It was during the summer of 2010 that Ibai Gómez, in his own words, signed for “the club of my dreams“. A proud Basque, having grown up in Bilbao and played for local side Santutxu FC before moving on to Sestao River Club aged 19, moving to Athletic and sharing a changing room with his idols was “incredible“. However, only three minutes into his dream debut he would suffer a serious knee injury that would put him out of action for seven long months. While undoubtedly tough at the time, Ibai reflects that those seven months away from the pitch helped him to “come back stronger“, and he’s gushing in his praise towards all those at the club who helped him to overcome this testing time. He returned towards the end of the season but was used sparingly in the first team, instead spending more time at reserve side Bilbao Athletic – an obvious decision by the technical staff not to rush him back into action.
Marcelo Bielsa’s subsequent arrival in Bilbao in 2011 was to have a great impact on Ibai’s career. It was under the Argentine’s tutelage that Gómez would begin the step-up to first team regular. Although often criticised for not rotating his squad, Bielsa recognised Ibai’s promise and rewarded him with 19 appearances in the 2011-12 season, as well as outings in the club’s fantastic run to the Europa League Final. Important goals against Schalke and Sporting Lisbon would pay back Bielsa’s belief in the left winger.
Ibai’s definitive promotion to the Athletic Club first team came in the 2012-13 season, 46 appearances in all competitions demonstrating his importance to the team in what was to prove a difficult year. After losses in the Europa League Final (3-0 to Atlético Madrid) and the Copa del Rey Final (3-0 to Barcelona) the club also lost Javi Martínez to Bayern Munich, and Fernando Llorente’s clear desire to depart lead to Bielsa excluding him from the squad. Despite the €40m received for Martínez, the club’s Basque-only policy meant that there were no real options available to them to strengthen the squad, and the year would end with a disappointing 12th-placed finish.
The current season, under Ernesto Valverde, has seen Ibai continue to grow as a player and he can now be genuinely regarded as a fan favourite. Cutting in from the left-wing, he offers a direct goal threat, both from shots and crosses. Only half way through the current campaign, Ibai has already beaten his goal total for last year. However, Valverde has chosen to start Ibai in only 5 matches of the campaign, prefering to bring him on when Athletic Club need a spark. It’s a tactic that seems to be working for now, as he has only scored in one game where he has started the 90 minutes (2 goals against Valladolid in a 4-2 win). Gómez appears much more dynamic and hungry when coming on late in the game, with 6 goals in those 11 substitute appearances. His stunning equaliser against Real Madrid seconds after coming on the pitch, which lifted the whole stadium, is evidence of just that.
The truth is that Ibai Gómez is far from the finished product, something that he would readily admit. However, at only 24, he still has time on his side to improve his weaknesses and firmly establish himself as an Athletic Club hero. The fans already love him, and his career aim at this moment in time is just to enjoy “many magic moments at this great club“.
He’s quick and direct; a player that makes things happen. The reason that Athletic fans have taken him to their hearts is because he offers that unknown quality. He runs at defenders and makes them commit. He is an accomplished crosser and set-piece taker, yet his greatest strength is his shooting ability. When Ibai pulls back that right leg the crowd holds their breath.
Gómez is rather one-footed and, if unable to cut inside onto his right foot, can be shepherded down the flank rather easily. He also has to improve his consistency in order to become a mainstay in the first team. Coming off the bench and smashing in a winner is all well and good, but starting most games on the bench is sure to lead to frustration.
£15m. While this may seem high, the Basque club have no need to sell. In a healthy financial position (as opposed to the majority of Spanish clubs) and aware that ready-made Basque replacements are rarely available on the market, they can afford to bump up Gómez’s price should anyone come knocking. The truth is, judging by his own words, one doubts whether Ibai would entertain thoughts of a move away from his beloved Basque country anyway.