Having spent the last few chapters of this series in central Europe we now head south to the Mediterranean, starting with the story of ‘El Mister’ who coached the first team outside the British Isles to victory over England and transformed Spanish football.
Born in Wolverhampton he had a distinguished career as an outside right forward in the Edwardian era having spells in the first division with Blackburn Rovers and Middlesbrough. Whilst with Boro he won five England caps in 1909. Injury forced his retirement in 1914 and he was appointed coach of the German Olympic team, unfortunately the subsequent outbreak of World War One meant Pentland was interned in Ruhleben camp along with up to 5,000 other prisoners. Whilst there he organised cup and league competitions for his fellow inmates. There were enough footballers in the camp to make up an England XI and alongside fellow Middlesbrough and England team mate Steve Bloomer; Pentland appeared in the triangular Coupe de Allies tournament which also featured a French and Belgian team. He remained in the camp until the armistice upon which he returned to England.
Appointed French national coach, he took them to the semi-final of the 1920 Olympics held in Antwerp. After the games he moved to Spain where he was to stay for fifteen years and make a lasting significant impact on the development of the Spanish game.
During five years of internment Pentland had plenty of time to debate and theorize about football with his fellow ex professional footballers. This crystallized into a simple motto “Get the simple things right and the rest will follow.”
Eschewing the English kick and rush style which was brought by his countrymen to Iberia in the late nineteenth century, Pentland instead focussed on skill, possession, short passing and rapid movement, a style that became commonly known as push and run. This philosophy necessitated a change of formation so Pentland abandoned the traditional 2-3-5 in favour of a 2-5-3 which made for more creativity in midfield.
This was tried first at Racing Santander but after a year he moved on to Athletic Bilbao for the first of two spells which would transform the history of the Basque team. Los Leones were the most English of Spanish clubs, with even their red and white striped kit having originated from Southampton but despite Pentland being the latest in a long line of English coaches at San Mamés he was to lead the club in turning their back on their forebears. Using the force of his considerable character, Pentland introduced his favoured methods of play and won the 1923 Copa Del Rey. Known in the city as El Bombin, Pentland would invite his players to stamp on his trademark bowler hat when they won a big game. Addressing him by the more respectful El Mister, the players were encouraged to be more professional, being given lessons in how to dress and even how to tie their shoelaces.
Leaving Bilbao in 1925 he led Atlético Madrid to the 1926 Copa Del Rey final then moved onto Real Oviedo for a season, returning to Atlético in 1927, where he won the Campeonato Del Centro, the regional league for clubs in the Madrid area. In 1929 he was coach alongside manager José María Mateos of the Spanish national team which beat England 4-3 in Madrid, England’s first ever defeat to a non-British team.
Barcelona won the inaugural La Liga in 1929 using Pentland’s style of play but in 1930 El Mister claimed the title for himself, making a triumphant return to Bilbao with an invincible season which included another Copa Del Rey win. He made it a double double in 1931 (squad pictured above) and went on in the following two seasons to twice defend the Copa Del Rey and finish runner up twice in La Liga. Going back to Athletico Madrid in 1934, his third spell there was curtailed by the onset of the Spanish Civil War and he went back to England.
After a short spell as manager of Barrow, his career in football ended with the outbreak of World War Two. His impact on Athletic Bilbao was not forgotten though and he was invited back to San Mamés in 1959 to receive the club’s Distinguished Member’s medal. He kicked off a special testimonial game against Chelsea on this occasion, a feat repeated by his daughter Angela in 2010. His death in 1962 was commemorated at the San Mamés stadium by a special ceremony reserved solely for people who have significantly contributed to the Basque culture. His statue remains at San Mamés to this day.
The high water mark of his time at Bilbao was a 12-1 win over Barcelona in 1931, the record defeat ever suffered by the Catalans. This established his footballing philosophy as the superior one in Spain and was adopted nationwide with Barcelona and Real Madrid going on to owe much to the influence of El Mister as they dominated firstly Spanish and then European football.