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Barcelona inducts first Irishman into club hall of fame

Crowds gather as a new mural is unveiled in Belfast in August to mark the life of footballer Patrick O'Connell. Picture by Hugh Russell
John Monaghan

A BELFAST Celtic player who went on to manage Barcelona - and help save the club from financial ruin - has become the first Irishman to be inducted into the Catalan giant's hall of fame.

Patrick O'Connell, who coached the current world club champions during the turbulent years of the Spanish Civil War, was honoured on Wednesday night at an event at the Camp Nou prior to a match with Real Betis, who he also managed.

Born in Drumcondra in Dublin in 1887, O'Connell played as a defender for Belfast Celtic and lived on the Falls Road before lining out for Sheffield Wednesday, Hull City and Manchester United.

He captained a pre-partition Ireland side and was a member of the team that won the 1914 British Home Championship.

Between 1931 and 1935 he was manager of Betis, leading them to their first and only La Liga title.

He then took over FC Barcelona and in 1937 took the team on tour of Mexico, Cuba and the USA, raising a vital $12,900 which kept the famous club afloat.

However, the father-of-four himself died penniless and destitute in London in 1959 and was buried in an unmarked grave.

The Patrick O'Connell Memorial Fund was set up in recent years in a bid to raise money for a more fitting memorial to the forgotten sporting hero.

Described by some as one of Ireland's most gifted managers, a mural in his memory was painted by artist Danny Devenney and unveiled in the Whiterock area of west Belfast in August.

Fergus Dowd, chairman of the memorial fund, told The Irish News it was "a very special night" in Barcelona.

"We started this whole thing in a small room in west Belfast and we have ended up at the Nou Camp," he said.

"We worked with Barcelona and we agreed that this would be the game to mark the occasion, in the year of the 80th anniversary of him winning the league with Betis."

Mr Dowd said O'Connell remains well known and highly respected in football circles in Spain, where he was involved in discussions leading to the formation of La Liga in 1928.

"In Seville, where Betis play, he is likened to Bill Shankly, and he came back to Barcelona during the Civil War, in what were very dangerous times.

"He was an ambassador for the republican government, but his second wife is believed to have been a nanny to the King of Spain and of course he was a foreign national.

"We believe that he received a pardon from Franco, who was a huge football fan and probably admired Patrick.

"In fact, Betis and Seville held a testimonial game for him in the 1950s when they heard he was struggling financially."

Mr Dowd added: "We have been raising awareness of Patrick's life and Martin O'Neill was so taken aback with the story when we met him that he requested copies of our notes about him."

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