|Big Basque: Club legend Fernando Llorente|
This Saturday, the two most successful teams in English footballing history meet at Anfield for the 12.45 kick off.
Record league title holders, Manchester United will make the forty-four mile trip with one player born in the club’s local area; Danny Welbeck. The home team Liverpool will field a maximum of five players from the local area; Steven Gerrard, Jamie Carragher, Jay Spearing, Martin Kelly and Jon Flanagan. The latter three with a combined total of only thirty-eight first team appearances.
Two days later and over seven hundred miles away, Athletic Bilbao will play hosts to Osasuna in La Liga’s Monday night fixture. Guests Osasuna will have six local players to choose from, and a further eighteen Spaniards.
Meanwhile, home side Bilbao will have a squad made exclusively of players born in, descended from, or raised in the Basque region of Spain and southern France, a tradition continued throughout their long history.
Football was introduced to Bilbao in the late 19th century through British steel workers, and latterly through Basque students returning from Britain having experience the beautiful game on their travels. Following the club’s inception in the first ever La Liga in 1928, Athletic Club Bilbao is the only other club aside from Real Madrid and Barcelona to have never left the top flight of Spanish football, winning the league on eight occasions, and all with a population only slightly larger than that of Greater Manchester.
However, having not won the league since 1984, and until last season remaining outside of the top six since 2004, what, if anything is to be taken from the Bilbao example?
It’s important to note that Spanish football, much like the nation itself, is much more politicised than the English game. Split into seventeen autonomous communities, these districts consider themselves in many respects independent. An early Bilbao saying ‘Con cantera y afición, no hace falta importación’ essentially meaning ‘No need for imports’ typifies this view.
In response to the appraisal of Bilbao raising Basque talent through the youth team, many would suggest that the likes of Manchester United have done so much more effectively. However, whilst the likes of the Neville brothers and Paul Scholes provide high profile examples of successful local talent, the advantage of casting the net much wider is clear to see with such examples as David Beckham, Ryan Giggs, and more recently Darren Fletcher and Tom Cleverley. This of course does not include the separate matter of poaching young players from abroad, Federico Macheda for example.
The argument here is clearly not one to debate whether the likes of Manchester United or Liverpool would have encountered such success as they have done with only ‘local lads’, they wouldn’t have. The question is, would they have been able to maintain their position in the top flight of English football? Once again, the answer appears to be no. Liverpool spent eight seasons out of the First Division as recently as the sixties, and United spent the first forty years of the old-style football league, dipping in and out of divisions One and Two, all with players sourced from around the United Kingdom and further afield.
Since then, both United and Liverpool have gone on to be endlessly more successful than Athletic Bilbao, but that’s not the point. In an age when the only answer to footballing success appears to be throwing as much money at the problem as possible, it’s refreshing to see a side doing things differently, traditionally, and when considered, extraordinarily successfully.