A new era is beginning at Athletic Club, with Jon Uriarte winning the club’s presidential election on Friday, although it will also start with a familiar face at the core of the next project.
Uriarte, who succeeds Aitor Elizegi, is bringing back manager Ernesto Valverde for his third spell in charge of Los Leones.
Valverde coached Athletic Club between 2003 and 2005 and between 2013 and 2017, helping them win the Spanish Super Cup in 2015, as well as qualifying for the Champions League.
The experienced coach’s last post was at FC Barcelona, where he won LaLiga Santander twice in his first two seasons, as well as the Copa del Rey in 2018 and the Spanish Super Cup in 2018.
Another presidential candidate, Iñaki Arechabaleta, had pledged to bring Marcelo Bielsa back as coach if he won the election, but the fans voted for Uriarte and the trusted Valverde.
Athletic Club, a member-run club and one of three sides never to have been relegated from LaLiga Santander, famously have a policy of only using players who are from the Basque Country, have roots there or who have been formed in the region.
That makes them unique in world football and a team with their own particular idiosyncrasies to work with as president or as coach.
Uriarte’s ‘Izan Athletic’ campaign won Friday’s elections with 46.71% of the vote, with 10,979 club members selecting him, in comparison to Arechabaleta’s 33.72% or third-place Ricardo Barkala’s 18.13%.
As well as Uriarte’s plan to bring back Valverde, he was the candidate who presented himself as the face of steady but calm change. At 44 years old, he was the youngest of the candidates.
“I need to sleep a little, and then look and learn to understand the club’s position,” said Uriarte after his victory. “This won’t be a revolution like a bull in a china shop, but about coming in, knowing the club and mounting a four-year action plan.”
Athletic Club have not finished higher than eighth place since Valverde was last at the club, whereas during his second spell the lowest they finished was seventh.
The 58-year-old will take over after last season’s coach Marcelino García Toral decided to step aside in May ahead of the club elections.
Uriarte, an entrepreneur, has experience working in finance in London, as well as in the hotel sector and in real estate, and he was the co-founder of ticket resale platform Ticketbis, which was sold to eBay for a reported $165 million in 2016.
His campaign saw heavy use of social media, showing his nous in that area, as he connected with the club’s younger members.
He will be supported by vice-presidents Nerea Ortiz and Jon Ruigómez, and his first task will be to hire a director of football and make official Valverde’s return.
The new president was tight-lipped on potential transfer targets for the club ahead of the vote on Friday at the club’s San Mamés stadium.
“For us it would be easy to go to the market and bring someone in to make a statement, and maybe like that you can win more votes,” said Uriarte last week. “But we would be throwing money in the bin, overpaying. We want to do things well, for the good of the club.”
The transfer mill has thrown up links to Jon Moncayola, Ander Herrera, Álvaro Odriozola and Hugo Guillamón, all of whom have Basque heritage or history and would be eligible to play for the club.
However, there are plenty of strong assets at the club already, including forward Iñaki Williams, hitting his prime years, while playmaker and Athletic Club legend Iker Muniain was in sublime form last season.
The club will continue to lean on their legendary Lezama academy, after giving 55.8% of minutes last season to homegrown youth products, more than any other club across Europe’s top five leagues.
One of those players was goalkeeper Unai Simón, who has established himself as Spain’s clear No.1 ahead of the 2022 World Cup.
Other key issues include renewing the contract of key centre-back Iñigo Martínez, whose deal expires in June 2023, and right-back Ander Capa, who is otherwise a free agent at the end of this month.
There is plenty of work to do for Uriarte in the coming days and a lot of excitement building ahead of pre-season and the club’s 2022/23 LaLiga Santander campaign.
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