Calls for Dubliner who saved FC Barcelona to be honoured by his home city

Fine Gael Councillor for the Ballymun Ward, Norma Sammon last night called on Dublin City Council to honour former FC Barcelona manager and Drumcondra resident, Patrick O’Connell in the lead up to the friendly match between the Spanish giants and Celtic in the Aviva Stadium on Saturday, July 30th.

O’Connell grew up in Dublin and played junior football before gaining his first professional contract with Belfast Celtic in 1909.

He would go on to play for and captain Manchester United and Ireland before moving to Spain in 1922 and becoming a manager who saved Barcelona from extinction and led Real Betis to their only La Liga title.

“It’s been 80 years since Patrick O’Connell won his first trophy for FC Barcelona, the Campionat de Catalunya, and I believe we should be honouring this local hero when his former club comes to visit Dublin in a few weeks’ time,” said Councillor Sammon.

“From kicking a ball on Fitzroy Avenue to saving a club, which now is one of the biggest and most successful clubs in world football, Patrick deserves some recognition in the lead up to the game.”

His career in Spain began at Racing Santander, who he managed to five regional titles before they were nominated as one of the founders of the Spanish league in 1928.

He then had a two-year spell at Real Oviedo before he was appointed manager of Real Betis, then a second division team formed by workers who felt no connection with the elitism and snobbishness of the city’s big team, Sevilla.

Under “Don Patricio”, as he was known by the clubs fans, Betis were promoted from the second division in 1932 and three years later won the league championship.

Patrick O Connell with the Real Betis squad and league championship trophy following their win in 1935
Patrick O Connell with the Real Betis squad and league championship trophy following their win in 1935

O’Connell’s success at Betis attracted the interest of Barcelona and he moved to the Catalan capital just as Spain was moving towards civil war.

With the political and economic situation worsening, Barcelona were struggling to stay in business.

The situation reached a crisis point as full-scale war erupted in July 1936.

The league was suspended but Barcelona played on in a regional division and became a symbol of defiance against Franco for the Catalan people.

In August 1936, the Barcelona president and prominent Catalan activist, Josep Sunyol, the man who had given O’Connell the managers job,  was arrested by pro-Franco forces and killed.

O’Connell was on holiday in Ireland and club officials sent him a message explaining they would understand if he did not return. He came back as quick as he could.

As the war raged on Barcelona teetered on the brink of bankruptcy.

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A lifeline came in 1937 when a Catalan businessman who had emigrated to Mexico, Manuel Mas Soriano, asked the club to tour his new home country, where the socialist government was hostile to Franco.

O’Connell rounded up his players and staff and sailed to Mexico, where they played six matches before carrying on to New York for four more exhibition games.

The tour cost the team most of their players, as only four returned with O’Connell back to Barcelona, with the rest either seeking asylum in Mexico or jumping out in France on the way home.

But the money made from the tour saved Barcelona from going bust and O’Connell went back to Ireland shortly afterwards having Barcelona’s secured future and his own enduring legacy with the club, something that Cllr Sammon feels should be honoured by his home town.

“Last night my motion was passed at the South East Area Committee meeting where I asked Dublin City Council to work with DCCBeta and local artists to commission a series of artistic street boxes near the Aviva Stadium to commemorate this specific occasion and reflect on Patrick’s own remarkable achievements.

“I also think the recognition will demonstrate our strong ties to Barcelona, which Dublin City has been twinned with since 1998.”

O’Connell returned to Spain during the second world war but failed to reach the heights of his previous spell.

He even took over Sevilla for a short spell, which didn’t upset his old fans at Betis because he was loved so much by them.

Following this spell with Sevilla he returned to London where he died of pneumonia in 1959.

Anyone looking to get involved should contact Cllr Sammon.

“I am now inviting artists to get in touch with me if they are interested in carrying out this project.

“It’s a unique opportunity to celebrate Patrick O’Connell’s footballing life that started on the streets of Dublin before reaching the heights of Belfast, Manchester, Seville and Barcelona”