Irishman who played part in Seville clubs' success

Wed, Feb 4, 2009, 00:00

Sevilla v Real Betis:The biggest city derby in Spain brings one city to a halt twice a year. And, for that, in part, both clubs have Patrick O'Connell to thank.

THIS WEEKEND Sergio García and his Real Betis Balompié team-mates will make the short journey to the home of Frédéric Kanouté and Sevilla Fútbol Club. This will be no ordinary fixture for either club.

While the stereotype that Sevilla is the club of the wealthy, while Real Betis (formed in 1907 by a breakaway group) is on the side of the working class, no longer holds, the divide in the city between the supporters remains as strong as it was in October, 1915, when the first city derby ended in a 4-3 win for Sevilla.

While it may not grab the headlines a Barcelona versus Real Madrid clash commands, the biggest city derby in Spain brings one city to a halt twice a year.

And, for that, in part, both clubs have an Irishman to thank.

Sold to Sheffield Wednesday by Belfast Celtic, along with another player, for a combined transfer fee of £50 in 1909, Dubliner Patrick O’Connell enjoyed a relatively successful soccer career in England, joining Hull City a few years later before joining Manchester United.

It was there in 1915 O’Connell, not for the last time, would fall under suspicion for match-fixing. Back then, Manchester United were flirting with relegation from the first division, and with the players worried the league may have to be abandoned due to the first World War, a deal was struck with players from Liverpool FC. Large bets were then placed on a 2-0 win for United.

During the game, with United two goals up, Liverpool conceded a penalty. O’Connell blasted the ball wide. The English FA subsequently handed life-time bans to seven players, but O’Connell escaped punishment.

By 1922, at the age of 35, O’Connell moved to management, and Spain, taking over Racing de Santander and Real Oviedo, before, in 1931, taking over at Real Betis.

La Liga was only two years old when O’Connell moved to Sevilla, with Barcelona and Real Madrid – along with Athletic Bilbao – setting the early pace in the new 10-member Spanish league and Real Betis struggling to compete in with the big guns.

Four seasons later, O’Connell would copper-fasten his legacy by leading the club its first – and still only – league title. With forward Simón Lecue – who scored 24 goals in 55 games for Real Betis – the club managed a famous 3-0 away victory over their city rivals on their way to a final league date with Racing de Santander.

With Real Madrid a single point behind, Real Betis needed to win against O’Connell’s former club.

Legend has it the Irishman met the Racing de Santander squad in their hotel the night before the game. Either way, on April 28th, 1935, Real Betis romped to a 5-0 away victory over Racing, thus becoming champions of La Liga. O’Connell was a hero in the city – or, at least, half of it.

Once again, however, armed conflict – this time the Spanish Civil War – was to interrupt O’Connell’s career, and, with the national competition on hold for several years, he took Barcelona to several regional successes, before, in 1943, returning to the southern Spanish city – but this time to manage Sevilla FC.

Closely associated with the Republican side during the Civil War, it is suspected O’Connell was not enthusiastic about moving back to Seville, with some political pressure being used to force the switch of allegiance.

When La Liga resumed in December, 1939, Real Betis found they couldn’t make up for the lost momentum and lost coach, and were relegated from the top division, not returning to the top flight until the start of the 1942-43 season, the same time as their former manager was settling in across town.

O’Connell worked his magic with Sevilla, and Real Betis were dispatched in ruthless fashion in home and away clashes.

Under the Irishman’s guidance, the city once again had league championship contenders, Sevilla FC finished in second place in O’Connell’s first term – ending just three points behind champions Athletic Bilbao.

In contrast, Real Betis won just two of their 26 league games, so O’Connell did not have to contend with a local rivalry the following season, and maintained Sevilla’s strong form – this time finishing third, behind Valencia and Athletic Madrid. A mid-table finish in 1944-’45 signalled O’Connell’s exit, but he left behind a club that continued to build on his influence – and only months after the Irishman departed, Sevilla FC captured the La Liga title for the first time.

More than 60 years later, both clubs are still waiting to taste a second helping of top-flight success. The lack of titles has only added to the importance of the derby meetings.

Some times, passions have boiled over, including one famous incident during a Copa del Rey clash two years ago, when a heated derby was abandoned after Sevilla manager Jaunde Ramos was knocked out after been hit by an object thrown by a Real Betis supporter.

On Saturday night, the Sevillistas and Beticos will face each other again and, as usual, much more than simply league points will be at stake (not for the first time, Sevilla are mixing it at the top of La Liga, while Real Betis are in the danger zone).

The passion that will flow down from the stands in the Estadio Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán will ensure that the players are left in no doubt that the result is just as important as it was when Patrick O’Connell patrolled the sidelines in the city more than 60 years ago.