Bilbao is a hilly city located in the Basque region of northern Spain, surrounded by lush, green countryside and renowned for its iron industry.
Its population of 345,000 mark it as the tenth largest city in Spain but it punches well above its economic weight, with a GDP per capita around 30 per cent above the Spanish average.
Its red and white striped football team, Athletic Bilbao, pays similarly short thrift to any demographic limitations, as one of only three clubs never to have been relegated from La Liga - along with Real Madrid and Barcelona. With eight Spanish titles and 24 Copa Del Rey wins, Athletic are the fourth most successful Spanish club in history.
While silverware has proved scarcer in recent times, Los Leones continue to compete in the upper echelons of Spanish and European football. The consistent over-achievement of this understated club, from a relatively small Spanish city, looks even more remarkable when we consider its ‘Basque-only’ policy (limiting it to players who were either born or developed in the Basque region of northern Spain and southern France).
Sheffield United have no equivalent policy, but Italy’s La Gazzetta Dello Sport made a comparison between the two clubs (highlighted in a recent article in The Star) with Chris Wilder’s 2017 promotion squad originating almost exclusively from the British Isles.
Closer scrutiny reveals that the Italians may be onto something.
Like Athletic, United enjoy an intensely loyal and partisan following. Sheffield folk are comprehensively either Blades or Owls with precious few taking the superficial path of declaring allegiance to a London or Manchester brand. Just like in Bilbao, where no self-respecting local will be seen wearing the colours of Barcelona or Real Madrid and everyone supports Los Leones.
Athletic also have no significant global or even national following. This can be interpreted as either strength or weakness: with any loss in commercial opportunities arguably offset through the additional loyalty garnered from supporters who really mean it.
This devotion is translated into Athletic’s high and stable support base. Its 2016/17 average attendance of 40,000 – constituting over 10 per cent of the local population – was the fourth highest in La Liga, bettered only by the two Madrid clubs and Barcelona.
League position and form have relatively little, if any, impact on Athletic’s attendance figures. Likewise, The Blades whose support remained stoically resilient, around the 20,000 mark, throughout a recent, six-season spell in League One.
Supporter numbers jumped significantly after the opening of Athletic’s new, charismatic, 53,000 capacity San Memes stadium in 2013. Visitors note both the pleasing aesthetics of the new structure and the noise generated within it from loud, passionate supporters who back their team in numbers.
Despite their years in the footballing doldrums, United have a stadium which is the envy of most other Championship clubs and a fair few in the league above. Given half an excuse, Blades fans will also crank up the decibels. As Danny Hall noted in another Star article recently, fans on popular website Football Ground Map voted Bramall Lane as the best Championship stadium for atmosphere.
Another critical area of similarity between the two clubs is an emphasis on the development of homegrown players. For Athletic, given its Basque only policy, it’s a fairly obvious priority. Nevertheless, the success of its Cantera (academy), in producing players capable of competing at the highest level of Spanish football is extraordinary. In the 2016/17 season, graduates of its youth system completed 64 per cent of Athletic’s La Liga minutes – the equivalent of having eight academy players starting and finishing every single league game.
The financial dividend from this approach is huge, with Athletic spending a small fraction of its La Liga rivals on transfer fees (just 1.5 per cent of the total La Liga spend between 2009-2016).
Blades owner Kevin McCabe invested heavily, over a long period, in the Blades academy – often in the face of criticism from supporters looking for a quicker fix to on-field success. He did so in the belief that, in an era of extortionate transfer fees and wages, this was the only viable route to financial sustainability.
In response to this article, the Blades co-owner repeated his previously stated objective of a Blades first team squad “around equal in terms of home grown talent and purchased players.” Whilst recognising that “our ‘Britishness’ is a major plus at present”, McCabe has no desire to tie the hands of his “creative and forward-thinking manager” in respect of future transfer dealings.
His commitment and belief has proved outstandingly successful in producing footballers capable of playing at the highest level of English and international football. In July 2017, The Blades academy was recognised, in a Press Association study, as the eighth best - measured by the 2016/17 Premier League minutes played by its graduates. Nestled between Arsenal and Chelsea in the rankings, United’s was the only non-Premier League club to make the top ten. Meanwhile, Phil Jagielka and Kyle Walker became regular, full England internationals with Harry Maguire following them and David Brooks looking, potentially, the best of a very strong Academy bunch.
McCabe’s academy vision has delivered a conveyor belt of talent, surpassing any reasonable expectations, but it hasn’t provided financial sustainability and this is where Los Leones’s policy differs fundamentally from that pursued by The Blades.
Its ‘Basque only’ approach makes Athletic think long and hard before selling on its brightest talent, given the inherent difficulty in finding a replacement.
By holding onto their best players for longer Athletic tend to maximise sale value when they are sold. Ander Herrera, sold to Manchester United for €36m and Javi Martinez to Bayern Munich for €40m, bear testimony to the divident yielded by this approach - both purchased for a small fraction of their eventual sale value.
The Blades, unshackled by any geographical constraints on recruitment, should - in theory at least - be in a stronger position to source suitable replacements when it sells its young stars. The reality, as all Blades fans know, has been somewhat different.
Does anybody believe that Jagielka, Stephen Quinn, Kyle Naughton, Walker, Matt Lowton or Maguire were adequately replaced? Or, that collectively, they were sold anywhere close to their maximum market value? Perhaps, this was simply down to the shortcomings of a succession of executives, managers and scouts. Maybe player and agent power made it difficult to keep some of the players listed. Or, as Chris Wilder alluded to recently, is it possible that the policy was just plain wrong?
Some argue that, if you’re outside of the Premier League, its difficult to resist when a bigger club comes knocking. The counter argument, as proven by Los Leones, is that, if you keep your best players for longer, you’re far more likely to be, and remain, successful.
It could also be the case, that ‘loyalty breeds loyalty’ and the heads of the Lions of Bilbao are turned less easily than may be the case at other, less partisan, clubs. Aymeric Laporte, regarded as one of the best, young defensive talents in Europe, recently turned down a mega money deal from Bilbao to the Premier League with both Chelsea and Manchester City keen, stating plainly, “I did not want to leave.”
Any organisation, whether in sport or otherwise, which is well led and fosters a strong team spirit is far less likely to lose its best people. By contrast, where chaos reigns or in a dog-eat-dog culture, where players are treated simply as tradable assets, it should be no surprise when they opt out.
By taking a different approach in its transfer dealings, Athletic has achieved a huge net surplus – enough to clear almost all of its short and long-term debt, which includes the building of its new stadium.
It has done this while remaining competitive in one of the toughest leagues in the world and regularly qualifying for European competition.
United, like Bilbao, is a club imbued with the passion and ideals of its supporters. It has a support base, which is high, stable and growing and an owner who cares deeply about his club and wants to secure its future for the longer term. So much of McCabe’s vision of sustainability – built on investment in great facilities and home grown talent – was insightful and intelligent. Through a combination of poor execution and unfortunate circumstance his vision has thus far failed to reach fruition. The cost of falling short has been tens of millions for the McCabe family and years of frustration for supporters.
Wilder’s revolution means McCabe’s vision, which seemed destined to never be achieved, is once again within reach. So many pieces are already in place and the club feels more ‘United’ than at any time in living memory.
The Lions of Bilbao have proved that a well-run club with a long-term vision can be financially sustainable and competitive at the higher levels of national and European football. The Blades of Sheffield are, perhaps uniquely, positioned to follow suit.