Last month I put up a 1920’s article about ex-QPR player Fred Pentland. Sam Hughes wrote the following article which was published a couple of years ago in the second issue of the superb football magazine, ‘Late Tackle’. Sam kindly gave me permission to use it:
‘Somewhat unsurprisingly, there was much debate about the inadequacies of the English national team once yet another international break had passed.
The nation was left hopelessly bereft of their usual entertainment, and the outcry was as loud as ever. The typical unconvincing, disjointed displays have left England fans even more envious as they look towards the sheer volume of talent available to the footballing hypnotists of Spain.
Not only do they have players that can really play, but should one of those magicians become unavailable, then there is another ready to step in. Jealousy in all shades of green. As the pitying self-reflection continues, the conclusion is always the same.
Technique is a mere second to physicality. It always has been, and should any coach try to implement anything else then they are fighting a losing battle. This attitude has, unfortunately, rendered many of England’s most naturally gifted players useless as they kick-and-rush their way to the inevitable disappointment of another tournament exit.
It is not only players that suffer, though. As strange as it sounds, some English coaches were once bold characters, unafraid to lay down a marker as to how they wanted the game played, and – more often than not – they enjoyed success.
One such visionary was Fred Pentland. A footballer from Wolverhampton, he played for Middlesbrough, QPR and Blackburn, among other teams in a fairly unspectacular career from 1903 to 1913. As a coach, however, he left an indelible mark on upon the game – he made it beautiful. At a time when football was wholly unrefined, he was an advocate of the short-passing game; he made sure his players played the ball to feet. No kick-and-rush, no over reliance on brute strength, just simple passing and movement.
And did England benefit from a coach with expansive and original ideas? No, of course not. The country that benefitted from his football philosophy was none other than Spain. The very same country that England – among many others – are so desperate to replicate now.
In terms of character, Fred Pentland was your typical eccentric English gentleman complete with a bowler hat and large cigar. Certainly not a person you would imagine is responsible for the beginning of Spain’s glorious footballing philosophy.
Before his break into Spanish football, Pentland’s first taste of coaching was in 1914 when he took charge of the German Olympic football team after setting up base in Berlin when he retired. Though, soon after, the First World War broke and Pentland was interned at the Ruhleben civil detention camp. It was here that his passion for the coaching and the organisation of football was given a platform.
There was an emergence of interest in football within the camp, both league and cup competitions were organised – Pentland was at the forefront of this. He even became the chairman of the Ruhleben Football Association, showing his ability to lead and transform the game early on.
After being released, Pentland went back to England before leaving again to lead France’s Olympic side to the semi-finals in 1920. By today’s standards, it is quite astonishing to think that he had already coached two national sides before getting a break at a club side. Back then however, many British coaches went abroad to achieve success. There were very few opportunities back home to implement different styles and tactics in football. England was rooted and stubborn, their way or nothing. His next port of call was Spain.
He joined Racing Santander in 1920 and, after only one year was snapped up by Basque giants Athletic Club. Pentland truly announced himself in Bilbao, becoming one of the most forward-thinking coaches ever to grace the game. The man known as ‘el mister’ to his players – a term still used for any La Liga coach today – revolutionised the famous club.
He put his own stamp on the side; from the way they played the game, to making sure his players tied their boot laces correctly. It is said that his motto was “Get the simple things right and the rest will follow.” Spanish football had not seen anything like it, and the rest certainly did follow as he led the side to Copa del Rey victory in 1923.
Despite the cup win, two trophy-less seasons and a feeling of restlessness grew. He soon moved on and managed both Atletico Madrid and Real Oviedo at different times from 1925 to 1929, during this period he guided Atletico to victory in the Campeonato del Centro. This success had not gone unnoticed by those running the Spanish national team.
He was employed as a coach for a short while in 1929 and, under his tutelage; Spain beat England 4-3. This was England’s first defeat to a non-British nation; it was if it was planned all along.
By this time, Pentland’s managerial and coaching ability had made him one of the most sought-after coaches in Spain. Athletic Club persuaded the Englishman to return north soon after, where he went on to guide them through the greatest period of success in their history. After laying down the foundations in the early 1920’s, the Basque side had taken his blueprint and mastered it further.
In his first season back in Bilbao, Pentland comfortable delivered the league and cup double. The success continued into the following season as another league and cup triumph was repeated. The Copa del Rey was eventually won four times in a row from 1930 to 1933, with the side also finishing runners-up in the league in both 1932 and 1933.
Athletic Club were by far the best team in Spain during his reign, they were dominant in every way. Their attractive possession football and prolific goal scoring ability left its mark on the Spanish game that is still felt today. In particular it is in Barcelona where the mark was firmly cast; Pentland’s Athletic demolished Barcelona 12-1. It still remains the heaviest defeat in the famous Catalan club’s history.
Probably the greatest testament to Pentland’s philosophy, however, is the fact that the rest of Spain soon followed in his footsteps. Barcelona and Real Madrid, to name but two, adopted the Englishmen’s patient passing style. They played in much the same way as he had set out his Bilbao side in the early 1920’s. From this change, they began to regularly deliver trophies and have not looked back since.
Fred Pentland is certainly not remembered in his homeland like he is in Spain, and particularly Bilbao. It is likely that his ideas were too much for him to settle in English football. Not that it matters, as he is revered as a true legend in the history of the Basque club. They accepted his footballing philosophy, and the rest of Spain developed it into their own footballing identity. That was his lasting legacy.
So next time you hear an English commentator wax lyrical over Barcelona’s imperious style or the sheer class of Spain, it is worth remembering that they all owe something to the maverick Englishman in the bowler hat.’
Sam Hughes – Twitter: @SamIanHughes
Fred Pentland returned to England at the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. He died at the age of 78 in March 1962.