Unai Núñez Faces The Biggest Decision Of His Career
Unai Núñez was an Athletic fan at birth. Like many other young boys from Portugalete, the hometown of legendary midfielder Julen Guerrero, Núñez dreamed of wearing the Zurigorri shirt and playing football at San Mamés. The son of Abel Núñez, who was a great defender and captain for Barakaldo in his day, Unai was raised around the game and saw what it would take to reach his goals.
After getting his start with Danok Bat, Núñez would sign with Lezama in 2008 at just 10 years old and began chasing his dream. The day he had long been waiting for would finally come one decade later on 20 August 2017 when he made his debut at San Mamés against Getafe. “I melted inside,” Núñez answered after the game when asked how it felt to play his first game.
“It’s not because I was freaked out or anything, but because what we have here is different”, Núñez continued. “I have been Athletic since childhood. They instill it in you when you are small. You see the fans who go to San Mamés and how football is lived there. It’s different. Playing at San Mamés is incredible.”
Much has changed since that day. Núñez would go on to feature in 36 matches in his debut season and even scored his first goal. His prominence in the team was partly due to manager Kuko Ziganda having faith in him at the time, but also because Yeray was in the midst of a battle with cancer. Once Yeray returned it made it very difficult for Núñez to see the field.
After making just 12 appearances last season frustrations began to grow. Núñez was forced to sit behind Yeray and Iñigo Martinez and settle for rare minutes when the team was rotated or in the Copa del Rey. Failing to qualify for Europe had also limited the defender’s opportunities and by January there were rumors that Núñez could actually leave the club he grew up adoring.
In the end, Núñez would stay with Athletic in part because interested clubs refused to meet his €30 million release clause. The center-back then demanded even more attention with his excellent performances over the summer as he helped lead Spain’s U21 team to a European championship. The 22-year-old entered the preseason with hope that he had earned more playing time at Athletic, but that wasn’t the case.
Núñez has seen the field just seven times this season, albeit he’s started in the team’s last two games, and has refused to sign a new contract unless he is guaranteed regular minutes. Although Núñez has said multiple times that he wants to succeed at Athletic, he also wants to play. His €30 million release clause has now become a steal for any club that would be willing to pay it and there is a very real possibility that the defender could accept an offer to move next month.
West Ham have already informed Athletic that they are prepared to meet the clause and Bayern Munich have also shown heavy interest. Others such as Arsenal and Everton have also been linked with moves which means that there will be no shortage of suitors or Núñez if he does choose to leave in January. Athletic have, as usual, made it clear that they will not negotiate a transfer and are hopeful that their starlet will stay.
Unai’s father now runs a restaurant in the Portugalete neighborhood of Repélega where fans regularly gather to talk about football and Athletic. Pictures of his sons, Unai and Asier, line the wall behind the bar. Wearing the Athletic shirt has brought Unai, his town, and his family great pride. It’s been a childhood dream come true, but it may soon be coming to an end.
Núñez is unhappy with his situation at Athletic and is seriously considering an exit. The transfer window will open in less than 48 hours and he will have the entire month of January to decide his future. Faced with the choice of staying at the club he’s loved since he was a kid and competing for his place or leaving his friends and family for a more important role elsewhere, Unai Núñez must now make the biggest decision of his career.