Unai Simón “Last Season Was A Rollercoaster Of Emotions”
The past year has been a whirlwind for Athletic Goalkeeper Unai Simón. After leaving for Elche on loan last summer, the 23-year-old was recalled before the season even began and found himself making his debut in the opening match at San Mamés. Now Simón is preparing to lead the Spain U21 team in the European championship and told DEIA that he’s been looking ahead to this tournament for a long time.
“I already planned to be here and it’s been my goal for a long time. It doesn’t change much ending the season in June instead of mid-May. I’ve been with this group for two years and feel very comfortable. The manager has shown his trust in me and that gives confidence.”
Simón was the starting goalkeeper when Spain U19 won their European title, but the goalkeeper admitted that this level of football is much harder. Every team is competitive and Simón is proud to have been called back up to the squad.
“The pressure is greater. We still have many of the same players from that tournament, but this one is more demanding. The teams that we face have improved a lot and it won’t be easy. Being here doesn’t add pressure. You can’t forget that you have to do things right at your club and that coming here is a reward. I’m not at home every day thinking about proving I deserve to be here. I think about doing well at Athletic. If I’m rewarded then that’s appreciated.”
After spending most of the year as a backup at Athletic last season, Simón recognizes the importance of having a strong summer. He believes that this tournament will give him another chance to convince manager Gaizka Garitano before the preseason begins.
“This tournament has a very big impact. I want to show that I’m still the goalkeeper that the Athletic fans knew at the beginning of the season, which seems far away. It’s an opportunity to show that I can keep doing things well. Surely the Mister will be attentive to the television.”
Looking back at last season, Simón admitted that everything that happened was unexpected. He couldn’t have imagined that he would make his first team debut and he’s very excited to be an Athletic player at such a young age.
“I would describe my season as unexpected. If you would have told me at the beginning of the season that I was going to make my debut and spend all year in Bilbao, I wouldn’t have believed it. The plan was to leave on loan. An offer came from Elche and I left for there, but other things happened – the departure of Kepa, Iago’s injury, and the situation with Alex. I had to go back. I didn’t expect it and last season was a rollercoaster of emotions. I was delighted with my 19 days at Elche, but being at home, playing or not, is the best.”
Simón then explained that he expected Iago Herrerín to take back the starting role once he recovered from injury. The Lezama product had options to leave on loan again in January, but nothing materialized.
“When the told me to come back Kepa was already at Chelsea and I knew about Iago’s injury, but I didn’t know about Alex’s situation. I returned with the expectation of staying on the bench as a substitute until Iago returned and then being the third goalkeeper. There were options to leave again in the winter market. In fact, I spoke with Pacheta from Elche but I couldn’t guarantee anything.”
Despite the lack of minutes after Herrerín’s return, Simón is still very pleased with his first season at San Mamés. He’s proud to have proven himself at the top level.
“For me, my first year at Athletic was excellent. Debuting with Athletic at 21 and being in the first team is something I’ve waited for so long. It’s something I’ll never forget. My season was a 12 out of 10. It wasn’t a good start, it was spectacular. I didn’t believe it. I went out with the hope of enjoying everything. I played and things went well. I am very proud of it all.”
Surprisingly, Simón revealed that he didn’t know he would be starting until the day before the opening match. He didn’t have long to mentally prepare and says his family helped him stay calm in the buildup.
“The day before my first start was normal. Days before games we do part of training all together and then the starters and the substitutes separate to do something different. I went with the substitutes and Berizzo called me and told me that I was going to play. We were training at San Mamés. I looked up and I thought about it being full the next day. It was a moment of nervousness, really. I mentioned it at home and only at home. I wanted it to be a surprise for my friends. They calmed me down and helped me. I think it was more of a surprise for me than the rest of the team. I think they knew something, but I had just returned from Elche.”
Simón didn’t hide the fact that he was very nervous in the opening minutes against Leganés. It took some time for him to calm down and soon he felt comfortable playing in front of the fans at San Mamés.
“My father told me, and rightly so, that I had nothing to lose. He told me to enjoy it, to go out onto the field and live in the moment. It was against Leganés, but I also played against Real Madrid. The first five minutes against Leganés I looked up and thought ‘this all falls one me’. Luckily, they didn’t have a shot. My hands were butter, I was shaking. The stadium was full and everyone was cheering. It makes your hair stand on end. I was nervous at first and then it was a normal game.”
No one ever explained to Simón what the plan was for when Herrerín eventually returned. He expected that Herrerín would get the starting job back and wasn’t surprised when that was the case.
“They didn’t explain everything to me, but it was logical that when Iago recovered he would be the starter again. I recognize that I did well, but you also have to understand Berizzo’s position, that he had a goalkeeper who was injured. Berizzo never came to me and said, ‘look, you’ve done well and I’m going to change you for Iago’. It happened the day before the game. Like with Leganés I was surprised with the lineup. The day before the match against Eibar I went to train with the starters and he told me I was with the substitutes. He didn’t explain it to me, but he didn’t need to. Iago was his goalkeeper. He had gotten injured and deserved the chance to show that he is also worthy of being the Athletic goalkeeper. He proved it well.”
Simón knew that he has played well, but also recognized that Herrerín deserved the starting role. After the change, Simón had to readjust his mindset and says that the entire season was full of fluctuating emotions.
“It made sense and I knew I had done things well. In that aspect, I was very calm. After two or three weeks you realize that you are young. I was 21 years old and have a lot of time to do big things. I understood the position adopted by Berizzo with Iago. Iago is a great goalkeeper and he also deserved to be in the goal. Those two or three weeks were a bit strange and I had to go back to locate myself. In a very short time I spent the preseason with Athletic, went to Elche, returned, and started in the first league game. I did things well and the emotions were up and down. I understood the situation and had to help Iago and the rest of the team in a different way.”
When Gaizka Garitano took over as manager in December Simón hoped that he would have a chance to start again. However, the Mister explained that he wasn’t going to make a change and the decision was understood without frustration.
“Gaizka knew me from the previous year, but in the first days he told me that he didn’t want to change the dynamics immediately after taking over. He didn’t want to come in the first day and change everything. We are a club that is based on the group and he didn’t want to touch that. He spoke with me and explained that he did not want to change Iago. I thought it was perfect. I had the hope that he would start me, but when he explained it to me he did it with very good words and the truth is that I was grateful.”
The relationship between Simón and Herrerín is a good one. Both are working to support and make each other better, and Simón is trying to help the team in any way that he can.
“I rarely had a bad relationship with teammates, especially other goalkeepers. It’s true that this is the first time I’ve been a substitute at any team. I try to help Iago in everything I can. When I came up from Basconia or Bilbao Athletic to train with the first team he helped me a lot and now I can help him.”
Herrerín has received a lot of criticism from the fans and Simón doesn’t think it’s fair. He admired the veteran’s ability to stay focused on not let the negativity affect his performances.
“I think Iago has always gotten too much criticism. His head has admirable merit because he holds up far better than I would. Sometimes it’s a little unfair what happens to him and what people say about him. I know that Iago has clear ideas, he knows his way and doesn’t change it because of the criticism. The seasons are long and you can not always be 100%, but Iago knows how to get up from bad times. In that sense it does not bother me. He has a very cold head.”
Once the preseason starts the two goalkeepers will have to battle for the starting job. Simón is looking forward to proving himself again, but only wants to focus on the European championship right now.
“I’m not thinking about next season yet because I’ve been preparing for the EUROs for two years. Many people have asked me what I’m going to do next year, if I’m going to continue or not. I want them to leave me alone. I’m just thinking about doing well in the European championship. We’ll talk about next season when Unai and I returned for the preseason. My plan is to continue at Athletic, although Iago will play in the league and I can play in the Cup. I want to see how the preseason goes and I will give everything. It’s true that Iago has been playing regularly and has done well, but in the preseason everything starts from scratch. It’s not just the goalkeepers, it’s the whole team.”
Simón knows that it won’t be easy to play more minutes next season, but he’s ready for the challenge. I’m reserved, I don’t like to attract much attention and I’m a hard worker”, he said. “I won’t lose the essence of that, when I was 9 years old, I started playing football because I liked it. Apart from it being a job, it’s also my hobby.” Playing for Athletic is a dream for Unai Simón and next season will be another huge challenge.