Unsung Irish Football Hero Honoured In Spain

The legendary football manager Patrick O'Connell, who died penniless back in 1959, was honoured with the unveiling of a bronze bust of his likeness in Seville during the weekend.

The largely forgotten Dubliner was the manager of Real Betis when they won the league for the first and only time back in 1935. The former Manchester United captain is also affectionately known as the 'Saviour of Barcelona' for helping to keep the team financially afloat during the Spanish Civil War.

The Patrick O'Connell Memorial Fund (POCMF), which was set up to keep alive the memory of one of Ireland's unsung footballing heroes, presented Real Betis with the bronze bust last Friday night at the Seville club’s stadium Estadio Benito Villamarin, just prior to the home game against Real Sociedad.

The bust was designed by Dublin sculptor Joe Moran and is valued at €10,000. "The bust is a bronze bust with a green marble plinth representing the Irish colours," explains Fergus Dowd of the Patrick O'Connell Memorial Fund.

The bust was presented to Real Betis President Angel Haro by Fergus Dowd (POCMF), Alan McLean (POCMF), Simon Needham (POCMF), Mike O'Connell, Maureen O'Sullivan TD, Sue O'Connell, the sculptor Joe Moran and GAA hero, turned fashion designer Paul Galvin.

"It feels right that the only Irishman to ever win La Liga is honoured in this way and his lasting legacy will become the central part of the Real Betis museum for football fans to see," Fergus Dowd tells Hot Press.

It’s a measure of Patrick’s incredible managerial career in Spain – even though most of it occurred in the dark days of pre-TV – that he’s still held in much reverence there and is affectionately called Don Patricio.

There was a lot of ‘firsts’ in Patrick’s football career: he was the first Irishman to captain Man United. He played in the Irish team that won their first trophy with the 1914 British Home Championship. He’s also the first and only Irish manager to win La Liga with unfancied side Real Betis – the Leicester City of their day - back in 1935. It’s the only time the Seville-based team won the league.

But that’s not what makes him a legend in España. Patrick’s best remembered for literally saving FC Barcelona. When they were on the verge of bankruptcy during the Spanish Civil War, Patrick took the team on a tour of Mexico and USA to play some lucrative exhibition matches that kept FC Barcelona afloat.

Tragically, at the age of 71, Patrick died destitute in 1959 and was buried in an unmarked grave in London. A headstone was only erected last year - thanks to the Patrick O’Connell Memorial Fund.

The POCMF campaign also put up a memorial at his birthplace and a mural in Belfast. Their next objective is to raise funds to commission monuments at each of the clubs he played for.

The legendary Dutch maestro Johan Cruyff was their big name “first supporter”. But others have followed since his death: Roy Keane is a “huge supporter” and Dublin TD Maureen O’Sullivan has rolled up her sleeves to help out too.

Speaking to Hot Press at the unveiling, Maureen O'Sullivan said it's being "an incredible journey" for her since she got involved after receiving an email from Fergus Dowd back in 2015 asking her to help out.

"When I heard the amazing story of Patrick O'Connell, it was hard to believe one man had achieved as much as Patrick did yet died alcoholic, penniless, and buried in an unmarked grave; not to mention a sad personal life," she tells Hot Press.

"That journey," she continues, "moved to unveiling the plaque on Fitzroy Avenue where Patrick lived, to acting as M.C. in the Mansion House, to the mural on Falls Road, another chairing of a discussion with sports journalists, campaigners in Belfast, to Neu Camp presenting a painting of Patrick to the President, to speaking at the opening of the alcove in Abbotstown, to Windsor Park, to Dalymount and now to Seville. Patrick brought Real Betis from mid second division to winning their only La Liga title."

She adds, "I really want to acknowledge the work, dedication, commitment of the campaigners - Fergus from Dublin, Alan in Banbridge, Simon in England who have been relentless in uncovering the many many aspects of the story. Joe Moran from East Wall, as I am, is the sculptor."

There’s only a handful of articles in English online about Patrick, who grew up in Dromcondra. So, there hasn’t been that much information about the great man. But don’t worry if you want to know more about him because one of his relatives penned his biography last year. It took an English woman – who originally had no interest in football – when she started the book, to bring his epic story to life. Its author Sue O’Connell who married one of his grandson’s after they fell in love when they met in Spain.

Reflecting on the colourful life of Patrick, Sue O'Connell tells Hot Press: “You couldn’t make all this up, could you? It would be too farfetched. He did something special in the world of sport, but he also had a very interesting life as well.”

She can say that again.

Here's the full TG4 documentary about Patrick O'Connell:

 

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