Pretty much the last thing Gaizka Garitano did as coach of Athletic Club Bilbao was say how happy he was. When the final, final whistle went he embraced assistant Paxti Ferreira, put his arm around Yuri Berchiche and ducked out of the cold and pouring rain and into the tunnel at San Mamés beneath the bust of Pichichi. Iker Muniain’s 25th-minute strike and Óscar de Marcos’s last-minute goal-line clearance had been enough to equal their best winning run – one – defeat Elche, and overcome another ultimatum. Or so they thought. Inside in the dry, the manager was asked how big a relief it was. “Collectively, total,” he replied. “Personally, what I want is for Athletic to win always, whether I’m here or not.”
Garitano knew he might not be there much longer but even he probably thought it would be a little longer than this and so did everyone else. “We’re constantly playing ‘finals’; we knew what we were playing for,” De Marcos said. As they left the stadium still in their kit, the players thought that was it for another week but they’d barely had time to get home and shower when the news was out. Less than two hours after full time, 10 minutes after most board members were informed, Athletic announced a “substitution”. A short statement as unremarkable, polite and cold as a contract killer, brought Garitano’s time to an end. It was 5.41pm. At 10.27pm they announced his replacement: Marcelino García Toral.
“This is a sad day,” said midfielder Dani García. “The men leaving are born workers who feel Athletic like no one else. One day all your work and everything you have given Athletic will be recognised and appreciated.”
“We represent something more than football: a people,” Garitano said yesterday. People like him. He never played a La Liga game for Athletic but it wasn’t for want of trying. Born in Derio, nine kilometres from Bilbao, he came through at Lezama, where cows watch generations of Athletic players grow and although his only appearance came as a substitute in Sampdoria, his return was written. Garitano studied to be a journalist (nobody’s perfect), is a football fan who travels to games for fun not just work, and is a keen berstolari, a kind of improvised Basque street poet. He spent almost all his career in the Basque Country – 14 of his 16 years as a player – and in almost all the Basque Country: Athletic, Eibar, Real Sociedad and Alavés. His is a Basque family, eight Basque surnames going back four generations – Garitano, Aguirre, Urkizu, Asla, Zubikarai, Madariaga, Garraminia, and Arteche – and a football family too, stretching back almost as far.
In 2006 Gaizka’s father, Ángel Garitano, arrived at Athletic as assistant coach on a rescue mission. They had won only once in 13 games and were in the relegation zone; going down for the first time ever was a genuine possibility. Twelve years later, Gaizka arrived as coach, from the club’s ‘B’ team where he went after Eibar. They had won just once in 14 games and were in the relegation zone, the risk of a first ever relegation worryingly real. Athletic were eighteenth. By the end of the season only the crossbar prevented them from getting a European spot. Last season they reached the Copa del Rey final, a first ever Athletic-Real. And this season they’re ninth, closer to Europe than the relegation zone.
All this at the club that no longer has Aritz Aduriz, where Raúl García is 34 now and struggling with his knees, and that can’t really sign players. Álex Berenguer was the only arrival in the summer, limited by a policy that no one questions, least of all Garitano. In 90 games as coach, he had won 38 and lost 29, a long way from the last three men to be sacked with the season under way: Eduardo Berrizzo, Félix Sarriugarte and José Luis Mendilibar were all in the relegation zone.
In the end, though, the surprise was not so much that Garitano was sacked as when and how he was sacked, the timing owing as much to what was happening in the board room as on the pitch – both of which weren’t particularly pretty. There was a sense of decline, a certain decadence, and a growing opposition to a coach accused of refusing to change. If Garitano had previously talked about Athletic’s style – direct, aggressive, strong – in an empty San Mamés that didn’t always appear. It had been a bit dull. He had, his detractors said (in a familiar and often facile lament of boardrooms and stands everywhere) allowed the players to become too comfortable. He had stuck to the old guard, not bringing younger players through. Iago Herrerín and Unai Núñez both wanted to go. Ibai Gómez, who last night tweeted “you might not believe it, but I wish you the best Gaizka,” has not played. Iñigo Córdoba has started just once, Asier Villalibre six times.
His sacking had been coming so long that it had started to look like it might not arrive at all. Still less on a day when they actually won, the first match day of a new year. All those times it was put off, and now it’s on? But the pressure built and eventually maybe something was bound to give, even if not at the moment expected. Yesterday Garitano not unreasonably suggested that the tension, the fact there “seem to be ‘finals’ every day” and “players know they have to win no matter what”, may explain some of the chances missed, the way they tie up, the lack of fluidity with the ball. But while every other week it seemed Athletic were playing for Garitano’s future, every other week they won.
Somehow that final step was never taken, the inevitable delayed indefinitely. It goes right back to week three, when conversations with Marcelino began. Beaten 1-0 by Cádiz and then Alavés, they beat Levante 2-0. Defeated by Osasuna, they defeated Sevilla. They lost 2-1 at Valladolid, bottom at the time, and then put four past Betis. They lost 2-0 to Celta but in the next five games they drew at Getafe, Valencia and Villarreal and beat Huesca. Even the defeat at Real Madrid, a last minute Courtois save denying them, was no bad thing. Maybe they had come out the other side?
Maybe not. Both in public and private, opposition had been growing. Aitor Elizegi, the president, resisted. So did Rafael Alkorta, the sporting director. They fought Garitano’s corner, but Elzegi is a weak president, increasingly isolated. In the context of criticism for Garitano and his team, Elizegi’s budget was rejected at the members’ assembly. It was time to “be self-critical, reflect and listen,” the president said. Meanwhile, conversations with Marcelino continued. Initially reluctant, keen to coach in Europe, he was coming round. He turned down Celta, who went for Chacho Caudet, and remained available but it still wasn’t done. Defeat in last week’s derby might have been the end for Garitano, out-thought by Imanol Alguacil, but it was not the time so he got one more game. His fate was sealed if not finalised, still less communicated.
Last night, less than two hours after overcoming another ultimatum that turned out to be nothing of the sort, it was. The coach who led Athletic, his club, to a historic, unique cup final will not get to lead them out there. Instead, it will be a woodcutter’s son from Asturias who eventually does. If his start is daunting – Barcelona, Atlético and Real Madrid in eight days – this is the coach who took Recreativo de Huelva and Real Zaragoza up and Racing Santander to Europe; the man who led Villarreal to a European semi-final and revived Valencia, taking them to the Champions League; the current Copa del Rey holder. Twenty months on Marcelino is back, handed the chance to defend his title by Gaizka Garitano, the man who couldn’t be happier if he does.