Belfast Telegraph

Barcelona in tribute to Belfast Celtic footballer who helped save club from Franco

By Adrian Rutherford

A Belfast Celtic footballer who saved FC Barcelona from bankruptcy will be honoured by the Spanish giants tomorrow.

Patrick O'Connell is the first Irishman to be inducted into the club's hall of fame.

A former Manchester United captain, O'Connell managed Barca in the 1930s.

He also guided Real Betis to their sole Spanish league title, but died penniless in London and was buried in an unmarked grave.

His extraordinary story will be remembered before Barcelona's La Liga fixture against Real Betis at the Nou Camp tomorrow.

O'Connell, who lived just off the Falls Road while playing for the now-defunct Celtic club, will join an elite list comprising legends such as Diego Maradona and Johan Cruyff who have been honoured by the famous club.

Alan McLean from Banbridge is involved with the Patrick O'Connell Memorial Fund, a campaign to secure a lasting memorial.

He has travelled to Barcelona for tomorrow's ceremony and said it was a fitting recognition of O'Connell's achievements.

"His record, not only in managing Barcelona and Real Betis, is exceptional," Mr McLean told the Belfast Telegraph. "In his day it was unheard of that someone could come from Ireland and achieve this.

"Speaking to people in Barcelona, they still remember him.

"His legend lives on, even though it was a very long time ago."

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Despite his achievements in Spain, O'Connell's story is largely unknown among UK and Irish football fans. His career started at Belfast Celtic before spells with Manchester Utd, Sheffield Wednesday and Hull City.

His managerial career took him to Spain, where in 1935 he led Real Betis to La Liga glory. He was appointed Barcelona boss before the Spanish Civil War broke out in 1936.

General Franco wanted to destroy the club, which lurched towards bankruptcy, but O'Connell took his team to tour the Americas, which generated the funds to keep it afloat.

Mr McLean added: "Catalonia was always a republican region, and Franco saw Barcelona Football Club as something that, if he could destroy it, would make a huge political statement.

"Franco's troops murdered the Barcelona president (Josep Sunyol), and Patrick O'Connell had an offer to take the team to North and South America.

"Remarkably, he persuaded the players to go on the tour, which included Cuba, Mexico and the US.

"They played matches and raised enough money to wire funds back into a secret bank account in Paris."

Despite O'Connell's achievements, he died destitute in London in 1959 and was buried in an unmarked grave in Kensal Green.

The Patrick O'Connell Memorial Fund has campaigned for a more fitting memorial. Members have raised funds, helped by shirt donations from Barca stars such as Andres Iniesta and Patrick Kluivert, to restore the grave.

It will be rededicated on April 28 next year - the anniversary of winning La Liga with Real Betis.

O'Connell's achievements have also been remembered in Northern Ireland.

Earlier this year a mural was unveiled close to where O'Connell once played for Belfast Celtic.

Belfast Telegraph

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