Public Introduction (Episode 10 – Shep: Managerial Globetrotter)

The full time whistle puts them out of their misery before long. Poor bastards.

Steve knows. I had to tell someone and he’s Welsh, he would appreciate it. He makes a couple jokes about giving him another few caps before retirement but he seems to agree that I’ve made the right choice. I’m still somewhat shell-shocked after being offered the Wales job but they wanted me to leave Bucaramanga in order to take it. In all honestly, I would have took it out of impulse if I could keep my role in Colombia but it would be unfair for everyone involved. I’d be overworked, Bucaramanga wouldn’t be my main focus and the Welsh national team would suffer because of my heart remaining in South America.

To lighten things up, we had two nominations for the March Player of the Month with Sherman Cardenas and Steve Morison making up half of the four man shortlist but it’s the latter who wins the award. Between me and Ricardo, we think Cardenas or even Jose Jaimes are more deserving of the award but any praise directed towards a signing I made is welcome.

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America de Cali are the team to awake us from our gameless slumber and they couldn’t have a more average start. 3 wins, 3 losses and 6 draws puts them firmly in mid-table but considering they are only 5 points away from the top eight and 9 points from ourselves, they’ve be desperate for a win today.

I make the big call of giving Delgado a go in goal. At the end of the day, he does very well in training and has a wealth of experience so he’s due a good game at some point. Marlon Torres and Gonzalez are our two men in front of him and our best midfield plays in front of them. Player of the Month Morison partners Romero up top with both of them currently firing on all cylinders.

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It only takes a couple minutes for us to set the pace of the game when some great build up play allows Romero the space to turn inside and chip a forward ball for Morison into the area. He outleaps Hector Quinones but the ironically named Neto reacts well to save down to his right. We manage to break the deadlock before the 10 minute mark however as we pass it around a high pressing Cali in the 8th minute. Romero times a run to perfection and collects an equally perfect through ball from Morison before whipping a shot round the goalkeeper to make it 1-0.

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We slow down the game to counter the high pressing approach and really dominate the game. Gaps all over the pitch allow Bucaramanga shirts to drop in and keep possession. In the 32nd minute, Quintero takes advantage of a gap down the Cali left side and sets himself for a powerful strike from 25 yards but it’s pushed away for a throw in. The throw is worked back into the middle where Romero Cruyff turns on the edge before shooting but it’s a yard or two wide of the post. Five minutes pass before we’re attacking again when Gomez is released down the touchline. He curls a ball on behind for Romero who uses a heavy touch to leave the chasing defenders in the dust. He looks up and tries to square for Morison but Zapata slides in to intercept. The ball bounces up off his shin to Rodriguez arriving at the back post but he can’t manage to loop his header the right side of the crossbar. A stressful swing at goal in added time from Mosquera is their first shot all game which highlights how well we’ve played this game.

The first 10 minutes of the second half look like it’s going to be a much harder affair with Cali seemingly ditching the pressing mindset. We manage to win a corner though which Cardenas drills into the mixer. Romero rises like a salmon and flicks a gorgeous header over the helpless onlookers that clips the inside of the far post before going in. Truly breathtaking brace from our top scorer.

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With 25 minutes left, Cufre and Nunez take to the field with Fabio and Salazar coming off. It only takes a few minutes for both substitutes to be involved in our third goal that puts the nail in the coffin. Cufre cuts in front of a Cali attacker to steal possession and passes it forward to Nunez. A cheeky heel chop finds it’s way to Romero who is now part of the 2 on 2 with Morison making a run to his left. Sergio finds the pass and Steve runs it to the edge of the box before leathering it across goal and into the top right. It’s a lovely finish as he really hit across the ball with some force. From that point on, we sit back and watched a deflated, under-performing team try to find some light in a dark, dark tunnel. I do feel sorry for them and the full time whistle puts them out of their misery before long. Poor bastards.

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In exciting news, I’m finally involved in my first national press conference ahead of our game with Alianza Petrolera. There’s a bit of a rivalry with between us and I have to dodge a few questions that are obvious traps to try and snare me into insulting our opponents. I mainly try to heap praise on my boys whenever possible and things are pretty standard until I drop a little bit of a surprise.

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In what I’m sure is an unprecedented move, I announce the first team contract of Andreas Neumann. Cameras flash widely as I speak about how this boy is the future and tell them to remember the name. Andreas is going to be a bloody superstar.

Now Neumann originally wanted to take the number 28 but for a youth academy graduate, that’s still a pretty low number. I might sound like a madman but hear me out. How many young lads get their first contract, a decent low squad number and think they’ve already made it? The answer is no youth player of mine. I want my youth players to remain grounded, earn their place in the team and earn their squad number.

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To clarify, any academy graduate will not be allowed to sport any number under 40 in their first season. Andreas takes the number 44 for his first season. One thing I’d never noticed previously is that he plays with a blue tape wrapped round his wrist. The reason behind it isn’t medical however as he simply loves Jamie Vardy. He watched him lead Leicester to the title a few years ago and wearing the tape round his right wrist makes him feel like he can play like he did that season. Sounds like bollocks to me but if it wins us the league, I can’t complain. I decide to make the light blue tape the staple of my youth players. Some might not like it but fuck it, I’m the manager.

There’s plenty of rotations in our line up for Petrolera. Ramos is back in goal and Torres is the only man to keep his place in the defence. Jaimes, Rovira and Perez come into midfield with our captain resting at home. Neumann is on the bench with Cardenas voted by the squad as captain for the day. Torres has a few votes but the lads seem happy to let him lead from the midfield today.

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We’re in for much tougher game today it seems. Both teams seem to cancel each other out until the 19th minute when we try to break down the far side but are can’t work it into the box. Vallecilla passes back which kickstarts a string of passes across the box allowing Perez to lay off Cufre from a tight angle. His attempt is a decent one that the keeper can only push out for a corner but the corner comes to nothing.

In the 26th minute, Petrolera put a nice move together with Arias jinking past both Jaimes and Cardenas before passing it into the box for Rivera. His low ball in is vitally cut out by Torres but it falls kindly to Henao. I duck my head expecting the Estadio Daniel Villa Zapata to erupt but his shot is blocked brilliantly by Torres again before Palacios boots it clear. Only a few minutes later, I’m treated to another great display of defensive dedication. A cross is put into the front post after a deflection off Jaimes but Vallecilla leaps into the air and basically folds himself in half to boot clear over his head. I’m in awe at how he even managed to reach that. All to avoid conceding a corner.

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Half time comes and goes without event and when the first 20 minutes of the second half have been eerily silent, I give the nod to the subs bench. Quintero comes in for Jaimes as a better ball playing option while Neumann replaces Perez. He can play in attacking midfield but I drop Romero back to accommodate for Andreas and allow him to play up front.

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He does make a bit of an impact and drops deep to try make things happen but the Petrolera defence stands strong. In the 80th minute, I bring on Gomez for a drained Cufre. Quintero picks up a knock as Gomez is warming up but give me thumbs up to signal he can carry on so I let him. I can feel Romero’s stare burning into the back of my skull as I walk back to my seat.

Unfortunately, there isn’t any other clear changes and the game ends 0-0. My first goal-less game as Bucaramanga manager which is a feat in itself. I know South Americans are known for their high intensity, high scoring football but a bizarre statistic nonetheless.

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Obviously, our 0-0 wasn’t the headline grabber. It was never going to be in the weekend of the ‘Valle del Cauca’ derby. Deportivo Cali vs America de Cali. In current form, a Deportivo win was expected but they absolutely romped their local rivals. Jose Sand took home the match ball and set up another goal in a 5-0 victory for Los Verdiblancos.

Hoping for a 5-0 win of our own, our next opponents are 2004 Copa Libertadores winners Once Caldas. They’re only three points behind us so a win would actually take them above us on goal difference and with the teams around us playing bottom of the table teams, a loss really isn’t an option today.

With that in mind, Cufre and Rodriguez are either side of Gonzalez and Torres and they have full license to bomb forward and support the attacks. Gomez is back captaining the side with Rovira playing over Quintero. Nunez is behind Morison and Romero with Andreas Neumann on the bench again.

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Straight from kick off, we pass it around with a bit of pace until Romero backheels a pass into Nunez. He sets himself and hits an bullet from 20 yards but it skims the outside of the post. Good start.

It takes another 10 minutes before we break again. This time, Cufre is played down the line and his low cross cut out by Perea. His attempted clearance is smacked directly off Morison’s arse and falls kindly for Romero but his shot is blocked by Correa. It spins towards Cardenas on the edge who has his bite of the apple but he slices across the ball and it skews a yard or two wide. On the half hour mark, we finally get the breakthrough when a quick counter is worked up to Morison. The Caldas line is a bit too high and allows Romero to run in behind, chasing after Steve’s through ball. He nods it down in front of him before hitting a goal of the season contender, a half volley from just outside the box that swerves inwards to hit the top left corner. Sergio Romero, take a bow.

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We keep the game in the midfield until the break and my half-time talk is a quick one. I’m slowly getting to grips with Spanish and luckily, most of our first half performances are positive so rehashing the same few lines is an option I’ve utlitised fully. Shortly after the restart, Torres sets Cufre on his way from the back. He puts an early cross into the box where Romero stretches to push the ball towards the bottom right with his studs but Cuadrado gets down rapdily to push away with his right hand.

In the 57th minute, Neumann replaces Nunez as the number 10 and it only takes him five minutes to make an impact. After a series of failed attempts to enter the Caldas box, we finally get through when Romero squeezes a pass through to Neumann. He fakes a pass of his own before cutting back towards goal and shooting but his effort is plucked out the air with relative ease by the goalkeeper.

With 20 minutes to go, Quintero and Vallecilla come on to prepare for a late push from Caldas but the latter ends up playing a huge part in our second. In the 82nd minute, he uses his pace to set into the space down the near side. He drills a lovely low ball into the box. Gabby skips over the ball which allows Romero to smash home from 12 yards out. Not only is it his brace but it’s also his 10th goal in the league which will put him just one goal behind Junior’s Teofilo Gutierrez, assuming he doesn’t score again later today.

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The final chance of the game comes three minutes from normal time when Caldas are pushing as high as possible. Morison drags the ball away from one before weighting a pass between Perea and Correa. Neumann seems to shift up a gear and turns on the burners. Despite his 10 yard disadvanatage, Andreas busts his gut to get there first and shoulder away Correa to leave himself 1-on-1 as he enters the box. I run out of the dug-out in anticipation, he swings his right foot back to strike… a couple yards wide. He collapses to his knees and slides with his hands on his head. It would have been a beauty of a first goal but his eyes lit up too early and he rushed his shot. It’s still a promising moment I’ll point out to Alvarez in our next meeting. The game does finish 2-0 and it’s our best display in a long time. Utter domination of the highest manner.

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Steve Morison comes to me the day after to thank me for his game time as it’s kept his mind clear from any worry about adjusting and whether it was a risk worth taking. I thank him back for his performances and ask him to keep it up.

With our latest three points, we have solidified our 4th place position with 3 points either side of us. While we’re only five points from the top spot, the main talking point is that we are a whole 9 points away from dropping out of the knockout spots with only 4 games left. That all means a win against 19th place, lowest scoring side in the league Envigado next week would 99% guarantee us a place in the top eight. I can’t bloody wait.

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