FC Barcelona is regarded as one of the most successful and iconic football clubs in the world and has a rich history of enormous success on the football pitch. It has also claimed some of the best footballers in history such as Ronaldinho, Johan Cruyff and Lionel Messi.
With such an impressive past, it is perhaps easy for some remarkable pieces of the club's history to go under the radar. One such example which doesn’t get the attention it deserves is the amazing story of the Irishman, Patrick O’Connell, who many claim to be the man who saved FC Barcelona.
Born in Drumcondra, Dublin in 1887, O’Connell enjoyed a very successful playing and managerial career. After leaving Ireland to play in England, he enjoyed spells at Sheffield Wednesday, Hull City and even captained another major club, Manchester United.
It was football management which brought O’Connell to Spain first managing Racing Santander before taking over at Real Oviedo and subsequently Real Betis. He enjoyed enormous success at Betis and helped the side win their only-ever La Liga title in 1935.
The victory caught the eye of the Catalan giants who appointed O’Connell the following year. Not long into his position, the situation in Spain was rocked by the outbreak of the Spanish civil war.
Barcelona was a Republican stronghold at the time and the city strongly opposed Francisco Franco’s fascist regime. The war also crippled the finances of the football club and threatened its very existence.
To avoid financial ruin, O’Connell toured the United States and Mexico, playing matches and raising funds to save the club. Nathan Mannion from the Irish Emigration Museum, has studied O'Connell's story in great detail.
He told the Irish Central that “The club had significant debts before they left, so they toured the US and Mexico and played some exhibition matches there. They managed to raise about $12,900, a significant amount that covered their debts. They kept the money in a French bank account for safety purposes.”
While not all the players ended up returning to Barcelona, O’Connell did and ensured the club got the proceeds of the tour. He also continued to manage the side during the civil war.
After managing more sides in Spain, he returned to London in 1949 and died in 1959 having never truly gotten the recognition for his achievements. The story has gone somewhat under the radar in both Irish and Barcelona football histories but it is a frightening thought about what football could have been like without the intervention and determination of O’Connell and his Barcelona side.