Ones to Watch – Athletic Club’s in-demand winger Iñaki Williams

Arguably the hottest rumour of the January transfer window has been of Premier League interest – notably from Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur – in Athletic Club’s impressive wide man, Iñaki Williams. The Bilbao native missed the start of the season due to a persistent hamstring injury but since returning to action at the end of September has been an ever-present in Ernesto Valverde’s starting XI.

Williams only broke into the first team picture last season after his displays for the reserve side, playing in his preferred centre forward role, gained the trust of the coaching staff. In 18 appearances he scored 13 goals and made 3 assists, standing out as the next gem to come through their famed academy.

In 2014, on the 6th of December, Williams made history as he became the first black man to play for Athletic Club. As most of you will already know, the club is known for its insistence on only having players from the Basque region in their ranks. While Iñaki was born and raised in Bilbao his parents are both from Liberia. His parents actually met at a refugee camp in Ghana, exiled due to the war in their home country, before moving to Barakaldo in Spain. His father now works in London, his mother in Pamplona and it’s Pamplona where his journey to stardom began.

Williams has always been a great athlete, incredibly quick, and in Pamplona scouts noticed his ability in front of goal too. Club Natacion, associated with Osasuna, picked him up and once there he caught the attention of an Athletic scout, Felix Burgui. At the age of 10 he left Osasuna for Athletic.

It wasn’t smooth sailing for the youngster as coaches were undecided as to whether he had the sufficient talent to make it. In the end he was offered a contract but immediately loaned out to Club Deportivo Pamplona where he continually found the net.

Another loan move followed, this time to Basconia, but it was interrupted by a knee injury that required surgery to fix. Once fully fit Williams was promoted to Athletic’s reserve team, Bilbao Athletic, where he continued to demonstrate his enormous talent in front of goal by scoring 8 goals in 14 matches. There were no doubts now that the club had a very special player on their hands.

The club felt Williams needed another season with the reserves before he was ready to make his mark with the first team but after scoring 13 goals in just 18 matches, he was given a chance. In February he scored his first goal for the senior side, kneeing the ball into an empty net courtesy of a Borja Viguera cross.

Despite making his name as a striker in every category, Williams was used primarily on the wings with Aritz Aduriz chosen to lead the line instead. The club felt he didn’t have the physique to play as the focal point of the attack and he’d be afforded more time and space to exploit the defence from out wide. Williams impressed towards the end of the season and popped up with a vital last minute goal against Elche before then providing an assist for Aduriz against Villarreal. He rounded off the season with a consolation goal in the Copa del Rey final loss to Barcelona.

In an interview he conducted with Athletic during the summer Williams felt he needed to improve his physique. “A bit more muscle wouldn’t be bad for me, so rivals can’t push me off the ball as easily. They say with more muscle mass you lose a bit of pace but I think it’s possible to manage them both.” That change has already paid off dividends as he’s scored an impressive 10 goals in 23 games this season, as well as making 3 assists.

When asked what he thought about those who say he isn’t really from Bilbao, “I laugh,” he said. Williams has a deep affinity with the club and it’s one that began as a young child. “[My first memory was] when my parents gave me the Athletic kit when I was 3 or 4-years-old. I still have it in my house!”

One of the most redeeming aspects of Williams’ rise to notoriety is how humble he is, perhaps owed to the background of his parents and the sacrifice and hard work they put in for his dream to become a reality. He didn’t swap his shirt at the end of the Copa del Rey final because he wanted to give it to his parents. “I always wanted to make the first team so I could help them economically. They worked so hard so my brother and I.”

Iñaki Williams has one of the lowest buyout clauses in the squad at just €20m and his existing deal runs until the end of next season. The club has been negotiating with the recently capped Spain-U21 international since the summer, hoping to tie him down until 2019 as well as give him the highest buyout clause at the club – in excess of the €50m currently on the head on teammate Aymeric Laporte. The lack of progress has triggered the interest of richer clubs in England who see the player, at around £15m, as worth the gamble considering his potential.

“The club is trying to close the deal and it’s taking longer than expected. Athletic is on top of it and we want to make it happen. I hope it’s resolved soon. The club is making a huge effort [to keep Williams at the club].” These were the words of Valverde earlier this month when asked for an update on negotiations. The club itself remain confident a deal can be reached which would almost certainly see him remain at the club until he’s 25.

I think it’s also worth pointing out that buyout clauses are not the same as release clauses. Whereas a release clause can be triggered if a set amount is offered, a buyout clause is much more complicated. It is the player himself who needs to buy out his contract for the agreed amount – usually via the buying club – and deposit it at the offices of La Liga. The stated buyout clause doesn’t include the tax which needs to be paid on top although that can be claimed back at a later date.

One media publication stated Williams was going to sign a new contract at the weekend but that hasn’t proven to be true. The interest in him from abroad is very real but Athletic feel the player’s young age, love for the club, country and assured place in the first team will be enough to convince him to stay beyond this season. However if he doesn’t sign a new deal before the summer you’d expect him to leave for the Premier League. Another interesting thing to keep an eye on, even if he does put pen-to-paper, is the amount his buyout clause is set at. If it’s €50m or more that would suggest he’ll stay until 2019 at the very least but anywhere between €30-40m and it wouldn’t put off potential buyers.

An electric-paced winger, who is physically improving year on year and who has with an eye for goal doesn’t come around too often. He’s a natural finisher having come through the youth ranks as a striker, which means he’s deadly drifting in from the wing - as demonstrated by his goal against Espanyol earlier on in the year. He’s confident but not arrogant yet clearly knows his own worth. Athletic Club can’t afford to lose him but if they don’t move quick enough they might not have any choice in the matter.