The legend of Don Patricio

The coach won Real Betis only league title

Patrick O´Connell is one of the sacred names in Real Betis Balompié history. The coach who took the team to the league title in 1935.

This is the story of a football missionary. Of a charismatic scoundrel and a fantastic professional. Of someone who never believed in the impossible. Of a player and coach way ahead of his time who already defended that speed was key in a time when football was only taking its first steps. This is the story of a brave man on the green and for the green? and a coward for a family who adored him and adores him in his memory.

Patrick Joseph O´Connell was born in Westmeath on the 8th of March of 1887, but his family moves soon to Mabel Street in Drumcondra, in the heart of North Dublin. When he is just 14, he gets a job as a miller at Ringsend Road and his days are split between the hours he spends sweating at work and the hours he spends kicking a piece of leather. He likes to play as what later would be known as sweeper, not letting anything come close to his goal and raising the spirits of all his teammates. He was, stories tell, the soul of every match.

His first team was Liffey Wanderers. A stevedores and sailors club that used to spend the day working their callous hands among tar, wood and rope. They didn't understand football as something light. Their games were, in fact, hard and violent, so young Paddy learnt and enjoyed with this primitive game. Even today, there are still in Dublin a few elder who gather around to have a pint and sing a chorus that highlighted the spirit of that club: "We don't care if we win, draw or lose / as all we care / is that it will be a good game / and good ol' Liffey will be there."

In 1908, Patrick gets his girlfriend Ellen pregnant and the social pressure forces him to get married. He uses the moment to escape to Belfast. The capital of Ulster was a busy industrial city and in expansion, with nearly half a million workers looking for (and finding) a job at the docks. The O'Connell family settled in a humble neighbourhood where their first son, Patrick, is born and Paddy signs for Belfast Celtic. The Mighty Celtics, as they were known, were a referent for the Catholic and Northern Irish nationalist community.

Soon, O'Connell's skills draw attention in England and, one year later, Sheffield Wednesday pay 50 pounds for his transfer. At the 'Owls' ? back then one of the most powerful teams in the Isles ? he barely played 21 games in three seasons. He is not happy as a player and his wife Ellen has to look after their children far from their home country and with a husband that is becoming more absent by the day.

Ireland and Manchester

At least, in this time, he is training with Ireland national team. He soon became the skipper and was one of the protagonists of one of their biggest deeds. Then, the Republic of Ireland did not exist as such and the matches of the Triple Crown Tournament had an especially nationalist meaning. After beating England for the first time in Ayresome Park (3-0), the Irish could win the trophy if they tied with Scotland. O'Connell, key player in that team, played that game even if he had just broken his arm. As another teammate also fell injured, the match is remembered as the 'Nine men and a half match.' The score was 1-1 and Ireland won the only trophy in their history.

At that time, Patrick is playing at Hull but Manchester United do not hesitate and pay one thousand pounds to sign the first Irishman in the club's history. We are in 1914 and the Great War has already started, but is not enough to stop football in the Isles. The O'Connell family already has three children and they are tired of moving so many times. Apart from that, Ellen suspects that her husband is unfaithful to her and not just with football.

However, on the pitch, O'Connell is doing well at Old Trafford. He finds a job as a foreman in a Ford factory and only needs six months to become the team's skipper. He plays, in 1915, what has been labeled as the most fixed game in history, according to the English press. A betting scandal in a match between United and Liverpool on Good Friday of 1915, with a result of seven players banned for life. O'Connell was not one of them, even he missed a penalty ? and not just wide, he almost hit the corner flag. Maybe that miss (the score was 1-0 and the theoretically fixed score was 2-0 for United) saved Patrick's honour. Anyhow, as his grandson Mike years later told The Guardian "if he was in, he surely enjoyed it."

In 1915, War beats football and O'Connell moves to London to live with his brother Larry, a scrounger and activist. He works in an ammunition factory there. Once the conflict is over, he goes through a rough time ? because of his age and the fixed match incident ? finding a top team. For this reason, he spends the last years of his playing career in small clubs of north England and Scotland. It is in the modest Ashington where he begins his coaching career and not far from there, in the train station of Newcastle, he sees his wife Ellen and three of his four children for the last time. From that moment, the only notice from her husband that she will have is a parcel with Spanish stamps with some Pesetas. Ashington, a miners' village, is in a permanent agitation state and football is not important among so many strikes. His contract is not renewed and he decides to set sail to the north of Spain.

He arrives to Santander and takes the place left by Fred Pentland in 1922 and transforms Racing in the hegemonic team in Cantabria, winning five regional championships and qualifying them to the first Liga ever (1928-29). He was sacked, as he confessed in an interview with Marca "because I insisted in playing as a left midfielder a player the fans did not believe in, they though he was awful. That player was called Larrinaga. I was sacked and Larrinaga? went to the national team." He goes from Racing to Oviedo, playing in Second Division. He did not end well in Asturias either because he decided to play midfielder Lángara as a striker. Time eventually also gave him reason; O'Connell always stated that Lángara was the best striker Spain ever had.

Arrival to Betis

After a sabbatical year, in summer of 1932, O'Connell signs for Betis (it was not Real at that moment as Spain was a republic). The news generates a great impact among the Green and White fans because the team had just got promoted with a brilliant job by coach Emilio Sampere. The fans complained because they considered it unfair? until they realised O'Connell was the right man.

He moves into Porvenir neighbourhood, not even a twenty-minute walk from Patronato Field, where the team plays. His training sessions are demanding and innovative but once the work is done, he tries to be just another man in the squad. In fact, in a time when coaches used to oversee the trainings sitting down, smoking, and dressed in a suit, O'Connell used to wear a jumper and shorts and sweated with his men. His football is focused on defence but, especially, he wanted the players to understand each other. A group made of six Basque players, three from the Canary Islands, three from Seville and one from Almeria, and they all perfectly syncronised with the others. The couple in defence Areso-Aedo was feared. Whoever dared to get close to Betis area "might lose a leg", the legend says.

Betis wins the league ahead of Madrid thanks to a 0-5 in Santander. On the 28th of April of 1935, the team beats Racing in spite of the president of the team from Cantabria, José María de Cossío, who a was renowned madridista, had given a bonus of 1,000 pesetas per head to his players. The blackboards in the Seville's Feria announced, which made many attendants happy, the news. The welcome and celebrations the players received when they returned were epic. As much as the deed they had achieved.

In those days, Patrick is already Don Patricio. He goes to the debate club of Betis fan club in Tetuán Street and he is very well adapted to Spain. He then meets ? and marries ? another Irish woman called Ellen ? said to be the governess of the children of King Alphonse XIII - who looked much alike the one he left in England. The two women never met each other. Patrick did not seem to care much about it either.

Barça and the war

In the summer of 1935, Barcelona offer him the bench and O'Connell goes with the idea of leaving a mark with the culé club. He instills his methods and makes the team champion of Catalonia and runner-up of the Spain Cup (lost 2-1 against Madrid). He has a young and promising group of players with Balmanya and Escolá as main starts. The Civil War begins with O'Connell on holiday in his home country. He receives a letter from Barcelona telling him that they would perfectly understand if he did not return. The Irishman knows how it is. He also knows that the president who hired him, Josep Sunyol I Garriga, has just been executed by a Francoist firing squad. But O'Connell makes his baggage and he tells his bosses that he has a commitment and contract that is beyond bombs.

La Liga stops because of the war and Barça look for resources to keep playing and generating income. Manuel Mas Soriano, a Catalan entrepreneur living in Mexico, organizes a tour through his foster country and O'Connell and his players go on a four-month tour that also takes them to the United States. They earn 5,000 dollars that they immediately put in a Swiss account to avoid to be confiscated by the Spanish authorities. That money was key to the team's survival after the war, especially because only four players returned to Spain, as the rest feared the retaliation of the new regime. O'Connell does come back, but is put aside ? perhaps because he was sympathetic to the republican cause ? until he is sacked in 1940.

He then remembers his beloved Betis and he comes back to help them back to the top division. He does it in his second season and, surprisingly, decides then to sign for the bitter rivals, At Sevilla, though, he is not well seen because of his past and also his present: he is still attending Betis debate clubs. However, his work is impeccable. In the three seasons he stayed in Nervión, his team finished second (1942-43), third, (1943-44) and tenth (1944-45). Just one year after he departed, Sevilla FC won their first (and only) league title).

His career as a coach ended with two poor experiences in Santander and again at Betis. In 1954, the Green and White Club organized a sentimental testimonial game. There, he was photographed in a pose that would always be remembered by the fans: with his Torino hat in one hand, waving to the fans.

A year later, in November, a young man called Dan O'Connell goes to a pub in Dublin where a few Spanish players are relaxing after a 2-2 match against Ireland. He asks them if any of them knows of a man called Patrick O'Connell. "Of course!" they reply. And Guillermo Eizaguirre, the national coach who is from Seville, tells him where he can find him. Daniel does not hesitate and goes to the Andalusian capital. There, his father decides to meet him in María Luisa Park and, after 37 years, his first question is: "How's United doing?"

Obviously, the meeting was is not very positive to neither of them and Daniel, who told his story in 'Trip to Seville in third class', is presented in the city as Patrick's nephew. However, his second wife realizes the situation and that harms their relationship. Out of that encounter, the most memorable quotes of the old coach are born: "Spain is like a football match in which both teams try to bribe the referee" and "Seville is a place where people live as they were going to die that same night."

Not much later, alone and broke, he goes to London to live in his brother's house attic. He dies of pneumonia in 1959 and is buried in Kensal Green Cemetery in a grave with no name. Poet Peter Goulding made a ballad for him that ended like this: "In London, he passed on, both penniless and friendless / A tired old man with no will to survive / But in the Catalan region, his legend is endless / As the hero who kept Barcelona alive".

In 2018, Real Betis received a bust of Patrick O'Connel. The sculpture, made in green marble from Connermara, is a gift of the Patrick O'Connell Memorial Fund, a group promoted by many Irish and English fans to recover the memory of the coach who was league champion in 1935. The sculpture of O'Connell, with his everlasting hat, has a prominent place at Benito Villamarín Stadium since then. President Ángel Haro received it on the pitch just before a game. The coach's grandson, Michael O'Connell and his wife Sue, biographer of the Green and White coach, led the representation of the POCMF, with Irish MP Maureen O'Sullivan, and Betis fans from Ireland, England and Scotland.

Later, a picture of Don Patricio O'Connell has been given to Real Betis. The painting on Manchester slate is made by Mancunian artist Tony Denton and is part of Real Betis museum.

Also FC Barcelona has a place for his bust in their museum, and Manchester United have him listed among their most important players. In 2015, Irish artist Danny Devenney painted a mural in Falls Road in Belfast to honour his memory.

The memory, after all, of a man who regarded life as a place to praise football.