Fred Pentland: The eccentric Englishman who brought Tiki-Taka to Spain

Spanish dreams and English designs

It’s hard to imagine a world where the Spanish game was influenced by an Englishman. If the rules were recorded in England, then it’s natural to look to the English for advice and mentoring. It seems as if those true English eccentrics are the ones who introduced the winning formula to the continental game whilst being ignored on home shores. The irony is truly English.

Fred Pentland was born in Wolverhampton in 1883 and had a rather undistinguished playing career that saw him feature for more than eight clubs in 14 years. However, this prepared him for his successful spree in Spain. He had played the English physical game and had some limited success at Blackpool, QPR and Blackburn Rovers. He played his final matches for Halifax before being injured, where he was out of playing for good. He then went to Germany to manage the Olympic squad in 1914.

True grit. True Brit

It seems like the greatest managers don’t have a sense of international timing. He was left stranded in Germany as war broke out. He was interned in Ruhleben civilian concentration camp. With some 4000 inmates, football became a popular way to pass the time, imprisoned with other England players who wanted to think about and debate tactics. Pentland had found his spiritual home where he had time to think about strategy and style.

After the War, he started off on his managerial career at the helm of the French national team. The eccentricity of this typically short-lived post saw his ideas in action. Playing beautiful football was certainly a way to get noticed.

The Spanish noticed

He was noticed by the Iberian nation teams and it was here he was able to develop his playing philosophy. The Spanish team that had won the silver medal at the Olympics had 14 team members of Basque origin. So, the 1920s was the time for that region to dominate the Spanish scene. It was in this period where the Spanish game developed the style, flair and finesse that we associate with the Iberian Peninsula and Fred Pentland was at the centre of this development.

He didn’t expound the rush and push approach the English favoured. Pentland expanded the midfield with a 2-5-3 formation. He encouraged his players to be confident on the ball and move quickly with it. This is the style that we associate with Barcelona or Real Madrid, but it was developed by an expat Englishman. He was signed by Athletic Bilbao after impressing at Racing Santander. This style of play ensured Bilbao won the Copa Del Ray in 1923.

He gave this team plenty to smile about. With a cigar in his mouth and a bowler hat on his head, he cut a dashing figure. He took his eccentricities to new levels when he allowed the players to stamp on his bowler when they won. Sales of the aforementioned headwear increased sevenfold as Pentland had to order them in bulk.

It wasn’t just the quirkiness of his winning ways but his professionalism that transformed the game. Clean kits and properly tied laces were the foundation of a good team. The bowler hat-wearing wonder was known as El Bombin and when his team won, he received accolades. But when they didn’t, he was heavily criticised; like all innovators. The proof of success is in statistics and trophies.

The Armada in reverse

He coached the national side to an unprecedented victory. A 4-3 victory over Pentland’s homeland confirmed the success of his style. The unthinkable happened. England was defeated for the first time by a non-British team. They did this in front of 45,000 fans at the Estadio Metropolitano. I think we are all aware of the irony.

After this, he returned to the Basque country. Athletic Bilbao won their first La Liga and a Copa Del Rey. They were the first team to do the double and the first to retain both titles. This style of play seemed unstoppable. It seems incredulous that this team would also win a further four Copa Del Rey titles.

Bilbao beat Barcelona

With a scoreline of 12-1 and seven goals from Bata, you would be surprised to hear that Barcelona were the ones who scored one. Bilbao inflicted the heaviest defeat on Barcelona in their entire history. A record that is unlikely to be beaten any time soon. With this defeat, Barcelona adopted ‘Pentland’s way’ and the style of El Mister was taken on by the giants of the game. In his final season, Bilbao finished second as Real Madrid won the title. His style had found its way to the capital.

It was certainly not compatible with his home nations though. He was forced to return to England to escape the ravages of the Civil War that tore Spain apart. His methods were not taken on at Barrow FC so he retired in 1940.

Largely unknown in England, he may have been forgotten altogether had he not been so respected in Spain. He was invited back to San Mames for a testimonial match in 1959.  He had the honour of kicking off the match against Chelsea. The Basque region of Spain is still alive with traditions, some old and some new. He received the ‘distinguished member’ medal from this club for services to it. The fiercely loyal Basque people honour its associates as if they were natives. On hearing of his death in 1962, The club performed an ‘Aurresku’ or high-kicking dance. They also recited reverential poems in his honour. The man in the bowler hat was remembered for his achievements with the club and contribution to Basque culture in a traditional way.

Basque football led the way in Spain and again it is ironic that an Englishman was at the helm. Athletic Bilbao has a policy of signing local native Basque players only. I think it is a good job that the policy was not extended to the management team or Spain may not be the proponents of the beautiful game we know today. It is clear that with 14 members of its national squad in 1920 that the region has enough talent to validate that policy. Fred Pentland was a visionary whose methods were taken on in one region and unified the fractured nation with the most beautiful version of the game.