Operation: Spearhead (Episode 7 – Shep: Managerial Globetrotter)

We slot our swords into their sheaths, bloodied, battered and bruised.

This is probably the most stressed I’ve been in a very long time. Nacional away is probably the most daunting fixture in Colombian football and maybe even South American football as a whole. Yet here we are, facing them just a couple weeks into our first season. Sometimes, being thrown in at the deep end and told to swim can be a good thing but this is like being pushed into a lake with bricks tied to your feet. I won’t even have time to celebrate if we pull a shock win out the bag as we play Deportes Tolima a few days later and Atletico Junior on the weekend.

Going into this game, we’re still unbeaten and anything other than a loss would be appreciated but that’s wishful thinking. Junior have won all four of their games so far and it’ll be interesting to see whether they can still boast that impressive record tomorrow as they play Independiente Medellin today.

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Looking at Nacional’s start, they are expectedly flying. They haven’t even conceded a goal yet and while I’m buoyant about our start so far, this could be the game that shoots me back down to the harsh reality of this job. The game that yanks my head from the clouds and make me contemplate the mammoth task that is moving this Bucaramanga side forward. Being honest, I’d even take a 1-0 loss right now.

Our eleven is debatably our strongest with Cufre starting on the left of the defence and Fabio with his forward runs on the right. Our strongest midfield, again debatably, starts with Cardenas coming up against his parent club. Apparently, those awful loan clauses  that restrict loanees playing against their actual clubs aren’t that popular round this part of the world but I’m not complaining. This also lets me put Rovira on the bench with him likely to come on at some point in the second half. The duo that make up Rolls Royce are up front. I know I said it wasn’t sticking but giving out nicknames feels like some sort of coping mechanism. I’ve even taken to calling Ricardo ‘Gervais’ due to a mixture of his name, startlingly quirky laugh and receding black hair. He doesn’t get it but Steve Morison does. That’s all that matters at the end of the day.

Nacional are playing a 4-1-4-1 which I’m guessing is to battle our midfield heavy formation whilst having that extra width. It’s a smart decision and it very nearly makes me rearrange my whole game day plan but I refrain. Let’s fucking have you.

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The first half hour of this game is like a game of ping pong except less exciting. Seriously. It’s all back and forth but there’s no penetration into the 18 yard boxes apart from some ambitious crosses. But in the 33rd minute, Rodriguez gives away a free kick about 45 yards out and Nacional bodies load into our box. Dayro stands over it and whips a ball up and into the mixer. The ball skims Marlon’s questionable mo-hawk as he mistimes his jump by half a second and it falls perfectly for Campuzano to sweep past Ramos to make it 1-0. It’s their first shot all game but we’ve only had 1 shot so far ourselves and I can’t even remember it. It’s harsh but we have to avoid the trap of pushing for a goal and leaving ourselves exposed at the back.

Never mind. Just 6 minutes later, Dayro is the architect as he cuts back and plays a series of passes before hitting a shot first time from just inside the box but Ramos flings an arm up to whack it away for a corner. Nacional take it short and pass it around in the corner until Hernandez gets space to scoop a cross into the middle for Bocanegra to glance a header past Ramos and double their lead. 2-0 down at the break, there’s no better time to make a change so the uncharacteristically quiet Salazar makes way for Nunez. I also take the risk of asking the lads to push for a goal quickly in the second half which can hopefully get us back in the game.

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In the 53rd minute, my tactical nous is evident as Ramos plays a goal kick short to Torres. We knock the ball around until Quintero picks up the ball about 10 yards into our half. He looks up and plays an unreal ball to the opposite side for the run of, who else but Fabio. He takes a great first touch inside which wrong foots the wingback and passes inside to Romero. He hears Nunez shout and flicks the ball off the outside of his boot for him. Nunez does brilliantly well to control within a triangle of green and white before hitting a thunderblot past Monetti to make it 2-1. It’s a lovely strike from the Argentine and that’s exactly the impact every manager wants from an attacking substitution. We’re back in the game.

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With 20 minutes left, Dayro and Hernandez link up on the touchline with the latter getting the better of Cufre with silky smooth footwork. The ball is put into the box and with Torres and Cardenas both tracking the near post runner, Moreno darts in from the edge of the box unmarked to flash a header home. I make another change with Steve Morison getting the nod for Cardenas. I tell Nunez and Romero to stay wide while Morison plays behind Rangel.

There’s absolutely no impact so in the 78th minute, I decide that this is a good time as any to try out something different. I’ve spent a lot of late nights attacking a whiteboard and trying to think of new projects and different formations. Most are bizarre creations that Dr. Frankenstein would turn his nose up at but this one is my first beautiful monster. Operation: Spearhead.

It’s basically just a 4-2-4 which will most likely be used when we’re in dire situations such as, I don’t know, being a couple goals down with 10 minutes left. I know it doesn’t exactly break any boundaries or tread untouched ground but this is founded with desperation in mind. Plus, giving it a cool name makes it seem more daunting. Imagine your team is strolling to a casual 1-0 win and the opposing manager, who’s knowingly just within earshot, bellows “Operation: Spearhead is a go!” Literal chills, right? Anyways, it’s a maiden flight for this experiment and Rovira comes on for Quintero to give us some more legs in the middle. I have to tip my hat to Quintero though as he has again shone through with another solid shift.

Despite our eleventh-hour flurry of crosses, we’re not able to find the back of the net as Operation Spearhead’s anti-climatic unveiling finishes at 3-1. It’s not been the best game or our best performance but I didn’t expect a result here. Obviously, I would have liked to take something for our troubles or even close the deficit to a single goal but I’m honestly not too fussed. I am slightly frustrated that Nacional’s second and third goals came from poor man marking on the other hand so I’m planning on addressing that issue in training. As the French say, ‘comme ci, comme ca’. Or as the Spanish say, erm… meh?

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A bit of good news to wash it all down now. I have a meeting with Gabby Gomez and his agent the next day about his extending his contract and things go pretty swimmingly. He agrees to add another year onto his current agreement which means he’ll be with us until the start of 2020. He doesn’t ask for a wage increase which makes the £3’500 signing on bonus more of a thank you gift than anything else. I’m happy to see our captain tie himself to the club for another year as it speaks volume about his belief in myself and what the club can achieve under our joint leadership. Gabby is somewhat of a journeyman as he’s played for 16 different clubs in 7 different countries in his time as a footballer. The most games he’s played for one club is only 48 out of his 410 appearances and considering he’s only a few short of that figure for Bucaramanga, it’s safe to say he’s settled and could maybe retire here. I’d love for him to reach the big 500 with us but at 33, he might decide to call it a day short of that figure. 450 would still be a nice celebration.

Looking at our next opponents, Tolima are pretty doing well with the one loss against Millinarios a couple weeks ago the sole blemish on an otherwise perfect start. We need a result to get us back on track and keep camp morale relatively high. A win here would really pick us up before we play Junior on the weekend.

Speaking of which, today’s team has been picked with one eye on that fixture. Delgado gets a chance for redemption in goal with Gonzalez and Palacios in between Cufre and Vallecilla. I’m asking Vallecilla to play in unknown territory as he’s only ever played on the left but I’m confident enough in his ability to believe he can do the job for us today. Rovira comes in for our captain and with a vacant vice captain role, Quintero gets the armband as a reward for us recent showings. I take him aside before the team talk to tell 1-to-1 that he’s exceeding expectations. In dumbed down terms so he can understand of course. Asprilla comes in behind Morison and Romero.

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We kick off and play on the front foot for the first quarter of an hour. It pays off in the 17th minute when a Cufre cross is headed out of the box by a Tolima defender. Rovira battles and nods it back to Cufre who opts against a second cross by passing sideways to Morison. His first time pass finds Rovira who turns and passes to Asprilla. He spins in motion with ball and feeds Quintero into the box. Cesar sidefoots the ball across his body towards the top left and even though the keeper manages to get a fingertip to it, it’s not enough to push it away from goal as it bounces out after hitting the joining of the net. 1-0 up and Quintero is relishing the responsibilities of a captain. A quick second would be appreciated.

On the half hour mark, a Tolima attack breaks down and gives us time to counter. Romero gives it to Quintero who plays a great ball over the top for Asprilla. He jinks inside and chips a cross in for Morison but Torijano gets there first. It falls back to Asprilla but his snapshot flies a yard wide of the near post. The last chance of the half comes in the last minute as Tolima take a page from our book and hit us on the counter after we pile forward for an attack. They’re actually 2-on-1 as Marco Perez takes the ball forward. Gonzalez is the man back and he manages to make me feel all warm and fuzzy as he leaps in with a crunching, yet fair, tackle to end the attack and the first half. I make sure to catch him on the way inside and give him a pat on the back as that tackle was straight out of the 80’s. The message at half time is to carry on the way we’re playing as we’re holding possession well and look likely to double our goal tally before long.

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With an hour of the game gone, Cardenas intercepts a Tolima pass that’s entering our half and dribbles forward before sweeping a pass to Quintero. He looks up and sees Morison running into a big gap between the two centre backs and fizzes a ball through to him. Steve still has a lot to do still as he controls the powerful pass before hitting a shot from just inside the D across and into the top left hand corner. I jump up and celebrate just as much as any Bucaramanga fan as I’m buzzing that he’s off the mark as he kneeslides right in front of the away fans. I have to say that I’m a sucker for rattling fans and while he’s not exactly Jamie Vardy, that strike wouldn’t look out of place in the Premier League. We have the two goal cushion now but that doesn’t mean we can be complacent.

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In the 67th minute, Vallecilla and Quintero make way for Gomez and Rodriguez. Quintero receives rapturous applause as he hands Gabby the armband but he runs right over to Morison, insisting he take the role as captain. I don’t intervene as I want to see how it pans out and Steve was Millwall captain for a while so he knows how to lead from the front. It seems like a bad omen as when the ball is thrown back into play, Escobar knocks the ball past Rodriguez and bursts down the line with blistering speed. His cross is an awkward one for both parties as it’s a difficult height and speed but Gomez casually volleys the ball back to Delgado. Luis clearly wasn’t expecting it as his first touch is dreadful and allows Perez to react and take a shot which luckily hits the post and falls kindly for Cufre to hoof up the pitch. To be fair to our keeper, I wouldn’t have expected Gabby to pass it back and he managed to put the striker off enough to miss; but surely you just put your laces through it?

With 15 minutes left, I make my final sub with Salazar coming on for Cardenas. Asprilla looks shattered but as he’s not in the picture for the Junior game, Cardenas gets to watch the rest of the game from the bench. In the 82nd minute, Tolima really start throwing the kitchen sink at us and manage to work their way into our box after multiple attempts. A deflected cross puts Gonzalez off balance when preparing to clear leaving Perez to square across to Escobar. He has an open goal but Palacios flies in with an outstanding block to deny a certain goal.

Tolima manage to find the back of the net in the 91st minute when Banguero shoulders a Gomez clearance to Orozco. He controls in mid-air and flicks a lovely backheel pass behind Cufre for Banguero to latch onto. His cross is a dangerous one that’s an inch too high for Palacios but the perfect height for Carrascal behind him to put a great header into the side netting. It’s only a consolation goal as Morison boots the ball back to Delgado from kick off and the ref blows as Luis smacks the ball into the air. I would have liked the clean sheet and I bet Delgado would have too but apart from his one lapse of concentration, he played pretty well. Morison got his first goal, Quintero was excellent again and we won our first game at the Alfonso Lopez. I really cannot complain.

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Something that knocks my new found confidence is the fact that Junior made it five wins in five games with a 2-0 win over Leones so we’re really up against it as we visit Barranquilla. It says a lot when a point would be an achievement.

Ramos and our three usual starters are back in defence. El capitano also returns with Nunez playing behind the same strike force that started midweek. Rangel is on the bench against his parent club today as the impact sub as it would be unfair to drop Morison after a solid performance last time out. It’s a strangely misty day at the top of Colombia and walking out into the packed Estadio Metropolitano Roberto Melendez is probably the most intimidated I’ve ever felt. One player that’s been highlighted by myself is Teofilo Gutierrez, the Junior striker that’s scored four goals in as many games. I’m expecting the lads at the back to be very busy today but hopefully we can strike with some fast, fluid breaks.

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Sometimes in football, you can have the best plan, the best players and be undone by a moment of sheer brillance. 9 minutes in, a Barrera strike is deflected off Gomez out for a Junior corner. The same man takes the outswinging corner which looks poor as it swerves further and further away from the danger zone. The 21 year old winger Luis Diaz runs back to connect with a bicycle kick that flashes perfectly through a series of bodies before nestling into the bottom right corner. As he wheels away in celebration and slides on his arse into the corner flag, all I can do is shrug. All any of my players can do is shrug. I even lock eyes with Julio Comesana, the 8 time appointed Junior manager, and shrug. He shrugs back as the 45’000 Junior fans finally bring the sound down from deafening to tinnitus inducing. 1-0 Junior.

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Five minutes later, we show we’re not gonna stand down and accept a spanking. A quick passing move leaves Romero in space to lay off Rodriguez for a cross. It’s a tempting ball for Morison to attack with a great header but Viera backtracks and pulls out an equally great save, acrobatically tipping it over the crossbar. Our first corner attempt is a deep ball which is headed straight back out of play by a Junior shirt but the second comes to the front post for Romero to met with a glancing flick on. Viera leaps back and tries to flick the ball over the crossbar again but it instead hits his own goal post before bouncing over the line to bring the score level. Viera is unlucky as that was a very difficult shot to stop and he did brilliantly to get anything on it but you have to give credit to Romero as he worked every neck muscle to direct that header. We could be on track for a goal-fest here.

Or so I thought. The rest of the first half is uneventful until the second minute of added time when a Gomez interception allows us to counter. After working the ball across the pitch, Fabio plays Nunez down the far touchline. Maxi demonstrates his vision as he cuts it back between the two chasing defenders. Morison just beats Cantillo to the ball and slips Romero through 1 on 1. The keeper is off his line quickly and closes the angle well though, meaning Romero can only put his effort into his trailing leg and out for a corner. It’s a decent corner that’s cleared as far as Nunez who passes to Gonzalez. He toepunts a pass to Gomez who plays a cheeky chop pass back to Nunez who hits a low drive goal bound but it’s pushed away for another corner. This Cardenas corner is a poor one however as he tries to place it back post but ends up putting it out for a throw that isn’t taken due to the half ending. I would be totally okay with the game ending now and skipping out of Barranquilla hand-in-hand with our solitary point but I really think we can nick a goal and hold out for a shock victory. We’ve only had about a third of the possession but we’ve been lethal on the counter attack with the pace of Nunez being vital. The same eleven jogs back out with the same instructions as you don’t fix what isn’t broken.

A couple minutes in the second half, a deep Junior free kick is nodded on by Piedrahita and Diaz tries his luck with an arguably more ambitious overhead kick but it bounces into the ground and out for a goal kick. You have to respect the effort but you only get those once in a blue moon.

In the 62nd minute, I make my first change with Salazar coming on for the tired legs of Cardenas. He doesn’t get much action in the first 10 minutes of his showing but in the 73rd minute, a Ramos kick is headed down to him by Morison. He pings a first time ball for Gomez to chase and even though Pico gets there first, Gabby uses his body to bully him off the ball before slotting Nunez in. He has to take a touch into the box as he has Pico nipping at his ankles which unfortunately gives Viera time to slide in and hold before he can get a shot off.

In the 78th minute, an Escobar cross can’t find a red and white shirt but they hold possession on the edge of the box. Cantillo scoops it up to Sambueza who nods it on to Ruiz. Now Ruiz is completely free to volley it home from 12 yards and make it 2-1 but it rolls down his shin and curls away from the goal by a good few yards. I celebrate our first showcase of luck this game by completing a double sub with Rangel and Palacios coming on for the goalscorer Romero and Gonzalez retrospectively.

Five minutes later, Junior are really pushing us as an easy on the eyes passing move from them accumulates in Hernandez tapping a pass into Ruiz who tests Ramos with a near post effort but it’s comfortably pushed away for a corner. I call Rangel over and tell him to spread the message to park the bus once we’ve cleared the corner. Which we do with relative ease.

In the final minute of added time, I can hardly believe that we’re going to be the first team to take something from a Junior match-up. Bodies are being flung in front of crosses and shots alike. I bite my tongue as I see Diaz take off on a weaving run before passing to Cantillo. He’s got half a yard of space from 10 yards and hits a strong effort towards goal but Ramos parries it away. The danger is far from over as he pushes it into the path of Sambueza who hits it first time from 6 yards. I’ve already submitted to the heartbreak as I turn with my head beginning to slump. But, I notice something in my peripherals. My eyes shoot back up. Now somehow, someway, Ramos scrambles to his feet, leaps across his goal-line and follows up with a sprawling save to swipe the ball off the line and deny them a late, late winner.

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The resulting corner threatens with the last kick of the game being a scuffed Castaneda volley over the bar but once the ref blows his whistle, I finally exhale the breath I’ve been storing for the last 2 minutes. Junior had more shots and a much bigger chunk of possession but we defended valiantly, attacked with lightning speed and wholeheartedly deserved a point. That Ramos double save could easily be the moment of the season. In my opinion, this is our best performance yet as it showed grit and commitment. We’ve battled to the last breath and as we slot our swords into their sheaths, bloodied, battered and bruised: the lump in my throat painfully retracts. Pure, unadulterated pride.

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The media is an entity I’ll never understand. Following our heroic showing behind enemy lines, you’d think they’d dedicate the back page to our performance. Obviously not. The prominent Santander paper decide to run a piece about Rangel and his lack of goals. He hasn’t scored in the league yet and actually hasn’t scored since my first game in charge but the media try and twist some narrative that Morison has came in as a teachers pet and is forcing him out the picture. I invite Michael and Steve to my office together to address and disspell it.

“Can you believe this, Steve?” I desperately shout at him while tapping the paper like a mad man. “What a load of bloody bollocks. I thought leaving Europe would get us away from this, all the shitty press and their shitty stories.”

I stuff the paper into my bin with my foot. I dismiss Steve so I can speak to Rangel privately. He seemed upset at first but it seems my psychotic rant and limited Spanish vocabulary has reassured him that he’s part of my plans and that a goal will come his way soon. Ricardo knocks on my door and barges in excitedly before I can even stand up.

“Gervais, you better have a good excuse for interrupting me.” He’s bouncing like a giddy child as he stutters on his words and taps on the Bucaramanga badge on his jumper before I usher him to spit it out.

“The Jaguares game. It’s full. All the tickets are gone, we have sold out!”

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