Athletic Bilbao, the club which has come to popularly represent Basque identity in the sporting world, was founded in 1898 and quickly established itself as one of the strongest teams in Spain. Ten Copa del Rey titles were won in the first twenty-five years of the club’s existence, but it was during the 1930s – following the establishment of the national league in 1928 – that Athletic enjoyed its greatest run of success.
Fred Pentland, the bowler-hatted, eccentric but brilliant British coach, had managed the side during the mid-1920s and instilled an ethos of patient build-up and short passing. The progress that the team had made under his stewardship had convinced its directors that his blueprint should be followed, and by the time he returned ahead of the 1929/30 campaign the Basque’s had further mastered the skills that the Briton had introduced them to.
Indeed, Pentland’s first season back at San Mamés turned out to be the most successful in the history of the club to that point. The league was won by a comfortable seven-point margin, Athletic easily outstripping rivals Barcelona and Arenas Club de Getxo playing an attractive brand of possession football. Led by the prolific goal scoring duo of Guillermo Gorostiza and Víctor Unamuno, Bilbao’s goal difference of +35 emphasised their dominance and confirmed their position as the best team in Spain.
It was to be Gorostiza along with Agustín Sauto Arana (better known as ‘Bata’) who would come to characterise Bilbao’s “golden age”. Scoring 27 goals in just 18 games, it was Bata who claimed the Pichichi as Athletic secured a second consecutive league and cup double in 1930/31.
A tightly-contested championship, Pentland’s side lost seven of their games as they narrowly beat Racing Santander to the title on goal difference alone. The club’s league dominance may have been reduced, but a 3-2 win over Real Betis at Madrid’s Chamartín stadium in the Copa del Rey final ensured that Athletic remained at the pinnacle of the Spanish game for the time being.
The following season saw Bilbao lose their grip of the national championship, Real Madrid stealing the title away before going on to retain it in 1932/33. Despite losing their league crown, Pentland guided Los Leones to another two Copa triumphs, Barcelona and Madrid being beaten consecutively as Bilbao extended their phenomenal record to four successive victories in the competition.
The Englishman, the most successful coach in Athletic’s history to this day, departed that summer as the unstable political situation in Spain showed signs of increasing volatility, the man known as ‘Mister Pentland’ being replaced at the helm by Patricio Caicedo.
Doubtless spurred on by their usurpation at the top of the league by Real Madrid, Bilbao returned to form in 1933/34 as they beat their Castilian rivals to the La Liga title by two points with hero of the Spanish national team Jose Iraragorri scoring 17 of the team’s 61 goals. The Copa del Rey may have been lost, Madrid going on to win it after eliminating Athletic in the quarter-finals, but the Basques were back at the top of the tree.
After a disappointing fourth-place finish in 1934/35, Bilbao won their fourth title in seven years the following season under the guidance of another Englishman by the name of William Garbutt. However, that title, which saw the San Mamès club finish two points ahead of Madrid with Bata scoring another 21 goals, would be Los Leones‘ last of the decade.
The Spanish Civil War broke out in the July of 1936, all formal sporting events grinding to a halt as the conflict raged across the country. Bilbao’s golden generation, having been one of the finest teams in Spain throughout the 1930s, were cruelly denied the chance to win further titles as the league was shut down from 1936 to 1939.
The 1940s brought more success as Athletic racked up another three Copa del Rey titles and, in 1943, a league championship. However, despite a brief return to prominence in the early 1980s, Bilbao have never quite returned to the heights they achieved under Fred Pentland during the 1930s, the years when the lions of Bilbao ruled Spanish football.