Sheffield United: Jack O'Connell and THAT Real Betis rivalry

Over a decade has passed since he first heard the songs about them but Jack O'Connell, a one time season ticket holder with their old La Liga rivals Malaga, still struggles to explain why Real Betis are disliked inside La Rosaleda Stadium.

Thursday, 11th July 2019, 18:38 pm
Updated Thursday, 11th July 2019, 22:30 pm
Jack O'Connell: James Wilson/Sportimage

"Real Betis were Malaga’s rivals when I used to go there," the Sheffield United defender remembers. "We always used to sing songs about them in Spanish. I don't speak it any more. I've actually forgotten most of it. And I've never really found out what the whole rivalry thing was about."

O'Connell, who spent four years living in Andalusia after moving there with his family as a child, is probably just being polite. As he demonstrated during a trip to Valancia last season, the 26-year-old's grasp of the language is still more than passable. But if O'Connell really is unsure about the origins of the antagonism which exists between the two clubs, tomorrow's friendly between United and their opponents from Seville represents a perfect opportunity to discover why.

"I'm really looking forward to the game," he says, during a break in training at United's base in Portugal where they are preparing for the new Premier League campaign. "It was certainly a good rivalry, I always remember that.

"But like I said, I couldn't really tell you where it came from or what started it."

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Despite returning to England to pursue a career in football, O'Connell remains an avid and loyal student of the Spanish game. Indeed, whilst the centre-half's physicality betrays his Merseyside roots, O'Connell admits it helped shape his approach to football.

"Growing up there, I won't say I have a lot of similarities with Spanish players but, back then, we were always encouraged to work with the ball," he continues. "When I was younger, and getting coached over there, we weren't really allowed to kick it over head height, do slide tackles or stuff like that. Everything was about possession, about keeping the ball, and it taught me a lot."

Although Malaga are now competing in the Segunda División, losing a promotion play-off to Deportivo La Coruna last term, Betis remain a force to be reckoned with at the highest level. Having appointed Joan Francesc Ferrer Sicilia, commonly known as Rubi, as their new coach earlier this summer, the likes of Javi García, Joaquín and William Carvalho could feature in the squad which faces United at the Algarve Stadium, near Faro.

The fixture, scheduled to begin at 8pm, is United's first since achieving Premier League status three months ago. On the back of that success, they awarded manager Chris Wilder a new and improved contract earier this week which O'Connell, one of his first signings after being unveiled in 2016, believes bodes well for the future.

"The gaffer’s contract was very good news for the football club. He has been a massive part of my journey at Sheffield United.

"He signed me. I am happy he is staying. There are loads of reasons why he has done so well. He is a Blade, obviously. That is massive for the fans.

"But the big thing for us is he is a serial winner. That speaks for itself. Even in pre-season he wants to win every game. That means we can never take our foot off the gas."

O'Connell, previously of Brentford, has won two promotions during his time in South Yorkshire. But with Wilder at the helm, he insists the self-belief United have gained from those achievements will not morph into arrogance.

"Two promotions in three years means you think you are doing well but then he brings you down a peg and keeps you grounded," he says. "That is great for us all.

"Even when we do get beat, this team is known for reacting in the right way and that is down to gaffer and his staff.

"Last season, he kept telling us we were good enough to get promoted. But we were never cocky or anything like that. We were confident but respectful and that serves us well."