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Hats Off To Mr Pentland (Athletic Bilbao, Spain)

Cultural and Education Section of the British Embassy - British Council
 This article was generously provided to ClubFootball by the British Council, which operates in China as the Cultural and Education Section of the British Embassy.


Athletic Bilbao won two league titles, four Cup finals and numerous friends while eccentric Englishman Fred Pentland coached them in the early 1930s. Luke Gosset reports on the hat-wearing wine-lover still held in high regard in Bilbao.
English managers Sir Bobby Robson, Terry Venables, Ron Atkinson and Howard Kendall have all coached sides in Spain but none of them can rival the achievements of Fred Pentland, the bowler hat-wearing boss of Athletic Bilbao in the early 1930s.
Athletic Bilbao appointed one of British football's most successful exports in 1923 after another Briton named Mr Barnes led the Basque side to the first three titles in Spanish domestic championship history. Not only did Pentland's side go on to win the league in 1930 and 1931, but Bilbao also won the Cup in his first season and repeated the feat four times between 1930 and 1933.
The former Blackburn Rovers player was a true pioneer, who learned his coaching as a fitness instructor to military officers when confined in Germany during the First World War. He went on to manage the French national team at the Antwerp Olympics in 1920. From there, he landed in the Bay of Biscay at Racing Santander before Bilbao made him an offer he could not refuse: the then-large sum of 1,000 pesetas a month.
Ironically, Pentland rejected Bilbao's adherence to the traditional English approach to football espoused by previous managers. The '1-2-3' - three touches from goalkeeper to centre-forward - was replaced by a shorter passing game where emphasis was placed on spreading the play. The new tactics caught on and Barcelona used them to win the championship in 1929. Spain's top teams Real Madrid, Valencia and Deportivo La Coruña all use a similar 'pass and move' style now.
The Bilbao players were fond of the man they called 'Mister', who even taught them how to tie their shoelaces properly at his first training session. The players used to steal the hat off his head every time they won a game and trample it in the mud in a bizarre act of celebration. He was forced to order a fresh supply of hats each year.
Such was Pentland's impact that Athletic paid homage to him in 1959, asking him to kick off a friendly against a Chelsea team captained by Jimmy Greaves. When he died three years later a special ceremony was held in his honour at San Mamés stadium.
To this day, the eccentric character is held in high regard. Jon Ageriano, who edited Bilbao newspaper El Correo's supplement to mark Athletic's centenary in 1998, said: "Mr Pentland, as he is generally known, is a historic figure who was in charge of Athleti's best ever side. Club members like me still remember him very affectionately. There was the bowler hat and the big Cuban cigars he used to smoke. But he was also a connoisseur of wine. When his teams were coming back from away games they would all stop at the cellars on the banks of La Rioja for a few glasses. For a manager, Pentland is right up there. He is one of the best and most important in Athleti's history."

Luke Gossett, January 2004

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