The Man Who Saved F.C. Barcelona is a very different book from what I was expecting. It’s the story of a family far more than it is a football story.
Patrick O’Connell was a forgotten figure of Irish football history until the sterling efforts of his family to ensure his legacy was remembered. A former captain of Manchester United and Irish international, his achievements as a manager in Spain far surpass anything achieved by an Irish manager since then – he won La Liga with Real Betis, led Barcelona through the Spanish Civil War and the respect he was held in is speculated to be the reason why Spanish managers are today called “mister”.
His grandson’s wife, Sue O’Connell, has laboured to find the historical record of Patrick and his immediate family’s life. The story is told largely through letters sent by Patrick, his second wife and his kids and diary entries of one of his daughters. The rest of the story is filled in dialogue heavy prose which I found a bit mawkish and unnecessary – a more factual style of joining the dots would have worked better for me.
As O’Connell notes in the final paragraph of the book, “Patrick O’Connell was an outstanding sportsman, but as a husband and father he was a non-starter”. The bulk of the book focuses on this later part – the wife and four kids he abandoned in Manchester. No attempt is made to sugar-coat his behaviour. In many ways is more a story of abandonment and emigration than a football book. It also captures well the sense of time and place – in particular an outsider’s view of Spain and Barcelona during the Spanish Civil War.
His footballing legacy is not covered in the kind of detail I was expecting. The saving of F.C. Barcelona involved the wise decision to bring the team to the America’s on tour and raise enough money to keep the team going. However, after reading the book, I don’t know much more about just how he achieved success or how he contributed to the evolution of the game.
The book is a clear labour of love and I admire the efforts to promote O’Connell’s legacy while being honest about his failings as a man. However, the book really wasn’t for me and isn’t one I would recommend for someone coming at as a sports book rather than a chronicle of the emigrant experience of an Irish family.
A documentary film about O’Connell’s life, Don Patricio, premiered in Dublin this week and I’m looking forward to checking it out.