Seamus O'Connell: Footballer who won the title with Chelsea

 

Cows or football? That was the singular choice facing 24-year-old Seamus O'Connell in the autumn of 1954, and given that he had just scored a hat-trick on his Chelsea début against Manchester United, the answer to the question might appear to be obvious.

However, the smart young man from Carlisle, the son of a wealthy farmer, opted for cattle dealing, and he didn't change his mind even when the Stamford Bridge side finished that season as League champions for the first time in their history.

Instead he continued to play for leading amateurs Bishop Auckland, spending one more season on Chelsea's books but barely figuring in the team while persevering with agricultural duties alongside his father, despite the assertion of shrewd contemporary observers that he possessed the potential to scale the game's loftiest pinnacles.

Indeed, the United manager Matt Busby once entertained the notion of taking "the best amateur centre-forward England has known" to Old Trafford. But during that era of the maximum wage, when professional footballers were decently but not lavishly rewarded, O'Connell – a handsome fellow and a noted bon viveur – was always content to remain in the family business, while any "expenses" which found their way into his pocket from any of his temporary employers helped to finance pleasurable distractions.

Having made his first impact on the pitch with Sligo Rovers – he was of Irish ancestry, his cousin Sean being a leading Gaelic footballer with Derry – O'Connell saw brief service with the Glasgow club Queen's Park, then signed for English top-flight strugglers Middlesbrough in May 1953.

He scored in his first game, a 3-2 victory over Newcastle United on the following Boxing Day, but had barely bedded in at Ayresome Park before he switched to the Bishops, for whom he featured in that season's FA Amateur Cup final defeat by Crook Town.

By then O'Connell's reputation had burgeoned and he was duly recruited for Chelsea by manager Ted Drake in August 1954, though even his arrival at the Bridge had a whimsical quality. A member of the coaching staff, who had no idea what the newcomer looked like, was detailed to meet him at King's Cross station on the afternoon of the clash with Manchester United. On failing to spot his quarry, Drake's emissary popped into a café and sat down next to a customer carrying a brown paper parcel.

With kick-off pressing ever closer, he poured out his tale of woe to the stranger who, no prizes for guessing, turned out to be O'Connell. By then it was too late to catch a bus as planned, so there followed a dash by taxi to the stadium with no time to spare.

Certainly, though, he proved worth the effort. Solidly built, bountifully endowed with pace, power and intelligence, the accuracy of his shooting matched by the perception of his distribution, O'Connell linked fluently with stylish fellow attackers Roy Bentley and Frank Blunstone and put the wind up the Busby Babes. One writer saw in him "the poise of a part-time picador" and he appeared to have the football world at his feet.

But despite scoring seven times in his 10 League outings as the Pensioners took the title, earning the penalty which decided the crucial late-season clash with Wolverhampton Wanderers which did much to determine the destination of the crown, he steadfastly refused to accept professional status, as he did wherever he wandered throughout his colourful career.

Rather O'Connell, who collected four England amateur caps, concentrated with relish on his simultaneous responsibilities to Bishop Auckland, helping them to win the FA Amateur Cup in 1955 and 1956, while granting the Londoners only a handful of further appearances. In February 1958 he enlisted with his local club, Carlisle United of the Third Division (North), but dallied only briefly at Brunton Park before tasting further Amateur Cup glory with Crook Town in 1959 while still adhering to the cattle trade.

There were no more sporting peaks for the enigmatic O'Connell, but he had already achieved enough to pose the tantalising question: what might he have achieved had he devoted himself to football? As it was his League career consisted of 23 games and 15 goals spread over five years, but he brightened the scene immeasurably, and that's worth plenty.

Seamus O'Connell, footballer and farmer: born Carlisle 1 January 1930; played for Middlesbrough 1953-54, Chelsea 1954-56, Carlisle United 1958; four England amateur caps; died Spain 24 February 2013.

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