Athletic Bilbao are the only team bar Real Madrid and Barcelona never to play outside the top-flight… now as relegation looms they are turning to former heroes to avoid the unthinkable
- Athletic Bilbao currently sit only two points above the La Liga bottom three
- They are one of only three clubs never to have been relegated from the top flight
- Former star Ibai Gomez has been re-recruited from fourth-place Alaves this week
- Fernando Llorente and Ander Herrera have also been linked with a return
There are three clubs in Spain that have never been relegated – everyone knows who two of them are, nearly everyone knows the other one. Athletic Bilbao, or Athletic Club as their supporters prefer to be called, have, like Barcelona and Real Madrid, never been outside of the top flight.
Last season they flirted with relegation but were never in the bottom three, this season they slipped into the dropzone in November – their worst position at that stage of the season for 12 years.
It’s no wonder the club are trying to get the old gang back together with Ibai Gomez re-recruited from Alaves this week and Fernando Llorente and Ander Herrera other targets. Would the one time local heroes answer the call and come back to make sure Athletic don’t go through the trap door for the first time in their history?
Athletic Bilbao are struggling and currently sit only two points above the La Liga bottom three
Ibai Gomez was re-recruited from Alaves this week as they seek to avoid their first relegation
With Llorente, it’s complicated. He is not a local hero, he’s remembered as a player who forced his way out of the club having run down his contract, therefore not just leaving but leaving the club without the premium of a fat transfer fee.
There are two ways to leave Athletic – you go when someone meets your massive buy-out clause or you wriggle your way free in the way that Llorente is perceived to have done.
Chelsea goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga found himself in a similar position last year. He was close to moving to Real Madrid on a free. The deal never happened and he signed a new contract meaning when he was sold to Chelsea in the summer the coffers swelled at Athletic to the tune of £71million. He can go back whenever he pleases, Llorente is less welcome.
Opinion is split over whether circumstances being as they are the club should not forget the past and allow him to fulfil his desire to return, or whether it would be better to fight on with Aritz Aduriz – 38 next month – leading the line.
Former Athletic Bilbao striker Fernando Llorente could also return to the club from Tottenham
But he is not a local hero, he’s remembered as a player who forced his way out of the club
Ibai Gomez is definitely welcome. He turned down the chance to join up with a former boss Marcelo Biesla at Leeds, to make the switch. He also walked away from a club lying fourth in the table at the time of his €4m departure.
Athletic sporting director Rafael Alkorta has confirmed this week that they are also interested in Herrera and Bayern Munich’s Javi Martinez. The later two signings looks like pipe dreams – it would currently be a big step down for both.
Some say it would do Athletic good to have a spell outside of the top division but others are not so sure.
Speaking before the turn of the year, when things were even worse, influential Basque journalist Rodri Errasti told Sportsmail: ‘It’s fine if you come straight back up but it’s not so easy to do that.
‘What if they went down and lost their first few games in the second tier. It can be tough to return at the first attempt.’
The club are also trying to lure Manchester United midfielder Ander Herrera back to the club
If Athletic did go down there would be no buying themselves back into the top division. Their rule on only signing players from the Basque region of Spain and France still stands.
The good news for traditionalists is since giving the manager’s job to Gaizka Garitano – promoted from B-team coach – they have turned things around with two wins and two draws in the league. Thursday night’s first leg cup defeat by Sevilla suggests an early exit but that will not overly bother them.
The squad is not without quality. Forward Iñaki Williams has had Premier League suitors in the past and were he more prolific infront of goal would be in the Spain team.
The 23-year-old defender Yeray Alvarez has successfully overcome testicular cancer and looks like a future Spain centre-back. And Aduriz, for as long as he can make time stand still, is still a reliable source of goals and leadership – his no run-up penalty recently was a nice way for him to thumb his nose at the precarious situation.
Since Gaizka Garitano was promoted from B-team manager they have turned things around
With locally famed restaurateur Aitor Elizegi voted in as new president there is now opposition to the Llorente signing from within the club. The previous regime would not have entertained the idea.
Regardless of Llorente’s return they will probably stay up but with only six points between the last relegation place and 10th spot any team taking its eye off the ball can slide into trouble.
It’s enough to test the nerves of supporters who celebrated winning the league twice in the eighties and have been to three Spanish cup finals this century.
Does it all make them want to rethink the one thing that makes them unique – that rule on Basque on players? No chance. In a recent poll supporters voted unanimously that they would rather go down that become just like every other club in Europe.