Welcome to Spain's old English outpost

Will Unwin traces the links that make Athletic Club more than a Basque stronghold

Athletic Club Bilbao are famed for their Basque heritage; only players from the region can represent the team, and the club became a symbol of Basque nationalism during the reign of the Spanish dictator, Francisco Franco, but they have the English to thank for their existence today, and the club’s visit of Manchester United will be a celebration of their Anglophilia.

At the end of the 19th century, many industrialists travelled to Spain in order to expand Great Britain’s shipbuilding and mining interests in the Basque Country, bringing football with them. By 1898 Bilbao had its own football club, after the foreign workers and local students, who had studied in England, organised matches of the game they loved, and eventually set up the club that became known as Athletic Bilbao. The Basque figurehead of the seven-man committee who founded Bilbao’s first football club, was a student named Juanito Astorquia, who discovered football when studying in Manchester, the very city Athletic made their mark last week during the first leg of this Europa League tie.

Respect for the English footballing philosophy has been ever-present since the club’s founding, with Basques referring to England as la madre del fútbol (the mother of football); Athletic have hired eight English managers during their existence with the most recent being Howard Kendall in the late-1980s. The former Everton manager enjoyed two and a half years in charge, saving the club from relegation before taking Athletic to fourth and seventh, respectively, in his two full campaigns at the helm. “It was a fantastic experience for me, I was treated with the utmost respect, and I have nothing but good memories,” Kendall explained.

 

The appointment of Kendall, after six successful years at Everton, was made in order to reinvigorate a team in decline. “It was funny, whenever the club were struggling they always brought in a foreign manager to try and turn things around, but in the good times they seemed to want one of their own,” a thoughtful Kendall told me.  “They made sure I had a Basque assistant for me to train up, and he would eventually take over from me; mine was Txetxu Rojo who went on to become manager when I left.”

Kendall was certainly content with life in Bilbao, enjoying his time living at the Athletic training ground, Lezama, in the Basque countryside. He even turned down attractive offers from England. “I loved every minute of being there; the biggest compliment I can pay them is that after my first 12 months the Newcastle chairman came over for a game and offered me the job at St James’ Park; I am a Newcastle fan born and bred, but I turned down the opportunity as I was so happy in Bilbao,” Kendall told The Independent.

It’s widely acknowledged that Athletic crowds are amongst the most vociferous and passionate in Spain, and United should expect an intense welcome from the steep stands of the ageing San Mamés stadium in Bilbao. “The Basque people live and breathe football, hundreds of them would turn up to watch training each day,” Kendall acknowledged. “The fans were as passionate as any English fans you will see; Sammy Lee [former Liverpool player] once told me the San Mamés was the best ground he had ever played at due to atmosphere created by the fans.”

If you meet any Athletic supporter they will proudly tell you about the fact the club are one of only three, along with Barcelona and Real Madrid, to have never been relegated from the Spanish top-flight, with the majority attributing this to the fact only Basque people can play for the club. What many won’t like to admit is that in Athletic’s early days the playing staff included many Englishmen such as Alfredo Mills, who was the club’s vice-captain in 1901. Such trivia is not well received by the fiercely proud locals, the majority of whom would prefer relegation to admitting a compromise on the principles of the club.

“In the early days a lot of the players were English, but not many like to talk about that,” admitted Salvador Acha, president of the London branch of the official supporters club. Many Basques are fiercely proud of their identity and believe, in many ways, their physiology is superior to the rest of Spain, and success on the football pitch is proof of that.

Much of the club’s current success can be traced back to foundations laid by an Englishman, Fred Pentland. The former Blackburn and Middlesbrough forward had two spells as Athletic’s manager in the 1920s and 30s. A relatively unknown figure in his homeland, whose only managerial role in England was at Barrow, he revolutionised the club’s style by encouraging his players to pass and move. Pentland became a popular figure in the Basque Country, making them into one of the first truly professional teams in Spain. The official supporters’ club in London is named Peña Pentland in his honour. “Mr Pentland is remembered as a true great in Athletic's history for being the man who transformed the club from a bunch of amateurs to the beginnings of a great professional team,” Acha explained. 

Nicknamed ‘El Bombín’ (The Bowler Hat), due to his quintessentially English headwear, the players would celebrate each victory by removing Pentland’s hat and stamping on it, an act still carried out in many bars across Bilbao. During his time with the zurigorri, the club’s nickname, he won two league titles and the Copa del Rey on five occasions. “All Athletic supporters acknowledge and are thankful to the influence English football has had over the years," Acha stated with pride.   

The club’s ground, San Mamés, nicknamed la catedral due to football being treated as a religion in Bilbao, was built in 1913, with the English influence on the construction so great that even the turf laid at the stadium was imported from England. By this point, the club had already appointed two English managers. Mr Shepherd (his Christian name was never documented), was hired in 1910, but only lasted a matter of months, citing homesickness for his resignation. Despite his rapid departure, the English influence was not to diminish as he was replaced by William Barnes, who won three Copa del Rey titles in two spells in charge of the club.

The notorious Basque manager, Javier Clemente, oversaw one of the club’s most successful eras winning consecutive La Liga titles in the early 1980s. Clemente employed la manera inglesa (the English way), which saw a robust Athletic team playing direct football, with two defensive midfielders, a formation that was adopted by many of Clemente’s successors, and was only completely disbanded this season, under the tutelage of Marcelo Bielsa.  It is unclear which particular side he borrowed this style from, but he was always adamant he was employing English tactics.

Britain’s influence on the region stretches further than the football pitch, as the ikurriña, the red, green and white Basque flag, was designed by the father of the region’s nationalism, Sabino Arana, based on the Union Jack. After Franco’s death in 1975, the Athletic goalkeeper, José Ángel Iribar, took the flag onto the pitch prior to a game with their closest rivals, Real Sociedad, from the neighbouring Basque city of San Sebastian. At the time, it was still illegal to display the ikurriña, and this was the first time anyone had shown the flag in public, making it one of the great political statements of the era.

For such an insular club, their history would not be complete without the external influences of the English, and the Athletic fans appreciate this more than anyone. Whatever the outcome of tonight’s game, the Anglophilia of the Basques will continue for years to come, and as Kendall confesses, “Athletic is an English club”.

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