A nice mix of experience and youth, physicality and technicality balanced evenly.
It’s only when I stop off the plane at the Palonegro Airport that I realise just how hard living in Bucaramanga is going to be. Managerial induced panic attacks aside, we sit less than 500 miles from the equator. The predicted forecast for January is exactly the same as February. And March. And each of the other months. Give or take a few days of rain, the weather will remain between 20°C (68°F) and 27°C (81°F) all year round. I’ll most likely be climatised by the time the Apetura begins but right now, as a pale hyperbolic Brit: I want to die.
Upon arrival to the airport, following a slightly extended search from Colombian airport security, I’m greeted by the first team coach/translator holding a sign with ‘Mr. Shep’ scrawled in red marker pen. A wide grin spreads across his face as I step within touching distance.
“Ah Shep, it is a pleasure to see you once again” he bellows excitedly, gripping my hand in an equally enthusiastic handshake. “We were going to send a taxi but I thought ‘No, no, that will not do!’ and decided to collect you myself. Welcome to Santander!”
I smile back and avoid using what I think is his name in any of my short responses until we are seated in his battered and bruised Toyota pick up. The car sparks into life on his second attempt but he turns to me before we set off. “My name is Ricardo by the way. Ricardo Perez. I could tell you did not remember Shep but do not be afraid! My… myy, er… what is the word, I understand you mentally even though you do not speak?”
“Telepathic” I mutter.
“Yes, you see? You understand me and I understand you, we are telepathic. With this power, we will always be on the same book.” It takes me a few seconds to correct him on the phrase but his spirited manner doesn’t deflate. He continues to talk and talk until about a minute of interrupted discord has emptied his lungs.
“Listen, Ricardo. I share your level of passion and anticipation for our new working relationship but right now, I’m sleep deprived, I’m jetlagged and I haven’t ate in twenty-four hours. I’m happy to carry this on tomorrow morning when I’m fresh and fed but for now, can we just, talk as friends and not colleagues?” I feel a wave of guilt looking at Ricardo’s pouted bottom lip but he manages to force a smile.
“Of course. Rest your eyes, it will take half an hour.” The rest of the drive is a little awkward but I pretend to be asleep for the majority of it. The car clock just ticks over to midnight as we pull up outside an apartment building which is easily 20 stories high. Even though it’s night, I can clearly see the vibrant colours of yellow, green and red splashed at each level. We ride the elevator to Piso 18 multiple times to take all my luggage up and arrive at 18b. Turning away from the questionably dingy and faded blue door, Ricardo turns and hands me the key. “First month is courtesy of the club. It’s a little expensive but it’s worth it, I promise.”
Any mild frustration about being ditched with a flat I didn’t pick are quashed quickly. The apartment is a tad small but surprisingly nice. Well furnished, nice worktops, a little tattered but nothing unbearable. Ricardo eagerly ushers me over to the sliding door that leads out onto the balcony. He pulls out his phone and jabbers in Spanish for a couple seconds before leaning over the railing. All of a sudden, a huge floodlight around half a mile away flickers on in the distance followed by two more, illuminating the strikingly coloured stands of the Estadio Alfonso Lopez. It’s truly a beautiful sight which is just walking distance away. As I spin to thank Ricardo, my door clicks closed. I stare out at my new workplace while my food cooks, eat and fall asleep in preparation for my first day and meeting my squad.
I wander down to the stadium around 3 o’clock local time. My body clock is still six hours behind so I only wake an hour prior to the training session. Meeting all the players is a series of awkward encounters as only a few speak English and those that do? They speak very, very little. I will make an attempt to learn Spanish but Ricardo provides me with a few key words to get through this training session. So, after one training session and some analysis from my right hand man, I write up an assessment of the squad:
Luis Delgado – At the ripe age of 37, Delgado is a Bucaramanga native who has is heavily experienced. An all round solid keeper who’s won the title with Millonairos, he’s looking like first choice to me.
Nelson Ramos – Another well seasoned, all rounder choice in net. Also surprisingly good at free kicks, might come in handy at some point.
James Aguirre – Younger (26) and smaller (5’11) than the previous two keepers, Aguirre is another decent keeper option and still has some room to improve.
Manuel Loaiza – The weakest option in between the posts, Loaiza is only 23. However, even with the guidance from veterans Delgado and Ramos, I don’t see him building much further.
Fabio Rodriguez – Loaned in from Rionegros Aguilas until July 2019, the 32 year old is exactly want you’d expect when I say a good left back. Good speed, good tackler. He’s caught out by runs more often than I’d like but he’ll most likely start in my defence.
Harold Gomez – Another old fashioned wing back, Harold is a likely to be on the opposite side of Fabio regularly and will undoubtedly do the job asked of him 9/10 times.
Marvin Vallecilla – Almost a carbon copy of Gomez but on the left hand side, Marvin will be a handy rotation player to fill in with things get hectic.
Marlon Torres – Marlon looks like he’s gonna be a great player with big things ahead of him. Already strong, good in the air and most importantly a tough centre back, I can see him starting most games under my tenure.
Dairin Gonzalez – What Dairin lacks in pace, he makes up for in strength. He is an absolute unit who stands at 6’3 and I’m sure he will bully opposition attackers and keep them at bay.
Jeison Palacios – Jeison didn’t blow me away but he didn’t disappoint me either. He just doesn’t have any area in which he excels right now. A strong 3rd choice behind Torres and Gonzalez.
Jeison Quinones – Only 20 years old, the other Jeison has a bit of speed to him for a centre back but failed to impress in other areas. I might give him so one-on-one training to help him develop as he might have a future here.
Henry Pernia – A bit of strength is Henry’s only positive battling a long list of cons. He doesn’t seem to have any footballing awareness and he’ll probably be sold as soon as possible as he doesn’t have a place here.
– Wide Midfielders:
Maximiliano Nunez – Arguably the most talented out of our 3 foreigners, Maxi is very fast, agile and decent with the ball at his feet. The Argentine is able to play down the right or up front and he definitely offers something important to this Bucaramanga squad.
Yuber Asprilla – The namesake of one of my favourite Newcastle players from our golden era, Asprilla looks like the perfect super sub. Playing on either wing or an advanced central position, his lightning speed could open games up late on against tired back lines.
Yilmar Filigrana – Very middle of the road right sided winger. Okay speed, good dribbler but lacking elsewhere.
Johan Caballero – Johan didn’t set the pitch alight and there’s a few gaps in his game but he’s only 20 and I’n confident he will grow. He’s likely to go out on loan if possible.
– Central Midfielders:
We have an array of players to play in the middle of the park so I’m going to split them into two categories.
– Holding Midfielders:
Brayan Rovira – What a player we have here. Unfortunately, he’s only ours for the season as he’s loaned in from Nacional. Hard working, strong tackling, ball pinging holding man at just 21 years old? Yes fucking please.
Cesar Quintero – Another very viable option who can control games. With a 6’2 intimidating frame, Cesar is impressive physically but surprisingly good with the ball at his feet. Ricardo tells me he can also do a job out wide as an ‘anti-winger’ (think Stoke Arnautovic) which is something I can utilise throughout the season.
Gabriel Gomez – Gabby Gomez is probably the one player I knew prior to research about the club. Capped 149 times for Panama, Gomez is a remarkable player for 33 years old and is definitely the natural leader of this team. Captain material personified.
Juan David Jimenez – Slightly less rated by Ricardo than the aforementioned midfielders, Juan Jimenez looks like an mediocre option to come in. He’s likely to cover for the better midfielders in lesser games and come on as a sub.
Jeferson Torres – While Jeferson lacks in his techincal game, he’s a workhorse who will give his best 100% of the time. He’s only 21 too so again, a promising choice for the future.
Jose Jaimes – Jose is just a bully. He may be 20 but he’s 6’4 and very strong. He most likely won’t get a look in for us so he’s another one on the theoretical loan list.
– Attacking Midfielders:
Sherman Cardenas – Sherman is probably our best player. And he’s not even ours. Another loanee from Nacional, Cardenas is a great dribbler with a touch of flair and a knack for set pieces. He has a decent shot on him too and will be the main playmaker in this team until the end of the 2019 Apetura. Makes me wonder how strong Nacional’s team is if they can afford to loan this level of player out.
Jhon Perez – A solid attacking midfielder we actually own, I’m looking forward to seeing what he can do for us. He doesn’t have a particular area in which he excels but ticks all the boxes he needs to.
Kevin Salazar – Kevin is yet another player that’s loaned in but his parent club is Santa Fe. He’s ambidextrous, a great playmaker and at just 22, I can’t help but feel Santa Fe will thank us for how much he’ll develop in this season.
Harrison Mojica – All I can say is wow. This guy is the game changer in my opinion. Scarily fast, freakishly agile and a tendency to throw in a skill or two in his weaving runs, Mojica can terrify defenders for us. But, of course, he’s on loan from Deportivo Cali for the season.
Sergio Romero: Sergio isn’t exactly what I want in a striker but he’s exactly what you need. He’s not slow, he can run with the ball, use both feet and seems to finish his chances adequately. For now, he’s perfect.
Michael Rangel: Rangel is your stereotypical number 9. He’s not the fastest but boy does he know where the goal is. Strong, a lethal right boot and dangerous in the air, he’s looking like the talisman tasked with scoring the goals for us this season. Beaming ear to ear as I watch him flick a header home, Ricardo informs me he is also on loan from Junior. Give us a fucking break.
So just in case you weren’t keeping count, that’s 6 of the 15/16 players in contention for a spot in the starting XI who will be leaving us at the end of the year or halfway through next. A memory of the club’s financial hardship emerges from the rear of my mind and I begin to worry. Transfer funds will most likely be low. Albeit, more than I’ve had to spend in previous jobs but too low for this level. Are my signings merely going to be replacements for outgoing loanees and not actually improving the squad?
Overall however, this squad is a very strong squad. A nice mix of experience and youth, physicality and technicality balanced evenly. Any additions I can make will be a bonus obviously but so far? I like what I’m working with. Me and Ricardo discuss our best starting line-up and apart from a slight disagreement on the formation, we come to a mostly collective decision.
To make use of our almost excessive amount of quality central midfielders, we’ll play a narrow 4-1-2-1-2. This thin diamond will highlight our strengths as we can use quick, delicate passing to build up the attacks . I’ve advised the strikers to drag wide if they feel they can create space as the midfield has license to get forward and make up the numbers in an attack.
When defending, I want to keep a relatively high line with a narrow shape. I’ve advised the defenders to retain said organised shape until an opportunity arises to pressure the opposition like a loose ball or a heavy touch. Ricardo advises me to load the box on corners so we’ll have a high number of players to attack the ball.
In terms of personnal, it was a toss up between Delgado and Ramos as they’re both very solid keepers. Rotation is looking likely in-between the sticks. Gonzalez and Marlon Torres are paired up with Rodriguez and Harold Gomez besides them. As I mentioned Palacios is a solid third choice centre back while the wing backs pick themselves. Gabby Gomez takes the holding midfield spot with the captain’s armband wrapped firmly around his bicep. Cardenas and Quintero play behind Salazar who’s tasked with playmaking duties. Our only two strikers in Rangel and Romero finish our starting eleven.
Oscar Alvarez and the board arranged a meeting with me to discuss targets, expectations and my transfer budget late at night so come January 1st (tomorrow), I’m in the know.
Alvarez suggests a play-off semi final for both the Apetura and the Clasura but he makes sure to know that this will be a bonus and not an expectation. He isn’t expecting fireworks from us this season but wants me to help build a squad capable of pushing for more next season. Oscar is visibly upset when he tells me about the lack of fans at recent games, especially in the Clasura last season so he wants me to try get Bucaramanga some exposure with a run of high attendance games. He also mentions producing a youth player and try to intergrate him into the senior team but he follows this up by telling me that we don’t have any youth scouts. So I don’t really know what the fuck he wants me to do there but again, he states that it’s not a big deal. The big objective he gives me is obviously related to the finances of the club. He wants me to make the club money this year. He gives a figure around £2.5 million which, looking at our squad and the amount of loanees we have, is going to be difficult to do without completely dismantling the squad. I smile and nod knowing that he’s basically asking me to rob a bank.
Now the transfer budget. I wasn’t expecting a huge amount by any stretch of the imagination and in all fairness, it’s not exactly awful. I’ve been granted the equivalent of around £1’300’000 to spend. Alvarez emphasises that this can be adjusted in regards to wage budget so if a player is demanding higher wages, an amount can be knocked off the transfer budget to accommodate and vice versa. It’s reassuring to see some flexibility regarding transfers as considering the club’s financial predicament, I was certain an amount was going to be provided and virtually set in stone. Oscar finishes the meeting with a simple statement which solidifies his trust in our relationship:
“If you want them and I can afford them, we will sign them.”
And with that sentence ringing in my ears, I draft up our top 3 priorities in this transfer window:
- A striker. Having two out-and-out strikers and deciding to play two up front won’t work. Even if we change to a sole striker, only having one as cover is worrying. Preferably an experienced, strong centre forward to really lead from the front.
- A wing back. Similar to our situation at the other end of the pitch, we’re in short supply and I don’t really fancy playing three at the back. Rodriguez is also on loan until next summer so maybe a younger signing to come in as understudy and develop this season.
- An attacking midfielder. Three of our four players in this position are on loan. Salazar and Mojica will leave at the end of the season but Asprilla and Nunez can do a job there too. Not as urgent of a problem yet but something to keep in mind as we progress through the season.
Now I don’t have any exact players in mind which is why I arrange a get together with the clubs talent scouts to discuss where I want them looking for potential signings. Chief scout Adan Luna will remain here in Colombia while Bolivian Eugenio Villalba heads south into Argentina. I debate sending Brazilian Afonso Cabral to my home country of England but I back my own knowledge and research of the English leagues so heads up to the USA for his business. I’m hoping we can convince some of the South Americans playing up there to come back home and ply their trade for us. Plus, scouting in our own league not only helps view future signings but also helps me highlight key players for our opposition.
Ricardo comes into my office as the scouts leave. “Shep, I wanted to wait until you were settled more but you look pretty comfortable now. We have been invited to three pre-season tournaments. All of them pay around the same amount of money for winning so…” He lays three envelopes on the desk in front of me. “Take your pick.”
I dramatically cover my eyes, sprial my finger upwards and back down onto the envelope in the middle. He slowly drags the envelope from under my finger, gradually opens the envelope and clears his throat.
“The American Challenge Cup. Pack your bags, we fly to Mexico tomorrow!”