Trying it their way

Athletic's unique player policy isn't halting their progress, and they could challenge those at the top

Rob Palmer
ROB PALMER

The rise of Athletic Bilbao, sitting pretty in La Liga's third place, is truly one the great stories in world football.

It's well-known that they are unique by restricting selection to players born or raised in the Basque Country, and they have never been relegated from the top division.

This is in an age when failing clubs just wait until the next transfer market to try to wheel and deal their way out of trouble.

At Athletic, they can't just buy success; they must motivate players who have predominantly come through the club's academy and rely on the talents of their coaching staff. They must just try harder.

They are lucky that Ernesto Valverde was available to return to Bilbao in the summer. He'd taken a sabbatical to work on his photography and refresh himself after a spell at Barcelona. It was only after he departed the Camp Nou that fans realised what an incredible job he'd done to cover the cracks at a crumbling club to win two successive league titles. Even when he was sacked, they were league leaders and had just won their Champions League group; he'd been taken for granted.

At the San Mamés, he'll never be taken for granted. Not born, but raised in the Basque Country, he played for the club and worked his way through the system to first team coach. In his first spell 20 years ago, he took the team into the UEFA Cup thanks to a fifth placed finish.

When he returned in 2013, he guided the club to the Copa del Rey final and their first trophy in 31 years by beating Barcelona in the Spanish Super Cup. He holds the record for managing 42 European games and there's an indication that he'll be in charge for more next season.

It's always been accepted that Athletic's style may be more functional than fun given the restrictions; however this season, there is a distinct change. They're blowing the opposition away. They hit four past Almería, Elche and Cádiz plus three against Rayo Vallecano.

The world had heard of the Williams' Sisters, now we have the Williams' Brothers. Iñaki, 28, has played a remarkable 240 games in a row for his club and has finally accepted an invitation to play for Ghana, the country of his parents' birth.

Nico, eight years younger, made an immediate impact on his call-up for Spain by having a hand - or head to be exact - in the winning goal against Portugal. There's a strong chance that the boys from Bilbao will both be at the World Cup in the summer.

Athletic is a team in the strongest sense without expensive stars. The Williams brothers are backed up by another exciting youngster, Oihan Sancet, who matches them with three goals in the scoring charts. Guiding the side is Ander Herrera who has returned to the city of his birth on loan from Paris Saint-Germain after a five-year spell at Manchester United.

It's a superbly balanced team which is bucking many trends. Traditionally, the Monday and Friday night television slots are reserved for clubs who aren't involved in European football and therefore not regarded as interesting or relevant.

Athletic are changing all of that and emerging as the club who could provide the strongest challenge to Real Madrid and Barcelona.