Real Betis and the Irish Rover

Patrick O'Connell

Real Betis Balompié S.A.D. will line-up in La Liga again next season after a two-year absence. The troubled Andalusian club will return with renewed optimism and a symbolic name change for their 82-year-old stadium.

The 52,000 capacity venue had already been re-named in 2000 after renovation works and a subsequent ballot of season ticket holders. As a result, the arena was named Estadio Manuel Ruiz de Lopera after its controversial President who was eventually removed following fraud charges and a court case in 2010. His departure prompted another council referendum and, after a majority vote, the stadium reverted back to its former name Estadio Benito Villamarín.

Benito Villamarín remains the clubs most famous and revered President having led the Verdiblancos between 1955 and 1965. During his spell in charge, the club returned to the top flight and achieved a top-three finish. His appointment brought to an end the worst period in the club’s history during which they fell to the Tercera Division.

However, somewhere in a parallel universe, there might just be a stadium in Seville bearing the name of an enigmatic Irishman.

Betis won their one and only La Liga title (as Betis Balompié) in 1935 under the guidance of former Ireland captain Patrick O’Connell. As a result, the journeyman coach remains a legendary figure at the club, despite the fact that he went on to lead their city rivals Sevilla FC.

O’Connell was always a controversial figure – as a player he was involved in the famous 1925 match-fixing scandal involving Manchester United and Liverpool. However, he was never charged for his alleged involvement and continued to play for Manchester United.

He was a man who lived for football, so much so that he gave up his family life in England to pursue his passion for the game after being offered a job at Racing Santander in 1922. The coaching role in Cantabria would prove to be the first of many successful spells in charge of top Spanish clubs. His career path eventually led him to Betis where he cemented his burgeoning reputation by leading the team to La Liga glory.

After his success in Seville, O’Connell continued his adventures as Head Coach of Barcelona. He led the Catalan side to success in the Campionat de Catalunya and the Copa de España but his La Liga ambitions were curtailed by the Civil war.

In the absence of a national league, Barcelona competed in, and won, the Mediterranean league title before heading off on a lucrative tour of North America. The tour was a success, however, only four of the twenty-man squad returned to Spain, with the rest preferring to remain in exile abroad.

He returned to Seville in 1942 to coach the team in red and white – leading them to a second-place finish in the league – before taking up his final coaching job back in the north of Spain with Racing Santander.

His family knew little of his exploits and received hardly any communication from him except for the occasional cheque. He was eventually tracked down in Seville by his son Daniel in 1950. After a cold encounter, Daniel became convinced his father had a second family in Seville but never gained the courage to ask. He knew that the truth might break his mother’s heart.

Daniel left his father in Spain, where he spent his time frequenting bars and drinking heavily. When he eventually ran out of money, he returned to England and lived out his final years in poverty on the streets of London.

Daniel O’Connell once asked his Father: “How is Seville?” His father replied: “Seville is a place where the people live today as if they will die tomorrow.” He was clearly a man who took this philosophy to his heart.