Volume 6, Number 1

March 2008

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Don Patricio O’Connell
An Irishman and the Politics of Spanish Football


By Jimmy Burns [1]  


Patrick O'Connell (1887-1959)
(El País, 28 April 2007)

Football in the Spanish-speaking world owes a great deal to foreigners, not least those of an Anglo-Saxon or Gaelic background. The game in South America and in Spain, like the railways and the mines, followed the flag of British colonialism with traders and colonisers of English, Scottish, Welsh, and Irish origin helping to form the first football clubs as part of their social engagement with the ‘natives’. While Latin American countries south of the Río Grande, led by Brazil and Argentina, would see a new home-grown style of football emerging from local talent, the involvement in Spanish football of ingleses, as the northern foreigners came to be generically referred to, proved more enduring. Of those overseeing the development of clubs, nowadays associated with Spain’s Primera Liga, few characters have earned as much belated recognition as Patrick O’Connell, the Dublin-born international and Manchester United player who went on to manage five Spanish clubs, most notably FC Barcelona, when Catalans were torn apart by the Civil War. 

Until a few years ago, the figure of O’Connell was largely unknown to millions of football fans around the world, and had been overlooked by historians of Spanish history. After living in Spain, O’Connell fell on hard times. Withdrawn from the game and unable to find any alternative employment, he died destitute in London in 1959, aged 72. His fascinating story would have undoubtedly stayed for ever lost amidst the abandoned plots of some north London cemetery had it not be for my fortuitous encounter in the mid-1990s while researching the political and social history of FC Barcelona. While watching a match at the club’s massive stadium the Camp Nou, a young Irish student and passionate football fan engaged me in conversation.   

It was during the early stage of my research, and I was slightly daunted by the prospect of writing about FC Barcelona - or Barça as it is popularly known - within the wider context of Spanish history, while doing justice to the wealth of talent that had either played at or managed the club during the years since its foundation in 1899. When the student asked whether I was going to devote some pages to O’Connell’s time at Barça, I had to confess that I had so far only stumbled upon his name by chance in a short history of managers I had unearthed in the club’s archives. Thanks to the student, I learnt that O’Connell had some relatives living in Manchester and that, in addition, there were survivors of his time in Spain who might have a story to tell. My subsequent investigation into O’Connell’s life helped me to build up a profile of the man and the times he lived in while in Spain. 

There is a sense in which O’Connell’s life on the sharp political edge of Iberian football is a chronicle of a story foretold. It is difficult to separate his arrival in Barcelona in the 1930s from his birth into the Ireland of the 1880s. O’Connell was born into a working class family whose nationalist politics and emigration were influenced by the Irish potato famine of 1845-9. To this day little is known about O’Connell’s background. It is safe to assume however that the fate of his relations on both sides of the Atlantic was sealed by the deeply disturbing events of those years. For the young Patrick, from the outset football provided both an escape and a sense of identity. He played as a junior for the Dublin team Stranville Rovers before joining Belfast Celtic during a period when the politics of sectarianism and religious bigotry were beginning to cast a long shadow across the island of Ireland.

It was at Belfast Celtic during the early years of the twentieth century that O’Connell began to make his mark as a tough and talented defender. The club was by then the leading light in Irish soccer, as popular if not more so than some of the more traditional Gaelic football teams. Founded in the traditionally Catholic Falls Road of Belfast in 1891, it was named after Glasgow Celtic which it wished to emulate in the style of its play and the passionate loyalty of its supporters. Football, or soccer, as they liked to call it, allowed working-class Irish nationalists to reach out across the Irish Channel, and find common cause with those of similar ancestral roots on the British mainland.

O’Connell had spells as a player at Sheffield Wednesday and Hull City, before moving to Manchester United in 1914. Originally founded in 1878 as Newton Heath, the club changed its name to Manchester United Football Club, but only after serious consideration had been given to the alternative name of Manchester Celtic. The Irish contribution to Manchester United’s greatness has been noted by football historians. But O’Connell’s place in the club’s history is somewhat dwarfed by that of other Irishmen who have distinguished themselves as major stars. It is not O’Connell, but names like McGrath, Whiteside, Stapleton, Best and Keane that have come to form intrinsic elements of the Red Legend.

Despite famously captaining Ireland with a broken arm and being part of the team that won the 1914 Home Championship with ten men, O’Connell’s stint at Manchester United during the 1914/15 season coincided with a slump in the club’s fortunes after an earlier successful period under its first real team manager Ernest Magnall. O’Connell scored two goals in thirty-five league appearances during a season that saw the club narrowly escape relegation by one point before it was submerged in a match-fixing scandal with which he was associated.

It was on the eve of a match between Manchester United and Liverpool that O’Connell met up with a group of players from both sides in a pub and agreed to lay an 8-1 bet that United would win by 2-0. This was indeed the scoreline when it fell to O’Connell to take a penalty. He took the penalty and the ball went very wide. The day was Good Friday and no doubt a sense of guilt and subsequent contrition took hold of the still relatively young O’Connell. Years later his picaresque inventiveness reaped a rich reward at FC Barcelona. Yet on the eve of the so-called Great War, it brought him shame at Manchester United, even though he escaped criminal charges.

Like millions of his generation, O’Connell subsequently had his controversial stay at the club brought to an abrupt end by the First World War, with all competitive football in the United Kingdom suspended from 1915 through to 1919. It was a conflict that cost the life of the Manchester United star Alec ‘Sandy’ Turnbull, among countless other amateur and professional football players. O’Connell managed to save himself from the worst horrors of the trenches, and played on throughout the rest of the war and its immediate aftermath in lesser known amateur clubs on both sides of the Scottish border, including two seasons as a ‘collier’ with the non-League Ashington AFC. This was one of the oldest clubs in Northumberland, where the legendary Charlton brothers, Jack and Bobby, would later begin their footballing careers as ball boys.   

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Copyright © Society for Irish Latin American Studies, 2008 

Online published: 12 March 2008
Edited: 07 May 2009

Burns, Jimmy
, 'Don Patricio O’Connell: An Irishman and the Politics of Spanish Football' in "Irish Migration Studies in Latin America" 6:1 (March 2008), pp. 39-47. Available online  (www.irlandeses.org/imsla0803.htm), accessed .


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