From El Tel to Gran Sam?

Herrera and Llorente during happier times for the club.
Herrera and Llorente during happier times for the club. / EFE

  • Athletic Bilbao are facing the real prospect of relegation for the first time in their history

Athletic Bilbao is a club that is respected globally for being a constant in Spain's top league and sticking to its Basque-only player policy.

It's a club with a magnificent support, an incredible modern stadium and an impressive history but the problem is the present. After failing to win since the opening weekend of the season, they have slipped into the relegation zone and it prompted them to sack the coach Eduardo Berizzo this week.

Gaizka Garitano has been promoted from running the B team but he has a pretty unimpressive CV and the tradition of appointing from within almost cost them last season when Cuco Ziganda managed only a 16th-place finish.

The Athletic dilemma is unique. The club is cash rich. In the past 11 months Aymeric Laporte headed to Manchester City and Kepa Arrizabalaga to Chelsea for a combined 140 million euros.

Outgoing president Josu Urrutia said recently: "Financially speaking we are on a better footing than at any time in modern history." Would they reverse the player policy? "No, never" was the comprehensive answer.

So the president's successor has to think laterally. There are a couple of Basque players -Fernando Llorente and Ander Herrera- who could be persuaded to return home for the good of the club.

Llorente has played just 13 minutes of Premier League football for Tottenham this season and at the age of 33 he may be ready to move back. He left under a cloud when he refused to sign a contract in 2013 and left to seek his fame and fortune in Serie A. Now he's made his fortune he could be the saviour they need as time has finally caught up with the club's 37-year-old striker Aritz Aduriz.

Joining him on the plane from England could be Ander Herrera. A move from Manchester United is generally a step down but maybe he could be persuaded to make a temporary trip to the San Mamés as he's only started three top flight games this season.

The situation isn't desperate; they've only lost five games, the same as Real Madrid. The problem appears to be the will to win. Eight games have ended in a draw. A couple of them, Real Madrid and Barcelona were creditable, but others like Rayo, Getafe and Eibar less so.

There is talent. A number of clubs were reported to be interested when Iker Muniain was stalling on a new contact and Iñaki Williams is an exciting young striker who has been capped by Spain. The fact that none of Williams' four goals this season have been scored at home tells a story.

The players have history weighing them down. Only three clubs have never been relegated from La Liga: Real Madrid, Barcelona and Athletic.

The Basque-only policy doesn't apply to managers. Jupp Heynckes, Marcelo Bielsa and Howard Kendall all enjoyed a spell in charge. Kendall left his legendary Everton team behind to move to Bilbao.

The modern Everton fans may scoff but Athletic find themselves in a similar situation to the Merseysiders a year ago with an underperforming team in need of someone to pull the players together. It sounds like a job for Sam Allardyce - the man who claimed his Englishness always held him back from big jobs.

We've had 'El Tel' in La Liga after all. So why not 'Gran Sam'?