Marcelino Athletic Club
Athletic Club are hoping Marcelino (center) can lead the club back to the top. Luis Tejido/EPA.

Valencia hadn’t enjoyed a period of success like it in a decade, yet Copa del Rey glory and Champions League qualification wasn’t enough to keep Marcelino in his job at Mestalla. Within weeks of the memorable cup final win over Barcelona in May 2019, the 55-year-old was fired amid a dispute with the club’s owner.

Peter Lim’s decision was grossly unpopular with the Valencia supporters. Protests took place in the streets around Mestalla with Lim targeted for what most saw as negligence at the executive level. The way Valencia have collapsed, both on and off the field, in the time since Marcelino’s departure has only bolstered his reputation further.

Now, after 18 months, Marcelino is back in Spanish soccer, appointed Athletic Club’s new head coach after the sacking of Gaizka Garitano. He will take charge of his first match against Barcelona on Wednesday and while there will be no fans in the stands at San Mames, Athletic fans are entitled to be excited about the future.

Marcelino initially wanted his next job to come somewhere outside Spain. His name was linked with vacancies at Arsenal and Everton last year only for both Premier League clubs to opt for other candidates. In the end, it was in La Liga where Marcelino’s reputation remains heaviest and in Athletic Club he has been handed the reigns to one of the country’s biggest and most historic institutions.

“Until 72 hours ago, I had the idea of ​​leaving Spain,” Marcelino admitted in his first press conference as Athletic Club head coach. “We then thought that this was the only opportunity I had to coach this great club and we decided to come here. We were attracted to the idea. We are very excited. We thank the club for having thought of us for this project.”

Garitano’s exit from San Mames was a long time in coming. Athletic Club had stagnated as a team under his stewardship. There were signs of progress from time to time, but they were almost always followed by regression. New ideas are needed to reinvigorate the Basque club and Marcelino was the best option to bring this.

The squad at San Mames is a talented one. Inigo Martinez and Yeray have the potential to forge one of the strongest center back partnerships in La Liga. Yuri Berchiche is a good outlet down the left, while Unai Simon looks set to be Spain’s first choice goalkeeper for this summer’s European Championships.

Then there’s Iñaki Williams. Long tipped for the top, the 26-year-old has the natural talent and physical attributes to be Athletic Club’s brightest star. Consistency, or a lack thereof, has been an issue throughout his career, with the Spain international also struggling to nail down a specific position in a team, but Marcelino could be the one to get the most out of Williams.

As eight-times Spanish champions, Athletic Club are traditionally the Basque Country’s predominant force. The last two seasons, however, have seen Real Sociedad fly the flag for the region near the top of La Liga, with Imanol Alguacil’s side outsiders in this season’s title race having just missed out on Champions League qualification last season. When David Silva, one of the best Spanish players of his generation, looked to the Basque Country after leaving Manchester City last season, he joined La Real and not Athletic.

Real Sociedad’s victory at San Mames last week was one of the things that contributed to Garitano’s exit from Athletic Club and one of Marcelino’s biggest tasks as the club’s new head coach will be to change the dynamic between the two Basque rivals. Athletic Club see themselves as the Basque Country’s biggest and most successful club. In their eyes, it’s time their current results matched that standing.

Athletic Club have enjoyed some good results and performances against Barcelona in recent years. 2019 saw the Basque club claim a home victory over the Catalans, with Aritz Aduriz scoring a spectacular stoppage time winner on the opening day of the season. Marcelino would take another moment like that on Wednesday.

It will take some time for the new man in charge to change Athletic Club’s course. Of course, Marcelino won’t be able to enter the transfer market like he would at another club such is the way the Basque club operates. He will need to find reinforcements within Athletic Club’s youth ranks, but Marcelino could be the ideal appointment for a difficult job.