The way he tells it, Marcelino García Toral might be the first manager to be sacked for trying to win a trophy – and succeeding, too. He laughs about it now, but at the time it hurt enough that when the call came from Milan, he turned it down: his exit from Valencia, in September 2019, who he had just led to their first silverware in 11 years, was too recent, too raw.
Turns out it was the right decision: destiny decides, he reckons, and by the time he was ready to return, Athletic Club appeared. “Feeling loved is the best thing that can happen to anyone and I felt that there,” he says. Which is why last week he had a dilemma.
What channel to choose? What game to watch? On one side, playing for Ghana, Iñaki Williams, the Athletic forward who says “I owe ‘Marce’ a lot. He made me grow.” On the other, playing for Spain, Nico Williams, the Athletic forward to whom he handed a debut at 18. Two brothers, now 28 and 20 respectively, making their debuts for different countries.
So? There’s a smile. “Nico,” Marcelino says. Live, at least. “I’m so happy for both because although they chose different national teams they did so with their heads and heart, which makes them the right decisions. They know they have all my support and affection.”
The feeling is mutual. The Williams brothers have been outstanding, scoring in the same game for the first time before the international break and both scoring again as soon as they were reunited in Bilbao after it, Iñaki assisted by Nico and Nico assisted by Iñaki. That took the two new internationals and their team to third.
Although Marcelino is no longer their manager, leaving in June because of presidential elections, there’s a fondness and gratitude that goes beyond platitude, recognition of his role in bringing them to the club. What, then, did he see in Nico?
“It’s not that I saw it,” Marcelino says. “Everyone at [the academy] Lezama could see his development over many years. We thought he could take the next step but the first season he was important for the B team. The second, he joined from the beginning, although then had an injury. Now he’s flying.
“He hasn’t played much in primera still but his progression is clear and the national team called him. With his daring and his quality he took that opportunity.”
Nico has spoken of one‑on‑one teaching that brought him tranquillity, pausa, on the pitch, especially in finishing and the final pass; Iñaki of the pastoral work alongside José Carrascosa, Marcelino’s psychologist.
“With a young player, especially, that’s very important,” the coach says. “Appearing is easy, continuity more difficult. Kids who arrive as outstanding talents are often in a hurry and too often we are as well, which can create negativity if progression doesn’t keep pace. You have to take sure, steady steps, normalise those processes, the ups and downs, or it can damage confidence.
“Without doubt it helps Nico that Iñaki has been through it too, but it’s more than that. Iñaki is a father to him, a true father. He has great values, many, many, many virtues. He has been there to correct Nico. His influence on how Nico is and how he behaves absolutely decisive. He has extraordinary human qualities, an attitude towards his profession that makes him the perfect role model, a mirror for Nico to look into.
“Nico has ideal qualities for modern football, technically and physically – high pace, intensity, quick decision-making – but he will need emotional stability and ambition too, self-esteem and humility. Football demands more than talent and he couldn’t have wished for anyone better than Iñaki to help him understand what path to take.”
The environment helps. Athletic is a unique club, Marcelino says. He starts laughing, a sort of disbelief at how they do it, how a club with their recruitment policy – broadly, only Basques play – can compete in a post-Bosman global game of giant fortunes and foreign investment. “Tremendo, tremendo,” he says. “It’s amazing, just incredible. For a club like Athletic to be top-half deserves so much credit.”
Marcelino admits he can be indecisive when offers arrive, unsure of what awaits, but says: “we thought it might be our only chance to coach Athletic and we’re proud we did. This is a great club socially, organisationally, culturally and that philosophy is non-negotiable, making it different to every other club everywhere in the world.
“That creates this extraordinary environment. San Mamés is something I feel lucky to have experienced. Unity, sacrifice, commitment, solidarity and friendship define the club. I’m so pleased to see them succeed, they made me enjoy my profession.”
At the time, he needed it. Marcelino took over in January 2021, four months after being sacked by Valencia despite bringing stability, taking them into the Champions League for a second successive season and winning the Copa del Rey against Leo Messi’s Barcelona. Which turned out to be a mistake.
There were deeper issues but that, he says, was the detonator. “Everything’s progressing. Fans, players, coaching staff, sporting director, director general, everyone’s built a good team, clearly on an upwards trajectory … then along comes an owner and destroys it in record time. So fast you could call the Guinness Book of Records.”
Crisis came. Pablo Longoria, the sporting director, and Mateu Alemany, the director general, were sacked too. Players would follow. Unusually, they expressed their fury publicly, something telling in how they defended Marcelino, even if he says: “It’s more that they saw something that made so little sense that they couldn’t believe it.
“They destroyed a project where the players were happy and felt we could beat anyone. That week we had Barcelona and I remember Rodrigo saying we were going to win.”
Does the owner, Peter Lim, like football? “I don’t know if he likes football. There were meetings when they said one thing and then I see him face to face, having travelled 30 hours, and it’s the complete opposite.
“A month and a half after being cup winners, having reached the Europa League semi-final and qualified for the Champions League, you say: ‘Bloody hell, I didn’t expect this.’ I don’t understand it either.
“We had been told not to try to win the cup, not to play our best team, and we took different decisions. We did what we thought a club like Valencia should do, what’s natural. A great Valencia has to think about winning. We did what fans wanted, what the club’s history demands. In football, in life, you have to try to win. But it was like: ‘we said this, you did that, here’s the consequences.’
“Winning the cup didn’t damage our European chances either: beating Getafe in the quarters created a confidence and momentum that helped us take the Champions League place.”
Instead of celebrating success, there was a kind of bitterness. “Totally,” Marcelino says. Was that your best managerial moment even if it led to your worst? “Well, it was the trophy. But you judge satisfaction on many things, measure it against expectation.
“I’ve had four promotions, the best position in Recreativo’s history, Racing Santander’s only Uefa campaign, a promotion and European semi with Villarreal, going up with Zaragoza, the Super Cup with Athletic having beaten Madrid and Barcelona.”
So now what? Marcelino is watching games – “but there’s a difference between watching and analysing,” he says – and taking his time, enjoying that time too. Some opportunities have been turned down, Sevilla and Marseille among them. “The right thing will happen at the right place and right time: destiny puts you in X place.” he says, then adds smiling: “And if not, well, then maybe we’ll rethink.”
There is one obvious destination. Like Luis Enrique, Marcelino began playing at Sporting Gijón – he recalls driving Kevin Moran, of Manchester United and Ireland fame, to training most mornings, the one player not to have a share in the winning lottery ticket one Christmas – and he’s the favourite for the Spain job should Enrique depart when his contract expires after the World Cup.
“For any Spanish coach, the national team is the greatest dream there is,” he says. “God willing it can happen one day, whether in a year, two years or 10. But right now I don’t look at it as a possibility. There’s a coach I respect doing very well and the federation president will decide when his contract ends. It’s not in my hands; the moment will come if and when it has to.”
Marcelino could then turn off the television set, go out and manage Nico Williams again, if not Iñaki any more.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism