2018 Apetura Semi-Finals (Episode 14 – Shep: Managerial Globetrotter)

To paraphrase Gus Poyet; we need a fucking miracle.

“So Connor, you’re doing a good job so far. Semi-finals of the knockout stages, your signings slotting into the team effortlessly, the young German Andreas Neumann already forcing his way into the first team under your guidance. What’s the plan from here, how far do you think Bucaramanga can go?”

I take a sip of my water before leaning back in the very same booth in which Ryan Giggs offered me the Welsh role just over two months ago.

“Truthfully, there’s still a lot of work to be done. And I’m not just saying that because I’m a perfectionist, or because I want to take away from Andreas or any of the lads. There’s a lot of things behind the scenes that need to be fixed or maybe changed before this club can go up a level.” Aaron Gates nods attentively as a good interviewer should. “There’s contracts to sign, a bunch of the current squad are on loan so replacing them in time for next season will be a struggle but what we have right now is unity and erm, mutual trust between players, manager and the board. That can get you a long way at a football club.”

Gates finishes his scarily fast typing before clearing his throat. “Marvin Vallecilla and Sherman Cardenas have been named in the four man shortlist for the May Player of the Month. This is the fourth time in a row you’ve had a player nominated and the third time Bucaramanga players have taken up half the spots on the list. What’s it like seeing your players be individually recognised not only by being nominated but more often than not, taking home the award?”

“Pride” I instinctively respond. “You feel proud. Even Marvin was surprised he got in there yesterday morning but everybody agrees Sherman is a quality, quality player. Whether it’s Steve who’s took to the climate instantly, Cardenas who has really been a standout player or Gabby who is the best captain you could ask for. Everyone of them deserves it but we are a team. It’s cliche I know but everybody contributes. Sometimes, it feels like we’re a basketball team with a bench that can impact the game just as much as the starting line-up.”

“Well then, there’s only the big question left.” I jokingly roll my eyes and start trying to piece together my reply. “Junior in the semi finals. You’ve already spoke about the Copa Libertadores dream and getting past them would give you a very good chance of getting in there first time of asking. Can you do it?” It’s a question that hangs in the air for a couple seconds prior to my answer.

“Winning or losing isn’t something you can predict safely. All I’ll say is, if you put City in front of us tomorrow; we’d give them a bloody good go.”

An interview with Sky Sports already. How have I got here already? Fair enough, it’s a piece that’s not going to get many clicks but some European exposure might put me on the radar for clubs over there. I have no intentions of leaving Colombia just yet but in a year or two, that could be the spark that lights the fire.

Now, Junior away. I don’t think we had a harder game than when we visited Barranquilla earlier this year. We might have lost 3-1 to Nacional and Huila but that Junior match? It was a proper, gritty battle. I can’t picture it being any easier today either.

Marvin’s nomination for Player of the Month pushes me to include him in our first leg eleven instead of Harold Gomez. Delgado is the man in goal after much internal and external debate. Aguirre is unlucky as he’s probably shown the most promise in goal but Luis will be retiring at the end of the season, this could be the last big match of his career. Quintero returns with Gomez and Cardenas in the midfield. Neumann gets his spot behind the two strikers back while Rolls Royce are up front again. I’m planning on starting Morison and Rangel in the home tie unless we get absolutely thrashed and need lots of goals which is where Romero comes in.

Looking at my lads line-up in front of the packed Junior stadium, I would have loved the safe hands of Ramos as our last line of defence. He played brilliantly on our last visit to Junior but beggars can’t be choosers. And we need to beg Junior to take it easy on us.

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It’s a promising start from us though as we get the first chance of the match. Gomez wins possession on the edge of our box and passes to Quintero. After a quick 1-2 with Romero on the half way line, Cesar’s attempted pass is an awful one that Neumann works hard to toe punt it out wide to Cufre. He tries a first time ball into Quintero behind the last man but the keeper just gets there first half  a second before him to smother the ball. I clap in appreciation, hoping that we can create more strings of play like that.

Over the course of the next half hour, we have next to none of the ball but our midfield are relentless in their pressure. Neumann and Cardenas are running themselves ragged chasing every pass and every poor touch. The minimal possession we get is fashioned into at least half chances so things aren’t all bleak as this is the type of game I expected Junior to give. In the 37th minute, Rangel passes back to Cufre after his options on the near side are closed down. The ball is passed across the pitch until Romero finds Vallecilla on the opposite side. He loses the track of the ball under his feet but baffles the defender in doing so, giving him space to drill a low ball into Neumann who is free from eight yards. He sweeps the side of his right foot to connect with the ball. His shot flies across the face of the keeper and off the inside of the far post before its cleared. I collapse to my knees with my heads in my hands and run them back through my hair as I clamber to my feet. We were inches away from an opener and Andreas was inches away from being a club hero already.

In the 44th minute, the balls on the edge of our D with Gabby and the scorer  of the infamous bicycle kick, Luis Diaz, both trying to hook the ball past the other. The ball bounces off the shin of Diaz and out to Ruiz. He puts a pass in for Barrera to shoot but Torres is across to block brilliantly. As he gets back to his feet with the momentum, the ball ricochets of his knee and falls kindly for Ruiz to shoot. The shot is going straight towards Gonzalez with Delgado directly behind him so it can’t possibly go in. Except it fucking can. Gonzalez throws his right leg forward but the ball glides past his foot, onto his standing leg and past the hopeless Delgado who was expecting a straight forward save to make it 1-0. I could not think of a more demoralising goal to concede right at a more demoralising time. We’ve had the better chances, we were so close to a half time regroup and that’s the shot that goes in. Fucking typical.

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Trying to motivate your team after an event like that is borderline impossible. When you’re down on your luck and nothing is going right, what’s the point of even trying?

“Guys listen” I sigh unable to mask my defeated frown. “I know that not one of can understand a word of what I’m fucking say. Apart from Steve. But even though you can’t understand the words, you can understand the sentiment. This, one fluky shit goal? It’s not the end. Even if we lose this game, there’s a whole ninety minutes of football in our town, in front of our fans. It is not the end. We can easily put one past these and tell Junior to attack us at home which is when we’ll strike. I’m not asking you to win, I’m not telling you to win. I’m begging you, for your own sake, to go out there and give Junior the hardest fourty-five minutes of their stupid fucking lives. This. Is not. The fucking end.”

I turn my assistant. “Exactly that, in Spanish please Ricky. I’ll see you all on the pitch.”

The second half is end to end stuff. Play constantly back and forth, just without any real shots on goal. Dangerous crosses, great build up play, fancy flicks and skills from both teams but it’s like watching 2015 Wilfried Zaha: no end product. In the 70th minute, Asprilla and Rovira replace the shattered Cardenas and Neumann who have been everywhere today and are understandably knackered.

In the 76th minute, Quintero tracks back to clear a cross and Rovira just about gets a pass to Asprilla before being clattered by Pico. The referee correctly plays the advatange as Asprilla surges  into the opposition half. He waits until exactly the right time before playing Romero who had peeled out his man out wide. He’s open to take it into the box as Rafael Perez is nowhere to be seen and I’m almost celebrating as soon as I see his trusty right foot cock back. But, the shot is possibly the worst thing I’ve ever seen. A weak shot attempt, straight at the keeper which is somewhat comically pushed away for a corner. I’ve been giving lectures to Neumann about looking to Romero and Morison for their composure and Sergio fucks that up. Speaking of which, Morison replaces him in preparation for the aerial bombardment coming Junior’s way. Save the day for us, Steve. Please

There’s only two more minutes until the whistle blows and we can take a 1 goal deficit to the fortress of Estadio Alfonso Lopez and really give this lot a game. But when we push too many forward for a corner, my heart begins to sink. We’re caught out and outnumbered as Piedrahita has space to smash a ball down the line for Yony Gonzalez to chase. The tired legs of Gomez and Cufre nip at his heels but they can’t get that vital touch. His cross is deflected off the hip of Gomez straight to an open Luis Diaz at the back post. My stomach nearly drops out of my arse as he looks destined to score from 4-5 yards max but his half volley hits the cross bar. The ball bounces up into the air and Dairin can’t get there first. Sebastian Hernandez arrives to head into an empty net with the sea of red and white shirts erupting in jubilation. I squat down and hold my head in my hands. I can’t bloody believe we’ve been caught out this late on. We could have worked with a respectable 1-0, that’s only one goal to score and we’re right back in it. I’m angry, I’m upset. I’m heartbroken.

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The last three or four minutes we go all out to try and get would be a crucial away goal but the game ends 2-0 meaning things look very bleak for the second leg. We can play the best football of our lives in a few days time but, to paraphrase Gus Poyet; we need a fucking miracle.

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In the other tie, Deportivo Cali bested Atletico Nacional 2-1 but that away goal could be vital for Nacional to keep their hopes alive. The bookies favourites for the final tie since Day 1 was a Junior/Nacional clash and, if I was allowed, I’d put a tenner on it myself.

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To pile on top of the low feeling surrounding the club over the last couple days, Millonarios striker Gabriel Hauche is named the May Player of the Month over Cardenas and Vallecilla. Congrats to him but fuck me, we could do with a boost. Training is almost silent apart from the sounds of balls, nets and the occasional shout from myself asking for communication. I’m fighting for a lost cause but we can really do it if they just believe in themselves.

Now my eleven for the second leg has a few of changes. My philosophy is there’s nothing to lose. Hardly anyone expects us to pull this back so putting in some bench and rotation players gives the first team players a rest in case we do get through. Plus, some players could work their way into a spot in the final team if they perform well and get us through.

Aguirre is in goal today with Palacios and Torres in the middle of Gomez and Rodriguez. Rovira replaces our captain as Gabby was too tired to play a full game. Cardenas and Quintero remain with Salazar in front. Rangel and captain for the day Steve Morison are up top. Romero is ready to come off the bench with Jose Jaimes also on the bench if we need height late into the game. Neumann’s available to come on and make an impact too. I can’t muster a encouraging team talk as much as I want to but the players know how important this game is. Everybody does. Sometimes things are best left unsaid. And even though I haven’t said it, we’re get one huge task on our hands.

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In the 18th minute, Torres comes in with a great slide tackle to stop a Junior counter after a corner. Quintero reads the throw in and manages to cut it out before finding Morison. He flicks it to Rangel and makes the run for the one-two. Our number 9 puts a perfectly weighted ball into the box that catches Avila out, leaving Morison to lash it past the keeper into the far side of the goal. The crowd jumps up and begins celebrating but Steve picks up the ball and runs back to halfway line. That’s one of the two we need with over an hour of football left to play. Game on Junior. game on.

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About 10 minutes after our goal, we hit Junior quickly on the break. Our boys pass it around with urgnecy and accuracy until Rodriguez is chasing after a Rovira ball down the right with only three Junior players back. Salazar turns on the jets and sprints until he’s got a yard on his man. He let’s the ball roll across his body before finessing to his right but Viera parries with great reflexes. The ball falls for Rangel on the volley at a tight angle and while he hits across enough to avoid the near post and side netting, it flies right across the face of goal and out for a throw in on the other side.

The rest of the half is Junior being cautious with their possession, wanting to get in at half time for a regroup and they do a good job of keeping us at bay. We have really battered them as they seemed so nervy and scared to play out from the back for the first half an hour but they are growing into the game. I don’t really want to change anything but Quintero is tired and on a yellow card so Jaimes comes in for the last 45 mins. Looking around the squad, I can see smiles and genuine feelings of belief so my talk is short and sweet. These are here for the taking, a spot in the final is here for the taking. We really can do this.

It only takes five minute for that belief to come into play as some gorgeous first time passes leaves Gomez open on the right wing. He looks up before whipping a deep cross to an open Steve Morison from 6 yards out. Before you can say ‘surely that’s a goal’, he skies the volley so far over the crossbar, it lands outside the stadium grounds. Come on Steve, you’re way better than that. Just after the hour mark, Neumann comes on for Cardenas with Salazar dropping back in his place. Gabby has a word with me as he wants to come on as captain but we need an attacking input and Neumann is exactly that.

Not even two minutes have passed when Andreas already justifies his introduction as he gets the ball with a yard of space and hits a stinging shot at goal which Viera has to parry out for a corner. It’s a floating cross to the edge where Jaimes heads it towards goal but the keeper does well to block Rangel’s attempt from close range.

In the 72nd minute, I run out of patience and try something a bit unorthodox. I bring on Gabby for Rangel and play Jaimes as a striker. Romero looks at me like he’s going to slice me open and gut me as he sees Jose wanders up the pitch next to Morison but with two huge heads to aim for, we can cause more problems for them. Shortly after, Operation: Spearhead makes a grand/desperate return with Neumann and Salazar playing as the wide men providing for Jaimes and Morison.

We have not stopped launching balls into their box which are being scrambled, booted and headed clear by red and white shirts. Junior eventually take the ball into our half with a minute of normal time left and Piedrahita is on hand to collect the loose ball after a Salazar tackle. He passes it forward to Hernandez who completely mugs off Torres with a silky stepover and drag move. Palacios darts over to cover but it’s already too late. The man who scored the late goal in Barranquilla is the provider in Bucaramanga as he paces a delightful low ball across the box to Bocanegra who taps past a flailing Aguirre. The knife was already in my heart but it’s been twisted, yanked out and thrusted back in again.

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We do have a late chance with a Morison header but it rattles the woodwork in what surely would have only been a constellation goal anyway. I wince in preparation for the onslaught of boos to ring around me but instead, the whistle is greeted by applause. I shake the hand of Julio Comesana in pure shock of the reaction. But it’s crystal clear. These fans didn’t expect anything, hell they didn’t even expect us to get into the top eight. They’re just happy to be here and to have witnessed a team try their hardest to pull a shock result out of thin air. We might have lost 3-1 on aggregate but of those three goals, were they really preventable? If that fluky goal in the first leg hadn’t deflected past Delgado, would they have scored the other two goals after we were forced to push to score ourselves?

It’s hard to avoid feeling hard done by or pity ourselves in this situation but we outplayed them today. They scored with their only shot on target, they scraped through by the skin of their teeth. I complete my lap of the pitch with the players and do one more with Ricardo by my side once the players have all entered the tunnel. As we approach the dugout ourselves, Ricky leans into my ear.

“Same again next time boss?” I turn to him and smirk before wrapping my arm round his shoulder.

“No Gervais. We win it next time.”

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