Inspiration for my blogposts often comes from family and friends who comment or ask a question about a place in Santander and this one is no different. If you know me personally you know my knowledge of the city’s football team, Racing Santander (pronounced Ra-thing San-tan-der) is pretty basic. It’s taken me 24 years to attend a match in the stadium which I did in May and thoroughly enjoyed. But I’m not going to write about that experience. I’m following orders from my father to write about the Irish football player and manager Patrick O’Connell (1887-1959) who trained Racing Santander before moving on to winning the Liga for Seville’s Real Betis and helping to save FC Barcelona from financial ruin.
O’Connell’s Football Career Before Spain
For those of you who’ve never heard of this man before, the story starts here in Dublin’s Fitzroy Street, right next to Croke Park, if you know the city.
Who is this man and why does he merit a plaque – you are probably asking? Although Patrick O’Connell left school at 14 to work in Boland’s Mill, he obviously squeezed in enough time for football practice because he secured his first professional contract with Belfast Celtic in 1908. He then crossed the Irish Sea to play for Sheffield Wednesday, Hull City and he played for the Irish team at various international matches including the British Home Games of 1914. Football was a tough game back then, although when O’Connell played through a match he was captaining with a broken arm, it didn’t go unnoticed! Patrick was signed up to Manchester United that same year and was made captain within six months. He captained the infamous rigged final of the 1914/15 season that was played at home against Liverpool but was cleared of any wrong-doing. As you might imagine, the war years were lean ones for everybody with little disposable income for football matches. By 1919 O’Connell had left Manchester for Dumbarton in Scotland. His last contract as a footballer was with Ashington in the North of England where he also took on the role of manager.
Moving to Northern Spain as a Trainer
From Northern England, Patrick O’Connell moved to Spain in 1922 to become manager of Racing Santander. It was a huge move but one that would enable him to stay close to his true passion. Patrick trained the club here for seven years straight, guiding the side to five regional titles, and fighting for the club to be a founding member of La Liga during his final year. But very little about his time here is documented. The early years in Santander seem to be footnotes rather than chapters in his life. Most of the references to this period relate to his personal life – and I suppose I can’t blame anybody for taking an interest in what was a bizarre coincidence of sorts. It was here that he met an Irish woman, called Ellen, a governess to one of Madrid’s elite families. It was fashionable for families in Madrid to spend their Summers in Santander and many brought their governesses along. Patrick’s relationship with Ellen isn’t remarkable until you learn that O’Connell had left a wife and four children behind him in Manchester. And his wife’s name was also Ellen. Patrick married again and kept as low a profile as possible to prevent his family in Manchester from ever hearing of his second wife.
Uncovering O’Connell’s and Racing’s past in Santander
In a bid to read of more than just the man’s infidelity, I contacted Fergus Dowd of the Patrick O’Connell Memorial Fund to ask him about the Santander years. This Memorial Fund has raised the football manager’s profile significantly over recent years (as have the O’Connell family in Manchester). Dowd told me that Santander was a hugely defining and formative time for O’Connell. He spoke of the professionalism O’Connell brought to the team in Santander and how everything that brought him success later on had been trialled in Santander. Dowd’s positivity (and probably an impending visit from my father) encouraged me to dig a little deeper.
My next move was to get in touch with the Racing football club who put me onto Jose Manuel Holgado Munoz, who works with the Racing Foundation and is the co-author of a trilogy of books called “Un Siglo con el Real Racing Club” which recount an amazing blend of sporting, social and political history. Inside the covers, I was dazzled by the history of the beautiful game here in Cantabria. I learned that the first football match in Santander took place in 1902, that Racing was formed in a bar on Paseo Pereda in 1913, and, that the club received Royal approval in 1921. I also read that Patrick O’Connell wasn’t the club’s first trainer from abroad. That honour went to Fred Pentland in 1921. But the English trainer moved one year later to Athletic Bilbao where they went on to win the Copa and the Liga . When Pentland left, Racing decided to look beyond Spain again and Patrick O’Connell was signed up in 1922.
O’Connell’s Time in Santander
By the time I met up with Jose Manuel Holgado Munoz, I was completely intrigued with the club and the Irish trainer who came here. And Jose Manuel went on to spend a few hours explaining why O’Connell was such an engaging person, highlighting the attributes of the man and the aura that surrounded him. Had I known that Patrick shared a ‘pension’ or rooms with Oscar Rodriguez Lopez, one of his players, when he came to Santander? Didn’t I know he was the life and soul of every party himself but wouldn’t let his players drink or smoke before a game. (Football only became professional in Spain in 1926 and standards varied from team to team.)
Jose Manuel told me that Patrick wasn’t a fluent Spanish speaker but that didn’t stop him from interacting with all around him and immersing himself in the local customs and culture. As you can see in the image above, he knew a good bullfight when he saw one and is said to have taken part in a ‘capea’ which is a practice session with younger bulls himself. It is also said that he enjoyed Spanish food and never missed an opportunity to try regional specialties when travelling with the team. One story I came across suggests that O’Connell ate four paellas on a trip to Valencia before convincing the janitor of the football grounds, who had a good reputation when it came to making paella, to make him up a fifth.
Jose Manuel said that Patrick not only trained the team at Racing but also played on the pitch himself – giving the example of an early game when some players were away at the war in Morocco. Racing didn’t win the game that day but O’Connell certainly won the crowd around with his ball skills and command of the game. By the time he left Racing, his skills as a trainer were acknowledged throughout the country.
If I were to pick out O’Connell’s greatest achievement here in Santander, I suppose it would have to be securing a place for Racing in the newly expanded First Division Liga – ahead of much larger clubs such as Sevilla FC. In fact, when Racing came bottom in that first season, it had to beat Seville’s oldest club, who had topped the Second Division and in doing so, kept its place in the Spanish Premier League.
But I might have to add that his achievements off the pitch were pretty remarkable also. No, I’m not referring to his marriage to a second Ellen. I mean the friendships he made here that would last his lifetime. I find that people from other cities often describe Santanderinos as being very closed to outsiders but once you show that you are here for the long haul, it’s impossible not to make friends here – which is exactly what happened to O’Connell. Jose Manuel said that Patrick O’Connell’s ties to this city were life-long and that he visited as often as he could when he left the city for Oviedo, Seville and Barcelona. His friendships here would stand to him as he progressed through the Spanish clubs.
Patrick in Oviedo, Seville & Barcelona
After Patrick was given his marching orders at the very end of that first league following a 4:1 loss in Barcelona, he moved to Real Oviedo for two years, filling a position that had been held by Fred Pentland and it appears that his second wife Ellen moved with him. Oviedo did ascend to the Liga but not on Patrick’s guard – that happened one year later. In many ways, Patrick’s time in Oviedo gets even less limelight than his time in Santander. But I was able to glean some information from the biography of a well-known player at Oviedo called Emilín thank to a tip off from Jose Manuel Holgado Munoz. It seems O’Connell had encouraged the young player to stretch himself as a player, getting him to try new positions and to learn to use his left foot. The player said O’Connell left over discrepancies of opinion with management regarding players’ positions. He wrote about O’Connell’s departure, “I was half orphaned in sporting terms. O’Connell had been marvellous with me and much of what I achieved in football is due to him. And the worst of it is was that we were all happy with the Irishman. But these things seem to happen in football.”
The Big Guns Come Calling
As we all know, football management is not for the faint hearted. O’Connell had now been fired from Racing and Oviedo. He needed a job to support his second wife (not to mention the odd cheque to be sent back to Manchester). Help came from Patrick’s connections in Santander. You can read below a letter from FC Barcelona to Jose Maria de Cossio, a member of the board of Racing, regarding Patrick O’Connell.
FC Barcelona was expressing an interest in signing Patrick and was requesting a character reference and salary expectations. A series of letters went between Cossio, O’Connell and the President of FC Barcelona until a letter dated 27 August 1931 informed Cossio that Barcelona has chosen to hire its former manager Jack Greenwell. It’s not clear whether this was because O’Connell had found another appointment or Greenwell was the preferred choice. But Barcelona’s loss was to be Seville’s gain because Patrick signed with Betis and moved to the Andalusian capital.
Patrick’s Time in Seville
Patrick moved to Seville in 1932 to train Real Betis Balompie. His time there could have been cut short when O’Connell’s friend Jose Maria de Cossio became President of Racing. When the trainer who had replaced O’Connell, Robert Edwin Firth, moved on after a year to Madrid FC (or Real Madrid as it was to become known), negotiations took place at Racing to get O’Connell back to Santander. Despite the efforts of the club’s new president, the trainer Randolph Galloway was hired instead and so Patrick stayed on at Betis.
Patrick O’Connell or Don Patricio, as he is often referred to, is still remembered to this day in the Andalusian capital because Betis won the 1935 La Liga title on his watch. It was the club’s first and only Liga win to date. What a massive achievement it was for a team that wasn’t even considered the best side in Seville. In an rather unusual twist of fate, Betis had to beat Racing Santander in Santander on the last day of the season. O’Connell is said to have suggested to friends on the Racing squad that they didn’t need to kill themselves on the pitch. But his plea to the Racing players was offset by a reward for a win by their President, Jose Maria de Cossio. You see, although Cossio was a great friend of O’Connell, he was also a friend of Jose Samitier, who was working as a scout for Real Madrid. And the Madrid side needed Racing to win that game for them to take the title. But it wasn’t to be Madrid’s year. O’Connell’s side hammered Santander 5-0 and every year on the anniversary of the win, Betis supporters go a bit nuts.
O’Connell in Barcelona, Mexico & the USA
Whatever happened during the discussions the first time round, FC Barcelona was not prepared to let O’Connell slip through their hands, for a second time. Patrick was hired that same year. And this is the period of his life that attracts most interest especially from Irish fans who love the idea of O’Connell dodging the fiscal grip of Franco’s dictatorship. (At the time, his efforts may not have been so appreciated on his home turf as DeValera’s Ireland had more sympathy for the Nationalist side.) O’Connell was actually in Ireland during the Summer of 1936 when the Spanish Civil War broke out but instead of staying on in safety, he decided to return to Barcelona to his team. As the city was under siege, help came from a Catalan businessman in Mexico who invited FC Barcelona on a paid tour of Mexico and the USA in 1937 with a handsome price tag for their trouble. O’Connell and his team didn’t have to think twice. The tour was hugely successful and before returning to Barcelona, the club’s officials deposited the earnings in a bank account in Paris far away from Franco’s coffers. Although O’Connell managed to help save FC Barcelona from financial ruin, he spent just one more year at the club. Seville was calling him again.
Patrick Returns to Seville and later to Santander
O’Connell moved back to Betis in 1940 for a season but within a year he transferred to the competition, Sevilla FC, for three years. And then he returned to Betis only to be replaced in the closing moments of that season – at a match against Santander in Santander – which must have been personally crushing for him.
It’s an ill wind that blows no good, and a few weeks after the Betis debacle in 1947, O’Connell was re-hired at Racing. It coincided with a management re-shuffle and the new board, headed by Luis Pombo Noriega, hoped the 59-year old Dubliner would to able to lead the team back from the third to the second division. That didn’t happen. O’Connell resigned in January 1949 following two frustrating losses on the back of elimination from the Copa del Generalisimo. Patrick’s resignation was marked with a farewell party at the Casino in the Sardinero which is said to have been attended by 100 people with speeches flowing from friends, players and management.
Patrick’s Final Days in Spain
After leaving Racing for the second time, Patrick moved back to Seville in 1949. It was here in the 1950s that O’Connell’s personal life began to unravel. His son Dan came to visit – pretending he was Patrick’s nephew to anybody who asked. This meeting between the father and son has been well-documented with Patrick O’Connell being credited as asking after the Manchester United football team rather than the family in Manchester. (You can hear Dan himself recount this in the radio documentary I’ve linked to below.) The cruelty of Patrick in Seville contrasts with deeply personal accounts from players and staff talking about how O’Connell was like a father to them.
It’s not clear how Patrick O’Connell was supporting himself at this time but in September 1954, Real Betis organised him a testimonial. At some point in the 1950s, Patrick and Ellen broke up. Many sources suggest she worked out that Dan was Patrick’s son rather than his nephew. Patrick moved to his brother’s place in London in 1955. He died of pneumonia in 1959 and was buried in an unmarked grave at St. Mary’s Cemetery in Kilburn. When word eventually arrived of his passing in Santander, a mass was held in his honour in the city’s cathedral.
Traces of Patrick O’Connell in Santander Today
It’s been 10 years since Sue and Mike O’Connell (pictured below) visited Racing at its Sardinero stadium back in 2006. Mike is a grandson of Patrick and is married to Sue. It must have a great occasion for both the O’Connell’s and the club. Jose Manuel was there and spoke highly of the couple and their quest to uncover more about their ancestor.
I do hope Sue and Mike can return to Spain to do some readings from Sue’s book published this Summer about Patrick O’Connell. The book is called ‘The Man Who Saved FC Barcelona’ and it suggests how O’Connell’s life may have been lived from a few points of view. When I read the book, I knew I had to bring it over to Jose Manuel, who is thanked in the Acknowledgments. We met at the stadium in the Sardinero and it seemed only fitting to take a snap of Patrick, back on the pitch in Santander, where it had all started out for him in Spain.
Further Coverage of Don Patricio
If you’ve enjoyed learning a little about Patrick O’Connell, I recommend you watch this wonderful Irish language documentary with English subtitles by Tony Devlin for TG4. And then you should listen to ‘The Man Who Played Offside’ which is a great radio documentary in English by Richard Fitzpatrick and Ronan Kelly for RTE.
There you go Dad! Enjoy and circulate to any other fans of Patrick O’Connell you know! And yes, I know you are going to say that a plaque should be erected here or even a street named after Patrick O’Connell in Santander. Don’t worry. There are still 23 street names associated with the Franco regime in Santander to be renamed according to a recent article in the Diario Montanes newspaper. I’m sure the Irishman who brought Racing to the Liga could be considered, couldn’t he?