Sheffield United’s Jack O’Connell relishing chance to face boyhood rivals Real Betis

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THINK of rivalries in Spanish football and several spring to mind.

The big one, of course, is El Clasico, clashes between Barcelona and Real Madrid arguably being the biggest club games in the world.

BIG CHALLENGE: Sheffield United's Jack O'Connell. Picture: James Wilson/Sportimage

BIG CHALLENGE: Sheffield United's Jack O'Connell. Picture: James Wilson/Sportimage

Then come the city derbies in Seville, Madrid et al, closely followed by the more regional affairs such as Celta Vigo against Deportivo La Coruna or the Basque country showdown between Athletic Bilbao and Real Sociedad.

Compared to these invariably heated tussles, Malaga’s meetings with Real Betis may seem distinctly small beer.

Sheffield United defender Jack O’Connell, however, knows otherwise after spending four years living in Andalusia as a boy after his family moved from Liverpool.

The 25-year-old defender was a season ticket holder at Malaga’s Rosaleda home so he has experienced, first hand, the passion generated when Betis come to town.

There might be a surprise factor that we bring to the Premier League,” added the defender. “All we can do is our best and see where it takes us. This challenge excites us all and we cannot wait to start.

Sheffield United’s Jacl O’Connell

Ahead of facing La Liga outfit Betis tonight in the Blades’ first outing of pre-season in Faro, O’Connell admits to eagerly looking forward to tackling a club he used to jeer from the terraces.

“Real Betis were Malaga’s rivals when I was a season ticket holder,” said the Liverpudlian to The Yorkshire Post at the club’s Portugal training camp.

“We always used to sing songs about them in Spanish. I cannot remember them now, I do not speak Spanish any more. But I am looking forward to the game.

“I never really found out what the rivalry was all about. But it was a good one.”

Sheffield United in training in Portugal on Thursday (Picture: Richard Sutcliffe)

Sheffield United in training in Portugal on Thursday (Picture: Richard Sutcliffe)

Those formative years spent in Spain can be detected in how O’Connell plays.

Comfortable on the ball, his ability to dart forward from centre-half and join the attack has been a big factor in United’s rise from League One to the top flight inside just three years.

“I grew up in Spain,” he added. “I will not say I have a lot of similarities with Spanish players but I did grow up on the ball.

“We were not really allowed to kick it over head height or do slide tackles.

“It was all about keeping the ball. I learned a lot back then.”

That football education will be tested at the top level for the first time in a few weeks. United’s return to the Premier League after a dozen years away means O’Connell, a product of Blackburn Rovers academy after his family returned to England, will be plying his trade at Old Trafford, the new White Hart Lane and, best of all, his beloved Anfield.

O’Connell’s dedication to Liverpool is such that he flew out to Madrid last month to watch the Champions League final. It was, he admits, an unusual night due to knowing he will soon be facing the Reds.

“I had an unbelievable time,” he says when asked about Liverpool bagging a sixth European Cup/Champions League by beating Tottenham Hotspur.

“Flecky (United team-mate John Fleck) invited me to his wedding that day but my missus (England international Alex Greenwood) was away for the World Cup. I didn’t want to go on my own.

“So I went to Madrid, instead. We had a good time. It was an unbelievable atmosphere. Seeing Jordan Henderson lift the Champions League gave me goosebumps.

“Mind, it was different, watching the game knowing I could be coming up against these players next season. I spent more time analysing the game.

“It meant I enjoyed the atmosphere before the game more than the game itself. That was tough but we got the win.”

The O’Connell clan are already eyeing United’s visit to Anfield on New Year’s Day. It promises to be a special day for the entire family, as will Liverpool’s visit to Bramall Lane on September 28.

Girlfriend Alex, the pair met at school, would love to be present but she may be busy elsewhere, captaining Manchester United in the Women’s Super League.

Also 25, the left-back was part of the England side who reached the semi-finals of the World Cup in France.

O’Connell said: “I had two weeks out in France for the World Cup, just the group stages. I did two games in Nice.

“I took my family over to a villa, meaning I could then go to the games.

“It was a proud moment seeing her walk out before the World Cup. She did us all proud, her family and everyone.

“They were so close. They wanted to win it. And I believed they were good enough. But, on the day, USA beat them.

“She was devastated. But there is the Olympics next year and then the Euros the year after that. Hopefully, they can put it right.”

Before then, of course, both have a new season in the top flight to look forward to. O’Connell, for one, is relishing his own chance to take on the very best.

“There might be a surprise factor that we bring to the Premier League,” added the defender. “All we can do is our best and see where it takes us.

“This challenge excites us all and we cannot wait to start.”