Athletic Bilbao values loyalty and has a tough call to make should Ernesto Valverde move to Barcelona.

By Ben Lyttleton
April 17, 2017

Not every club struggles when there is uncertainty around the coach.

At Athletic Bilbao, coach Ernesto Valverde notched a club-record 300 games in charge this weekend, with his side beating Las Palmas 5-1 Friday. The win moved Athletic into sixth place and on track for a spot in the Europa League, all while Valverde remains one of the prime candidates to replace Luis Enrique at Barcelona.

This was the week when Athletic announced the identity of its third ‘One-Club Man’ award, with Sepp Maier (Bayern Munich 1962-80) following Matt Le Tissier and Paolo Maldini. Athletic is a club that values loyalty and this prize, unique in world football, acts as a smart reminder to its players that remaining at one club can bring its own rewards.

Athletic only recruits Basque players and has a world-class talent development system. Every summer, the club is confronted with the same dilemma: to convince its star players to show the loyalty of Maier and Maldini when the big clubs come knocking, which they usually do. Aymeric Laporte and Inaki Williams could both fetch in the region of €40 million this summer.

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When players have left in the past, they have done so with the club’s blessing: but the examples of Fernando Llorente and even Javi Martinez do not prove the grass is always greener. That might also be a consideration for Valverde and his potential move to Barcelona, where he was once a player, and Arsenal, who were linked with the Spaniard as a potential Arsene Wenger replacement last week.

The favorite to replace Valverde is, appropriately enough, another homegrown talent. Former player Jose Ziganda has been in charge of the second team, Bilbao Athletic, since 2011. Over 10 of Valverde’s first-teamers–including Laporte, Lekue, Kepa, Yeray, Williams, Sabin Merino, Eraso, Saborit, Villalibre, Remiro, Vesga and Unai López–have come through Ziganda’s team. He is said to have the support of president Josu Urrutia, but not of sporting director Jose Mari Amorrortu.

Recent names linked with the post include Quique Setien (of Las Palmas, so perhaps not the best time for an interview after last weekend) and Celta Vigo’s Eduardo Berizzo. But in the week when Athletic rewarded Maier for his loyalty, it would be a brave call to overlook Ziganda when decision time comes.

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