Welcome to Spain's old English outpost


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The Independent Online

Athletic Club de Bilbao are famed for their Basque heritage; only players from the region can represent the team, but the visit of Manchester United tonight will be a celebration of Anglophilia for a club founded by English quarrymen and local students who had studied in England.

The most visible English influence arrived soon after the club's formation when a student from Bilbao bought 50 Sunderland shirts while awaiting a ship home, the red and white stripes representing the colours of the Basque city.

"In the early days a lot of the players were English," admitted Salvador Acha, president of the London branch of the supporters' club. An early Athletic manager was William Barnes, formerly of West Ham and Sheffield United, who won three Copa del Rey titles in two spells in charge of the club.

Another Englishman, Fred Pentland, lifted two league titles and the Copa del Rey five times. In total, Athletic have hired eight English managers, the most recent being Howard Kendall in the late 1980s.

The former Everton boss had two and a half years in charge, saving Athletic from relegation before taking them to fourth and seventh in La Liga in his two full seasons. "It was a fantastic experience; I have nothing but good memories," said Kendall. "The fans were as passionate as any English fans – and the weather wasn't too different from England!

"After my first 12 months, the Newcastle chairman came over and offered me the job there. I am a Newcastle fan born and bred, but I turned down the opportunity as I was so happy in Bilbao."