A former Manchester United captain credited with saving FC Barcelona from extinction has been honoured in a Belfast mural painted as part of a campaign for a memorial at his unmarked grave.
Patrick 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 as a central defender for 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.
Football fans fascinated by O’Connell’s story are now spearheading a fundraising campaign for a more fitting memorial.
The mural capturing his exploits has been painted in Belfast close to where O’Connell once played for the now defunct Belfast Celtic – his first professional club.
It was unveiled by his grandson Mike in front of an invited audience comprising a number of footballing greats, including ‘Lisbon Lions’ Bertie Auld and John Clark who won the European Cup with Glasgow Celtic in 1967 and former Manchester United goalkeeping legend Harry Gregg.
Alan McLean, from the Patrick O’Connell Memorial Fund, 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.”
Mr McLean said while raising the £6,000 needed for a memorial was important, the campaign was also about raising awareness of O’Connell’s story.
“The focus has really been to not only raise funds but also to inspire young people in Ireland and elsewhere,” he said.