2018 Clasura Final (Episode 25 – Shep: Managerial Globetrotter)

We need to win the title now or else I look like a proper cunt. Even more than I usually do.

“Everyone, settle down! Into the middle please.” Any stragglers that were outside of my field of view walk over and squeeze into gaps on the bench or sit on the ground in front of them.

“This is the biggest game of my career. Both playing and managing. It’s most likely the biggest game of your careers too. Regardless of how big it is for me or you, it is the biggest game in the world for Bucaramanga. And the game in a few days time will be even bigger. These next two games are for them.

“So the team for today, you already know it but we’re going over it so everybody knows their jobs. Nelson’s in goal, Valle and Cufre are the wide defenders. Feel free to get forward as long as you work hard to get back. Gonzalez, you’re next to Marlon who’s captain today. That’s because Gabby wanted to stay at home and rest for the home leg. If it was up to me, he’d be stood right next to me but Jeferson, you’re filling his boots today. I know you can do his job just as well.”

I can tell the lads feel a bit nervous without their captain in the changing room. While it’s still a strong side, I’ve went for any players who are close to 100% fit so we can have who we need to do the business at home. Even I’m a little nervous without Gabby next to me but if we can get a result here which allows Gabby to come back into the side and captain us to the title in the Alfonso Lopez, it would be amazing.

“Cardenas and Quinny, you’re the two in the middle of Jeferson and Mojica.” I lock eyes with the attacking midfielder. ” You’re on fire right now. Keep it up.” My thumbs up force him into a smile.

“Steve, Andreas. You’ve both been vital in getting us this far. As much as everybody in this room but we need the goals from you both today. You two could easily win this title and be a cult hero around Bucaramanga for years.

“Tolima are playing a defensive 4-3-3. Now that tells you everything about their tactics today. Stop us from scoring and win the tie on away goals. That’s not how we play and position for position, we can outplay them.”

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Tolima actually have a pretty solid team with a few dangerous players in their side. Montero, their goalkeeper, is the man I’m eyeing up as a potential replacement for Aguirre and Delgado come January. But they don’t need to know that.

“180 minutes people. That’s how far away we are from immortality.” That sentence seems to hang around in the air until Ricky starts off a chant of our infamous nickname.

“Los Leopardos! Los Leopardos!” Over and over until everybody is chanting together, bouncing with every other syllable. I’m ready to win, they’re ready to win. So let’s go win the title eh?

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Eight minutes in, a Tolima move is stopped by Gonzalez and the ball is worked into their half quickly. Neumann plays a ball through for Mojica who’s actually level with him. Torijano has at least a five yard advantage but Mojica flicks on the burners to catch up and touch it away from him. He squares across for Morison who gets his shot off but Montero saves with his foot brilliantly. Cardenas picks up the loose ball and looks to put it back into the mixer but the ref blows for a Tolima free kick. There’s a lot of confusion, even from the Tolima players but it looks like he’s blown for Morison accidentally tripping Montero when clambering back to his feet. A joke of a referee is the last thing we need at this stage.

In the 20th minute, Mojica is released down the touchline but he cuts his run shot by passing inside to Morison. He uses a nice fake shot to create space before playing a powerful ball to Cardenas. The first shot is blocked but the second attempt, an ambitious overhead kick, is well held by Montero. Just over ten minutes later, a gorgeous ball from Jeferson Torres find Neumann who is very nearly tripped by Tarijano but the ref waves play on. Neumann volleys a cross to Mojica who has a header going towards the top left but Morison can’t duck in time and it bounces off his head out for a goal kick.

In the 38th minute, our best move of the game so far revolves around Neumann. A high pass from Jeferson is nodded down to Quintero by the German. The ball is sent straight back and Andreas stretches to direct it away from the defender and to Morison. His lofted ball over is controlled beautifully by Neumman as he loses Munoz in the process but he absolutely scuffs his shot high and wide from 10 yards max. He did everything right but the finish in what would have been a goal of the season contender.

The first half comes to an end with us completely in control. The full time whistle would have been music to Tolima’s ears as we’ve had nine shots to their none. We’re also making more tackles and fouls but that’s a part of our game plan. Our aggressive approach, away from home might I add, has proved effective so far but Quintero was cautioned early on as a consequence. Nothing but happy faces in our changing rooms so much more of the same is the message for the second half.

The first action in the second half comes in the 61st minute when Mojica gets himself booked for a late challenge. Both men in the referees’ book are took off with Asprilla and Rovira replacing them. From the resulting free kick, an enticing ball is whipped in for Escobar who tests Ramos with an unmarked header which he parries away acrobatically. Our keeper is up and screaming at his team-mates and it’s understandable. I would have been fuming too if they scored with their first chance all game.

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Another ten minutes pass before either team threatens again as a Montero kick is won by Marlon Torres who heads it to Cufre. He pulls out a cheeky rabona pass to Morison who doesn’t want to be outdone as he plays a backheel to Rovira. He hits it first time with great technique but Montero does well to save with his right. We really need the away goal to take back to Bucaramanga so I bring on Nunez for Neumann in an attempt to push for it.

A minute before the end of normal time, Cufre is picked out by Rovira nicely and his early cross lands directly on Morison’s head but Montero gets down to deny us a late winner. Three minutes of added time is shown and in the final minute of the three, the final chance of the game comes around. Rovira is again the man making things happen as he feeds the wingback on the opposite side in Vallecilla. He turns back onto his left and hits a pacey cross towards Morison at the back post. Payares flings his chest in the way, deflecting the ball down into Asprilla but he keeps the move alive by deftly flicking the ball on with his boot as it’s waist height. Julian Quinones tugs on his arm to slow him down but no foul is given. He smacks a ball back as he’s on the line which bounces off Quinones’ knee into Montero’s calf before trickling over the goal-line. I immediately start jumping up in celebration, thinking we’ve got the away goal we needed but the linesman judges that the ball was out play.

I argue and argue with the officials, screaming ‘las gafas, las gafas’ but to no avail. Watching the replay back in the changing room, Asprilla was inches out of play so the embarrassment of admitting you were wrong on live TV comes in my interview. It doesn’t take away from the fact that we really should have got a goal here today but the silver lining is that they didn’t score.

I can’t shake the feeling that the golden chance Andreas Neumann both orchestrated and destroyed in the first half will come back to bite us.

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Quintero’s yellow card actually means he will be unavailable for the final at the Alfonso Lopez, something I was unaware of until after the game. It’s frustrating as he would have definitely got some game time, either off the bench or in the starting eleven.

You may remember last week when I had a dig at Rionegro in the press conference between the two legs and we managed to hold them to a draw. I’ve decided to have another slagging off session revolving around the draw and how Tolima couldn’t handle us despite the scoreline. We need to win the title now or else I look like a proper cunt. Even more than I usually do.

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The day before the big game, Gabby brings Luis Delgado into my office asking that he start in the final game. I assure them both that he was already starting regardless of the scoreline a few days earlier. Gabby then proceeds to do something I never thought he’d do. He hands Luis his captains armband.

“Gabby, are sure about this? You might not get a chance to captain a title winning side again” I stammer nervously.

“I am sure” he says while nodding. “I may have a second chance but Luis, this is his last. He should be captain and lift the trophy.” As Luis and Gabby embrace in a man-hug, I almost start welling up. Not only does he sit out the first leg so he can give his all tomorrow but he wants Luis to have the best final memory possible. Luis leaves the room, still in shock while me and Gabby plan our title win tomorrow. What a bloody man.

I barely get any sleep but before I have time to think, I’m in the changing room just minutes away from kick off. Delgado is obviously in goal with the aim of lifting the trophy in his last ever game. Palacios and Torres are the partnership at the back with Rodriguez and Gomez the wing backs. Gabby commands the team from holding midfield with Rovira and Cardenas in front of him. Salazar plays behind what will be the final rendition of Rolls Royce. If Rangel was to sign off his time with us with a goal in the final, it would be a fairy-tale story. If Salazar or Rovira where to chip in, even Mojica coming off the bench, it would be appreciated but a Rangel goal would be a special one.

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In a situation like this, on a big occasion like this, sometimes you can overdo things. A player can run himself into the ground and end up being a liability. A manager can try too hard to motivate his team and build so much tension before a game that can bite him in the arse. So that’s why I keep my team talk short and sweet.

“Go out there and make me fucking proud.”

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Five minutes in, Tolima win a corner which is played short to Orozco. He lets it roll through his legs to trick the pressing Cardenas and whips a cross into Carrascal who puts a diving header towards the top left but Rodriguez is there to save our bacon and clear off the line. He did something very similar against Rionegro last week so props to him.

The game settles into a rhythm of ‘you attack, we attack’ for the next twenty minutes but neither team really looks like scoring. That is until the 27th minute when Rodriguez is bombing forward and strokes a pass inside to Salazar. He slots Rovira in on goal and I’m already off my seat expecting a shot but he decides to try and dink a cross to the back post for Rangel. The cross takes a deflection off Orozco which makes it harder for Montero to deal with. He swipes thee ball away from Rangel with his hand but only as far as Salazar who is free to cushion a header over the ducking Rangel and into an empty net, sparking ecstasy around the stadium and all of Bucaramanga. It’s far from the prettiest goal but at this point, we don’t care about beauty. All that matters is that we’re 1-0 and have a good footing to go on and win this game.

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The rest of the first half is pretty subdued apart from a few late crosses from Tolima which are well dealt with by Torres and Delgado. Alas, we come in at the break up by a goal with the city of Bucaramanga bouncing. Our only shot on the first half has went in which must be another sprinkling of the luck we were deprived off for so long leading up to the knockouts. There’s just one change at half-time with Mojica taking his spot in attacking midfield with Cardenas making way. We could really do with a second goal as if Tolima equalise, we will have to outscore them.

In the 53rd minute, a Salazar cross is headed clear to Catano and with Fabio out of position trying to support the attack, he can play Marco Perez freely down the wing. Palacios is busting his gut to try and cover for him but Perez’s cross floats to the back post where an unchallenged Orozco can aim a header into the top left and give them that dreaded away goal. It’s poor defending from us as we were exposed on the counter and Delgado tried to use every millimetre of his 6’2 frame to tip it away but it was upper, upper echelons. The realisation that we now need an unanswered goal to be crowned champions settles in around a now quiet Estadio Alfonso Lopez.

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Only three minutes after the restart, Rovira and Mojica use good close dribbling to fashion a chance with Romero teeing Rangel from twenty yards out. He hits a fierce strike through a defenders legs but Montero falls to his right and pushes it away. Tolima sure themselves up again until the 59th minute when a Mojica ball through for Gomez cuts them open. He places a cross to the back post where Rangel outjumps Arboleda to put a header back across goal but it kisses the top of the crossbar. We keep pushing like this and something has to give.

With twenty minutes left, I bring on Neumann and Morison for Salazar in Romero in a last dice roll to try and find the goal we desperately need. Only two minutes pass before both are involved for the first time. A Tolima throw in is cut out by Rangel and Morison passes it straight back to him. Rangel hits a pass with too much speed for Rovira to control so he jumps over to let it find Neumann a few yards behind him. The first time curling ball for the overlapping Gomez is a beaut who runs it to the touchline before chipping a high ball over the helpless keeper. It’s almost certain but I hold back from celebrations until I see Rangel beat Arboleda in the air again and thump a header home from three yards out. As big a moment as it is for the club, the pure elation on Rangel’s face as he sprints towards me to celebrate is overwhelming. It’s in our hands now.

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Tolima really start to push for the goal but don’t get a breakthrough until the 84th minute. Olave smacks a clearance all the way up to Ramirez who wins the header and leaves Orozco with tons of space to attack. Palacios is tracking him back and gets a crucial touch on the cross that takes it just over the free head of Marco Perez. Gabby clears it away but the move stays alive. A series of passes lead to Robayo on the left about to whip in a cross but Neumann comes in with a crunching slide tackle to stop him. Inject that shit into my fucking veins, five more minutes from glory.

A few minutes later, the 88th minute to be precise, Orozco receives the ball on the touch line. Gomez is doing superb to keep him at bay as the winger tries to get a yard of space so he can whip in a cross. He works about half a yard before curling a perfect ball for Ramirez at the front post to glance a header into the far bottom corner. I squat down and hold my head in my hands. Not like this. Surely, after everything we’ve been through, we can’t fall at the final hurdle like this. Operation Spearhead, you’ve been a mixed bag but you have five minutes max to make an impact. To save the day.

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In all fairness to my players, their heads don’t drop. They still believe that they can do the impossible. As the clock ticks over into the 91st minute, I think on all the rebuilding that will have to be done. Fabio plays a long ball forward and Olave slices his clearance but it still goes as far as the centre circle.

All the time we wasted, the confidence we’ve spent the last couple of weeks finding. All to waste. Neumann manages to get there first and head back over to Rangel who in turn heads it out to Mojica.

The despair around here is going to be toxic. How am I going to enjoy Christmas knowing we fucked up our best chance of winning the league? Harrison volleys a pass back to Neumann who coolly puts it onto his right with the instep of his left. Hang on a second, are we on an attack?

We bloody are. Neumann plays it to into the feet of Gabby who caresses it to Rangel inside the D and peels away to make the run. Rangel clips the return ball through the gap and like the other 28’000 in attendance, I catch my breath. The next two seconds feel like an absolute eternity as Gabby swings back his right leg. A pin drop could be heard before his boot connects with the ball and… SCORES! Scenes erupt from every angle of the Estadio Lopez while the ball bounces back out of it’s designated home in the top left corner. I pick up Ricky and run him out of my technical area in a suffocating bear hug. It had to be the captain, it had to be dramatic, it had to be at the very death.

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But most importantly? It had to be Atletico Bucaramanga.

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Watching Delgado trail his squad up to the podium, pick up the trophy and hoist it high into the air is my favourite moment so far as a manager. Would it be more fitting if Gabby, the man elevated to legendary status not too long ago, was the man who gets the first raise of the trophy? Most likely. But that gesture is a representation of everything I admire about our captain. He’s a quality player, he’s a classy professional. And we’re lucky to have him.

Bucaramanga will be alive and kicking tonight with their first ever Primera A title and while I’ll celebrate just as much as any other fan, my mind is already on the future. The Copa Libertadores is the next step in my journey and this has given me that opportunity. We have another couple months before things get back up and running again which give us a month to relax, enjoy Christmas and of course, celebrate being champions of bloody Colombia.

Ladies and gentlemen, your Colombian title winning side of 2018: Atletico Bucaramanga.

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