Fred Pentland and the iconic Bilbao years

Fred Pentland and the iconic Bilbao years

FOOTBALL ARRIVED QUIETLY ON SPANISH SHORES through British workers employed at the Rio Tinto Mine Company on the outskirts of Huelva, Andalucia, in the late 19th century.At the time, it would have been impossible to foresee the impact – and popularity – the game was going to have on the nation today.

The early years of Spanish football was heavily influenced by the British model, which relied on strength, brute force and getting the ball forward as quickly as possible. It was not until a certain Fred Pentland arrived from England to question this style of play that a real alternative to the traditional game was offered.



Born in Wolverhampton in 1883, Fred Pentland started working as a gun manufacturer before he paved a career as a footballer.

Making his debut in 1903 as an outside right for Lancashire outfit Blackpool, he went on to play for a number of English clubs, including Blackburn Rovers, QPR, Middlesbrough and Stoke. Pentland also had a short England career, winning five caps and helping his country win the Home Nations Championship in 1909. He didn’t, however, have the most distinguished of playing careers and is largely forgotten within the English game, as it would be as a manager away from his native land where he would really excel.

Having retired from playing the game in 1913, the man from the Midlands went to Berlin to coach the German Olympic team in 1914, an unfortunate year in hindsight and far from great timing. Within months of his arrival World War One broke out and he was detained in a civilian internment camp in Ruhleben.

It was here that he helped organise football matches amongst the 4,000 or so detainees – some of whom were ex-professional players, namely England trio Sam Wolstenholme, Steve Bloomer and Fred Spiksley. He also helped coach the German military team and went on to become chairman of the Ruhleben Football Association. Pentland would remain in Germany until the war ended in 1918, when he returned to Britain.

Pentland next dipped his toes into management with the French national side in 1920, leading them to the semi-final stage at the Antwerp Olympics, losing 4-1 to Czechoslovakia. Despite his near-misses during the early years of management, Pentland would soon head to Spain and forge a legacy as one of the true pioneers in Iberian football.

His first foray into club management was in 1921 and would see him appointed as manager of Racing Santander. Racing were the first club side that would benefit from his short passing philosophy. The Englishman would discourage his players from the kick and rush style of the English game, focusing instead on skill, bravery in possession, short passing and quick movement – often referred to as ‘push and move’.

It was usual for Spanish and English teams to line up in a 2-3-5 formation but Pentland kicked this dogma into touch and adopted a 2-5-3 system. This suited his playing style allowing more creativity in midfield as his players outnumbered the opposition. What was England’s loss was quickly turning into Spain’s gain.

After just one year at Racing he moved to Athletic Club and a love affair between football, the Bilbao fans and Pentland started – and has endured ever since. He took charge of the club on two separate occasions, from 1922 to 1925 and 1929 to 1933.

Moving to the city in 1922, he signed a contract worth 1,000 pesetas per month. On his arrival at Los Leones he found an aggressive, long-ball style of play which had been installed by the club’s previous English managers. He quickly set about revolutionising the way Athletic played the game and went on to become their most successful manager to date.

During his time in Bilbao, he would be seen by the locals as the quirky Englishman. Rarely without a cigar, smartly dressed and always wearing his famous bowler hat, it would earn him the nickname El Bombin.

The bowler hat became something of a symbol at the club, with the man himself allowing the Bilbao players to stamp on it if they achieved a result of significance; a rather unusual way of celebrating to say the least. But it was this quirkiness that endeared him to his players, fans and the city of Bilbao as a whole.

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Pentland was seen as the first coach in Spain to implement professionalism within the domestic game, introducing dress codes and even teaching his players how to tie their shoelaces the British way. “Get the simple things right and the rest will follow” was his alleged motto. This is not to say everything was plain sailing – like all innovators he had his detractors, but he stuck to his firmly-held footballing principles.

El Mister, as he was affectionately known amongst his players, was stubborn. If you couldn’t play the way he wanted you to, you’d be shown the exit. Not that this was a bad thing. He was ahead of his time and Spain had never seen a manager like Pentland before.

His first success with the Basque side would come in 1923, winning the Copa del Rey with a 1-0 victory over the Catalan club Club Esportiu Europa. After two trophyless campaigns, he would leave in 1925 over a dispute about the style Athletic should be playing.

This would be a constant battle Pentland fought throughout his career, with so many traditionalists in the game wary of this new, ‘softer’ approach to football. During his years of success, adversaries would hold their tongues, but as soon as there was a barren spell, Pentland’s tactics would be criticised.

The Englishman understood better than anyone that without success his philosophy would be under attack from most of the football establishment. The fact that the overwhelming majority of teams played the 2-3-5 kick and rush style – and failed – seemed lost on his detractors.

Following his stint in Bilbao, Pentland sought pastures new. Over a four-year period, he managed Atlético Madrid – leading them to a Campeonato del Centro, which was a stunning achievement at the time – and subsequently Real Oviedo.

Perhaps most famously in this period, he would help coach the Spanish national side to a 4-3 victory over England. The fixture was played at Atlético Madrid’s Estadio Metropolitano, drawing in 45,000 fans to the game. Spain at the time was still a relatively young footballing nation and had only played 32 international fixtures. The Spanish were seen as a capable team by the English, but not quite up to their standards. The significance of this result was enormous, however, as Spain became the first non-British side to defeat the English. In hindsight it’s the most beautiful of ironies.

His return to Bilbao in 1929, and his influence on the Spanish national team, would see his work spread from the San Mamés to FC Barcelona – who would win the inaugural national league in 1929 with Pentland’s style – and Real Madrid. Pentland would go on to lead Athletic to their first Liga title – unbeaten at that – as well as the Copa del Rey in 1930, becoming the first Spanish side to complete the double. That the football was entertaining (by modern standards) makes it all the more remarkable looking back.

One double quickly became two as Pentland retained both the league and Copa del Rey titles the following season. It’s worth noting that in this season Athletic completely dismantled Barcelona 12-1, still the Catalan club’s heaviest defeat in their illustrious history. It was a game in which Barcelona used the Pentland style of play, but on this occasion, the master outshone the student.

The next two seasons would see Athletic claim another two Copa del Rey titles, and they are still to this day the last club to win the competition four years in a row.

A contract dispute would see Pentland leave Bilbao in acrimonious circumstances in 1933. Once again, the Englishmen would return to Atlético Madrid, although his stint would prove brief. With the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War he would return to England where he took charge of his only English club, Barrow, in 1938, before retiring two years later.



Fred Pentland’s legacy at Athletic Club is considered by many to be eternal. Long after his retirement, El Bombin was invited back to San Mamés in 1959 for a testimonial match against Chelsea. It was on this special occasion that he would be awarded the club’s ‘Distinguished Member’ medal. The game would see him given the honour of taking the kick-off – something his daughter Angela would repeat in 2010. It would sadly be the last time he visited the San Mamés before his death in 1962. Undervalued and overlooked in England, it is in Spain, and especially Bilbao, where he is still appreciated.

So the next time you hear the plaudits pour in from around the world for Johan Cruyff’s Dream Team and Pep Guardiola’s all-conquering Barcelona side, spare a thought for an unassuming man from Wolverhampton who, many decades earlier, laid the foundations for these sides to flourish.

It may not have been quite the speedy, technical football played by many Spanish teams today, but it was revolutionary for the era. It was the first example of professionalism entering the domestic scene, of a reinvented style. Fred Pentland was a man of vision, who went beyond his stuffy borders and planted the roots of the modern game; a man who almost a century on from his first job in club football management is still ahead of his time within the English game.

Workers at the Rio Tinto mines may have brought football to Spain, but it was Fred Pentland who introduced them to football’s most beautiful side.

By Jack Rodway

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