It is one of football’s quirky yet surprisingly well-known myths that the famous red and white stripes of Athletic Bilbao were inspired by the colours of two English clubs. The kit’s design, chosen in 1914, was a tribute to the shipyard workers from Southampton, and coal-miners from Sunderland, who first introduced the game to the Basques at the end of the 19th century.
It is a club with a firm Basque nationalist stance and a policy of ‘Cantera’ (only selecting Basque nationals to play), and yet it has an indelible link to a foreign country -England- and this link is preserved through the striped shirt.
However, it is not just in the team’s attire that Athletic have been influenced by la Inglesa. The club have referred to England as la Madre del fútbol (the mother of football), and a quick glance over the club’s pre-Cantera history reveals names such as Walter Evans, William Dyer and George Cockram. Clearly, it does not require an encyclopaedia of Basque names to suggest that these players were from further afield. More significantly, five of the club’s first six coaches were English too, and consequently the philosophy of the team has been largely influenced by Englishmen and none more so than Fred Pentland.
Born in Wolverhampton, Pentland’s story was already a remarkable one before he arrived in Spain. He had represented his country five times and played for a number of English clubs before taking on the challenge of coaching abroad. His first job as manager of the German Olympic team was cut short by the outbreak of the First World War and his consequent internment for the duration of the conflict, yet he was still able to go on to coach France at the 1920 Olympics, before joining Racing Santander.
It was in 1923 that his love affair with Bilbao began.
What set Pentland apart from his English predecessors, or indeed any other coach in Spain, was his approach to the game. His philosophy of ball retention and pass-and-move earned him few friends in England, yet in Spain it proved much more successful. Between 1923 and 1925, he won three trophies with the club, before moving on to spells with Oviedo, Arenas and Athletico Madrid. By the time he returned for his second spell in 1929, his ideas were becoming more influential, as Barcelona adopted Pentland’s style the year before, and passed their way to the first ever La Liga title. It was the first of many such seasons.
Yet the next two years belonged to Pentland’s Bilbao, as they swept to both league titles, even thrashing Barcelona 12-1 en route. He spent two more years in the Basque country before returning to the capital with Athletico. War would prove to be another obstacle in Pentland’s career, as he returned to England at the outbreak of the Spanish civil in 1936.
His tally of 12 trophies as manager of Bilbao remains a club record, and has made him a legend of the club. His death in 1962 was commemorated at the San Mamés stadium by a special ceremony reserved solely for people who have significantly contributed to the Basque culture. To this day he is well remembered as one of the most influential figures in the history of Athletic Bilbao, and Spanish football as a whole.
Pentland was many years ahead of his time, particularly for an English coach. Having become a hero in Spain, he returned to England to the anonymity of managing Barrow AFC. He would not manage again after the Second World War, and outside of Spain he has been largely forgotten. Yet his story is one that should be remembered, and his example ought to be held up to British coaches in the modern era.
Pentland’s impact on the Spanish game is of particular significance in recent years after the dominance of Barcelona and the Spanish national team. Indeed, Bilbao themselves have returned to this style under Marcelo Bielsa and enjoyed some success, outclassing Manchester United in the 2012 Europe League. It is somewhat ironic that it all began with a coach from England- a footballing nation which is still yet to successfully master the value of ball retention at international level.
More importantly, at a time when there are just three English managers in the Premier League (two of whom having just been promoted from the Championship); Pentland’s story demonstrates the merits of taking a coaching career abroad. It is a frequent criticism of the top English clubs that there are not enough opportunities given to young English coaches, yet there simply aren’t enough English coaches -or indeed players- willing to take their chances and prove themselves further afield.
Pentland, along with many others, was prepared to take this chance, yet it is a trend that has died out. Perhaps if he had been given his chance in this country, the story of English football might have been completely different.