There are few who combine management of a professional football team with a part-time career as a novelist, and whilst Pepe Mel’s short-lived tenure as West Brom Coach had no happy ending he is penning another fairy tale story at Real Betis.
Los Verdiblancos have endured a turbulent last few years which in many ways is indicative of what the club symbolises. The club’s motto, Viva el Betis manque pierda [long live Betis even when they lose] sums up the outlook of the fans - renowned as fiercely loyal, passionate and colourful, not just enduring the hard times, but almost embracing them as part of the club’s make-up.
Mel was first appointed as Betis boss in the midst of a typically stormy period. In 2009 the club lost its top flight status, finally succumbing to relegation into the Segunda - after eight consecutive seasons in the top flight - while the hugely controversial and increasingly unpopular owner Ruiz de Lopera remained as owner.
65,000 Beticos marched through the streets of Sevilla on June 15 2009, an event which became known as ’15-J’, to call for the end of de Lopera’s reign. The local businessman took control of the club in 1992 and he oversaw some glorious times for the Andalusians, including their 2005 Copa Del Rey triumph and subsequent Champions League campaign, which included a 1-0 win over Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea.
But controversy was never far away. The world-record signing of Denilson turned out to be sensationally underwhelming while Lopera even renamed the Estadio Benito Villamarin after himself, a decision which has since been reversed. The fans were sick and tired of his constant flirtation with controversy and dodgy dealings.
The club’s troubles didn’t subside the following season, agonisingly missing out on promotion: they ended the campaign in a three-way finish for second, but they missed out on promotion as both Hercules and Levante recorded superior head-to-head records. The situation looked bleak.
But the situation is often darkest before the dawn and in the summer of 2010 former Betis striker Mel was appointed as Coach and Lopera was formerly charged with fraud, leading to him selling 94% of his share in the club. Optimism swept across Betis and Mel - already popular at the club having scored over 50 goals for them as a striker back in the early 1990s - took advantage.
Mel achieved promotion in his first season, pipping his old employers Rayo Vallecano to the title. The following campaign saw the Sevillians consolidate their top flight-flight status, missing out on a top-half finish by a mere two points. It was the 2012-13 season which Mel will reflect on most fondly as he guided Betis to seventh - two places ahead of city rivals Sevilla - ensuring they would once again compete on the European stage.
Three years of rapid growth and exceeding expectations was not something that Los Verdiblancos were accustomed too, and their love affair with Mel looked unbreakable. The following season saw a dip in form, with the perfect storm of poor refereeing decisions, throwing away late points and boardroom instability taking its toll on a squad that had largely stuck together since the Segunda days, with little investment.
After 15 matches, Real Betis were bottom but the club’s decision to sack Mel was met with shock, then anger, by their passionate fan base. Mel held a teary farewell Press conference, as humble as ever but visibly emotionally shaken by the decision. Fans gathered outside Benito Villamarin to show support for Mel before attacking the club’s directors’ area with stones.
The season unravelled spectacularly. They finished rock bottom of La Liga, lurched from one crisis to the next in the boardroom, in the dugout and on the pitch. Their European run briefly provided some light relief before ending in typical pain, and to their greatest rivals.
Having reached the quarter-finals of the Europa League, Betis drew Sevilla. Los Rojiblancos view themselves as the swanky, uptown representatives of the city. Based in the commercial Nervion area of Seville, their rivalry with the more suburban Betis is viewed as the most intense inter-city rivalry in Spain, Atletico Madrid’s emergence as serious challengers to Real Madrid being a relatively new concept. Both clubs are renowned for their fervent and fiercely dedicated fans, but Los Beticos traditionally hold great resentment toward the Sevillistas, believing they have always been favoured by the establishment - even protesting that Seville’s metro system deliberately does not extend south towards the Estadio Benito Villamarin due to favouritism.
Earlier in the campaign, Betis’ 4-0 defeat at Sevilla’s Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan hastened the sacking of Mel but this time around the visitors pulled off a 2-0 victory to seemingly make them firm favourites to progress to the last four. They should have known better. Fatalism always seems to strike for the club and in this traumatic season it was to reach a new low.
Sevilla won the return 2-0, before winning the shootout. Los Beticos’ worst nightmares unfolded in their own home, and it hurt. And Sevilla went on to win the tournament, edging another shootout win in the final against Benfica.
It was always them who twisted the knife in between Betis’ shoulder blades. Two weeks after the Europa League tie, Betis suffered more misery in the derby. Another 0-2 defeat, another series of controversial refereeing decisions and another deep sense of injustice. That result essentially relegated Betis and fans were disillusioned. The players were too - Brazilian centre-half Paulao had a miserable time the following week at Rayo Vallecano, netting an own goal in an abysmal opening 30 minutes both individually and collectively. He broke down in tears on the pitch and requested to be subbed off. Betis were a broken side, and lost 3-1.
This season the sole objective for Betis was to regain their top-flight status, but in a Segunda which was more competitive than ever this seemed a tough ask. In late November, with Betis lagging behind in fourth and six points off leaders Las Palmas, the board lost patience and Coach Julio Velazquez was fired. Mel - whose brief hiatus in England in charge of West Brom proved temporary - was called upon again.
Suddenly, everything changed. The man who everybody at the club wanted was back and he was going to make up for lost time. In Mel’s 12 months away, Betis had hired and fired three trainers. It was crazy, unsustainable madness and instability that had tortured the club. Prior to the 2010 appointment of Mel, the club had worked through seven different bosses in four years. Mel’s calming influence was infectious and once more, he appears to be transforming Betis fortunes.
Saturday’s 2-1 win at Alaves was Mel’s 18th match since moving back to the Andalucians - he has lost only once. It is now five wins on the trot and seven in the last eight. They are six points clear of their nearest challengers and look unstoppable. The 52-year-old Mel isn’t the only familiar face who has helped propel the club top. Veteran strikers Ruben Casto and Jorge Molina, both aged 33, have shared 36 goals.
Seven matches remain and Real Betis are on course for a return to the top flight and to reacquaint themselves with Sevilla, whose recent success both domestically and in Europe are something that Los Beticos crave. They maintain a firm belief that Mel has a few gripping chapters still left to write.