The Big Man (Episode 6 – Shep: Mangerial Globetrotter)

Standing on the sideline for 20 fucking minutes to play the dying embers of a lifeless draw.

My hunt for a target man is well documented. Despite only being 5’10 myself, I feel like I resonate with them. Not being bullied by defenders, leaping up for a header, being the focus point of a team. All the things I love about football. But, according to my scouts, there’s no fucking good ones in the Americas. Whether that’s down to the quality of the players or the quality of my scouts I don’t know. It could easily be both combined but either way, I’m tired of waiting. I’m going solo and buying a striker on my own. And somewhat of a household name of a striker at that.

Now Peter Crouch has decided he wants to retire at the end of the season and he wants to do that at Stoke. No matter how much pushing and begging I do, he doesn’t budge. How selfish of him, he’s only 37 years old and what better time to up and move across the world with your wife, two kids and newborn son than right now? Crouchy might not want to sit on a 12 hour flight with those long legs but a Championship striker at the back end of his career is the niche I intend to tap into. Those older lads looking for one last adventure before they hang up their boots.

There’s plenty of options in that big pool of fish. I even debate offering the controversial Nile Ranger a chance to redeem himself away from the vultures that make up the English media. He’s very strong and even though I should hate the bloke, I can’t deny he was and maybe still is immensely talented with a football. I choose not to however as bringing a multiple offender to the world capital of cocaine is asking for trouble on my part. The one that I stick with and throw my money at however is Leon Clarke. The Blades striker fits the bill perfectly. A physical presence at 6’2 and just shy of 200 pounds, ambidextrous and a knack for putting the ball into the back of the net. There’s lengthy negotiations with Sheffield United as we both seem to want that extra bit of leverage to say we’ve won the deal. It’s back and forth for the best part of an hour until Chris Wilder stalls with £1’250’000 on the table. There’s also somehow a 10% sell-on clause involved and while I’m unsure that’s something Sheffield should be pushing for in a deal for a 33 year old, I leave it alone. If that’s the wagering chip that gets this deal over the line, so be it.

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Sadly, it’s all in vain as they come back a few days later asking for £1’500’000 which is just too much. If we agreed on that figure, there would be no room for movement when talking to Leon directly which I imagine we’d need to convince him. For that reason, that deal is deemed dead. But as they say, when one door closes, another one opens. A second, much more affordable deal has been in progress behind the scenes. And boy, am I excited.

£400’000. That’s all they wanted for a club legend who played over 200 games, scoring almost 100 goals. A measly £400’000. Yes, he may be 34 but he’s still a hard worker, he’s still 6’2 and he still knows where the goal is. I can definitely get a good couple years out him yet. He agrees to just £4’300 with a £20’000 signing on bonus and another £50’000 once his goal tally reaches 10. As much as I love having money, I hope that payout comes as soon into his 2 year contract as possible. The board seems happy with a big(gish) name joining the club and while the fans have no clue who he is, the majority seem to accept my stamp of approval with open arms. The main man takes the number 15 as number 9, 10 and 11 are all taken. As cameras flash and we maintain a firm grip on each arm of the yellow and green Bucaramanga shirt, I can’t help but beam with happiness. Welcome to Bucaramanga, Steve Morison.

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As happy as I am to have a fellow Brit to rant with and prevent myself from going insane, he’s not going to be starting our next game. Leones are the team we will face next and these lot are actually one of our closest opponents with only a short 8 hour coach drive between us. We’re still waiting to play at Estadio Alfonso Lopez unfortunately as we’re the ones who have to undertake the journey this time round but our next game against Deportivo Cali will be our first home game and our first game against one of the big boys.

Cufre gets his first start as he comes in for Gomez with Nunez replacing Salazar. Morison is on the bench ready as I didn’t want to chuck him straight in at the deep end but he will get some game time as I’d like him to start against Deportivo Cali. I was originally considering dropping Rangel but he’s supported Romero so well, it would be very harsh of me to drop him now. He does need to start scoring himself though as his only goal so far was the first against Atlas almost a month ago.

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100 seconds haven’t even passed by the time Diego Sanchez receives a ball from Córdoba. He waits for the run and gives it back to Córdoba who plays a first time pass back past Marlon Torres where Yessy Mena lashes it into the roof of the net. I don’t really react apart from a curious raise of the eyebrows. 1-0 down already in what’s about as far from a good start as you get. We haven’t even touched the ball.

The game fails to keep to the high-octane standards of the first two minutes as it’s a tedious affair until the half hour mark. As the game ticks into the 30th minute, Quintero has space in the middle to pick out an gut busting run from Fabio on the right hand side of the pitch. He hits a perfect back post ball for Rangel to volley home if not for an outrageous save from Cadavid which parries the ball over for a corner. It’s a poor corner but we keep pushing and 10 minutes later, it’s Quintero starting the move again. After battling around the midfield to win possession, he dictates the move until Nunez plays the ever-overlapping Rodriguez down the wing. Fabio puts another superb ball into the middle where Romero climbs above Restrepo and nods home the equaliser. That’s his third goal in two games and he’s scored one with his right, his left and his head now. I know Restrepo isn’t much of an aerial match at only 5’10 but credit where is due; he’s on bloody fire. The half finishes 1-1 and I spur the lads on to keep up the late momentum we were gathering.

In the 52nd minute, a Rangel header clips the crossbar after an early cross from Gabby Gomez. It looks like we’re going to be punished on the counter as Leones come back at us with pace. The move capitalises with Mena peeling away from Torres to reach a hopeful ball behind. It works well as he finds plenty of space for a shot which is very strong but Ramos leaps to his right and snatches the ball away from the top left corner. A truly breathtaking catch from the man in between the posts.

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Now I’m not one to deny that I’m somewhat short tempered. You might think that football management is the worst career path for me with this information but I can normally contain it. But when I have time for three separate substitutions to warm up and the ball STILL has not left the field of play? I cannot be more annoyed. I tell Morison to warm up in the 70th minute with Gomez getting his orders a few minutes later. But in the 85th minute when Salazar is told to warm up, I almost lob the fucker onto the pitch myself. 22 minutes the same ball was in play for and absolutely fuck all happened. When they finally come on to a chorus of ironic cheers, lead by myself might I add, my attacking focus has no impact. The game finishes 1-1 and the second half should never have happened. I almost feel a sense of shame as I spent the last week glamourising the Colombian league to my British counterparts and even if Leon Clarke or Nile Ranger signed, that would have been their first impression. Standing on the sideline for 20 fucking minutes to play the dying embers of a lifeless draw.

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After I’ve had time to cool down and we’re strolling through the night back to Bucaramanga, I look back and realise that even though it was a boring game, a point is fair sharing. A great bonus is the fact that as our game was the late Friday night kick-off, we currently sit top of the league. Albeit for the best part of 18 hours but that thought does send me to a dreamy slumber for the remainder of our journey.

Following the anti-climatic debut from our second signing of the window, I take another look into the transfers happening in Europe. Liverpool sign young full back Grimaldo which shows they are finally addressing their defensive weaknesses. Deadline day comes around before long and there are some interesting deals which catch my eye. Cagliari fork out £10’000’000 of their Barella money to persuade Andy Carroll to join them in Italy while the promising young German winger Julian Brandt joins Tottenham’s formidable attacking line-up. Forestieri joins Bournemouth for just under £9’000’000 which I think is a great little signing. It’s nice to see him step up to the Premier League and I think the Cherries are the perfect team for him to do that.

In some saddening news, Marlon Torres pulls his groin in midweek training and will be consequently absent from our first home game against Deportivo Cali. It’s a really kick in the balls as Torres has silently impressed me and when partnered with one of the stronger and older lads, he really shines.

Now the transfer window has been and gone, we still have about £800’000 sitting around gathering dust. I arrange to meet with Oscar to discuss using our left over transfer funds to start building a youth set up, invest in facilities and hire a quality scout to find us some talent.

“Connor, I am interested and pleased to see you are keen in getting a youth system up and running but the figure you are using would take all the money we have. We need that for transfers in the summer and renewing contracts.”

“Oscar” I sigh. “You task me with producing a youth player without so much as a scout. You ask me to turn a profit while bringing in players who can help us stay in the league and reach higher. I can’t do it all.” Alvarez looks at me with a sympathetic smile. “That’s why I have already invested the money myself. I have hired a Venezuelan, Lisandro Gallardo to scout across Santander for the next six months. A contractor will start building a new training pitch and updated facilities next to the stadium tomorrow and I will find you your local superstar. Just imagine the media when he starts ey?”

Oscar gazes at me with his mouth agape but all I can offer is a half-hearted shrug of my shoulders. “If you set me a target Oscar, I will meet it. You set me targets that cannot possibly align, I will use my best judgement. Players will sell in the summer and we will find talent with Gallardo’s help. Everything will be fine, just trust me now Oscar.” I turn and walk away, momentarily glancing back to check if he’s breathed but the chairman remains inert. I may have killed of the chairman but I have injected life into the club. He will thank me in the long haul. I hope.

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Putting the focus back on the pitch, Deportivo Cali won their first two games against Millonarios and Independiente Medellin. A couple big game wins worth of momentum doesn’t really bide well for us but I’m quietly optimistic we can take something from this game. The side to take on the Los Verdiblancos is a somewhat changed side. Gabby Gomez is slightly further forward with Rovira acting as the holding man. Asprilla comes in at attacking midfield with Morison getting his first start next to Romero. My hope is that Morison can drop deep to get the ball whilst Asprilla and Romero make runs either side of him. There’s a warm rainstorm and it’s coming down hard so as well as battling one of the best teams in the league, we have to navigate the difficult conditions. Great.

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The first chance comes pretty quickly and it’s a Bucaramanga one. Fabio is working hard again as he skips past Cali’s wide man and plays Morison in. Steve cuts back and puts it in for Romero who meets the cross with a good header but the keeper gets down to hold. We look relatively comfortable and keep using the width to put crosses in but in the 20th minute, we hit a big speed-bump. Romero goes up for a header and comes down awkwardly, landing on his shoulder. He gets up after a brief time of the floor but he keeps rolling the same shoulder he rolled against U.N.A.M which makes up my mind for me. Rangel comes on a few minutes later even though Sergio is adamant he can play on. I can’t risk him aggravating any potential injury as he’s been electric for us.

The remainder of the first half is all in the midfield with the occasional venture into each other’s third simmering out before any real threat can be fashioned. Rovira picks up a yellow late into added time so I swap him for Cardenas to bring more attacking intent. Gabby drops back to his usual defensive position and I tell Rangel to stay up top at all times and play on the shoulder to run in behind when possible. Hopefully, Cardenas can spot and pick the pass to unlock what’s been a solid Cali back four.

10 minutes into the second half, our captain plays a woeful pass forward and loses the ball. Carbonero turns and glides past Asprilla before playing a lofted ball up for Macnelly Torres. He brings it down nicely and lays it off for Carbonero who connects with the sweetest low drive from the edge of the D that skims the blades of grass before cannoning off the inside of the post into the back of the net. I can only force breath through pursed lips and applaud as that was a wonder strike. Any abnormally longer blades of grass were sliced by that ferocious strike and Ramos is helpless to watch that fly past his outstretched glove. 1-0 to Cali.

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In the 64th minute, a give and go from Steve Morison lets Rodriguez ping a ball for the Welshman to chase onto. His cross bounces high off the shoulder of the Cali defender and Asprilla does well to put the keeper off just enough to mess up his clearance punch. The ball rises high in the air again for Rangel to attack the rebound but unfortunately, Rosero Valencia gets there first. Or so you’d think as Valencia manages to scuff his header backwards and into his own net past the flailing hands of Vargas. It’s a total stroke of a luck to counter a potential goal of the season contender but I’m not complaining and neither are the sea of yellow and green shirts. Even stevens.

About five minutes pass when Cali win a free kick on the far side. It’s put into the mixer and there’s a game of ping-pong after the delivery. It falls for Didier Delgado to slot through Cabrera but the ball bounces up off his ankle bone into Ramos’ hands. Another example of us riding our luck as my initial appeal for offside was incorrecting with Fabio playing him just onside. The game filters down pretty quickly with the message to park the bus being spread with 10 minutes to go. Cufre replaces Asprilla as we switch to a 5-4-1. Morison gets cautioned in injury time but we hold out for a second successive 1-1 draw. It’s another remotely uneventful game, only notable by a moment of complete brilliance and a moment of complete luck. Deportivo dominated possession with around 65% of it across the 90 and we only had one shot, which wasn’t even our goal. We are extremely fortunate to escape with anything in what’s been a very poor first showing to our home crowd.

There are some positives though. As well as keeping our unbeaten record and staying in those vital top eight spots, the physios say Romero is fit and ready to go as his injury is minor bruising. I give him a quick apology as he did say he was good to carry on but better safe than sorry. Plus, we’ll need him for our next game which is Nacional away. No rest for the wicked.

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