The mysterious career of Charles O’Hagan, Sevilla’s first foreign manager

The mysterious career of Charles O’Hagan, Sevilla’s first foreign manager

THE BEST STORIES are frequently those which seem scarcely believable; full of paradoxes and contradictions, with little room for logic or genuine coherence. Add a sense of mystery and the account suddenly becomes gripping, exasperating and often desperately sad. The itinerant tale of Charles O’Hagan, the Donegal native who remarkably became the first foreign manager of Sevilla, encompasses all this and more.

The journey took him from his wind and rain battered home in Buncrana to the sun-soaked streets of the Andalucian capital in southern Spain, with plenty of intrigue, chaos and mistruths scattered along the way.

Born into a relatively wealthy family – his father a well-known grocer – in a fragile nation which was still recovering from the aftershocks of the Great Famine, O’Hagan excelled playing football at school in nearby St Columb’s College, based in Derry. Indeed, he had a stint in the school’s now-defunct St. Columb’s Court side in their sole campaign in the Irish League in the 1901/02 campaign before switching to Derry Celtic, who replaced them in the division.

O’Hagan’s adventurous nature is perhaps unsurprising due to his hometown’s relative remoteness in Ireland’s north-west and aged 20 he uprooted to Liverpool, where his football career continued with Old Xaverians before signing for Everton.

At this stage, it is unclear if the Donegal-native had any genuine intent on playing the sport at a competitive level or whether he was playing to complement his work in at a local Spanish fruit merchant, who’s main imported goods were, significantly, Seville’s famed oranges.

He never appeared in the first team for the Merseysiders and the following year he relocated to London following an offer from Tottenham Hotspur – who at the time played outside the Football League. Here he formed a formidable attacking bond with fellow Irish international Jack Kirwan. It was unknown at the time, but Kirwan would also later have a fascinating managerial career on the European continent at the helm of Ajax Amsterdam and later Livorno.

O’Hagan excelled in north London and earned the first of 11 caps for Ireland in March 1905 against Scotland. The next month, he netted his first goal for his country against Wales in a Home Nations match-up in Belfast – a pulsating 2-2 draw.

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As would swiftly become a trend in his career, the inside-left made a seemingly impulse and somewhat rash decision to leave Spurs the following year to join Middlesbrough. He struggled to find his feet in England’s north-east and within months he was on the move again, this time to Scottish club Aberdeen.

His four-year stint at Pittodrie would prove the longest of his career at any one club and indeed in any one city. He thrived at the Dons, forming a fearsome understanding with winger Willie Lennie and becoming the club’s first player to be capped at national level. In 1907 he scored his second and last goal for Ireland, again against Wales.

Spells at Greenock Morton and Glasgow-based Third Lanark – another side no longer in existence – followed for O’Hagan, before calling time on his career having netted 50 professional club goals. Aged 31 and having been totally free of injuries, it was almost unprecedented for a footballer to retire so young in an era when many outfield players continued their careers into their 40s. But this was a man who played by his own rules and who, increasingly clearly, grew tired of familiarity.

Not for the last time in his career, he went off the radar for two years before a report in March 1915 outlined how he was serving as a Second-Lieutenant of the Leinster Regiment, following the outbreak of the First World War. O’Hagan was then sent to France and Belgium with the Highland Light Infantry and given the mass, unparalleled loss of life and horrors exposed to, he was fortunate to emerge alive.

It was not always evident this was the case due to him keeping a low profile for another few years, before being at the centre of a bizarre controversy in 1920. He went on record to state nine of his teammates at Aberdeen had accepted a £15 bribe to throw a Scottish Cup semi-final clash against Celtic 12 years earlier. However, events took a peculiar turn four weeks later when he printed an ad in a newspaper withdrawing all of the “entirely false, malicious and slanderous” comments made in his name.

Later that year, O’Hagan was surprisingly appointed as manager of Norwich City for their first campaign in the Football League in 1920. He replaced Frank Buckley who, along with all his coaching staff, walked out following a pay dispute with the club’s board. It promised to be an uncompromising debut job in management and so it proved – it took the Canaries until November to taste their first victory, and in January, O’Hagan resigned. He had guided his side to only four victories in 21 matches in charge.

In an increasingly familiar pattern, there is no record of his whereabouts for the following two-and-a-half years before the Seville-based daily newspaper El Liberal (which ceased to exist after 1936 after raids from Franco’s Nationalist forces) published a story which was extraordinary on several levels:

“We are glad to be able to provide our readers with the following wonderful news,” read the piece.

“After a lengthy search, Sevilla FC have succeeded in signing a new trainer to coach our players. The man in question is Mr. Charles O’Hogan, an experienced Irish footballer who played with such important British clubs as Tottenham Hotspur, Everton and Huddersfield, the first of which he played with in last season’s FA Cup final.

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“O’Hogan arrives with glowing references and we believe that under the experienced management of this trainer, Sevilla FC will reach the highest standard of football in the shortest time possible now that all these elements have been installed.

“The board of directors at Sevilla FC deserve the most cordial and sincerest of congratulations for their astuteness in this area, for as with the current development of football in Seville such an improvement was required.

“Now all that remains is for our players, while capitalising on this sacrifice the club has made, to respond with the required enthusiasm to the methods of Mr. O’Hogan so that the manager’s work may bear abundant fruit in the shortest possible time.”

The story in itself is astonishing: an Irishman from Buncrana with a modest playing career appointed to the top job at Spain’s second oldest – and undoubtedly among its most significant – club sides.

What the article does not clarify is this was the club’s first managerial appoint, in the modern sense of the word. Whilst O’Hagan was officially the club’s fifth boss, it was a role in Spain which had previously been an extension of the team captain’s duty – ‘selecting and instructing players’ and ‘assisting in the refereeing of the match’, as Sevilla’s website documents.

Moreover, the article was filled with numerous mistakes: the spelling ‘O’Hogan’, the references to a spell with Huddersfield (for whom O’Hagan never played) and an FA Cup final appearance with Tottenham (who’s only cup final had arrived 14 years after the Irishman left the club, coinciding with his spell in charge of Norwich). 

It is impossible to judge if these were genuine errors lost in translation which O’Hagan merely capitalised upon or whether he himself directly encouraged them (note the ‘glowing references’ and ‘experienced management’). But why O’Hagan, and why Sevilla?

Contemporarily, football in Spain had significant British influence and in many ways still does – a player refers to their manager as ‘Mister’. Spain’s first club, Recreativo de Huelva, was formed by two Scots who worked at the Rio Tinto mines. Spain’s first football match was between Recre and neighbouring Sevilla – the nation’s second oldest club and the first solely dedicated to football.

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There was a strong Scottish connection, too; Hugh Maccoll was the inaugural captain of the club while Edward Farquharson Johnston (the British vice-council in Seville) was its first president. Johnston was co-proprietor of the ship-owning firm MacAndrews & Co, who prospered in the selling and transport of Seville oranges to the United Kingdom.

At this juncture, we are forced into diverging from factual evidence to educated guesswork, but O’Hagan’s arduous job at the Merseyside-based Spanish fruit merchant could well have proved influential, on some level, two decades later. If not, it is quite a remarkable coincidence.

It wasn’t just the Andalusians who were forging strong links with Home Nations football – Cantabrian club Racing Santander had beaten them to the first appointment of an Irish manager. Patrick O’Connell had succeeded Fred Pentland – an England international who had played against Ireland and O’Hagan in 1909 – at the helm of the side based on Spain’s north coast.

In 1923, Pentland was halfway through his first stint in charge of Athletic Club (he’d also go on to have three spells with Atlético Madrid and one with Real Oviedo) while O’Connell was then riding the wave of success in Santander, guiding the club to the first of five regional titles in a trophy-laden seven-year stint.

Spanish football was still in its embryonic stage in the early 1920s and did not yet have its own national league with the Campeonato Nacional (La Liga) only formed 1929. Clubs were attempting to build dynasties in their respective regions – viewed, to varying degrees, as separate cultures and nationalities from the rest of Spain – and Sevilla were attempting just this in Andalusia.

Of the 20 Campeonato Regional Sur titles – otherwise known as the Copa de Andalucia, which was disbanded in 1940 following the outbreak of World War Two – Los Rojiblancos won 17 titles. Recreativo, Español de Cádiz and Real Betis Balompié (formed in 1914 following a merger between Sevilla Balompié and Betis Football Club) all won one apiece. It was a dominant period for Sevilla and the appointment of an Irish coach was viewed as significant.

Regarded – and criticised by city and regional neighbours – as the side favoured by the local authorities, Sevilla played at Campo Reina Victoria, owned by the local aristocracy and referred to by the club’s fans as El Campo de la Victoria (The Field of Victory). Featuring wooden terraces and a short pavilion, it was one of the most modern stadia in Spain and was O’Hagan’s home during his time in Seville.

However, the Irishman lasted only one campaign in Seville and the primary objective was met – a 4-2 victory over Real Betis securing their sixth successive Copa de Andalucia. They were eliminated at the Copa del Rey quarter-final stage by eventual winners Real Unión – the Basque side, a founding member of Spain’s top flight, who were a powerhouse at the time.

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The internationalism of Sevilla was not just confined to their manager as their campaign encompassed a number of friendly matches against clubs from Portugal, England, Poland and Czechoslovakia. But by the following summer, O’Hagan was gone and there is no official documentation as to why. One Sevilla fan site claims “fans of the time say his love of wine was incompatible with his position as manager”, although this is unverified.

He headed home, or near to home– to the Irish coastal resort of Portrush, around 50 miles east of his native Buncrana. It was to provide a fleeting moment of tranquillity before embarking on another far-flung and ultimately ill-advised move abroad. “While I was over in Portrush, I saw an advertisement for the trainer of a well-known Berlin club,” O’Hagan is quoted as saying in an Aberdeen Press and Journal extract entitled ‘O’Hagan’s plight’. “I replied to it and received a very favourable offer, which I accepted. It was for the Prussian club, a high-class amateur team. For the first fortnight I was treated well, then the petty jealousness started.”

He then detailed his experience of being quizzed on his past with the British Army and his role in the First World War, upon which his agreement was immediately cancelled. Requesting a return ticket to either Aberdeen or Portrush, he was told to travel to London where he would supposedly meet a contact to take him the rest of the way. As he described in the extract – ‘such a man did not exist’.

It was a humiliating episode for O’Hagan, regardless of the accuracy of his account of his short stay in Berlin. After all, this was a man shrouded in mystery and constantly on the move who had attempted to maximise his sporting potential to travel and experience different cities and cultures, a trait which should be applauded.

His compatriot O’Connell soon trod a familiar path – after his stint in Santander, he would have three separate managerial stints in the city of Seville. He brought the Spanish national title to Betis for the first and only time in their history in 1934, before guiding Sevilla to within one victory of their inaugural crown nine years later. The Dubliner would have a total of seven managerial positions in Spain including a famous one in charge of Barcelona, whom he led on a tour of North America during the nation’s Civil War, but for O’Hagan there would be no further journeys to the Iberian Peninsula.

His unceremonious departure from Germany had left him penniless and while his professional career had been at an end, in 1928 he attempted to revive his own personal life by setting sail to New York from Derry. The embarrassment of his spell in Berlin had appeared to end his association with football and no record of any future employment following 1924 exists. Speculation that O’Hagan turned to journalism would be based in logic but equally no record of any work, written or otherwise, exists and the likelihood of using an alias is low. His trip across the Atlantic fitted his nomadic life perfectly, as did the lack of clarity surrounding it.

Short-termism, the other feature which had so often proven O’Hagan’s downfall, was to feature one last time in his short but remarkable life as he passed away in Manhattan in June 1931, aged 49. Having spent three years in the city, he may finally have found his true calling but as with so much else in this tale, we will never be certain.

By Colin Millar @Millar_Colin

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