniless, and alcoholic in a run-down digs in King’s Cross in London, and was buried in an unmarked grave among dozens of other impoverished Irish emigrants in Kilburn in 1959.

 

O’Connell’s story starts in a way typical of many Dubliners of his time. He played soccer for local side Stranville Juniors and worked as a labourer in Boland’s Mills on the northside of the City.

 

An uncompromising centre-half, O’Connell joined top Irish side Belfast Celtic and from there was transferred to English league side Sheffield Wednesday, had a short spell at Hull City, before joining Man Utd. for the then substantial fee of £1,000 in 1914.

 

His robust style proved a hit and O’Connell was named as captain of the Old Trafford side while still in his first season.

 

Those were lean years for the Red Devils. They avoided relegation from the top flight by just a point in O’Connell’s first year, with the club’s season overshadowed by a match fixing scandal that rocked the English game.

 

Needing a win in their final game of the season to be sure of staying up, United faced their old rivals Liverpool , with the Merseysiders having nothing to play for.

 

The day before the game, players from both clubs, including Manchester United Captain O’Connell, met in a pub and agreed to place bets at 8/1 on a favourable 2-0 final score.

 

With the game at that score line and the minutes ticking down, the Red Devils were awarded a penalty.

 

On the 2nd of April 1915, Good Friday, O’Connell took that kick, and shot well wide. The match ended 2-0. United stayed up and the flurry of correct goal score bets collected in the Manchester area aroused much suspicion.

 

A man of immense charm O’Connell is alleged to have talked his way out of ban from football.

 

It has been said that the players knew league football would be suspended due to the war, and wanted to earn as much as they could before that happened.

 

The league was suspended at the end of that season, so while he remained on Man Utd’s books the only football he played was as a ‘guest’ at non-league teams, while working in a munitions factory.

 

Paddy O’Connell won six caps for Ireland - three as team captain and was part of the first Ireland team to win the Home Nations Trophy in 1914.

 

O’Connell returned to the professional ranks after the war, and while playing for Dunbarton in Scotland in 1922, he disappeared for a number of weeks. Just as his wife and children were becoming reconciled to not hearing from him again, they received money Paddy sent from Spain. It would be the last time he would have any contact with them.

 

It’s not clear what brought the Dubliner there, but he landed on his feet quickly, becoming manager of Spanish top flight side Racing Santander.

 

O’Connell spent seven years at the club, during which time the offside rule was introduced to the Spanish game, and O’Connell became the first manger in La Liga to coach his team on how to play the ‘offside trap’.

 

O’Connell managed Real Oviedo, and then took over at Real Betis, taking that unfashionable side into the top flight and winning the club’s only ever Spanish Primera Liga title in 1935.

 

But as ever, controversy was never far away. To be sure of winning the title ahead of Real Madrid, Betis had to beat the club where O’Connell made his name, Racing Santander.

 

A former Santandar player later told how O’Connell went to the Santander hotel the night before the game and said: “You've got nothing to play for tomorrow. You won’t kill yourselves to beat us will you?”

 

The answer from one of the leading players was clear ‘I’m sorry, mister, but Madrid wants us to win. Our president, José María Cossio, is a Madrid fan himself and is offering us 1,000 pesetas per player if we win." Apparently Paddy didn't pursue matter. Nevertheless Real Betis thumped Racing Santander 5-0 to clinch the Primera Liga title the following day.

 

A statue to O’Connell exists outside the club’s ground to this day and the Betis’ fans gave him the affectionate nickname ‘Don Patricio’. .

 

His success at unfashionable Betis attracted the interest of Catalan giants Barcelona and O’Connell joined the famous club as manager in the summer of 1935.

 

In his first season he guided them to the Spanish Cup final, but the chance of further progress was halted when La Liga was suspended in 1936 as a result of the Spanish Civil War.

 

This suspension had a severe financial impact on the Catalan club, and their very existence was threatened until O’Connell led them on a ground breaking tour of North America - thus securing the club’s future.

 

For his part in saving the club from extinction, Paddy has a special place in the heart of FC Barcelona Fans. There is a bar named after him in the city and a memorial to him in the official club museum.

 

The Dubliner wound down his managerial career with a spell at Seville in the 1940’s, guiding the club to second in the league before leaving after three years in 1945.

 

O’Connell’s life after football was less successful. He had lost touch with his wife and children years before, and drifted between London and Spain for a number of years.

 

He died in a shabby boarding house near King’s Cross Station, alcoholic and destitute in 1959.

 

In recent years a memorial has been erected at his graveside in Kilburn, partly funded by FC Barcelona. There are many legends of Irish football, but few can have packed quite as much into their lives as the Drumcondra man they called ‘Don Patricio.’

 

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