Kuko, It Wasn’t Supposed To End Like This
On 25 May, 2016 Kuko Ziganda had one of the best days of his life. After six years of coaching Bilbao Athletic, he was promoted and took over as the manager of the first team after the departure of Ernesto Valverde. Ziganda had dreamed about this day for half a decade. He had earned it. He deserved it. Year after year he turned down offers from other clubs in order to stay at Bilbao Athletic where he continued to produce young players who were ready and capable of producing for the senior squad. He was patiently waiting for his chance that he was promised would one day come.
When he was unveiled as the new manager it was a dream come true. All Ziganda had ever wanted was to manage Athletic Club; to bring joy to fans and titles to the San Mamés. He was wholly dedicated to the identity of Athletic and poised for great things. Kuko knew the club inside and out, had the deepest knowledge of the inner-workings of Lezama, and wanted to become a legendary coach that would stay at the club for years to come. When dreams come true it is a magically thing, but sometimes those dreams turn into nightmares.
During the summer everything looked to be going perfectly. The players loved Ziganda. In fact, many of them had trained under him at Bilbao Athletic. Everyone looked happy and ready to move on from Ernesto Valverde who had left to take over at Barcelona. The new manager was not afforded a gentle start to the season. Athletic had to compete in the qualifying rounds of the Europa League but were able to advance after matchups against Dinamo Bucuresti and Panathinaikos. The Lions would go unbeaten in their first eight games of the season, but then the cracks started to show.
Athletic would then go five games without a win, losing four times and getting off to a terrible start in the Europa League group stage. The team began to struggle to score goals and were bleeding at the back. Injuries also started to pile up which caused even more issues. The first major failure came when Athletic were eliminated in their first round of the Copa del Rey by Formentera of the Segunda B. Fans began to start calling for a change at manager, but Ziganda made it past Christmas without going anywhere.
Somehow Athletic were able to mount a comeback to win their Europa League group when it looked like they would finish last. There was a bit of optimism around the team, but it wouldn’t last long. The Lions began to drop points fast and, although they weren’t necessarily losing a lot of games, they weren’t winning either. Even when Ziganda’s side had leads they always seemed to find a way to let their opponents back into the game. The Basques weren’t playing with intensity and desire and never looked in control of matches.
No matter what Kuko Ziganda did the team just couldn’t turn things around. Every now and then they would put in a masterful performance only to get embarrassed in their next outing. There was absolutely no consistency and the worst part was the fact that they struggled to win at the San Mamés which has long been considered a fortress. Marseille eventually eliminated Athletic from the Europa League and at that point the fans had had enough. They chants and whistles grew louder and it became impossible to ignore. Ziganda was repeatedly asked about his future but continued to say that he was only focused on the next match.
It was sometime around late January that President Josu Urrutia made the decision that Ziganda would be relieved of his duties at the end of the season. Many fans wanted an immediate change, but that didn’t happen. Urrutia and Ziganda have such a great relationship that the President decided to give the manager the same treatment as Marcelo Bielsa in his final year. The coach would be allowed to finish the season, but he knew that he was living on borrowed time.
On Thursday Urrutia and Ziganda appeared together in a joint press conference in Lezama’s press room. It was announced that Ziganda would not continue as the manager next season and the pain in Ziganda’s eyes was clear as daylight. His first words were “With grief I understand the decision”. The 51-year-old had spent years dreaming of becoming the Athletic Club manager but once that dream became a reality it quickly turned into a nightmare and now it was over.
It was never supposed to end like this. Kuko Ziganda was supposed to be the Sir Alex Ferguson of Athletic; that’s what he wanted. He found his identity in Athletic’s unique philosophy and hoped to bring pride to the club and fans. When he was promoted last summer there was talk of him spending a decade in charge of the first team, not walking away with his head down less than a year into the job. Despite his failures, no one can question his devotion to and love for the club. In the end, Kuko Ziganda should be praised and remembered for his time at Bilbao Athletic and for the many young players that he helped develop into stars. The passion of football can bring indescribable joy, but it is that same passion that can cut the deepest. Kuko, it wasn’t supposed to be end like this.