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Belfast Celtic footballer Patrick O’Connell who saved FC Barcelona from ruin to be honoured with Blue Plaque

By Adrian Rutherford and staff reporters

A one-time Belfast Celtic footballer who saved FC Barcelona from bankruptcy is set to be honoured with a Blue Plaque.

The nomination for Patrick O'Connell has been accepted by the Ulster History Circle.

O'Connell managed Real Betis to their only La Liga title.

He is also credited with saving Barcelona from financial ruin during the Spanish Civil War.

The first Irishman to captain Manchester United, he captained Ireland in the British Home Championship victory of 1913/14, where the trophy was clinched at Windsor Park.

In 1937 O'Connell was given the title of honorary consul by the last republican government of Spain.

And last December he became the first Irishman to be inducted into the Barcelona hall of fame.

Now a group of supporters has raised funds for a Blue Plaque to mark O'Connell's achievements and his strong link with Belfast.

Their quest was supported by famous footballers including Ireland assistant boss Roy Keane and Paolo Maldini.

The Blue Plaque will be erected on Albert Street.

Fergus Dowd, who is part of the fund group, said: "The Patrick O'Connell Memorial Fund believe a Blue Plaque honouring Patrick should be of inspiration to any young people who harbour sporting ambitions throughout Northern Ireland."

Next year is the 80th anniversary of the so-called tour of salvation - Barcelona's tour of the Americas, led by O'Connell, which saved the club from financial ruin.

O'Connell died penniless in London in 1959 and for 57 years lay in an unmarked grave. But in 2014 supporters raised funds for a proper memorial in London.

Belfast Celtic player who managed Barcelona, captained Manchester United and died a pauper

As the Spanish Civil War raged in Spain in 1937, Patrick O'Connell led Barcelona Football Club on a tour of the USA and Mexico to raise much-need funds for his team who, at the time, were faced with the distinct possibility of extinction.

The trip proved a major success and allowed the club to continue to become the footballing powerhouse it is has become in the 21st Century.

The success was just one in a career of highs for Dublin-born O'Connell, who captained both Manchester United and Ireland and also won the Spanish La Liga with Real Betis - the only time the club has managed such a feat.

But 20 years after those successes, 'Don Patricio' died destitute in ramshackle conditions in a London flat and for the last 40 years has remained in an unmarked pauper's grave.

"No one really knew what had happened to him for a very, very long time. It was a bit of a mystery," explains Sue O'Connell, who is married to Patrick's grandson Mike.

Some years ago, Sue set out to explore Patrick's legacy and decided to commemorate his life and achievements. There were quite a few, as she quickly discovered.

Patrick O'Connell grew up on Jones Terrace, near Croke Park. He impressed on the football pitch at a young age and joined Belfast Celtic before going to Sheffield Wednesday in England and then eventually signing with Manchester United - as one of the first ever "thousand pound transfers" - for a British record fee, according to Fergus Dowd, who is also involved in the Patrick O'Connell Memorial Fund.

"He was the first Irishman to play for Manchester United and captain the club and this year is actually his 100th anniversary after he did so in 1914," Fergus said.

"He earned a reputation as a no-nonsense defender. On one occasion, he actually played with a broken arm against Scotland in the final of the British home Championship. That was the first trophy Ireland ever won."

From there, O'Connell upped sticks and left for Spain - leaving behind his wife and four children, who would never see him again.

Patrick managed Real Betis to its first and only La Liga title in 1935. Soon after the giants of Spanish football came calling and he duly answered the summons.

"He's probably best remembered for saving Barcelona from extinction during the Franco era when he took the club on a tour of Mexico. The money raised was wired to a Paris account and these monies ultimately saved the club," Fergus explained.

But after all those successes, with even a bust erected at the Camp Nou in Barcelona and a statue in his honour in a park in Seville, the story ended with 'Don Patricio' dying destitute in London in 1959.

Sue's research has helped fill in the blanks about Patrick's latter years.

"Things were very tough after Franco won. He came back to London and lived with his brother. After his death, he was buried with his sisters but he was never marked as being there.

Patrick's grandson Mike says he is "a little bewildered" by the interest in his granddad after he left his grandmother and remarried without ever telling either woman.

"My whole life was affected by it because after he left, my granny became very anti-establishment, very anti-Church having come from a traditional family. That was the impact he had," Mike joked.

However, he adds that he is glad Patrick is getting the recognition he deserved.

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