Carrying On (Episode 15 – Shep: Managerial Globetrotter)

In all my years as a football fan, player and manager, I can honestly say I have never seen a goal like this.

As I take a seat about two thirds up the main stand in the Estadio Alfonso Lopez, I wipe the sleep from eyes and observe the sole groundsman prodding away at the pitch. He does his best to keep it in shape but towards the end of the Apetura, it was tearing up and looking a bit worse for wear. A couple months off and it’s done it a world of good. He lifts off his cap, wipes the sweat from his brow and looks over to me with a proud smile radiating from his face.

“Hermoso, Rodrigo! Buen trabajo!” My shout echoes around the stadium as he hold his cap to his chest and takes a dramatic bow.

“Gracias señor Shep. Er, what be the score today?” I hold two fingers up on my right hand and a solitary finger on my left, stifling a laugh at Rodrigo’s broken English sounding somewhat Shakespearean. He gives me a thumbs up before walking down the other end of the pitch. The little conversations like that are the best parts about this job. Joking on with the groundsmen, having a cup of coffee with the kit man. I feel like I’ve been welcomed into Bucaramanga as a community, as a part of the family. Right now, I can’t imagine a time where I want to leave this club but if I keep doing this job as I have been, I can only go so far with them.

Anwways, that’s all hypothetical at the moment. All that matters right now is getting our Clasura campaign off to a good start with a win over Petrolera. I had a bit of a team sheet selection headache as I wanted to feel our strongest possible side to give us the best chance of taking three points but we have another game midweek. If I picked all the starters today, I’d have to pick a full second string team for the Rionegros game, starting a vicious cycle of poorly organised rotation. We have ten games in the next 35 days which is a relentless schedule but after that, we only have nine in the next 91. If we grit our teeth and work our hardest until this time next month, we’ll be plain sailing.

With that in mind, I pick a mixture of starters and bench players. Ramos starts in goal with a back four of Vallecilla, Gonzalez, Torres and Harold Gomez attempting to stop Nelson from being called into action too often. Gabby is captaining the side behind Rovira and Cardenas with Neumann supporting Morison and Romero. I can’t stress how much I’d love to start with a win in front of the home fans and it’s clear that the lads are riled up and raring to go. It’s raining again today, obviously. I’ve been sold a dream with that ‘just 7 days of rain all year’ bullshit. But, my motto is already ringing in my ears. The rain only strengthens the walls of this fortress. Ready yourselves, men. This is just the first grueling battle of a lengthy war.

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What a bloody anti-climax. You’d think that with it being first game of the season, Santander derby and all that jazz, this game would race out the blocks. It’s almost the complete opposite. We are slightly more dominant than Petrolera but there’s no real chances in the first half apart from a wayward Cardenas header about 20 minutes in. Right as the ref checks his watch to check if he can signal the end of the half, Neumann works like a little pitbull to nip away at the ball and win possession. It’s high up the pitch with seven Petrolera’s bodies the wrong side of the ball and he plays Morison a lovely reverse ball to leave him 1-on-1 with the keeper. Steve takes it into the box and hits a shot across his body with his left but Jerez does brilliantly to get a strong right hand to it. It falls for Romero but he has to rush it and skews his half volley a yard over the bar. It was a difficult one to keep down as it had a bit of pace on it so I don’t blame him for missing it.

Things don’t exactly pick up in the second half. Both teams are trying a more direct style with balls over the top but it’s not working for either. Just as we pass the hour mark, Romero is subbed off with Neumann taking his place up front and Salazar coming on as the number 10. That change doesn’t make any impact so 10 minutes later, I sub on Quintero and Rangel for Gomez and Neumann and ask the team to push harder for a goal.

In the 77th minute, there’s finally a bit of action as Harold tussles with Rivera and comes out on top with the ball. He drills it into the feet of Rangel who cushions it back for Rovira before starting his run down the right. Rovira opts for a different pass as he chips a ball over for the run of Salazar. He has a job and a half to do but he times his jump perfectly to connect with a header that loops over the keeper, hits the underside of the crossbar and bounce over the line before spinning back into play. The goal is instantly awarded and there’s some complaints from the away dugout but everybody could see that was over. Think Lampard vs Germany over except this goal is given. The debate will be was it luck or skill. Who knows and who cares?

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We sit deep and hold the ball in the corner for the remaining minutes and hold out for a 1-0 win. It’s not been the best game to watch but we powered though, slowly broke them down and kick-start the Clasura with our first three points. I can’t complain.

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The following day, one of the most unexpected transfers in recent memories is dominating the headlines as Sergio Ramos ends his thirteen year stay at Real Madrid and joins Chelsea for £59’100’000. Not only is that a lot of money for a centre back who’ll be 33 next year but it’s also a transfer that Ramos didn’t need to make. He hasn’t had doubters questioning whether he could hold his own in the Premier League like some players have. He could have happily spent another few years there, retire a legend and become director of football or something. I understand Chelsea will probably be paying him upwards of £350’000 – £400’000 a week but did he really need to cash in on one last paycheck? Either way, I’m sure Chelsea fans won’t be complaining as it’s a brilliant signing so props to Sarri for getting that deal done.

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Now our first away game of the Clasura is against Rionegros Aguilas. We beat them 3-1 in the Apetura at the Estadio Alfonso Lopez and I want a similar result today. I would take three points regardless of scoreline, especially away from home but getting a few goals on the board early doors would be a nice bonus.

Aguirre is in goal and while the centre backs keep their places, Cufre and Rodriguez come into the team with the latter lining up against his parent club. Quintero and Salazar, who was Man of the Match last time out, return to the midfield. Rolls Royce are the driving force up top for the first time this side of the summer. There’s a warm orange sunset peering over the far stand opposite the dugout as the players walk out out the tunnel. It’s a picturesque backdrop for the Estadio Alberto Grisales and hopefully, some of the beauty from the surroundings will transfer onto the pitch in our favour. Come on, Los Leopardos.

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It takes a quarter of an hour for the game to really get started with the first chance comes after a drop kick from the Aguilas keeper is headed back into their half by Gabby in the 17th minute. Romero acrobatically flicks a pass with his instep to Rangel. The Junior loanee almost shoves a ball over his man with the outside of his boot for Salazar to connect sweetly with a volley but it can only wrap round the post into the side netting. It would have been a cracker if he’d found the top left.

In the 32nd minute, a snapshot from Rangel is well saved by Valencia but Viafara is pressured by Romero. Sergio keeps right on him and the wing back’s attempted clearance bounces around and settles kindly for our striker to put a low cross in for his partner up front. Rangel arrives to toe punt goalwards but the keeper always had it covered. About five minutes later, another Valencia kick is won by a Bucaramanga player but Torres’ header is straight to a red shirt. A few passes are completed before their left winger named Hinestroza plays a dreadful pass directly to Rangel’s feet. He’s even surprised by how bad it is as he didn’t have time to prepare and his touch is a bit heavy. He makes up for it by sliding in and weighting a pass for Salazar who bears down on goal before slicing a shot down to the keepers left to give us the lead. It looks like he was trying to find the far corner and scuffed it but I’m sure Salazar won’t admit that.

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At half-time, I make one change with Jose Jaimes coming on for Cardenas. Sherman has been fine but he keeps struggling to win aerial battles over a physically imposing Rionegros midfield whereas Jaimes will struggle to lose them. Otherwise, I ask the team to keep doing what they’re doing as I don’t even think our opponents have had a shot yet. Directly from kick-off, our front three exchange passes fluently. Salazar sends Mosquera with a quick body feint and takes a shot but it’s too central for Valencia who easily catches.

In the 67th minute, I bring off Salazar and Gabby Gomez for Mojica and Neumann after we win a corner. Both of them are quite attacking minded so I tell Quintero and Jaimes to sit back and allow the other four to do any attacking work. The corner is whipped in and met with a lethal header from Quintero but it clips the crossbar before spinning over into the stand behind the goal. It takes anther 15 minutes before we’re attacking again with Mojica bringing down a pacey ping from Jaimes. He sprints straight at the Rionegras defence, pulling out a couple stepovers to lose the first man and chopping a pass with his heel to confuse the second. Rangel taps the ball into the run of Neumann who smashes it low and hard first time but Valencia gets across to push it out for a corner which is a poor one.

There’s one last chance in the first minute of three added on with the defenders ball watching allowing Cufre time a run in behind which Rangel spot. Cufre just beats the keeper to the ball but Valencia manages to save with his trailing arm and seemingly trap the ball between between his wrist and his hip before getting a proper hold of the ball. The game finishes shortly after with the same scoreline and goalscorer as our last. Rangel was the standout player for me today and he’s rightly named Man of the Match. A complete striker’s performance from him, bar a goal of his own. Aguirre only faced one shot all game I can’t even remember it so I would say that domination is an understatement.

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There’s an interesting voicemail on my office phone the next morning from Süper Lig outfit Yeni Malatyaspor. They informally offer £700’000 for James Aguirre which is about £200’000 more than he’s worth according to Ricky. I really toss and turn about whether to take the money and look at signing a younger (and taller) keeper this window but I get back in touch to decline. James is settled here, he’s just signed a deal with the idea of being a first team keeper next season. It would only cause problems if I accepted the offer, regardless of whether he wanted the move.

Jaguares away from home is the next match in our hectic month of August. Last time we played these, it was one of the most boring games of my life in which we won 1-0 thanks to a Romero scrappy goal late on. I’d like a more convincing performance this time round.

Ramos is back in net with Palacios starting next to today’s captain Marlon Torres. Marlon is the future of this club and a captain in the making so we might as well start now and test out his leadership abilities. His namesake Jeferson Torres also starts with the aim of impressing me enough to get his name in the teamsheet more often. Nunez gets his first showing in the Clasura as a striker next to Steve with our only goal scorer Salazar behind them. I want us to start with an attacking mindset in hopes of getting a goal in the first 15-20 minutes. That would allow us to get back playing the counter attacking football we loved so much last year and give us plenty of chances to score on the break.

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12 minutes in, Cufre is making one of his signature runs down the touchline but Jaguares close him down well. He’s forced to lay it back to Jeferson Torres who puts a great cross in for Morison to latch onto but his glancing header skims the far post. We’re talking centimetres away from a world class header. We’re obviously not disheartened as we’re at them again only ten minutes later. Jeferson spreads a pass out to Harold and works the ball into the middle with the help of Quintero and Nunez. The former plays a filthy ‘Thierry Henry’ no look pass through for Salazar to chase at the back post. He hits it hard across the keeper first time and while he’s beat, the crossbar denies him his third goal in as many games. Quintero slides in for the rebound but Elvis Gonzalez clears the danger with a header out of the box.

Or so he thought. Nunez is there to nod it forward for Steve Morison who’s positioned on the edge of the box. Now, the great thing about goals in football, is that there’s such a variety of goals to be appreciated. Headers, low drives, volleys, long shots. In all my years as a football fan, player and manager, I can honestly say I have never seen a goal like this. Steve calmly takes a step back, tracking the ball with his eyes the entire way, and hits it. While the ball is about shin height, he caresses it with his right foot and curls the ball so heavily, I thought he’d fucked it at first glance. But the arc this ball gets brings it back inside the post perfectly to hit the back of the net. Absolutely sublime technique from the 6’2 Welshman. Who would have thought it?

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Jaguares do come right back at us only minutes later as they win a corner after Palacios clears a cross. It’s a fast ball to Córdoba who wiggles away from Salazar to nod a good header towards the far corner but Ramos is equal to it and clutches it firmly away from the goal. The final opportunity of the half comes in the 41st minute when Morison is played in behind by Cardenas and lets it run through his legs to keep the balls momentum. He curves his run back into the middle, holding Roa at arms length but he drags his shot a yard wide of the far post. 1-0 at half-time isn’t exactly bad but we can easily put a few past these. I bring on Gabby for Quintero who really needs a rest.

15 minutes into the second half, I make another change with Andreas replacing Salazar and in the 71st minute, I bring on Vallecilla for Cufre. The second half has been tame in chances but far from it in terms of tackles. While none of our lot have been carded, three of our opponents back four have been cautioned by the referee when Vallecilla takes to the field.

The second half, apart from a few meaty challenges, remains largely uneventful with the game ending in our third consecutive 1-0 victory. I’m happy to be winning obviously but what’s happened to the free-scoring side I had the other side of the summer? We limited Jaguares to just 2 shots all game and we are yet to concede in any of our three games this season. Are we now a defensive team? Am I going to branded as the Liga Aguila’s answer to Tony Pulis?

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So three games, three goals, three great wins. Life in Colombia couldn’t really be going much smoother than it is right now. That’s why when I receive a phone call from the Hungarian FA ring me to query if I’d be open to an interview, I don’t have the same indecisiveness as I did back in April. The Wales offer was a big deal for me but it was too soon. It’s still too soon. I’m flattered that I’m being considered for huge roles like this but I’m not even a year into my role at Bucaramanga. They are entitled to my undivided attention as this team can really achieve something. They are still my main focus and remain so until there’s a piece of silverware in the Bucaramanga trophy cabinet that I can point to and say “that’s my trophy.”

So a message to all international football associations: leave me be.

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