The Longshot: Seville service by an Irish pioneer on Spanish pitches

Barcelona v Betis fixture recalls an Irish manager who had memorable stints in charge of both clubs
The Longshot: Seville service by an Irish pioneer on Spanish pitches

A mural in Belfast marks the life of footballer Patrick O’Connell, whose career saw him play for Belfast Celtic and Manchester United and manage FC Barcelona and Real Betis, who meet this weekend in La Liga.

BARCELONA meet Real Betis this weekend, a fixture that recalls Ireland’s greatest managerial export: Patrick O’Connell.

O’Connell’s career in Spain and Catalonia used to be one of those bits of trivia that was a useful barometer of how clued in someone’s football knowledge was. A 2018 documentary called Don Patricio, which was broadcast on RTÉ, shone some light on his achievements in the game on the Iberian peninsula, for three decades from the 1920s on.

Born in Westmeath, but reared in Dublin, O’Connell captained Man United as a player, before moving into coaching. Nobody is too sure how he ended up in Spain, but there was a trend in those days for British and Irish coaches to be held in high regard on the continent (a bit like Gary Neville these days) and in 1922 he took over Racing Santander.

A decade later, following a brief stint in charge of Oviedo, he took the reins at Betis. He led them to their only La Liga title, in 1935, and was immediately headhunted by Barcelona, where he would spend five years, most of them interrupted by the Spanish Civil War.

Although he won nothing with the Catalan giants, he chose not to jump ship during their most turbulent years (he was home in Ireland when war broke out, but returned there) and led them on what has been labelled their ‘tour of salvation’, a series of exhibition games across North and South America, that raised crucial funds at a time when the club risked going under. In 1942, he joined Betis’s crosstown rivals Sevilla, which is a bit like moving from Celtic to Rangers (the Hoopsare 27/20 to win at Ibrox on Sunday).

He would depart Sevilla in 1945, but the team he built won La Liga the following season, the only title in their history, too. When the two Andalusian clubs found out years later that their ex-manager had hit hard times in England, they arranged a testimonial to raise money, which drew a full house of both sets of supporters.

Curiously the first manager of Real Madrid, Arthur Johnson, was also Irish. Johnson managed Madrid from 1910-1920, and even scored their first-ever competitive goal, (against Barcelona in a 3-1 loss) in 1902. He preceded the days when British and Irish coaches were held in such high esteem and actually first moved to Spain in search of work and, eventually, got a job with an engineering firm in Madrid, helping build the city’s first sewer system.

Back in the present day, Barcelona take on Betis on Sunday afternoon in the Nou Camp.

In a bit of a coincidence, I gave one of my nephews my Betis jersey last month (it was too small to fit me). My other nephew, his brother, now lives in Barcelona, so there is a bit of family rivalry to be stirred up. It might be worth getting on the visitors at 17/2.

In fifth, they are still just about in the hunt for a Champions League spot; they have only ever played in the competition once and that was in 2006. Barca seem to have an unassailable lead at the at the top of the table and may lack motivation and that could give Betis a chance.

Four big guns face off in Champions Cup semi-finals

THE Heineken Champions Cup semis this weekend will fittingly be between four of the best teams in club rugby in this hemisphere.

The four sides have lifted the top prize in Europe a combined 11 times. Four-time champions Leinster host five-time winners Toulouse in Dublin on Saturday, while 2020 winners Exeter Chiefs face holders La Rochelle in Bordeaux on Sunday.

None of the South African sides made it through to the last four on their debut season in the competition. Their introduction should improve things, however it is fair to say that it hasn’t exactly been spellbinding this season. The convoluted format is one problem. Leinster’s dominance of the domestic game here is another. Throw in massive problems in club rugby in all three British nations and you’ve got a tournament that is a far cry from its heyday.

Some entertaining semi-final action could go some way to boosting the premier club competition after some one-sided quarters.

Leinster-Toulouse is a repeat of last season’s semi, which was also held in Lansdowne Road. They won 40-17 that day and entered the final as hot favourites, only to be turned over by Ronan O’Gara’s French side.

The Blues crushed Leicester Tigers 55-24 in the quarter-finals in the latest demonstration of their immense quality (it was a second string that was hammered by the Bulls in the URC in South Africa last weekend), but Toulouse have been typically strong themselves, powering to a 54-20 success over the Sharks the last day.

A plethora of stars are set to be on show.

Leinster boast flanker Josh van der Flier, back-row forward Caelan Doris, and centre Garry Ringrose, but Toulouse have world-class talent of their own in hooker Julien Marchand, lock Emmanuel Meafou, and scrum-half Antoine Dupont.

In the other semi-final, Exeter will need to beat a La Rochelle side who recorded a commanding 24-10 quarter victory over their Premiership rivals Saracens. Exeter will be buoyed by their 42-17 thrashing of Stormers in their quarter.

With the final also taking place in Dublin, Leinster are 1/2 to lift the trophy for the first time since 2018 and 1/3 to beat Toulouse.

O’Gara’s side are 9/2 to retain their trophy and 1/5 to make it to another final.

An all-French final might be the best bet, at 4/1.

I’m a true fan: I have a scarf

THE opening goal at Mounthawk Park in Tralee last Friday evening saw something that is pretty rare. Not that the goal came from the home side, Kerry FC (although they have scored just six goals in 10 league games, since being formed this season), but, rather, the scorer of a header at the back post clattered into it along with two defenders and sent the goals back three feet.

It was left to the ’keeper to realign the posts with the end-line after he’d retrieved the ball from the back of the easily moveable net.

Bottom were facing top that night in the League of Ireland First Division, and Galway, who have a 100% win record, so far, equalised just before half-time and Jahn Caulfield’s men pulled away in the second half to win 4-1 (having won the reverse fixture 9-1).

In an interesting quirk, in a previous life I played not-so-competitive football with the Galway centre-back.

We will be standing on the sideline tonight again, in the Markets Field in Limerick, as the men in green take on Treaty United.

After years of telling domestic football fan friends I would become a regular supporter once a team from my home county was formed, the time has come to be true to that word. I’m all in now and even bought a scarf the last night.

The only thing that might interrupt regular attendance is if my long-time love, Luton, are promoted to the Premier League and some Friday night flights to the UK are necessary next year. I know that’s shifting the goalposts on the matter, but the heart wants what the heart wants.

The Kingdom side are 13/2 to win, but a draw in this North Munster derby, at 7/2, seems more likely.

And Luton are 5/2 to go up.

Growing up without Liam

IF THE Cork hurlers don’t win the All-Ireland this summer, we will be in the strange situation where there will be full-grown adults in the county who have never seen the Rebels win an All-Ireland.

Not a sniff of the Liam MacCarthy visiting their schools during their entire childhood.

They went exceptionally close 10 years ago, when Clare right-back Domhnall O’Donovan broke everyone on Leeside’s hearts to snatch a replay with a last puck. And then there was the 2018 semi-final, after which the Limerick steamroller began to pick up speed.

Cork are 12/1 to end the 18-year drought this year and 8/13 to get their campaign off to winning start at home against a Waterford side who, had they been more accurate, could have beaten an off-form Limerick last Sunday.

The Bet

CONSIDERING we went so close with a GAA accumulator last weekend (thanks very much, Dublin hurlers), we’ll have another bite of the cherry and go for Derry to beat Monaghan and Armagh to down Down in the football, while in the hurling take wins for Kilkenny, Cork, and Limerick to net you odds of 7/1.

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