Belfast Telegraph

Barcelona 'saviour' Patrick O'Connell honoured with bronze bust at Belfast's Windsor Park stadium

Former Manchester United captain Patrick O'Connell, who was credited with saving FC Barcelona from extinction, has been honoured in Belfast with bronze bust.

Mr O'Connell may not be a well-known name in UK and Ireland football circles but in parts of Spain the Dubliner is revered.

After playing for Belfast Celtic, Manchester United, Sheffield Wednesday and Hull in the years around the First World War, the former Ireland captain went on to pursue a managerial career in Spain, where in 1935 he led Real Betis FC of Seville to its one and only La Liga title.

That achievement landed him the manager's job at Barcelona just before the Spanish Civil War broke out in 1936. With General Franco intent on destroying the famous Catalan club, O'Connell's decision to take his team on a tour to Mexico and the US generated the crucial funds needed to keep it afloat.

Despite these feats, O'Connell died destitute in London in 1959 and was buried in an unmarked grave in Kensal Green cemetery.

But now the Patrick O'Connell Memorial Fund raised money for a bust made by Irish sculptor Joe Moran.

Alan McLean from the fund told BBC Northern Ireland that it was fitting the bust was unveiled at Windsor Park.

Despite suffering a broken arm O'Connell inspired Ireland to a one-all draw with Scotland in 1914 to claim their first British Home Championship.

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Mr McLean said: "I think it is another milestone in the story of remembering Patrick O'Connell as one of the greatest ever Irish soccer men. I think the bronze bust is wonderful, Joe Moran has done a fantastic job.

"I was blown away by how striking it was."

Mr McLean explained the Irishman's role in saving one of the world's most famous clubs.

"When he was manager of Real Betis in Spain and he won their only La Liga title in '35, Barcelona said 'right you're the man for us' and he became their manager," he said.

"Now just at that time, 1936/37, you had General Franco come on the scene and the Spanish Civil War, and General Franco really was for obliterating Barcelona FC because it was in the republican area of Catalonia.

"So then what happened was, after the president of Barcelona (Josep Sunyol) was assassinated by Franco's troops, Patrick O'Connell got an offer to take his team over to Mexico and the US.

"Franco had also frozen their bank accounts in Barcelona so he persuaded the team - his great team in Barcelona - to go over to Mexico and the USA and to play exhibition matches and they raised enough money from that to actually wire funds back into a secret bank account in Paris and those funds enabled Barcelona FC to survive until the worst of the civil war was over."

O'Connell lived just off the Falls Road while playing for Belfast Celtic. In 2015 a mural was unveiled close to where he once played for now defunct club.

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