Barca’s ‘saviour’ remembered

A former Belfast Celtic star will be inducted into Barcelona's Hall of Fame on Wednesday, ahead of the Catalan giants taking on Real Betis.

The man being honoured? One Patrick O'Connell – Don Patricio. The man who started his professional football career at Belfast Celtic, before going on to captain Manchester United, skipper Ireland to the British Championships, guide Andalusian side Real Betis to their one and only La Liga title before being credited with saving Barcelona from extinction.

This is the forgotten story of a man whose journey is among the most fascinating of any individual ever to have graced European football.

The Patrick O'Connell Memorial Fund was set up to rekindle his memory and his remarkable achievements, in spite of which saw O'Connell die destitute in London in 1959 and buried in an unmarked grave in Kensal Green cemetery.

Johann Cruyff, Oliver Kahn, Luis Figo, Paolo Maldini and Andres Iniesta are just a few household names that have lent support to the Foundation and helped generate enough funds to allow the campaign to take off.

In August, a mural was opened on the Falls Road – depicting O'Connell with a montage of the variety of clubs he both played for and coached – a few doors down from where O'Connell lived during his days with Belfast Celtic. However, while his feats have been largely lost in the realms of time in Belfast and his hometown of Dublin, 'Don Patricio' is well remembered in the streets of Barcelona and Seville.

O'Connell is accredited with the saving of Barcelona during the Spanish Civil War, taking the club on a fundraising tour of North and South America in the aftermath of Franco's troops assassinating Barca President Josep Sunyol.

'The Saviour of Barcelona', is how the Foundation have pitched O’Connell’s achievements to generate publicity in the mainstream Press. Naturally, it's tricky to tell just how much truth there is in the Catalan side genuinely facing extinction at this stage – history appears to judge that this is a touch misleading – but this tour undoubtedly played a crucial role in the club's history and shaped their future.

O'Connell's greatest tangible achievement came a few years earlier when he guided Real Betis to their one and only La Liga title, and it is fitting that he will be inducted into Barcelona's Hall of Fame hours before they clash with Los Verdiblancos at Camp Nou.

Having played junior football in Dublin's local Leagues, O'Connell's first break in football came when Belfast Celtic, the now-defunct side who once shared a fierce rivalry with city rivals Linfield, signed him in 1909. Earning a reputation as a tough, commanding centre-half, it wasn't long before he gained the attention of cross-sea scouts. He had spells with Sheffield Wednesday and Hull City before moving to Manchester United in 1914, months before the outbreak of the First World War.

1914 was the year O'Connell's playing career peaked, he captained a pre-partition Ireland to the British Home Championships including a contest against Scotland where he miraculously played the duration with a broken arm. It was the only trophy he'd win in his playing career.

It's always dangerous to let misty-eyed nostalgia blare reality, and the Dublin-native was certainly no saint. He was implicated, if never convicted, in of football's earliest and most famous match-fixing scandals when he missed a penalty for Manchester United against Liverpool by a jaw-dropping margin. The incident was made all the stranger by the Irishman, having no track record of taking penalties, being quite insistent he took the spot kick.

The game descended into farce and seven players where ultimately found guilty of throwing the game, which Liverpool won 2-0. However, the context of the match being played against the backdrop of a World War when it appeared football would be disbanded should not be forgotten.

Understandably, O'Connell's footballing career took a backseat and whilst he had post-War stints with Scottish side Dumbarton and North-Eastern League side Ashington, for whom he gained his first taste in management, his playing career seemed to fade into obscurity.

He suddenly left his wife and four children, who only guessed at his whereabouts after receiving post from an address in Santander, northern Spain, containing Spanish currency. He had replaced Englishman Fred Pentland as boss of Racing Santander, where he won five Cantabrian Championships in six seasons, ensuring the club were nominated to be one of La Liga's founding members.

His reputation as a trainer growing, O'Connell enjoyed a two-year stint at Real Oviedo before moving south to Seville, where he took the reigns at Real Betis Balompie. The working-class club of the Andalusian capital had been a merger between Betis FC and Sevilla Balompie, predominantly representing the industrial heart of the city down by the docklands. When O'Connell arrived they were very much outsiders, languishing in the second tier without any budget or significant history.

In his first year, O'Connell won the Segunda title and three years later, he guided them to an unprecedented League title, pipping Real Madrid by a point. O'Connell is fondly remembered at the club today, with the belief that he brought visionary tactics and fitness drills, ensuring that a team of grafters rather than stars triumphed. He forged a wonderful team spirit and supreme organisation – they conceded only half the number of goals as the League's second strongest defence.

Amidst his wonderful achievements, controversy again was not far away. Betis needed to defeat Racing Santander, O'Connell's old club, in the final game of the season to guarantee the title. The Irishman reportedly visited the Santander squad in their hotel the evening before, to encourage them to throw the game, although those allegations were never proven, Betis won the game and the title.

After his famed five-year spell in Catalonia's capital, O'Connell returned to the city of Seville, which he had fallen in love with and which had become his second home, as its inhabitants 'lived every day as if it were their last on earth.' After another three years with Betis he controversially joined cross-city rivals Sevilla, with whom he almost replicated his title win in 1943 but missed out by one place and one point to eventual champions Athletic Bilbao

He was still adored by the legions of Betis fans, and the club arranged a benefit match for him in 1954 when the news had spread that he was in dire financial straits. O'Connell lived the final years of his life in London, living in his brother's attic before passing away in 1959. It is now believed that following an 18-month campaign, the restoration of his previously unmarked grave should be complete in late February 2016, exactly 57 years since his death.

O'Connell led a double-life privately, married to two Irish women – one in England, one in Spain – who never knew the other existed. Both Patrick and his brother Larry, with whom he lived during the war years, were described by contemporaries as 'fanatical womanisers'.

But he would certainly not be the first with a dubious moral compass to be immortalised in the history of powerhouse sporting outfits, and the most startling aspect of this inauguration is that it is a half century overdue.

Image via the Patrick O’Connell Memorial Fund Facebook page