Introducing Inaki Williams: The Athletic Bilbao Prodigy Destined For Big Things

Neymar’s spectacular strike against Villarreal at the Camp Nou on Sunday afternoon was a stunner. And Sergio Ramos bicycle kick against his former team Sevilla later that evening was also a superb finish.

But La Liga’s best goal of the weekend had already been scored earlier in the day, when Athletic Bilbao’s emerging star Inaki Williams netted even more spectacularly.

Williams’ effort was similar to Neymar’s but better. Just in case you’re one of the very few soccer fans worldwide not to have seen it yet, it was an absolute cracker. Only eight minutes had been played in the lunchtime kick-off at the new San Mames, when Athletic right-back Oscar De Marcos chipped an awkward pass towards his teammate on the edge of the Espanyol penalty area.

Already on the half-turn, Williams lifted the ball over marker Enzo Roco with his first touch, then spun towards goal and met the dropping ball with an unstoppable crashing volley to the top corner of the net.

“One of the best goals we’ve seen here lately,” said Athletic coach Ernesto Valverde afterwards. Espanyol coach Sergio said he had “been left shaken by Williams’ goal, it was unstoppable.”

The goal capped what has been a real breakout seven days for the 21-year-old attacker - who had also scored twice in both Athletic’s La Liga win at Real Betis last weekend, and Thursday’s 5-1 Europa League win at home to Partizan Belgrade. The previous efforts were not just been any goals either - with a delicate back-flick finish against Betis helping Williams to be named La Liga’s official player of the week that weekend.

Recent days have also seen a number of well-sourced looking reports that Premier League club Everton had been closely monitoring Williams, who came through the youth ranks in Bilbao as a centre-forward, but has been mostly used so far by Los Leones coach Ernesto Valverde as a mobile wide man in support of veteran number nine and attack leader Aritz Aduriz.

Such recognition has been quite a surprise for many, especially the quality of the goals Williams has scored. Born in Bilbao to a Ghanaian father and a Liberian mother, his performances for Athletic’s youth sides and then B team meant he was long talked about locally as a likely future first team player.

Williams did not immediately settle at the senior level though, and spent the 2014/15 alternating between the first team and the reserves. Through the campaign he scored 13 goals in 18 games for Athletic B in the Spanish third tier.

But although he became the first black goalscorer in Athletic club history last February, when scoring against Torino in the Europa League, his other first 23 senior appearances brought just one more goal.

Last May’s Copa del Rey final now looks like a real turning point. Mostly remembered for Leo Messi’s stunning solo goal, the game also saw Williams play very well, and mark the occasion by heading in a late consolation for his side in a 3-1 defeat.

A hamstring injury picked up in pre-season was followed by a frustrating start to the campaign, and he missed out on Athletic’s shock of Barca in August’s Spanish Supercopa. With the issue being managed carefully, he has yet to complete 90 minutes yet this season, although a regular run of starts has lead to the recent explosion in performances. Such displays have also helped Los Leones recover from a poor start to climb to eighth spot in La Liga and move top of their Europa League group.

Williams’ form has not gone unnoticed elsewhere - with Everton not the only club to have been sending scouts to San Mames. Serie A giants Juventus have also been mentioned in Spanish speculation, while West Ham are also rumoured to be interested. Despite making his Spain U-21 debut last March, representatives from the Ghanaian FA have reportedly been in touch to discuss a possible senior call-up.

Most immediately, this all means that a new improved contract offer is expected from Athletic very soon, to replace a current deal which ends in June 2017. This would see his current €20m release clause doubled to €40 million. The Basque club do not need to sell their best players. As has been seen from recent cases including Javi Martinez, Ander Herrera and Fernando Llorente, they tend to refuse to negotiate and only let stars go when foreign clubs cough up the full amount.

Williams himself appears, understandably, to be comfortable with his current situation and in no hurry for a big change. He told Spanish radio show El Larguero last week that he concentrated on playing while his agent Felix Tainta looked after everything else.

“Felix has told me to stay calm, he manages those type of things,” Williams said. “I'm happy. It will all be resolved soon. Injuries have been a problem, but with hard work everything comes off.”

These are heady times for the confident 21-year-old. Up until last week he had not scored a senior goal at San Mames.

Now his name is on the lips of fans -- and transfer decision makers -- at many of Europe’s top clubs.


Read more from Dermot Corrigan