Athletic Club are known worldwide for their unique transfer policy. Aside from a few years after the club’s foundation in 1901, Athletic Club has only ever signed players who have been developed in the their own or other Basque club reserves.
As with anything in football, particularly football in Spain, the policy has attracted both acclaim and controversy. Although being one of just three clubs never to be relegated from the Spanish top flight and being a modestly competitive force in Spain since the club’s creation, many in looking fans believe that the transfer policy is holding the club back.
Now, with Los Leones, sitting in 14th in the table and having spent most of the early season in a relegation dogfight rather than fighting for a European spot, their transfer policy has once again been called into question.
This article will look to debunk some of the myths about Athletic Club’s transfer policy and incidentally, take a look at what has gone wrong this season at the San Mames
Perhaps the most annoying misconception about Athletic Club is that they have a limited market within just the borders of the Basque country.
Statiscally this is true, The Basque Country accounts for just 5% of the Spanish population,and yet, a footballing perspective tells quite a different story. This season, La Liga has three other Basque teams excluding Athletic Club. Last season, the top flight featured four teams from the north, a whopping 20% of the Spanish top flight were Basque!
Athletic Club’s biggest rival, Real Sociedad, demonstrate the plethora of talent with the Basque country. Despite ceasing their own Basque only transfer policy with the signing of John Aldridge in 1989, the squad that were called to face Malaga in gameweek 15 featured 11 Basques with five of them included in the starting 11.
Comparing Athletic Club’s fortunes to Real Sociedad does a fair bit of justice to Athletic Club’s transfer policy. La Real chose to break the unwritten rule in the late 80s, partly because they couldn’t compete with Athletic Club’s Lezema, which was hoovering up talent from Real Sociedad’s usual hunting grounds and partly in the hopes they could compete with the Spanish elite.
Since then, La Real have won just a single title, which was a Segunda division title after a disastrous relegation. Their rivals on the other hand have remained in the top flight and have competed in 4 cup finals in the last 5 years, including a heartbreaking 3-0 loss to Atletico Madrid in the 2012 Europa League Final. In 2015, the Bilbao side won their first trophy since 1984, beating Barcelona 5-1 over two legs in the Spanish Supercopa
The comparison is by no means an indictment of Real Sociedad’s choice to abandon their Basque only policy, however it does prove that money can’t buy success if you don’t spend it properly and Athletic Club’s recent record suggests they are spending their money just fine.
The question remains, that if Athletic Club’s transfers aren’t to blame for their troublesome season so far, what was?
I reached out to Athletic Club UK to get to a fan’s perspective on his side’s season so far. Athletic Club UK is an English speaking Twitter account with over 3,000 followers and is one of (if not the best) fan accounts on Twitter. He had this to say on what had gone wrong at the San Mames:
“I don’t think we’ve necessarily gone wrong, it’s been a harsh period of adjustment since Valverde left. I actually think Valverde had us punching above our weight and we lost that wisdom and experience when he left. We started brightly but Ziganda’s selections have been confusing, tactics haven’t been consistent and we’ve lacked a strong core in midfield. Injuries to Muniain, Yeray, Beñat and De Marcos haven’t helped and we’ve struggled to select a settled side who have performed consistently.
Some players have also not stepped up to the mark. Iturraspe, San Jose and Iñaki (Williams) have all lacked a spark and we’ve struggled to impose ourselves on games. However in last few matches we’ve played with more intensity and fight and closed down the ball better, which was always a key strength of Valverde. We’ve also attacked with a bit more purpose and having De Marcos and Susaeta back playing well has helped and also Rico performing well in CM.”
The Valverde factor was something that struck me. The now Barcelona’s coach stellar start to the season has left many speechless, yet, few have given the new manager as much credit as he deserved.
Under Valverde tenure, Athletic Bilbao finished in the top half in all four years of his stay at the club. He also led the club to their highest league position in 16 years.
Outside of Valverde’s tenure, Athletic Club’s league position has been less stable. In the four years proceeding Valverde’s appointment, Athletic finished twelfth, eleventh, sixth and eighth. Its a run of finishes that perfectly sum up the club since they won La Liga back to back in 1984.
It’s not just the manager that Athletic have benefited from with Lezema producing some fantastic players who came of age under Valverde’s tenure. Javi Martinez, Ander Herrara, Iker Munian and the goalscoring exploits of Aritz Adruiz have meant the club has gone through a golden era of sorts.
Between departures and injuries, Athletic haven’t enjoyed the same successes of previous seasons and as is the nature of a cyclic game like football, we might see more of an inconsistent Athletic as new talents take the place of veterans.
However, unlike other clubs who could spend years looking outwards for the perfect player. The Basques will look inwards on a century worth of structure and tradition and entrust their future with young Basque players.
In a world where money is becoming a central part of our game, maybe we should not question the ways of Athletic Club, but, question why there aren’t more clubs like the one from the Basque heartland.