“Please convey to the family my wishes that they achieve their goal and raise enough money to honour their Grandfather”
– Luis Figo
His name should be among the most revered in Irish football history. A former captain of both Ireland and Manchester United, he went on to manage Real Betis and FC Barcelona where he is credited with saving the Catalan giants from extinction. Instead the remains of Patrick O’Connell were buried in an unmarked grave in Kilburn, North London, an area synonymous with Irish emigrants and their broken dreams. Thanks to the Patrick O’Conell Fund, and with support from some of the biggest players and clubs in football, on Friday August 7, a mural to his memory will be unveiled on the Falls Road in Belfast.
Patrick O’Connell was born in 1887 in Dublin and grew up in Mabel Street in Drumcondra. His footballing life began in the Irish capital, then found its way to Belfast Celtic before a move cross-channel in 1909 took him to Sheffield Wednesday, Hull City and eventually Manchester United. O’Connell made 34 First Division appearances for the Red Devils for whom he was named captain in 1914. In March of that year, O’Connell skippered the Irish team in one of his six international appearances, and while playing with a broken arm, ten-man Ireland drew against Scotland to win the Home Championship.
Having hung up his playing boots, O’Connell moved into management and found his way to Spain with outstanding success. He led Real Betis to La Liga title in 1935 which attracted the attention of FC Barcelona. With the 1936–37 season suspended because of the Spanish Civil War, O’Connell is credited with saving Barca from extinction, spearheading a trip to Mexico for a series of exhibition games which took the club finances out of debt.
O’Connell’s time in Spain was the subject of a TG4 documentary by Tobar Productions ‘Paddy Don Patricio’.
His inspired a group to come together with the goals of raising funds to build a memorial befitting his name in football at his graveside, and erect a monument to his memory at his former club Belfast Celtic at the Park Centre in Northern Ireland.
The group, including members of O’Connell’s family, launched the Patrick O’Connell Memorial Fund at the Belfast Celtic Museum. Some of football’s biggest names have contributed memorabilia including Johan Cruyff, Franz Beckenbauer, and current Republic of Ireland manager Martin O’Neill.
Former Northern Ireland and Real Mallorca striker and current La Liga Sky Sports Analyst Gerry Armstorng is the fund’s ambassador. Armstrong, scorer of the famous goal for Northern Ireland against Spain in their victory at World Cup 1982, donated the shirt he wore that day, signed by the team.
Sue O’Connell has written a manuscript on Patrick’s life which the fund published as a book as part of this project. The venture garnered attention in Spain through Real Betis’ official website, ABC De Sevilla newspaper and Inside Spanish Football magazine, along with Irish publications both here and in the UK.
Also among the dozens of signed shirts are those of Oliver Kahn (Bayern Munich), Wim Jansen (Celtic & Feyenoord), Gareth Bale and Paolo Maldini.
The greatest Irish XI as voted by a panel of experts in 2011 also put their signatures to a donated Euro ’88 shirt: Shay Given, Denis Irwin, Paul McGrath, Charlie Hurley, Steve Staunton, Roy Keane, John Giles, Liam Brady, Ray Houghton, Frank Stapleton and Robbie Keane.
The next chapter in the story will see the unveiling of a mural in O’Connell’s memory on the Falls Road in Belfast. Along with Guardian journalist Sid Lowe, Lisbon Lions Bertie Auld and John Clark. there will also be representatives from Celtic, Barcelona, Real Oviedo, Belfast Celtic, and others in a ceremony that will recognise the contribution of Don Patricio to both Irish football and his wider impact on the game around the world
Follow on Twitter: @PatricioFund