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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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2018 Clasura Semi-Finals (Episode 24 – Shep: Managerial Globetrotter)

Finally, I’ve got my Bucaramanga back.

Football is a harsh mistress. One day, you can be on top of the world after a unprecedented triumph but by the next day, you’re already deep in planning and worrying about your next game. It’s relentless, it’s unforgiving and it can chew you up and spit you out. That doesn’t mean the high of beating Junior has worn off just yet but my undivided attention has to now be on besting Rionegros Aguilas to reach the Clasura final.

Our semi-final opponents have been solid in the Clasura, finishing on the same points as ourselves but below us on goal difference. We have a 100% record against them already and if we can beat Junior and score five past them, we can certainly beat these. The priority is the away goal to take back home but a win is obtainable.

If we get through to the final, we’re going to play four games over the next two weeks so rotation is going to be key for a title push. My line-up today is mainly my starting eleven with a couple tweaks to keep the bigger players for the second leg. Nelson Ramos is in goal as our best man between the sticks. Marlon Torres is captain today with Cufre and Vallecilla either side of himself and Gonzalez. Rovira sits in front of them with Cardenas and Quintero playing behind Mojica. Neumann and Rangel, who is still yet to score a goal in the Clasura, are up front.

I’m not expecting a victory and I’m not expecting us to kill the tie off by the end of the ninety. I am expecting however a hard-working performance that shows our last couple results were no fluke.

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Seven minutes after kick-off, a diagonal ball is cut out by Vallecilla and we start a two touch movement up the pitch that leads to Rovira playing Rangel down the left. He cuts a pass back through Viafara to Mojica. He turns, looks up and puts a perfectly weighted ball for the run of Quintero to control and smash past Valencia for 1-0. Finally, I’ve got my Bucaramanga back.

Eleven minutes later, Cufre is took out by a great Viafara slide tackle but he gets back up and pulls out some gorgeous footwork to escape two red shirts. He proceeds to knock an equally gorgeous cross into Neumann but his looping header is tipped over the bar. The corner doesn’t come to anything but just after the half hour mark, Vallecilla is leading the counter on the right hand side. He picks out Rangel inside who spots Neumann’s run to his left and chips a ball over for Andreas to deal with. The ball is brought down exquisitely with his first touch and twatted emphatically into the top corner with his second. Take a bow son.

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In the 43rd minute, Rionegros come at us for the first time all game with Vasquez pulling out back-to-back Cruyff turns. The first one Cardenas reads but the second one nearly breaks his ankles. He does well to find Arango inside the box but Ramos pulls out a big save to his right to keep his clean sheet in tact. Half-time comes shortly after and I couldn’t have asked for a better first half. Neumann and Cardenas are starting to tire but I decide the leave them on until they ask to come off. They won’t be playing in the home leg or even on the bench as I want them to have a week worth of rest if we get through to the final.

It takes quarter of an hour for the second half to get properly underway when Mojica played in by Rovira but his shot is too central. Rangel tries to arc the rebound header over the keeper but he isn’t too troubled and can catch it while backtracking. In the 67th minute, Camilo Perez is too relaxed in possession and Rangel nips in to steal. His lofted ball lands kindly for Neumann who uses a big touch to sprint away from the last man before squaring across goal for Mojica to drill into the bottom left. At 3-0, it’s safe to assume this game is dead in the water. The assist from Neumann was his last touch of the game as he, Cardenas and Cufre may way for Romero, Jeferson Torres and Harold Gomez. Vallecilla switches to his more familiar left back position.

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In the 84th minute, Rovira and Vallecilla are linking up nicely with the former stopping the chorus of ironic cheers from the away end by passing it to Quintero on the edge of the box. He tries his luck with a curling low effort but Valencia gets down to parry it away from goal. We hold onto the ball and see out another amazing result away from home. A 3-0 win to take to the Alfonso Lopez is a dream scenario and the mood has completely flipped over the last couple weeks. Mojica and Neumann had blinders today with a goal and an assist each and I have to say Harrison Mojica is really staking his case for me to pursue a permanent deal. He’s been the sole bright spark during our torrid spell and has continued to prove his worth to this team today.

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CD Lugo, a second tier Spanish side are in touch the following day to offer £600’000 for Aguirre. I ask them to consider adding an extra £100’000 expecting a pause for thought but an instant agreement is made and I give Aguirre a ring to let him know the news. We haven’t really spoke much since I hung him out to dry for the Pasto goal but he sounds happy that a big chance is coming his way. Personal terms are to be discussed of course but things are looking positive for him.

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Now in the press conference, I make a risky move by taking a big dig at Rionegro ahead of the reverse leg. Something along the lines of mentally frail and unable to win big games. A little bit of fire into the mix before they visit won’t hurt.

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I have to apologise straight away as I forgot to take a note of the ties again. Being a manager is time-consuming and after you pour all your energy into something every day, you can forget a lot of things.

Deportes Tolima were held to a 1-1 draw at home but managed to win 2-0 in the away leg, advancing to the final with the aggregate scoreline 3-1. Unless we lose by three goals or more, we will play them in the final. We really can win this.

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Aguirre is in goal despite our recent bust up and his potential transfer away. He knows that’s a big game for him with a Lugo scout reported to be in attendance so a clean sheet and/or a good game could help push this transfer through. Rodriguez and Gomez are the wide defenders today with Palacios and Quinones at centre back. I’m being a bit of a home wrecker by starting Fabio against his parent club but he’s our player for now and he’s never let me down before. Gabby takes his place in holding midfield while Jaimes and Rovira partner each other in the middle for the first ever time with Salazar in front of them. Rolls Royce are up front and in a game which has little pressure for us to score goals, I really hope Rangel can get a goal here and before his loan finishes. Like Rodriguez, he’s someone who has been an important part of our side this season, even without many goals.

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In the 6th minute, a Gabby header back into the box is headed out by Hinestroza. Quinones gets there first to head it back to Gabby. He chips a pass over a couple Rionegro players to Salazar who hits a low driven shot from 25 yards just wide of the post. Just as I’m thinking it’s another game which is going to go our way, Romero is dispossessed in the 10th minute. Hinestroza drills it forward to Velaquez who uses a quick turn and through ball to Vasquez to give the attack moving. Arango is played in and Aguirre closes the angle well but the winger smashes the ball through his legs to open the scoring. Game on.

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Over the next 20-25 minutes, the game revolves around set pieces. Free kicks, throw-ins and corners are the main source of attacking presence for both sides but the first one that really threatens is a Bucaramanga corner in the 35th. It’s cleared by Munoz as far as Quinones. The centre back volleys a pass back to Gabby who puts a second and better cross into the box but Romero’s header lands on the roof of the net.

A few minutes pass before Rionegro win a corner of their own which Arango takes. It’s a fast, low corner that Toloza has to run away from goal to reach but he does reach it with a bizarre spinning kick. The ball manages to skim through the bodies but Rodriguez is on hand to boot the ball off the line and deny his parent club a real chance to get back into this tie. Good man, Fabio.

Jaimes has a late chance to bring us level but he gets his feet tangled and the keeper claims it easily before the whistle for half time is blown. We need the time to regroup and motivate the boys as it’s been a decent half apart from the goal. We’ve limited them to only two shots, though one went in and the other was cleared off the line. Jeferson Torres and Morison will replace Rovira and Rangel in the second half to see if they can bring something to the game. We’re only one half away from the final and what a moment it will if we can put this game to bed.

Set pieces continue to dominate throughout the first twenty minutes of the second half and in the 64th minute, one finally leads to a goal. A Bucaramanga corner is whipped to the front post where Morison rises like a salmon to power a header into Munoz’s face and over the line for 1-1. I finally allow myself to begin silently planning for our final showdown with Deportes Tolima as Cufre for Gomez is my final change.

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The rest of the game can be split up into two episodes. The first being the fifteen minutes between our goal and the 80th minute which consisted of Rionegro midfielders chancing their arm from long range and rarely testing Aguirre. I’d think this is the part in which our opposition still had some belief they could score four goals and take the tie.

The second part is from the 80th until the final whistle. We sit very deep and watch as they drop, head-by-head, and stop caring about the accuracy of their passes or the intensity of their pressing. It is depressing to watch? Yes. Do I want to extend a shoulder to cry on considering I’ve just managed my team into their second ever Primera A final? Not a fucking chance.

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Bucaramanga’s first title is just 180 minutes of football away. My first piece of silverware as a manager is there for the taking. Deportes Tolima are the team in the way and I’ll be damned if they stop me, I mean us, from writing our name into the history books.

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2018 Clasura Quarter-Finals (Episode 23 – Shep: Managerial Globetrotter)

Can this be the turning point for Bucaramanga’s future, my own future? I fucking hope so.

Without a win in 9 games, gloom is a permanent fixture around Bucaramanga. The vibrant rays of enthralling, attacking football have been cut out by the thick grey clouds in which managers like Mark Hughes ride all the way to the bank. Failure and humiliation against the team that scraped past us in the Apetura semis is assumed to be unavoidable. Even the jolly optimists like Rodrigo, the groundsman, appear to be have drained by the last three month. Me and him both.

But what this draw presents us with is a chance to prove everybody wrong. On the biggest stage against the biggest odds. All the doubters and the haters, all the nay-sayers, the press, the pundits. Even our own fans. Not a single soul is expecting us to pull off a miracle and while I’m not predicting one myself, our destiny is in our hands. The ball is in our court and if any team was going to prevent the inevitable, it will be Atletico Bucaramanga. It will be Los Leopardos.

The eleven to begin the process of exacting revenge against our rivals is what most would consider our strongest side. Ramos in goal, Cufre and Gomez as wing backs. Quinones is on the bench but he will start at home depending on the score line here. He’s been sparsely used since I took over, only making a handful of appearances but with our current defence failing to impress, he may find his name prop up in conversation more now. Gabby Gomez and his leadership is needed more than ever in the middle with Cardenas and Quintero either side of him. Mojica gets yet another start today behind Morison and Romero as anything remotely creative seems to be going through him.

As we walk out to a dark Sunday night in Barranquilla, I have a quick chat with the Junior staff before taking up my place in the technical zone. The moment I stand still and watch my players wrap up their handshakes, I feel somebody tap my on the head. I turn around but nobody is within reaching distance to touch me. As I swing myself back round, another three little taps on my head. An evil grin spreads across my face. Rain. Time and time again I’ve spoke about rain, how it seems to have special powers on us. When I think back, I can’t remember a time in which I’ve been dripping wet during one of my many outbursts since September. It’s a sign from the footballing gods that our luck is about to turn.

Gabby catches my eye as huge droplets begin hammering down onto the surface of his outstretched palms and gives me a subtle nod. I was close to admitting defeat only a minute ago but that’s before the rain came. The rain that will stop our drought.

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Five minutes. Five minutes is all it takes for faith to be restored. Cardenas has back to goal but turns away from James Sanchez and gives it to Morison. He takes a poor first touch but makes up for it by threading a pass into Cufre but the left back’s shot is blocked Piedrahita. Braian holds him off and keeps the move alive with a quick change of pace to the byline before floating a superb ball to the back past where Mojica rises to head home. I jump up and release a fist pump I’ve been storing for almost half a year, nearly slipping on the wet grass as I touch back down. Can this be the turning point for Bucaramanga’s future, my own future? I fucking hope so.

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We’re really in gear now. Junior just can’t keep up with us! In the 15th minute, Gonzalez and Sambueza collide in a 50/50 but neither wins the ball as it spins away to Quintero. He passes it up to Romero who sees Cardenas’ run and thinks on his feet. He drags the ball with his left and gracefully scoops it over Avila with his right to leave Sherman 1-on-1 with Viera. His first touch is quite heavy but Viera decides to stay on his line. He puts it onto his left, opens his body up for the finesse but curls it an inch wide of the post. This has been the perfect first quarter of an hour so let’s keep this up.

Even better than keeping it up, we bloody raise it a level instantly. The goal kick is won by Cufre and his commanding header finds Morison. Some dodgy control with his knee invites defenders in but he rolls it out Romero. Sanchez gets pulled out of their back line and misses his interception so when a couple fancy touches from Romero sell Avila, there’s a lot of space to run into. Avila tries to cover his mistake by getting his body between the ball and the goal but nobody is tracking the arriving Gomez. Harold chips a ball in and Morison loops a header over Viera for our second. I spin to face Ricky who has the same expression of disbelief as he runs towards me with his arms spread apart. What the fuck is happening?

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In my numerous visits to the Metropilitano Roberto Melendez, I have to say the atmosphere is outstanding. 45’000 fans, constant chants and drums. But today, apart from a section dedicated to the thousand or so away fans, it is virtually silent. The next time the noise really rises is in the 31st minute when a unified groan follows James Sanchez being dispossessed by Cardenas in the centre circle with eight of their players the wrong side of the ball. Morison picks it up and gives it back to him with Sherman putting a measured pall through for Romero. He checks the linesman to his right over his shoulder as rightful appeals for offside are shown but his flag stays down. Romero makes the most of the official’s poor decision and hits a thunderbolt of a travela into the far top corner before simply bowing in celebration. Now I’m not complaining but where’s this bloody performance been hiding?

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I half expect the ref’s whistle to be the the trigger that snaps me awake but it doesn’t. We really are 3-0 up away against Junior. At half time. While we’re been the much better side and all three of our goals were well worked, we’ve only had three shots on target. Viera doesn’t deserve any stick as there wasn’t much he could do about any of them, they were all took brilliantly. This is the day that all of our overdue luck has decided to arrive.

That being said, Junior have seriously been dreadful. Unorganised defending, careless passing and no drive or lethal intent. Basically, if both teams keep playing like they are, it could be a cricket score. More of the same please.

A few minutes into the second half, a series of unusual bounces mean Luis Diaz can be played through just right of centre but Ramos pulls out a brilliant near post save. Not today you annoying little shit. Not today.

Junior seem to have picked their game up after half time and really pry for the opening ten minutes of the half and finally get their reward in the 54th minute. Some lighting quick passing from them on the edge of our box is too much for our pressing defence to deal with. Barrera and Pico interchange a few times before the final pass back to Barrera leaves him wide open. Cardenas is still turning back after trying to intercept the pass and Gabby backs off giving the Clasura’s top goal scorer the space he needs to whip a fine curling shot into the top right. I swallow the worries and overwhelming of dread and bellow positive phrases from the sideline. Even we can’t fuck this up… right?

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Only a handful of minutes after we get play going again, Gonzalez boots a ball clear towards their box which ends up being a great pass to Romero. He plays a first time ball on the spin for Harold Gomez who barges Diaz away before squaring across goal. Quintero is there to hit it goalwards but Viera saves with his elbow. Literally anywhere but there and the game’s 4-1. We’re not made to rue over it for too long as the Cardenas corner finds Morison on the six yard line. Viera’s indecisiveness to come out and claim the cross costs him as he’s too far off his line to stop Morison’s header flying past him and into the back of the net. Piedrahita was on the post but with the momentum of the ball, he was unable to do anything except flick the ball up into the roof of the goal on it’s way. Four bloody away goals.

It seems to be back and forth stuff as in the 62nd minute, some of Junior’s lackadaisical defensive issues have clearly rubbed off on us. Teofilo Gutierrez and Hernandez knock it round Gonzalez with a simple give and go before doing the same when Torres pushes out of the line. An open pass to who else but Luis Diaz means he can sweep it past Ramos for their second. The goals we’ve conceded today have been careless but 4-2 away from home is better than the 2-0 I would have taken in an ideal world about an hour ago.

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In the 66th minute, I reluctantly make a couple changes with the idea of saving legs for what is going to be a crucial second leg. Rodriguez and Rovira are on for Gomez and Cardenas. After the subs are on the pitch, Cufre turns Jefferson Gomez inside out before putting an inviting cross to the back post but Quintero’s diving header misses the mark.

In the 79th minute, Junior have changed tactics and are constantly trying to close our men down. While it can work effectively and lead to winning the ball high up the pitch, it also leaves big gaps at the back for a playmaker to exploit. We do just that when Rovira has acres of space to find Rodriguez who flashed by me a moment earlier. A quick turn of pace puts it onto his preferred left foot and he strokes a pass into the box for Romero. He tries to sweep the ball across his body but his shot bounces off Avila’s knee onto the crossbar. The rebound is too high and has too much pace for Mojica to try and angle a header so he goes the overhead kick which also bounces off the bar before Viera grabs the ball wearily. How have we not scored a fifth?

I make my third and final sub in injury time as a time-wasting technique but the most remarkable game of football in months finishes Atletico Junior 2 – 4 Atletico Bucaramanga. Anything better than a 2-0 loss will see us through to the semi-finals but with this milestone performance today putting our confidence through the roof, I doubt we’ll be worrying about throwing the tie too much. A special mention to our wingbacks, Cufre and Gomez, who were phenomenal today and instrumental in setting us up perfectly for a party back home. Welcome back boys, welcome back.

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My monthly scout report from Gallardo happens to fall in the middle of our two ties and before official matters start, he gives me some deserved appreciation for our historic victory. After a bit of self-love, the matter of discussing potential Colombian starlets takes over. There’s nobody who really appeals to me in his files which is becoming a recurring segment of my monthly routine. If we had an extra couple million, I’d go out and hire the best youth scout in the business who’d pick world class talent out of thin air but for the moment, we have Lisandro Gallardo. He found Neumann and Guerrero is looking like a quality player so he gets the benefit of the doubt for now.

While our achievement is an amazing one, congratulations are in order for Boca Juniors who just won their seventh Copa Libertadores title. They managed to fight back from a 1-0 defeat at La Bombonera by beating Gremio 2-0 in Brazil, taking the title as 2-1 winners on aggregate. I can only hope that one day, we’ll be congratulated for the same feat.

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Training the day before our turn to play hosts to the mighty Junior is a relaxed yet tense affair. I don’t push them too hard or get them over-working but you can tell that there’s a worry we still could fuck it up. Neumann has the arrogance of youth however and asks if I can put him in the line-up. He was going to play anyways so it works well for both of us.

Something I forgot to do while being so wrapped up in my own planning is check the other scorelines in the quarter finals. By the time I get round to it, half of the semi-finalists have already been decided.

Deportes Tolima beat Pasto 2-1 at home and then followed up with a 1-0 win in the reverse leg to advance. America de Cali managed  a 2-1 victory at Estadio Palogrande and even though Once Caldas fought back with a 1-0 victory on their turf, away goals is enough to carry the Red Devils through.

Rionegros Aguila carry on the first leg tradition of 2-1 results against Atletico Huila, taking a goal advantage back to their own ground. An away goal at that. They haven’t played their second leg yet so it’ll be interesting to see if the high flying Huila can pull it back away from home. It’s even more interesting as the winner of that match-up will be our opponents in the semis should we get through.

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Delgado has virtually begged me to start and in all honesty, he deserves to. This could be his last game ever in professional football but if it’s not, he can still help us edge closer to one more title before retirement. Quinones partners Torres in centre back and both wing backs keep their places after stunning performances last week. Jeferson Torres is in for Quintero with Gabby playing slightly further forward than usual. Salazar is back in with Mojica watching from the stands and Nunez the attacking midfield choice off the bench. Morison and Neumann are up front. Jaimes and Gonzalez are the height on the bench as I predict our box to be bombarded with crosses towards the back end of this game.

A hush settles in our changing room while the muffled tunes of the Bucaramanga faithful accompanied the rhythmic thud of drums try to penetrate our safe haven.

“You all did my so proud last week. Muy, muy proud. Everybody is expecting us to win. They need three goals with a clean sheet as a minimum to go through but if any team is capable of doing that, it’s Junior.” My pause for dramatic effect allows the pounding of the drum to take main stage before I continue.

“But, if there’s any team capable of causing an upset and making sure that twenty-one hour round trip is the most pointless trip of their lives, it’s Bucaramanga.

“Ninety minutes lads. Ninety minutes away from becoming heroes. Get out there and get it done.”

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Two minutes is all it takes for us to already kill this game off. A couple of passes take the ball inside before Salazar’s body feint allows him to pass to Neumann. Some great vision from Neumann is on display as he puts a ball in behind with some back spin so it spins into Cardenas’s feet. He positions his body round so he can shoot with his stronger left and tries to find the far bottom corner. He doesn’t need to as the ball ricochets past Viera via Piedrahita’s shin to really get the Alfonso Lopez rocking. It’s a dream start but it’s not an excuse for us to be complacent.

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In the 14th minute, Cardenas shows his all round game by winning the ball in the middle of the park. A pass to Cufre is left to run beautifully by Neumann and Braian gives it to Morison. He then arches a ball round for Gabby to run onto but he slices his shot well wide. It would have been a nice moment for our captain to beyond even unreasonable doubt but his effort was very poor. Five minutes later, Junior come forward with intent as Cantillo and Diaz play a neat one-two. The first cross is blocked but they manage to squeeze a peach of a ball into the middle for Gutierrez to direct past Ramos with his head. My body briefly stiffens as the flashbacks start but I regain composure. 1-1 on the day, 5-3 on aggregate so we’re still very much comfortable.

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In the 33rd minute, a Jeferson Torres clearance is headed on to Salazar who skips over Balanta’s tackle before threading a pass in for Neumann. He sets himself to shoot but Jefferson Gomez slides in with a last ditch block to stop Viera being called into action. That admirable bit of defending is the last thing worth mentioning in the first half apart from an extra few minutes of added time due to a Junior attack that refused to die out. The half doe finally come to a close and I’m honestly over the moon with how we’ve played so far. That being said, another goal would put the game out of sight for Junior but the main thing is stop them scoring. If they score another, that puts them back into the game and it’ll be hard to keep them out again. As our defence has stood strong so far and our attacks have been swift and direct, no changes are made. We’re doing enough.

In the 58th minute, the second half gets it’s first piece of action when Jeferson Torres is doing his defensive duties on the near side. He takes the ball away from Diaz before smacking a lovely mix between a clearance and a pass to Gabby. It’s then pinged over for Salazar on the opposite side who cuts it back for Harold Gomez who cushions a shot through the legs of Avila but the keeper gets down to save. Jose Jaimes comes on with the goalscorer Cardenas making way. He gets some love from me on his way to the bench as he has been the the integral part what’s shaping up to be the upset of the year with both his attacking and defensive contributions.

I make a couple tactical changes as the game gets closer and closer to confirming our place in the semi-finals. With twenty minutes remaining, I bring out Nunez for Salazar and in the 78th minute, I switch to a 5-2-1-2 and bring on Gonzalez for Gabby. We just need to see this out comfortably now without any hiccups.

Hiccup’s appear to be a word erased from Bucaramanga’s vocabulary as the full time whistle brings on what I can only describe as the best feeling in the world, pure elation. As I finish shaking hands with Julio Comesaña, he shouts my name over the roar of ecstatic fans. He simply looks at me and shrugs in the exact same defeated manner I did all those games ago. The boos that were unavoidably present less than a month ago are a distant memory as my name is chanted passionately from every angle of the Alfonso Lopez.

I smile and shrug back. Sometimes, all you can do is shrug.

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Later that evening, the squad all pack into my apartment to watch Rionegros Aguilas hold Huila to a 2-2 draw with a few alcoholic celebrations. That result means they advance to face us in the semis while Tolima play America de Cali. We’ve beat Rionegeros on both previous occasions, 1-0 and 3-1 if we’re keeping track and looking at our potential finalists, they are both teams we can easily beat too.

With that recognition comes a wave of a long-lost feeling I thought had went extinct. Belief that we can win the bloody league.

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Capitulation (Episode 22 – Shep: Managerial Globetrotter)

“We are due a win… right, Ricky?”

“Right listen up.” I’ve taken to speaking in English more than Spanish in recent weeks as I’m able to vent and articulate my frustration clearly. “We’ve well and truly fucked up. The last couple months have been unacceptable and luckily, you all did a good enough job in games prior to that. I don’t have a clue what’s happened recently and frankly, I don’t want to waste my life thinking about it. But this game is a lifeline, an absolute gem on a silver platter!” There’s a few forced smiles and sniffles in the silence before I continue.

“Leones at home is the best game we could ask for right now. They’ve got less points then games, they’ve only just managed to score their tenth goal last week. We can romp these, this can be the turning point. I can feel it.”

I turn sideways and grab a marker pen so I can direct eyes to my taps on the whiteboard. “Nelson, you’re back in goal. Quinones, Quinny we’re seeing how you can do today. This is your chance mate, really take it and do your best for us today. Rovira, you’re in the middle and Maxi?” I look around the sea of faces and can’t spot our little Argentine playmaker. “Where’s Maxi?”

He peers out from behind the towering frame on Gonzalez, shuffling his shinpad around in his shock. “Ah right, Maxi. I want you to get behind the Leones defence. Make the runs and one of these boys in midfield will try pick you out. Everybody else, you know what I ask of you and let’s pray you all do it today. We’re due three points lads. Go and out there and get them.”

The players erupt into momentary applause for jogging out the changing room. As he goes to follow them out, I catch Ricky by his shoulder.

“We are due a win… right, Ricky?”

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The first half hour is actually pretty promising. We pass the ball well, look to make the right passes and are resolute at the back, Quinones in particular seems to have taken my words before the match to heart as he’s throwing his weight about and appearing calm and collected when he wins the ball. In the 25th minute, a Cardenas throw in lands at  Salazar’s feet. He spins quickly and curls a gorgeous ball into space for Gomez on the other side. His first time cross is viciously attacked by Rangel but the ball pings up over the crossbar. All in all, I’m liking where this is going. We really can win a game.

In the 33rd minute, Leones have their first attack when Otero has the ball on the touchline. Marlon Torres tackles him but after a few bounces, he has the ball again. Torres tries and succeeds again but the ball ricochets off his calf muscle behind him and Otero has already rounded him. I’ve seen it before it even happens. I’ve seen it so many times over the last couple of months. Back post cross, header, 1-0 (insert Colombian team name here). And what happens? A wicked cross to the back post for John Sanchez to blast a header into the back of the net. Call me Mystic bloody Meg.

For once though, we don’t let our heads drop. And in the 41st minute, we’re fighting back. Cardenas passes across goal to Salazar. His hurried chip into the middle is headed out as far as Rovira. He volleys a pass sideways to Quintero who lets the ball roll across his body before releasing but Cadivid is equal to his shot and pushes it out for a corner. Said corner is punched out by the keeper but Gabby keeps the move alive by heading it to Harold Gomez. There’s a perfect gap to find Rovira on the edge who controls the ball and strikes the sweetest of strikes past the helpless Cadavid for our first goal in five weeks. An unlikely scorer of an even more unlikely goal. Game on.

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We come out of half-time seemingly rejuvenated, belief oozing out of every touch and every pass. Just seconds after we’re back underway, Nunez feeds Harold Gomez down the right. His early cross is met by Cardenas inside the D and what a header it is. Unfortunately, it just brushes the woodwork the wrong side of the top right corner but it’s motivating.

In the 66th minute, a series of short passes across the Leones defence leaves Harold Gomez as the last man and he cuts inside but his shot is poor. A few minutes later, I make all three subs with Neumann, Mojica and Cufre come on with instructions to push for the winner.

In the 80th minute, Quintero waits before playing Neumann through on goal. Andreas hits an absolute beaut across goal into the top right but the linesman had his flag raised. He was definitely offside but you just want that bit of luck to get us going forward again. Five minutes later. a Rangel through ball is cut out by Restrepo who transforms into Jonjo Shelvey and pings an unreal 50 yard pass across the pitch for Sanchez to chase. We’re understaffed at the back and the writing is on the metaphorical wall. A perfect cross that bounces right at Yeison Zabaleta’s feet for him to calmly sweep past Ramos at his near post. We throw away points, water’s fucking wet.

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We’re unable to bring it back in the final minutes as we suffer yet another loss. We were miles better than them but lapses of concentration cost us what could be a vital point. Honestly, I don’t see a point in the foreseeable future when we turn this around.

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The week inbetween the penultimate and final games of this league season are relatively quiet. I’ve given up on the tough love approach and opted to treat my squad like the U8’s team they’ve been playing like. Congratulating every little thing they do, assuring them they can do better next time. How have things went so pear shaped?

Our final game of the season is on the Sunday meaning that half of the teams have already played all nineteen of their games before we face Huila. In some good news, we cannot drop lower than 6th as America de Cali and Atletico Nacional are the only teams who can push us down from our current spot in fifth place. The best part is that they are playing each other today and no matter the result, only one of them leapfrog over us. Taking into account a series of variables, four out of six possible scenarios would pit us against Atletico Junior in the quarters.

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Our final game of the season doesn’t actually mean all that much but a win today would lift the Bucaramanga camp before a challenging knockout campaign. Gonzalez and Palacios start in front of Ramos with our strongest midfield four (on paper). Morison returns from his suspension and goes straight into the lineup next to Romero.

The sun setting over the Guillermo Plazas Alcid gives me hope that as the sun sets on the Clasura, a long overdue victory can bring a close to what’s been an awful few months of football.

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Kill me now. Eleven minutes in, some Huila one touch passing on the far side allows Herrera to picks out Amaya with a pacey cross that is headed into the top left corner. One thing I’ve painfully noticed is that almost all the goals we’re conceding come from crosses and headers. Gonzalez isn’t exactly small at 6’3 and both Palacios and Torres have good jumping ability. We shouldn’t be getting beat in the air this often.

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One thing I will give to my boys is that after the battering we received from Medellin, they always try to get themselves back into the game. A couple blocked passes from Romero find the ball rolling to Cardenas’ feet. He does well to hold off the defender and find Gabby. He sets himself before hitting a tasty dipping strike off the crossbar which the keeper claims on its way back down.

Half an hour has past when we’re on the attack again. A fluent move from a throw in is worked to Romero. His fake shot is read but a lucky bounce puts him in with just the keeper to beat but he rattles the woodwork with a powerful strike. It’s cleared for a corner which Morison climbs for but it’s headed off the line by Tipton. Palacios does well to win another corner on the opposite but this one is much less threatening. Half-time seems to arrive pretty quickly after that and I don’t really have much to say. We’ve had our chances and while I’d usually feel confident we can bring it back, I know deep down this game is already lost.

Shortly after Huila get the second half underway, a pass into the middle for Morison causes a lot of problems. The Huila defence are cramped together, leaving loads of space for Quintero to receive the ball. The pass is slightly over hit but he cuts back and gets a decent shot away. Banguera manages to save with his trailing leg. The corner from Gabby is won by Gonzalez but his bullet header is just wide. Ten minutes later, Herrera plays Diego Gomez through in a carbon copy of the play that lead to their goal. Gomez puts it on a plate for Amaya to nod home his second. Mojica and Jeferson Torres are brought in retaliation with Operation: Spearhead being the tactical change for the rest of the game.

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Straight from kick off, we pass it around a high pressuring Huila side and Mojica finds himself in on goal but his low shot to the near post is saved. He’s not shaken after that good chance goes to waste as he manages to half the deficit in the 64th minute. Romero tackles Trejo and Cardenas swoops in to put a ball through for Morison. He knocks it one further with his man catching for Mojica who whips a shot into the bottom left with his strikingly blue left boot to make it 2-1.

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In the 79th minute, we quickly work the ball forward to Romero who plays Cardenas through. He glides past Trejo but Banguera makes an outstanding reflex save, his left hand swiping the ball up over the bar. The rest of the game passes without any incident and our final game of the Clasura is yet another loss. I’ve been trying to keep my calm for so long now but I’m at my breaking point. The breaking point I predicted all the way back at Heathrow airport before I even knew any of the teams in the Colombian league. I’m ready to give up.

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Nine games without a win going into the playoffs. America de Cali beat Nacional meaning that the Apetura champions miss out on the knockouts whilst America de Cali push us down into sixth. The worst possible scenario however has unfolded. Junior picked up three more points and jumped into third.

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Nine games without a win. Two legs against the same Junior side that booted us out of the Apetura. One mammoth task:

Revenge.

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Going South (Episode 21 – Shep: Managerial Globetrotter)

What an embarrassment of a football team.

“Pierre, I appreciate the sentiment and your, erm commitment to your job but I’m also committed to my job. This is the last thing I need on my plate right now.”

The Frenchman doesn’t deflate or allow any of his enthusiasm to seep out of his body. “Hungary and Peru Connor! They are still interested and are looking into you as the future of their country! Does that not excite you, does that not make you tingle inside no?”

“If I’m honest Pierre, no.” I respond with my eyebrow raised quizzically.

“What about a new club? There are plenty of clubs looking for managers, even some English clubs! A return to England, making a name for yourself in your homeland. Surely that interests you?”

I go to speak but instead use my breath to exhale a sigh. “Not right now. In the future? Maybe but not right now. I need to focus on getting our shit together here before fucking off elsewhere. I’ll give you a ring when I need you alright mate?” Pierre Pinot nods, smiles and closes the door behind him. He’s clearly amazing at his job with some of the stuff he’s managed to send my way already and he will definitely come in handy. But, as I said, not right now.

Those with a good memory will realise that this game against Independiente Medellin is  actually the first time I’ll face them. We played them in the final game of the Apetura in which Ricky oversaw a 2-2 draw with goals from Rovira and Morison. A win here would take us up to third on goal difference if Tolima lose to America de Cali who are just behind us on 26 points but if I’m honest, I just want a win of any kind right now.

Palacios and Gonzalez are the partnership in front of Ramos. Salazar returns from his suspension with Rolls Royce up front. To say our attackers are in a dry spell is an understatement with the last goal from a striker coming in our 2-2 draw against Junior almost a month and a half ago. It’s a misty evening in Bucaramanga which could be a prime example of pathetic fallacy as I’m struggling to see the goals.

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It only takes seven minutes for the deadlock to be broken when Medellin win a free kick a yard or two into our half. Cano drills the ball to the edge of the box where Blanco leaps high and manages to curl a header beautifully into the top right. Not a thing anyone could do about that one so let’s not let our heads drop.

In the 24th minute, Luna plays an incisive pass to Blanco in the box who has his near post attempt saved by Ramos. He doesn’t have to wait long for his brace however as Ricaurte’s corner finds his noggin and he nods it between Ramos and Rodriguez on the near post for 2-0. Still no cause for panic. Plenty of time left.

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With five minutes of the first half to go, another Medellin corner is awarded but as Blanco’s taking this one, I assume we’re safe. We are not. It’s a a perfect corner for Caicedo to power a header into the top left. Three fucking nil, three fucking headers. Salazar does hand us a lifeline a couple minutes later with a weaving run past three players that allows him to hit a stinging shot towards the top right but a quality save from the keeper puts a halt to any brief dream of a remarkable comeback.

Now I’ll save you the bloody, gory details of my half-time team talk. To summarise: there were broken clipboards, holes in walls, an alarmingly unhealthy amount of screaming and a detailed explanation of how I’d like to surgically remove my eyeballs. You’d imagine they’d get the message.

Lone behold, mere minutes into the second half, Calle has the centre circle all to himself. Consequently, he has time to  stroll forward and pick out Cano. His ball between Torres’ legs to Caicedo is hit first time ferociously past Ramos to make the score 4-0. I ask Ricky to signal for a sub through my rage-induced twitches and Morison replaces Quintero with Operation Spearhead the choice for the rest of the game.

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In the 58th minute, we finally look to have woken up as Cardenas skips by Quinones and passes to Morison. A good overlapping run by Gabby is rewarded with a clear shot on goal but it cannons off the bar. The rebound header is won by the captain but Andres Mosquera catches easily. Our short spell of action is brought to an end a couple minutes later when Cano is played through on the right. Rodriguez does win the aerial battle but his header falls for Calle to twat a volley at goal which Ramos parries away. Asprilla comes on for Salazar, who I completely ignore just as much as I ignored Quintero fifteen minutes ago.

I make my last sub in the 77th minute with Rovira replacing Cardenas but he has no impact. Ramos does his best job at damage control with a few fine saves in the dying embers but the full time whistle puts us our of our misery. Hands down our worst performance to date and for the first time, boos ring around the Alfonso Lopez. I shake hands with the necessary people, do a circle of clapping to the fans and storm down the tunnel and into my office. What an embarrassment of a football team.

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I hibernate for the following day. I don’t want to lay my eyes on any of that squad. Someone still finds a way to piss me off when Aguirre calls me to pile onto my current woes. He wants to be sold at the end of the season. He’ll be sold at the end of the season. He can fuck off.

When I finally dare to check the league table, I see we’ve dropped into fifth with four points between ourselves and ninth place. The local papers run a piece to try lighten the mood around Bucaramanga debating whether it would be better for us to finish in the lower positions in the knockout spots as we’d most likely face Tolimas and Huila instead of Once Caldas and Junior. Ideally want the best spot possible to avoid any late drama but an easier run into the final would be appreciated. Is there an easy run with the way we’re playing though?

First, we have to confirm our place in the play-offs. A win at the Estadio Deportivo Cali would do that. If we don’t get it down here though, our next game is against lowest scoring side in the league Leones. Our final game of the season is against second place Huila so I’d rather get it out the way before then.

It’s hard to justify keeping the same keeper after he conceded four so the soon-to-be retired Delgado gets a start in net. Gonzalez is the only defender to keep his place. Jeferson Torres and Mojica are back in with Quintero and Salazar whilst Neumann and Morison are strike partners for first time since the opening day of September.

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Twelve minute after kick-off, we’re looking pretty solid for the first time in weeks. Gabby bullies Cabrera off the ball and wins the resulting header to Morison. He lays it off for Gabby who delicately lifts a pass over the top for Neumann to run into. It’s got a smidge too much on it for my liking but Neumann tries to chip the keeper who gets a fingertip to it and turns it onto the roof of the net. The corner is a poor one however and the move dies out.

For the next half hour, Cali have more of the ball but they’re doing nothing with it. A few wayward Mojica shots from the edge of the box are the only points of interest until the 41st minute. Cali finally work the ball into our final third and pick out Murillo with a ball down the line. His first time cross should be dealt with by Cufre but Carbonero comes flying in with a header that skims the bar. I would have been fuming if we conceded there and Cufre would have felt the full wrath.

Just before half time, Mosquera receives the ball after the initial cross from Neumann was headed out. I have to spare a thought and ask myself how many bloody Mosquera’s are there in this league? Anyways, he’s under pressure from Jeferson and attmepts a suicide ball back into the box for Rosero Valencia to deal with. He rushes a pass out straight to Neumann who smacks a shot to the far side of the goal but a deflection from Balanta puts it neatly into the keeper’s arms.

By the time the interlude arrives, Cali have still had no shots on target but have had the majority of possession. We’ve been finding Neumanns runs behind the key factor in our attacks so he’s encouraged to stay forward and hang off the shoulder. Jeferson Torres drops into holding midfield so Quintero can take Gabby’s place in the second half.

It takes a good twenty minutes for either side to push forward but when someone finally does, it’s Cali. They’re turning up the heat with some tasty crosses. The last of four in quick succession is met with a good front post header which is questionably parried by Delgado but he pounces on the rebound. Palacios and Asprilla take over from Gonzalez and Mojica for the rest of the match.

In the 72nd minute, Cali really start showing their superior quality with a high quantity passing move that finishes with a perfect triangle exchange. Giraldo passes sideways to Balanta and makes the run across him before Balanta finds Murillo. A cool touch to take it forward before stretching to knock past Torres for Giraldo who is free on the penalty spot. It’s an awkward height and he uses his instep to try and find the top right and puts it centimetres wide.

This second half has been all in favour of Los Verdiblancos and into the final minute of added time, there’s no exception. They’re searching for an opening and prying for the winning goal. Mosquera to Benedetti. Benedetti to Balanta. Balanta to Angelo who hits a worrying shot from the edge of the box but it’s curls whiskers wide of the post. The game ends immediately after and while it’s not the three points I would have liked, it’s undoubtedly better than losing 4-0. The first half was all us, second half was all them. A point is fair.

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During that game, Morison picked up a dubious yellow card was his third so he’ll miss the final home game of the season against Leones. A game in which anything but a loss will confirm our place in the knockouts. The last time we scored a goal was in September so here’s hoping we finally remember where the fucking goal is.

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Collapse (Episode 20: Shep – Managerial Globetrotter)

Surely, our luck has got to turn soon.

For the first time in a while, I feel under pressure. After our amazing start which propelled us into the limelight, people were backing us to finish at the very tip of the table. However, our gritty showing against Junior and an underwhelming performance against Tolima have made me get a little hot under the collar. For my and Bucaramanga’s sake, I hope we can get back on our feet and pick up some big wins before the last few games of the season.

Arguably, it’s probably the best time for us to play Millonarios then. This will be our fourth time facing Jorge Pinto’s side so far in my short tenure here in Columbia but we beaten them twice and drawn once. History therefore suggests we are the favourites to pick up a win against the severely lacking 12th place side but they’ll be desperate for a win to get closer to the knockout spots. It really could go either way.

In hopes it will go our way, Marlon Torres is our captain to allow the in-form Jeferson Torres to take Gabby’s spot in midfield. Vallecilla also gets a start with Neumann playing behind Morison and Romero.

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Quarter of an hour into the game, Barreto and Marrugo trade possession with the latter slotting a weighted ball in between our two centre backs for del Valle to chase. Ramos makes the call to come out early and with Gonzalez right on his heels, del Valle tries to chip it over Ramos but it’s a yard or two wide. A risky decision from Nelson to come off his line but it paid off. Ten minutes later, del Valle is involved again as he plays Barreto down the line. Vallecilla just catches up as the winger drills a low ball across the face of goal. Gomez tries to stop it but he’s an inch away from cutting it out. Hauche is there at the back post but he can only smash his effort off the woodwork.

Apart from a late flurry of crosses and blocked efforts in the last couple minutes, there’s nothing worth mentioning in the rest of the first half. It’s a much harder game than I anticipated and it doesn’t help that nobody is making the runs in the final third. During my team-talk, I ask Neumann to roam freely round the attacking third and ask for the squad for more width. In a unprecedented move, I also request we switch to a long ball mentality to find those runners. Our strikers will be right of the shoulders, ready to chase. It’s not the prettiest style of football but management is situational and it feels right for this game.

I need to shut my fucking mouth. Just minutes into the second half, a ball over our defence is poorly cleared by Gonzalez. del Valles claims the ball and lays it off to Hauche who hits a laser from 20 yards into the bottom right. It’s honestly unstoppable and I don’t expect Ramos to do any better than his fragile dive but Marlon Torres turns sideways just before Hauche shoots. If he stayed facing the striker, the ball would have hit his shin and the score would still be 0-0.

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In the 58th minute, I make a double change with Rodriguez and Mojica coming on for Gomez and Neumann. Both are tired and bringing nothing to the game so some fresh legs and ideas could be beneficial. Shortly after they take to the field, our two strikers combine with some one touch passing with Romero being played in 1-on-1. For some reason, he tries a diving header for a waist height ball instead of volleying it and the keeper catches easily.

In the 76th minute, Gonzalez collects the ball from just inside our box and passes it to Cardenas. He’s fouled from behind but he stays on his feet with the ref playing the advantage and sweeps the ball to Jeferson Torres. His first time ball is flicked on by Quintero who plays Rodriguez on the overlap. We get a lucky bounce from the Dominguez tackle which allows Fabio to keep advancing before squaring it back for the arriving Mojica to control and smash past Farinez to bring us level. Our best string of play all game has brought us a goal and it was a textbook counter-attacking team goal. Hats off to the referee though as he let play continue after the foul on Cardenas. I make my final sub with Cardenas making way for Rangel and Morison dropping back. The question now is do we push for a winner or sit back for the draw?

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It’s looking like we’re not done yet as in the 83rd minute, a Quintero interception bounces high into the air but he shows his commitment as he flings himself at the ball to head it to Morison. It’s knocked between him, Torres and Mojica until Steve can play a ball behind for Romero. He puts it onto his right as he’s level with the penalty spot and curls a shot round the goalkeeper but he doesn’t get all the whip needed to be the hero as it grazes the far post.

There’s only two minutes of added time and just as we enter the second, we win a corner and pile men forward. It’s floated in by Mojica to the edge of the box runner Morison whose bullet header is amazingly saved by Farinez. Rangel heads it back across goal but the Millonarios keeper is up to tip it away from Quintero. Gonzalez tries to head home at the back post but it’s blocked off the line. Quintero tries to chip it back into the mix but Farinez comes out and claims. He has really kept them in it.

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Once the ball is kicked up the pitch, the ref brings an end to the game at 1-1. It’s probably a fair result considering how easily we could have been two or three goals down in the first half but we came to life after our equaliser and could have nicked it at the death. Surely, our luck has got to turn soon.

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Our youth scout Gallardo has been scouting and searching all of Santander over the last couple months and he’s actually found our first little gem. Seventeen year old Feliciano Guerrero has been highly recommended so I use a spare day to go and watch one of his local teams games. I’m not disappointed. A left midfielder that could grow into a technically brilliant winger, Guerrero is a very promising player. While we don’t use wingers often, it doesn’t mean I don’t want him involved with us in the future. Our first Colombian starlet is signed into our new youth academy and I make sure Alvarez knows about it.

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Coincidentally, our only other player to experience the youth set-up here comes into my office just as Gallardo is leaving. Andreas wants to start against 8th place Deportivo Pasto as he feels he’s playing well. I oblige and tell him he’s be partnering Rangel up top. We have Nacional next week so a win here would be ideal to keep spirits high and put us in good shape to face them.

Now Pasto are a team I expect to beat and normally, I would make a few more left wing inclusions. Our current run of games however isn’t good enough so I want to pick our best squad possible. Aguirre is getting a start in goal though as I want to start integrating him slowly into the side. It’s a big game for him as I’m weighing up my options for next season. It’s whether to bring a keeper in on loan to play second fiddle or buy a solid first choice in January and ship Aguirre out. Either way, he needs to impress today. Jaimes and Salazar are in the midfield with Gabby back captaining the side. I want nothing less than three points today and the lads all know that. My aggressive pre-game rant has made it clear.

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Eight minutes have passed by the time the game has been flipped on it’s head. Pasto are passing it round our right hand side with no difficulty. Palacios tees up Villota to hammer a shot past Aguirre for 1-0. Don’t get me wrong, he put his laces through that but Aguirre didn’t even attempt to save it when it was only a foot or two away. If he just swung an arm out, he probably would have stopped it. I give him a bollocking from the dugout but it’s disgraceful defending from everybody involved. Disgraceful.

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Five minutes later, the response is looking positive as Cardenas cheekily flicks it out wide for Salazar. He plays Neumann in who hits across his body with his left but the keeper is catlike with his reflexes as he flies up to pluck the ball out the air. From this point on, the first half is extremely frustrating. Teeth grind and blood veins pop as we constantly try different approaches to penetrate the Pasto goal. High and low, central and wide, nothing works for us. And the finite amount of times we manage to work it into a good position, there’s not a Bucaramanga shirt to finish it. Our ‘best’ moment of the first half is from a free kick late on after Copete hacks down Neumann on the left hand side and earns himself a spot in the referee’s notepad. Cardenas’ initial cross is headed out but Cufre is on hand to volley it well but it’s just over the crossbar.

We come back quickly in the second half and five minutes after Rangel gets us back underway, he has to turn back after dragging play out wide. He passes back to Rodriguez who dodges an impending challenge nicely before finding Gabby in the middle. He hears Cufre’s shout and clips a ball in behind for the wing back but his first time shot is saved. The keeper can only push it to the back post where Rangel is waiting to strike but as he pulls the trigger, he’s pushed off balance. He scuffs his shot into the ground, giving Losada time to scramble across goal and stop it from crossing the line.

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With half an hour left, I take off Jaimes and replace him with the more attacking minded option of Quintero. The substitute wastes no time in getting himself involved as he finds a delightful reverse ball for Salazar who has his strong shot from the edge of the box stopped by a great one handed save.

In the 77th minute, Salazar is in again but the ball gets tangled under his feet and he can’t get his shot away. He does manage to punt a pass to Gabby during his Bambi-on-ice impression but our captain hits his shot straight at the keeper. That through ball was Salazar’s last contribution to the game as Mojica replaces him. Romero also comes on for Neumann.

Pasto are having a rare venture into our box as the added time is shown on the fourth official’s board but Rodriguez smacks a poor cross clear. Rangel flicks a header on for Mojica who nutmegs the defender with his pass forward for Romero. He tries to lose Ortiz for pace and looks up to switch to a wide open Cardenas only to be clattered by the Pasto centre back. The ref clearly isn’t up to the same standard as in our previous game as he doesn’t even play an advantage and deems it a fair tackle. Luckily, Mojica reacts first and backheels the loose ball into Rangel who slides Cardenas in 1-on-1. Obviously, Losada keeps up his amazing display with a fingertip save that just directs the ball onto the post.

A few late corners are desperately cleared by Pasto bodies and they hold on for all three points. They had two shots all game, one of which went on target and into our goal. We had plenty more shots than them but we were wasteful and a complete shadow of our usual selves in front of goal. I’m really not happy with our recent performances and now we’re without in a win in four games right before we play Nacional. Which is fantastic.

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To make matters worse, Neumann has the cheek to tell me he thought he played well while training a couple days later. I honestly could have decked him there and then. In a move partially fueled by frustration after training, I send instructions out to my first team scouts asking them to look for tall, first team quality keepers in a direct fuck you to Aguirre.

Taking a press conference when you’re in a bad run of results can always backfire as journalists will always put pressure on you, steer you away from the predetermined responses you set yourself. So when I sit in front of the Santander press, I decide to give them what they want and tell them exactly how it is. Consistency is the key and the only thing close we’ve been over the last month is consistently shit. We’ve been off the pace and really need to rediscover our summer form. There’s plenty of questions about Rangel’s place in the team as he’s currently goalless in nine appearances throughout the Clasura. Even though he’s disappointed me just as much as anyone one else in my squad, I’m not a man to throw my players under the bus. I’m persistent that he will break his duck, similar to how he did in the Apetura, and rise like a phoenix from the ashes. God knows we need goals more than ever.

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The Japanese seem to have taking a fancy to Andreas Neumann as another J1 League team make an offer for his services. Urawa Reds decide they can’t afford the fee for him however and ask if they can take the young German on loan for a year. I audibly laugh down the phone and hang up after an abrupt no. Are they that daft?

Now for Nacional. They are massively under-performing as the current champions of Colombia as they aren’t even in the top eight. Salazar picked up his third yellow of the Clasura which means he is suspended and out of selection for this one. He’s someone who signifies our fall from grace over the last three or four weeks as he was on fire during August and has been barely noticeable since. An interesting statistic is that despite our recent affection towards losses and score draws, we’re still the best defensive side in the league, conceding only nine goals.

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Ramos is back in goal (obviously) and our main defensive four are back together again. Rovira starts against his parent club over Cardenas with Nunez taking the spot on the bench as the attacking midfielder option. Mojica is starting again as he’s finally playing somewhat close to how I expected him to play when I first saw him back in January. Morison and Romero are the two up front.

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Three minutes in, the welcoming warmth of hope flutters around my stomach as a Gabby misplaced pass is mopped up by Mojica and played wide to Gomez. He passes it inside for Mojica who chips a pass over his marker to Romero. He sets himself and hits a finesse with a lot of power round the defender but it’s a safe height for the keeper to get across and push away from his goal. Let’s keep this up, ey lads?

Numerous half chances and threatening attacks fill the rest of the first half but neither side are looking likely to find the vital first goal that would really open this game up. By half time, both teams only had a couple shots each so it’s a game that’s there for the taking. I’ve been pleased with our overall play, hence I leave the side untouched for the second fourty-five.

Over the first fifteen minutes of the half, we absolutely pepper the Nacional box with shots and passes of all types. The best chance falls in the 61st minute when Rovira heel chops a pass for Romero into the box but his low shot is well saved by Monetti.

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With just over twenty minutes to go, I bring on Rangel and Nunez on for Mojica and Morison as like-for-like substitutions. The remainder of the second half is similar to the first as we keep banging and banging on the door but we just can’t convert anything. The full time whistle can’t help but feel like it’s came early as we’ve constantly had the feeling that we’ll score in the next five minutes. We were by miles the better team today and thoroughly deserved to take three points back home.

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Despite our barren run and severe lack of points, we’re only three points behind the top spot which is split on goal difference between Deportes Tolima, Junior and Atletico Huila. Rionegro Aguilas and Deportivo Pasto are also in the current surprising top eight with only four games left. That means Millonarios, Deportivo Cali, our previous opponents Nacional and our next opponents Independiente Medellin all out of massively out of form and out of the knockout spots as a result. I’m hoping it can stay that way so we can face some of the easier teams on paper in the knockout stages but knowing our luck, we’ll probably draw Junior again.

Either way, we’re not guaranteed a place in the top eight yet. We need start playing well and winning games again. Fast.

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Operation: Z-Day v.2 (Episode 19 – Shep: Managerial Globetrotter)

A matter of seconds, a matter of millimetres, a matter of luck.

I rearrange the cushion from under my neck as the sound of pen meeting paper serenades me gently and eases my mind.

“It’s just that they’re scary you know?” I gesture my left arm towards him. He nods understandingly. “Like, we’ve played them three times already right? And even though we didn’t play bad, we just couldn’t beat them. It feels like I’m already fighting a losing battle before it’s begun, like there’s almost no point in us turning up.”

“There’s no need to explain your feelings to me.” The therapist adjusts his rimmed spectacles before continuing. “Your fears aren’t exactly irrational and even if they were, I’d still be here to support you.” His soothing delivery of the final sentence makes me powerless to fight the warm feeling in my stomach.

“Now, close your eyes and just listen to what I say. Don’t talk, just listen.” I oblige as my eyelids bring the first inviting darkness in days. I hear him stand, walk to the other side of the room and press a button which must belong to a stereo as whale songs begin echoing around the room.

“Just relax and go to your happy place.” The Alfonso Lopez, completely empty except for the stubby figure of Rodrigo prodding the ground. It’s a few short moments of pure bliss. The early evening sun beating down on my already sunkissed skin, the distant sounds of a vibrant city settling down for the night. All supported by the calming songs of the majestic whales.

But, the whales start singing differently. A more sinister tune that slowly fades into a mixture of jeering and boos. In less than a blink, I’m now in the middle of the Metropolitano Roberto Melendez, red and white shirts overflowing from the stands and down on to the pitch like a scene from a zombie movie. I make a break for the tunnel only for a steel gate to slam shut as I’m a few feet from safety. I turn to face the mob which has duplicated in both size and noise.

“Perdebor! Perdebor!” The distance between myself and the crowd seems to take forever to close, twisted laughing faces bearing down on me. I collapse against the cold metal, silently begging for mercy as they approach. Right as they are within touching distance, the man’s calm voice booms in my ears.

“Now open your eyes.”

I gasp for air as a laser of sunlight pierces my eyes through the crack in my curtains and makes me squint painfully. I compose myself before clicking the lock button on my phone. 8:38am. I swivel my body to look at the window and debate whether the extra 22 minutes of sleep is needed. Night terror still at the forefront of my mind, I stand up and pull the curtains apart. Today is the day when it changes.

Atletico Junior. My arch-nemesis. The daunting fixture which has only been made more daunting by the fact we’ve lost our top spot to Huila a day before. While we have a game in hand, it’s still not the ideal scenario to be in when playing Atletico Junior. They’re also just one point behind us so losing this game would really knock our chances of a top two finish (which was my unspoken target for the Clasura after emerging from the month of August unbeaten.)

But I’ve realised the wrongs of my ways, the catalysts to our failures against them in our previous encounters: we gave them too much respect. We were happy to sit back, invite the pressure and play into their hand. Not this time. We’re going to be the team attacking, we’re going to be in control. A no survivor mentality is enough to turn over any team and let’s be honest. There’s much better teams than Junior in the world.

In what’s our most important match of the season, Gabby returns from his rest last week to resume captaincy. A big call had to be made regarding Quintero’s fitness and if it was a few months earlier, he’d be immovable. However, he hasn’t lived up to his amazing form from the Apetura so a much more in-form player by the name of Jeferson Torres takes his spot in the midfield. Another hard decision I had to make was about the strikers and who I trusted to lead the line today. After much discussion between myself and Ricky, Neumann and Morison are the strikers with Rangel on bench. That of course means that Romero, our top goalscorer, has been left out of the matchday squad and watches from his home in Bucaramanga. The only easy choice was selecting our best back four to defend Ramos’ goal.

All these players know how much this game means. Not just to the fans or to our title hopes. But to me, to our self belief that we can beat any eleven players put in front of us. As the infamous quote goes:

“I’m here to kick ass and chew bubblegum. And I’m all out of gum.”

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Our new gameplan and it’s attacking intent is blatant within the first ten minute as the confident, boastful cheers and chants turn into panicked mumbles and whispers. When Gonzalez thumps a Gutierrez cross clear, the signal to strike is telepathic. His headed clearance flies all the way to Neumann who has little in support so he lays it back to Salazar. He spots Morison waiting on the last man’s shoulder and chips a ball high into the air for the Welshman to chase. He battles with Jefferson Gomez, managing to shove his body in front as they approach on the edge of the D. Morison takes a nice touch to set himself before drilling a ball hard and low straight into the bottom right hand corner. I allow a subdued fist bump as Steve shushes the fourty-odd thousand Junior fans before being piled on by his teammates. Your move, Junior.

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The rest of the first half is how a proper derby match should be. Back and forth, you attack we attack. Junior are trying lots of crosses into the box which Gonzalez and Marlon Torres are dealing with nicely while we’re breaking with pace and using Morison as the focus for all out attacks. Both methods are proving fruitless but we have more shots and clearer opportunities than Junior. The only statistic that matters however is the scoreline and we’re currently 1-0 up. I hold back from making any changes as we look more likely to score and double our lead.

As much as I’m usually correct in football, the world likes to give me a kind reminder that I am human and that I can be very, very wrong. Three minutes into the second fourty-five, Piedrahita and Sambueza combine with a 1-2 down the wing. The winger crosses it for Diaz who hits a vicious volley towards goal but Ramos can easily parry as it’s quite central. They do win a corner however which is cleared by Jeferson Torres at the back post as far as Perez. Pico collects the loose ball after Neumann tackles and passes to Diaz. He takes it inbetween Gabby and Cardenas and hits it while the ball is still under his feet. This catches Ramos off guard and he can only scramble to his left as the ball soars into the back of the net. In all fairness, he would have had a tough job saving that with a clear view as it was a really good strike that’s only centimetres from kissing the post on it’s way in. At even stevens, the game will have a much different feel.

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Just after the hour mark, Teofilo Gutierrez plays Sambueza down the right wing. His front post cross deflects off Cufre but Diaz is there to flick a header past Ramos for both his and Junior’s second goal. That fucking demon of a left winger has come back to haunt us again. If I had a spare six or seven million quid, I would have already tried to sign him myself.  I opt for a pacy winger of my own with Asprilla replacing Salazar in a move of retaliation. Fucking bastards.

Ten minutes pass before I decide we need fresher legs. Rovira and Rodriguez come on for Cardenas and Gomez with Operation: Spearhead coming into play for the remainder of the game. Fabio will be deployed as a left winger while the heavy legs of Cardenas will be on the right. If this formation was ever going to save us, it would be right now.

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There’s an instant impact as it looks like we’ve all found our second wind. In the 76th minute, Jeferson Torres and Asprilla exchange a few passes before the substitute hammers a ball down the line for Neumann. Andreas backs into his man and uses a heavy first touch to pace past him before hitting a perfect low cross to the back post which just skims past the outstretched studs of Avila’s boot. In reality, the following event probably took a second or two but in that moment, as I stood on the touchline with my breath held? It was an eternity. Rodriguez arrives at the back post, gently taps the ball with his left foot and wheels away in celebration as the ball slides underneath the keeper’s leg for 2-2. Not to brag but I’m a tactical mastermind. Pep, eat your heart out.

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I was originally planning on returning us to Operation: Diamond once we equalised but I didn’t expect the impact to be so instant. Why change it? I leave the players and their all out mentality to wreak havoc and push for a dramatic late winner. In the 83rd minute,  we win a string of corners in a promising display of commitment. The final corner is a looping one for Marlon Torres to attack from the edge of the box. He connects and puts a postage stamp for the top right corner but Chunga somehow sprawls across his goal to palm it onto the crossbar with a Junior shirt swiftly clearing after.

The third minute of added time. A long ball over from Asprilla is hunted down by Rodriguez in what surely will be the last chance of the game. He takes it down with his chest and maintains his momentum but Chunga is closing in. The silence around the stadium is almost unbearable as everybody watches, hoping their player gets there first. Fabio doesn’t have time to think. He gets there half a second before the onrushing goalie, digs his foot under the ball so it just clears Chunga’s hip. It lands and painstakingly brushes the near post before the ref blows a sharp burst on his whistle.

A matter of seconds, a matter of millimetres, a matter of luck. Even though we haven’t won, we’ve came a long way today. Until we meet again.

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I allow a well deserved day off after the match and Yuber Asprilla is in my office bright and early the following day to thank me for improving his game time. He seems much happier and used some sort of phrase that sounded like ‘barking to a cat’? I think he meant he thought he was talking a different language and it wouldn’t improve but as it has, he’s happy. I understood that’s he’s happy. Man management is the large majority of being a football manager so if you try to keep everybody happy, things can go your way.

The board invited me into a meeting regarding the finances are projections for the clubs financial state by the end of the season. It’s looking positive as the value of the club is expected to rise from £6’100’000 to £7’000’000 over the course of the Clasura with our current value sitting at around £6’600’000. It’s over doubled in value since I joined in January with the pre-Apetura valuation being just shy of £3’100’000. Advancing deeper into the knockout stages and qualifying for the Copa Libertadores would be huge for the club financially and I assure the board we have the same ambition. The owner I’m yet to meet, a Mr. Barato, is very pleased with my management and intends to introduce himself when he returns from his current business trip. Ironically, ‘Barato’ is the Spanish word for ‘cheap’. Well, I hope it’s irony.

There’s a highlight on merchandise sales which provides an interesting insight. We’ve sold about 72’300 shirts from our official store and website with the highest selling jerseys belonging to Cardenas (7), Rangel (9) and Salazar (14). It’s concerning that our top three popular players according to these figures are all loanees but I’m sure that Morison’s number 15 or Gabby’s number 8 aren’t far behind.

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Our next game is against another side that’s reasonably close to us in Deportes Tolima so we desperately need a win to push them further away from the dizzy heights we’re currently at. We beat them 2-1 in the Apetura and I’m confident we can do it again with an even better scoreline.

Now this has taken some time and preparation. People might question why I’m changing a winning formula and my answer to them is flexibility. We play the same formation week in, week out and having the option of variety, the reassuring knowledge that we can throw a curveball to any unsuspecting opponents is integral to becoming a great team.

Ladies and gentlemen, it returns. Operation Z: Day… v.2?

Now this formation hasn’t exactly fared well in the limited time it’s been in play. I’ll be the first to admit it and I doubt I’ll be the last. The issue was that Quintero didn’t work as the anti-winger. We played him on the left hand side, a man right up his arse and he didn’t have the mobility and fluidity as a typical winger. That’s why he’s been dropped back into the middle of the pitch as the anchor. He contributes at both ends, will run his socks off and be the vocal point of our diagonal midfield trio. He definitely could work as a more conventional wide midfielder though in a 4-4-2 or a broader variation of our usual 4-1-2-1-2 which is something I intend to look into at a later date.

In another alteration that hopes to assist Z-Day v.2 in trumping it’s predecessor, the diagonal midfield has been mirrored. The holding midfielder option will now be on the left with the attacking midfielder supporting our right winger closely. This also means the formation forms a Z shape instead of a jagged S which totally isn’t the main reason for this extremely well thought out and tactical change.*

The personnel is relatively standard as our best back four starts. As I mentioned, Quintero is sandwiched in the middle of the pitch between Gomez and Salazar. Cardenas gets his first start as a winger on the left with Nunez coming in on the right . They’re tasked with feeding Rangel as the lone striker. This is going to work this time. I can feel it.

*Shoutout to Reddit user /u/TwistingtheShadows for pointing this out to me.

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This first half is one of the more frustrating halves of football I’ve had to endure. Our midfield and back line are constantly halting their attacks before they reach our  final third and even though we’re relentlessly trying to fashion clear cut chances, we can’t get a long enough glimpse at goal. We’re passing it around well and retaining possession successfully but there’s just no final product.

The best chance comes towards the end of the half when Nunez flicks a ball round his man with his instep, almost like a reverse Bergkamp spin. He darts into the box and squares for Salazar but his shot is brilliantly blocked by Payares. At the break, I try my best to hide the pain behind a wincing smile and make a change. Neumann replaces Quintero with Salazar pushing back into the middle as we need some raw, attacking spark to get us going. And if Andreas Neumann isn’t a raw, attacking spark, I don’t know who is.

It takes ten minutes for a chance to arise when Nunez steals the ball on the half way line and switches to Cardenas. Sherman holds it up until Nunez has completed curving his run and plays Maxi in. Some tight footwork helps him jimmy round a couple Tolima defenders but the shot is a poor one that’s directly at the goalkeeper. In the 63rd minute, Gabby knocks an outrageous 60 yard ping over for our nippy Argentine to chase. Before I can finish admiring our captains pass, Nunez cuts inside with his first touch and plays a reverse ball to set Neumann up to shoot but the keeper spreads himself well and blocks the shot with his forearm.

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In the 69th minute, Romero and Jaimes come on for Salazar and Nunez with Neumann moving out to the right wing so Romero can play behind Rangel. The final chance falls Bucaramanga’s way in added time. A great bit of passing play climaxes in Rangel feeding the overlapping Cardenas but typically, Montero denies him with a top draw reflex save with his left hand. As a result, the result of the game is a goalless draw. It’s been a pretty boring game but our performance wasn’t exactly bad. Then again, it wasn’t exactly good and we didn’t score. Operation: Z-Day v.2 had a much better maiden flight than v.1 and I truly believe this set-up is a great second option if we feel like switching things up. For a wide formation though, we seem to lack the creativity we usually have in abundance when playing in our diamond. It says a lot when the Man of the Match was Cufre who was given a 7.5 by the TV pundits.

One word to sum up this game? Forgettable.

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One thing that is far from forgettable is our position over halfway into the Clasura. We’re comfortably up the top end of the table with 25 points out of a possible 36. We’re also 5 points away from dropping out of the top eight before our game against Millonarios who are shockingly not in the top eight this far into the season. Does this mean they’ll be desperate for a win? Yes.

Does it mean we’re going to give them one? Absolutely fucking not.

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En Duda (Episode 18 – Shep: Managerial Globetrotter)

Football’s fucking mad.

Transfer deadline day. One of the most exciting days of the footballing calendar. Unless you’re a Newcastle fan then it’s not exactly thrilling when you’re linked to the fourth mediocre French bloke in the space of eight hours. But, for the rest of the footballing world, there are always some amazing deals done in the last 24 hours. Even the day before transfer deadline day, PSG spend £46’100’000 on Jordi Alba while Liverpool add to their mammoth array of attacking quality by signing Napoli midfielder Marek Hamsik for £55’300’000. Anfield is already a great place to watch football but this man linking up with Mauro Icardi, Mo Salah, Shaqiri, Mane and Firmino is a mouthwatering prospect. I’m a bit surprised he left Napoli as he was a club legend and has made over 400 appearances for the Azzurri but money talks.

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Now onto the main event. While I was expecting an almost silent deadline day. Deportivo Toluca leave a voicemail for me with a bid of £370’000 for Gabby Gomez. It’s obviously declined.

Within the first few hours of the final countdown, Arsenal agree to sell veteran defender Laurent Koscielny to Villarreal for £14’500’000. Chelsea, who clearly must not be strapped for cash, throw another £52’000’000 Valencia’s way for former Bolton Wanderers loanee Rodrigo. Looking at how Sarri likes to play his football, I think that he will be the perfect striker to lead the line for them.

With six hours left however, the will he/won’t he transfer saga of this window finally comes to a dramatic close in a deal which will have the red side of North London in jubilation. Christian Eriksen takes a page out of Coutinho’s book by getting himself a transfer to Barcelona for a ridiculous £103’000’000. It’s a hell of a lot of money for Spurs but with less than half a day remaining, you have to doubt they’ve got a replacement lined up.

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In the aftermath of the Eriksen move, you’d think Tottenham would see the rest of the window out or bring in a big money replacement for the Dane but that would be too sensible. Instead, they allow Bayern Munich to replace Jerome Boateng with Toby Alderweireld for £44’700’000 which sends Arsenal twitter into absolute hysterics. Hummels, Alderweireld and Chiiellini don’t make for a bad back three. Nathan Redmond also makes a move, looking to Reiss Nelson for inspiration as he’s loaned out to Bundesliga side Freiburg for the season.

My day of sitting on my arse drinking with a dodgy stream of Sky Sports News on the TV is rudely interrupted by La Liga 2 side Las Palmas ringing my phone to make an offer for Marlon Torres. Paco Herrera suggests £1’400’000 would be sufficient enough to lure him away from Colombia and while Spain is the dream destination for South American footballers, I don’t want to lose our heir to the captaincy. I also don’t have any depth at centre back or enough time to find a decent replacement. Marlon is flattered by the offer but is adamant he’s happy to remain here for the time being.

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In the last hour before the window shuts, Manchester United seal a £65’000’000 deal for David Alaba as a tasty replacement for the ageing Ashley Young. Fair play to Mourinho for getting that one over the line. There’s only a few minor deals in the last half hour before the end of the day with a healthy £666’260’000 being exchanged today. Football’s fucking mad.

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Now in a piece of unfortunate news, ex-Bucaramanga midfielder Jhon Perez has had a torrid start to live in Germany. Not only was he struggling to settle in Hamburg with fans becoming restless, he’s now broke his ankle and will be out until the new year. I really wanted it to work for him as an advert to my boys and what they can achieve but maybe it’s better this way. They might think twice before forcing a move to Europe after watching Jhon flop.

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Slightly depressing and sinister notes aside, we’re almost over the schedule hump. America De Cali are who we face today and in a couple days time, we play Once Caldas in what’s looking like a very important game. After that, assuming we don’t self combust and drop put of the top eight, we’ll only play a game a week up until the knockout stages. We have a lot of tired players so there’s plenty of rotation with one eye on the Caldas fixture.

Delgado is in goal today as I want him to get a few more games under his belt before he retires. Palacios and Rodriguez are in with Gonzalez and Cufre to make up the back four. Jeferson Torres and Mojica, two players slowly infiltrating my starting eleven after strong performances, both start with my two favourite boys up front in Morison and Neumann. While the big milestone for me was escaping August unscathed, another couple wins across this week would make me ecstatic.

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Just five minutes in, the Red Devils are left looking red faced as a Mojica through ball is blocked but he keeps possession and uses a tidy bit of footwork to escape pressing defenders and find Morison. Gabby’s making the run and is played into the box before he lashes a first time strike across the keeper into the far side of the goal. Sweet as a bloody nut from el capitano to give us the early lead.

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The half hour following the goal is filled with constant pressure from ourselves but we’re just unable to find a clear cut chance. In the 38th minute, another one of our attempted attacks wins us a throw in right next to the corner flag. It’s worked out to Jeferson who’s about 25 yards out and he tries to whip a shot into the top left but the keeper catches it well. Seconds before half time, America de Cali venture forward for the first time all game. Cabrera and Cuero work it around Gomez and Torres in midfield before Cuero is released down the right. He puts in a deep inswinging cross which Gonzalez is crimially beaten to by the arriving Aristeguieta who powers them level. Literally seconds away from what would have been a near immaculate half of football. I make the one change at the break with Quintero bringing some muscle to the midfield over Cardenas.

Straight from kick off, Neumann passes it back to Gonzalez and starts making the run. It’s hoofed high over the top and Neumann challenges the keeper making it difficult from him to punch it further than Mojica. His shot is blocked by Cuero but Quintero follows up with a finesse which is blocked, this time by Arboleda. The ball glides into the air for Neumann to try head over the backtracking Bejarano but he gets the weakest of a hand to it. It isn’t enough as the ball is going to land neatly in the bottom right corner but Bernal slides in to boot off the line. It’s looking like a game of finite variables.

America de Cali really get a foothold in the second half and manage to take the lead in the 67th minute. A pass into Aristeguieta is misjudged as it’s too powerful form him to control but his poor touch lays it up for Rivas to shoot. Palacios dives in to block but it falls to Dajome who toe punts it into the centre for Cabrera to tap into an empty net. 2-1 and it’s honestly very hard to swallow as we’ve been the better side. I use my remaining substitutions before play resumes with Rangel and Harold coming on for Mojica and Rodriguez.

We really do push back at them and with ten minutes left, Operation: Spearhead is called into action but a minute from time, Rivas plays a through ball cutting directly through the middle after we commit forward. Rivera and Delgado are both rushing to meet it but it’s Rivera who arrives first with a pass across to Joseph Cox who chips it over Palacios’ slide and puts the game to bed with a scoreline of 3-1. For fuck fucking sake.

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The final whistle not only brings an end to the game but also to our dream of an unbeaten season. America de Cali are a strong team though and we had lots of shattered players out there. We really gave a decent account of ourselves so there’s no bitter taste left in my mouth after. We had to lose at some point and I’d rather we lost here than in a few days.

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The reason why I’d rather lose there is because we’re still top of the league regardless after this weekend. But only by goal difference with the team in second being? Our next opponents Once Caldas of course. We face Junior next weekend too who are one of the four teams on nineteen points, just one behind us. This game is the definition of vital.

Now you might think that in a vital game, the one player you want in your side is your club captain. Normally, I would agree but when Gabby comes to me asking for a rest, I have to oblige. In his absence, Marlon Torres captains the side today with Palacios, Rodriguez and Harold Gomez. Rovira is in our captain’s usual spot while he watches from the stands with Jeferson Torres on the bench. Salazar returns to the side with his electric form and I’m hoping he can influence Romero and Rangel to bang a few goals in.

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Seven minutes in, Rangel scoops a pass out to Gomez who turns inside and drills it to Salazar. He dummies it for Cardenas who sets himself and hits a swerving strike off the far post from 25 yards. Very close to a cracking opener but the chance isn’t dead as it’s cleared for a throw at the near side. It’s taken by Salazar to Romero who passes it back to Rovira. David Lemos tries to pull him off balance but it only makes his shot even more menacing as it curls loosely with Cuadrado at full extension enough to push it away from the bottom left.

A quarter of an hour in, Caldas take a corner quickly to Lemos at the front post. He does brilliantly to flick his header towards the near top corner but Ramos reacts with catlike reflexes to tip it onto the crossbar. The rest of the first half plays out without the same excitement of the first fifteen minutes except for one chance on the 43rd minute. It starts with a switch between our wingbacks and Gomez cushioning a first time ball behind for Romero with admirable skill. Correa swings a foot in wildly but Romero stays on his feet before clipping a low cross in for Salazar. He manages to connect clearly but Moreno blocks the shot and their keeper pounces to avoid Rangel finishing the scraps.

It takes twenty minutes of the second half before either team has a sniff at goal but it’s ourselves who fashion the chance. Salazar picks the pass to Rodriguez while being swarmed by three Caldas players and the left back whips a dangerous cross to the back post for Rangel but the keeper gets across quickly to catch his header. A few minutes later, Cardenas, Quintero and Rodriguez are all removed with Nunez, J. Torres and Cufre taking to the field.

In the 71st minute, Jeferson gives me a welcome sense of deja vu as he muscles a Caldas shirt off the ball and finds Rangel. The return pass bounces awkwardly for him but Torres flings a heel up to knock the ball into the space in front of him with delightful skill. He takes it into the box, cuts onto his right foot and takes a shot but it deflects off the defenders knee and hits the near post before going out for corner. Thoughts about the wonder goal that could have been are momentarily present until the corner is headed out to Salazar who shoots an inch wide of the far post. Surely there’s a goal in this game.

With eleven minutes to go, a moment of sheer brilliance unfolds in front of my eyes and in front of the lucky Bucaramanga fans inside the Alfonso Lopez. A Caldas corner is heroically headed out by Rovira to Nunez. Like a fellow 5’5 Argentinian, he only has one thing on his mind. He takes the ball from the edge of our box and into their half. Knocks it past Restrepo, flicks it away from Velasco and races down the far touchline until he’s level with the penalty spot. He looks up and produces the most perfect cross for the run of Salazar. Kevin catches the ball with his instep from just outside the six yard box and I let the roar of the Leopardos overwhelm me as the ball soars into the top left. Absolutely breathtaking.

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We utilise the physicality of Rangel and hold the ball in the corners as much as possible in the last minutes of the game and it works as we seal a 1-0 victory. We peppered Caldas from all angles until we managed to break them down with a lethal counter attack and a moment of sheer brilliance for Maxi Nunez.

If we have players capable of things like that on the bench, I worry for any poor bastard that have to line-up against us. Especially next weeks victims.

Junior: revenge will be mine.

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Positivity (Episode 17 – Shep: Managerial Globetrotter)

This is the point at which my ‘new life’ has simply become ‘life’.

“Ricky, I wish I could but you know how it is right now. Money is tight and it’s not really my place to say.” I tap away at my keyboard while my assistant manager slowly paces up and down the room.

“Por favor Connor. I just ask you bring it up to Alvarez, I’m sure he’ll…”

“I’m gonna stop you there mate” I interject. “Oscar isn’t exactly my biggest fan, he wants me to make money so trying to give more money away won’t go down well. While I can send out scouts and bring players in with his money, I can’t give you a pay raise without his approval. Go and have a word with him, not me.” Gervais opens his mouth but stops himself before nodding and backing out of my office. He definitely deserves a bigger paycheck as he does just as much as I do around here but I can’t give him that. I’ll obviously push for him to get a bonus but my relationship with Alvarez isn’t exactly built on trust. I’m getting there with my team doing the talking but it’s a long way before I can go into his office and ask for pay raises.

Back to footballing matters, Boyaca Chico are the unfortunate bunch to face us next as we’re on a five game win streak. Aguirre is in goal while Vallecilla and Gonzalez return to our back line. Quintero and Asprilla also start with Morison and Romero up front. Romero scored a brace a few days ago so let’s hope he can carry that momentum on and grab another goal or two today. Of course the main aim to get three points, regardless of the goal scorers but seeing Romero bang in goals regularly would be a welcomed positive.

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It only takes 12 minutes for the deadlock to be broken. Gabby clears a wayward pass up the pitch and it’s flicked on by Cardenas for Vallecilla. Morison drags wide to create an option and receives. He turns back and crosses for Romero who hits a waist height volley from the edge of the box round into the top left corner. A classy little finish for his third goal in two games and an equally pleasing bit of build up play to work the ball from defence to attack. It’s almost reminiscent of Zidane against Leverkusen as it’s a quality bit of technique to keep it down.

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The game settles into a more disciplined affair for the remainder of the first half but a few minutes from time, Boyaca get themselves back into the game. We’re unable to clear a Chico corner past Romero and they do well to work the ball back into our box. Juan Diaz lays it off to Edwar Gonzalez who swings his leg back high before tapping a forward pass to Valdes. His attempted trickery works as Vallecilla is playing him onside, allowing him all the time he needs to smash past Aguirre from eight yards out. Our wing back does raise his hands in an apologetic way but it doesn’t rescind his error.

Once the second half kicks off, Jhon Gomez must have gave the half-time team talk on his life as they come right back at us. Rodas takes the ball past Quintero and Asprilla in the 49th minute before passing to Valdes. Torres can’t tackle him before he shoots but Aguirre pulls a strong right handed save out of the bag to keep us level. About ten minutes later, Juan Diaz hoofs a 50 yard diagonal ball towards Rodas but Harold and Aguirre are both intent on getting there first. The ball bounces off the back of Rodas’ head with Aguirre’s attempted punch missing both player and ball while Gomez has a foot raised in a desperate hope of clearing the danger. After the amalgamation of Colombian footballers, the referee blows his whistle and points to the spot. It’s awarded for Harold’s foot which is a fair argument seeming as his foot was around chest height. It’s only when Ricky tells me do I realise that this is the first ever penalty awarded under my management which is a bizarre statistic. Especially for the feisty leagues of South America.

I bring on Rovira for a tired Cardenas before the penalty can be taken and whilst I needed Sherman off the pitch anyways, it’s also a mind game. Making that sub right now gives Mosquera, the Chico penalty taker, more time to think. He might have had the top right set in stone as he placed the ball down but as he has to wait for Rovira to slowly jog over to the box, doubt could creep in. What about the bottom left? What if I try to chip it down the middle. Do I put my laces through it or pick my spot? All those thoughts rushing through his head as he takes a couple steps back. The referee, now satisfied with the positioning of the players outside the box, gives a sharp blow on his whistle. He runs up, sweeps across to his left and watches in disappointment as the ball bobbles wide of the post. Aguirre dived to the right but luckily, I got into his head. 1-1 it remains.

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In the 67th minute, I bring Cufre and Neumann on for Asprilla and Harold Gomez in a hope to inject some fresh pace into our game. Not even five minutes pass before I’m almost made to regret one of the changes as Diaz and Rodas knock the ball around Cufre with ease before the latter hits a bullet from outside the box that whistles past the post.

With four minutes of normal time left on the clock, Neumann threads Morison down the side and Steve uses his imposing frame to protect the ball from the opposition. He uses a few nice touches to manuover round a tackle and drills a pass to the far side for Vallecilla. He controls and sets himself with his first touch and hits a grass cutter that kisses the base of the far post to the audible displeasure of the Bucaramanga fans. It would have been a disgusting goal if it nestled into the bottom corner.

Alas, the game comes to a close and with it, our perfect record evaporates into the Santander air. Our unbeaten run is still in tact however, and seeing as it was far from our best showing, I would say a point is a good and fair result. If either team deserved to win, it was Chico.

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In a surprising development from my conversation with Ricky a couple days ago, Alvarez swallows his pride and sends me an email saying the job we’ve done with Neumann is admirable. He can’t wait to see him thrive under my guidance and hopes more talent is waiting to be found and nurtured in our youth academy. I avoid the glaring temptation to reply with smug undertones and thank him for his words while placing a mere suggestion of Ricky’s impact sneakily into my response. Building bridges people, building bridges.

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Nunez joins Asprilla in the complaints department, requesting more game time and I make the same promises to him that I did to Yuber. It will come very soon and at a high volume too. Jiangsu Suning cap off an eventual day with a whopping £2’050’000 bid for our young German starlet. It’s a hell of a lot of money, especially for this club but he’s happy here and sees a move to Asia as a distinct downgrade and I have to agree. If he’s going anyway, Europe is his inevitable destination.

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The transfer dealing that really interests me me however is 19 year old Andres Alvarez signing for Swindon Town. The fee was only £250’000 but they signed him from fellow Primera A side America de Cali. This deal means English clubs are watching our players and our teams. Consequently, English clubs are watching me.

Elsewhere in the transfer market, Jamie Vardy has made the switch to Germany. £24’300’000 was the price to let Schalke lure the cult hero away from Leicester and I imagine he’s getting a pretty penny too. Jerome Boateng also makes an unexpected move to Atletico Madrid for a much more substantial fee of £47’200’000. The thought of him and Godin as a partnership is unfair. They might as well stick a brick wall up in front of Oblak instead.

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It seems like good news just keeps on coming. Junior lost to Huila the other day which means we are top of the league. Tolima are also unbeaten but with four draws and two wins putting them down in 7th place. Our next opponents La Equidad have had the most average start possible with two wins, two draws and two losses on their record whilst they have scored and conceded eight goals.

The Equidad game is before the match-up against our first quote unquote ‘big’ side in Santa Fe so ideally, I’d want our best team fit to face them. But, after facing them, we’ll play America de Cali and Once Caldas who are in 5th and 6th retrospectively within the following week so our strength in depth is going to be tested over the following fortnight.

Ramos keeps his spot in-between the sticks. Cufre and Rodriguez are our wing backs and seeming as La Equidad have chosen a midfield heavy 3-5-2, instead of their usual 4-2-3-1, they have my blessing to bomb forward as much as possible to drag the centre backs out wide and create gaps in the middle. Jeferson Torres and Jaimes are both in midfield with today with our Argentine wet blanket Nunez as the creator. Neumann supports Rangel as a striker.

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It takes just over half an hour before either team has a chance and it starts when Jaimes shoulder barges a man off the ball then backheels it to Torres. An Equidad defender drags out of their line so Jeferson chips a ball over into the gap for Rangel to volley but Novoa does well to throw a hand up and parry away. It looked like it was going over anyways but doesn’t mean the save was any less impressive. That’s literally the only chance of a mind-numbing first half so I ask for us to attack them in the second half and try to force a breakthrough.

Literally nothing. Twenty five minutes into the second half, some tight first touch passing from Equidad leaves Zapata open from 16 yards to smash his shot just wide of the far post. As that was that first attempt of attacking play for the entire second half, I use all my subs in one go with Palacios, Cardenas and Romero coming on for Jaimes, Gabby and Nunez. Palacios will again take up the holding midfield role for the remainder of this game while Neumann will drop back to accommodate for Rolls Royce.

0-0. Ninety minutes and we couldn’t even muster a shot on target all game, which while it’s undoubtedly uncharacteristic, is not fucking good enough. We might have gotten lucky and played against a team as evenly uninspiring as ourselves but we need to do better than that.

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Another peculiar big transfer that adds to this crazy summer window is Fernandinho trading the gloomy skies and sky blue of Manchester for the borderline Mediterranean climate and sky blue of Naples as he puts pen to paper for Napoli. He is arguably the integral part of that City side that allows everyone else to shine so it’ll be interesting to see how they perform without him.

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Back in Colombia though, life in Bucaramanga has finally become the norm. Up until recently, this almost felt like a really long holiday with a job thrown into it. But the difference is that fact there’s no difference. When you live your life day-to-day, it’s the lack of change or variation that usually goes unnoticed. However, when adjusting to a new life altogether, the realisation that nothing has changed from the last day? Or the day before that? This is the point at which my ‘new life’ has simply become ‘life’. It’s a comforting acknowledgement that the risk I took in December last year was worthwhile.

As Santa Fe are the strongest side on paper we’ll face in August and we’re just one game away from being unbeaten for the whole month, our best available eleven start bar a few exclusions. Morison and Romero are in front of Salazar, Rovira replaces Gabby in the middle but elsewhere, it’s the starting eleven I’d choose every week if fitness and injuries weren’t an issue.

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We get off to a promising start when a bit of footwork combined with a few give and go’s leaves Salazar free to shoot from the edge of the area just a minute in but it’s mere centimetres away from the right side of the post. We really bombard Santa Fe for the next 20 minutes and finally get our reward when Romero is in possession with his back towards goal. He dinks a ball out wide for Gabby to collect and he does so with a heavy flick back that loses the defender. He whips in a cross with pace that Cardenas meets with a bullet header to give us the lead. For a team that plays a narrow formation, we create more often than not from wide positions and score a large amount of volleys and headers. Make of that what you will.

In the 38th minute, another loanee who’s really stepped up his game in Rovira plays a great ball for Romero to run onto but Sergio fluffs his chance with his poor outside the boot effort sailing closer to the corner flag that the goal. We come in 1-0 up at half-time and I make the sole change with Vallecilla taking over from Cufre at left back.

Ten minutes into the second half, Salazar sets our sub wing back away with a fancy flick and Marvin curls a ball round the back for Morison. He looks up and finishes it beautifully into the far bottom corner with his left but celebrations are cut short as the linesman has his flag raised. It’s a very close call but a correct one so respect to the man in black on the far side.

We’re not made to regret officials actually doing their job correctly for too long though as we add our second goal on the hour mark. Salazar is doing what he does, taking the piss out of the Santa Fe midfield and plays a lovely ball over for Morison running down the touchline. His first time cross is a high and arced one for Romero to assess but he leaps up and bicycle kicks it down past the keepers left leg and into the back of the net. While it’s not got the same wow factor of an acrobatic goal that finds the top corner, it’s still an amazing piece of skill from him to pull that off. Castellanos does get a fingertip on it but he can’t keep it out of his net.

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In the 65th minute, I bring Mojica on for Salazar and a couple minutes later, he’s already having an impact. Our corner falls to Gonzalez who was back tracking out of the box. He tries to pass to Cardenas but his pass deflects to Mojica who attempts to find the bottom right with a finessed shot but Castellanos is fully extended to push that away for another corner. That corner comes to nothing unfortunately and in the 71st minute, I make my third and final change with Gabby replacing Cardenas for a more defensive set up.

In the 82nd minute, Morison is again played down the near side, this time by Rovira. His front post cross is an absolute beaut and Mojica floats in almost as if he was sitting open legged in mid air to glance it past the keeper for 3-0. Unusual but appealing technique from Harrison as it’s a nice goal to watch. He’s came out with a point to prove today and it has been noted by his manager. It’s also been noted how my requests for defensive football aren’t necessarily met the majority of the time but if we’re winning games, who gives a fuck?

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We nullify Santa Fe’s late push for a consolation goal in the remaining time and hold on for a solid 3-0 win. An well rounded performance today with the main surprise being Mojica’s display. It’s the first time he’s looked exciting in the yellow and green of Bucaramanga so he’s looking likely to start the next game. This result also means we finish August unbeaten which is a proud statistic I’ll be sure to bring up to the press, to Alvarez. Hell, to any fucker who’ll listen.

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Another promising statistic after that game is that Ramos currently has five clean sheets in all of his five appearances. It’s unreal that he’s turning 38 in a few months and still proving he’s one of the best keepers in Colombia. However, with Delgado retiring and Loaiza being a lackluster third choice, a goalkeeper will need to brought in over the next season or so to prepare for his retirement. Our scouting network has pointed out a couple options but we won’t look into them too much until the season has finished.

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Now when Alvarez calls me for a quick chat, I can’t help but feel an overwhelming sense of dread. Our relationship has been on a rocky road for some time now and not the good kind with marshmallows and chocolate. But when I enter his office today, there’s a smile spread across his face. Not a fake grin or a deceiving smirk. A genuine smile.

“Shep, please come round to my side of the desk.” He ushers me round until we’re both admiring the Estadio Alfonso Lopez through his window wall. I know that’s not their official name but I couldn’t tell you what they’re actually called. I discreetly shuffle, uncomfortably waiting for him to break the silence. He lifts his right arm up and wraps it round my shoulder in a unexpected move of endearment.

“I know we don’t see eye-to-eye but I must thank you.” I turn to him, the confusion evidently shown by my scrunched face. “Six home games in a row” he laughs. “We have sold every single ticket. For the first time in years.” He turns to face me and places both hands on my shoulders.

“Thank you for bringing my club back.”

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Unbeatable (Episode 16 – Shep: Managerial Globetrotter)

Dare I say, we might just be back to old Bucaramanga again.

Sitting in the dark, TV in the background while I browse the Internet on my outdated laptop. I haven’t done this since my initial interview with Bucaramanga but luckily, things are much better now. Living hours and hours away from Europe, it’s harder than ever to keep up with European football and transfers. Whilst there’s a few ‘big’ deals happening in South America, there’s some seriously crazy shit going on overseas that overshadows any deal over here. Even my Pelle and Mascherano steals.

Dortmund sign Watford midfielder Abdoulaye Doucoure for £35’300’000 and I think he’ll slot into that Dortmund side as the perfect box-to-box midfielder. The big transfer however is the Serbian centre-mid Sergej Milinkovic-Savic joining French giants PSG for £79’400’000. Him and Veratti behind Cavani, Mbappe and Neymar is surely enough to get them closer to the Champions League final that’s eluded them in recent years.

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I’ve spoke previously about our schedule this month being a flattering one as we play a lot of games in a short period of time but avoid any of the bigger sides like Junior or Apetura champions Nacional. Our next three games are away to Envigado, who finished 19th a few months back, followed by two home games against both Boyaca sides (Patriotas and Boyaco Chico.) With our recent performances, I’m expecting another nine points from those games. There’s been some speculation within the media that we could go all of August unbeaten but  it’s way too early to be throwing those statements around willy-nilly. I do believe that this side is capable of that however and if we managed to do that, it would set us up nicely for the rest of Clasura and give us a great chance of another top eight finish.

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Now, for the Envigado game. Delgado comes in for the first time in the Clasura with Rodriguez also coming in on the right of defence. Considering Fabio was adamant he could only play on the left hand side, he’s done a good job whenever I’ve played him on the right. Jeferson Torres keeps his place with Gabby replacing Cardenas further forward. Morison and Neumann are the strikers today.

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4 minutes in, Cufre cuts inside of a defender and knocks it inside to Morison. He passes to Neumann who plays a great ball on the spin for Rodriguez to run onto. He hits it with the inside of his right foot which means that even though he beats the keeper, it’s always curling away from goal. I catch his eye with a puzzled look on my face as he’s left footed. If he opened up his body and used his stronger foot, it might have clipped in off the post and there’s no reason for him to use his right there. Strange decision from an otherwise solid player.

We are made to pay for his choice about twenty minutes later when Envigado launch a corner into our box which is headed out by Quintero then again by Morison. It falls to fellow Englishman George Saunders who sprays a lovely ball to the near side where Arrieta is waiting to put a low cross to the back post. We’re caught out as we tried to push forward too quickly, leaving Michael Lopez open to volley home from close range. 1-0 down to the first goal we’ve conceded so far. It’ll be interesting to see how we react after having it all our own way up to now.

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We react pretty damn well. In the 31st minute, Cufre plays it down the left to Morison who cuts it back to Salazar. Our standout player hits an outstanding first time ball over for Neumann. It’s controlled well and hit with power on the half volley. It’s just as well he got a good connection as it’s just above the keepers head but Londono can’t react quick enough as it merely bounces off his glove into his own net. Level pegging and Salazar is the man again shining.

But we’re not done there. Only six minutes later, we win a corner after a defesnive mix up from Envigado. Salazar comes short to collect, nutmegs his man and puts a pinpoint cross into the six yard box for an unmarked Quintero to power home our second and complete the turnaround. The Bucaramanga fans are chanting a Spanish variation of an English classic, revolving around fucking up a one goal lead. We come in 2-1 up at half time and I heap praise on the lads for their response to going 1-0 down. Jeferson has really been impressing me as he’s been bullying their midfield and throwing his weight about as a good holding man should.

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10 minutes into the second half, a Londono goal kick is headed forward by Rodriguez. Neumann shields the ball well and sneaks a reverse ball past for Quintero. His early cross is a difficult one for Steve but he backs into his marker and directs a curling header into the back of the net. Londono definitely could have done better as it came pretty central for him but no discredit to the man who I am running out of superlatives to describe. I bring on Rovira and Asprilla for Gabby Gomez and Salazar, who gets a warm reception from the away following.

Both subs are involved in a move within five minutes as Rovira releases Cufre down the left wing. He deceives the defender with a fake shot and gives it to Neumann. He flashes past his man and drills a shot goalwards which the keeper parries out to Asprilla but he can only hit the side netting from a very tight angle.

I bring on Harold for Rodriguez in the last ten minutes but the game closes with a 3-1 scoreline. It’s a positive result, bouncing back from 1-0 down away from home and scoring three goals in the process.  Dare I say, we might just be back to old Bucaramanga again.

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The next few days fly by and the camp is really pumped. We just want a team to line up in front of us so we can tear them apart. Unfortunately for them, the next team to face us is Patriotas Boyaca.

Ramos is back in goal as I feel like this lot are the team most likely to cause us issues at the back. They scored 34 goals in the Apetura but they also conceded 39 at a rate of over 2 goals per game. While they know where the goal is, they seemingly forget about their own. Quinones and Torres are the centre back partnership and Jeferson remains for his third start in a row after really proving his worth in the last couple games. Cardenas and Jaimes are behind the suddenly godlike Salazar with Romero and Rangel combining as Rolls Royce up front. It’s started to stick around the changing room much more over the last couple months and they’ve actually had a bit of a bromance blossom over the summer. I would love a fifth consecutive victory here today and those two lovebirds can contribute to that, it would be a big help.

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This game is being televised nationally so there’s cameras all over the Alfonso Lopez. It feels strange watching them shake hands, cameraman intently following as my boys make their way down the line. This is a game that last season would have been put to the side but with our perfect start and Patriotas’ manager stating he’s going to ‘spoil the party’, it seems to have been snapped up for eager eyes. Let’s hope we give them a show.

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It looks set to be a feisty affair as Rangel and Harold are both booked for late challenges within the first 10 minutes. I get my command for calm and cool heads out and we fall back into a more disciplined state to avoid any more silly bookings. The first chance is actually a Patriotas one that comes from a corner in the 28th minute. It’s pinged to the edge of the box and a few more short passes take it into the area. Echavarria has half a yard to shoot and does so but Torres and Quinones throw themselves in the way in a joint effort to deflect it over for another corner. It’s on the other side but they use the same tactic with Osorio being the man free to shoot. He strikes it with venom through bodies but Ramos does brilliantly to catch it after seeing it late.

Straight from his kick upfield, Rangel is holding it up on the far side waiting for teammates to get forward in support. He manages to get a deep cross into the box which Jaimes heads back across goal. Romero arrives and mistimes his shot, hitting it down into the ground but Martinez had already dove across goal in a starfish shape, anticipating a better shot. The ball bounces up and over his waist and into the goal for 1-0. It’s a goal tainted with luck but Romero will happily take it as the goal that gets his Clasura campaign underway. He scored twelve in the Apetura so if this spurs him on to replicate that form, we’re in business. Plus, it’s nice to see him with a smile on his face again.

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There’s space for one more chance in added time when Cardenas produces a cheeky bit of skill in the centre circle to beat the defender before kicking it up to Jeferson Torres. He looks up and puts the ball into a huge gap for Rangel to run onto. He attempts a finesse round the defender but it’s blocked and falls for Jeferson to volley but he opts for power over accuracy as it sails a  couple yards wide of the goalposts.

The second half doesn’t carry the late intensity of the first with the first shot all half coming in the 67th minute. A Rangel shot is parried over the bar giving us a corner. Straight from the training ground, Salazar fakes coming short leaving a big space for Cardenas to aim his cross into. Romero runs in from the back post and twats a volleys towards the keeper. Martinez palms it onto Monsalve from point blank range and it rolls into the goal for our second of the day. It’s another unattractive goal but it was on target meaning Romero can claim his brace. I bring on Nunez and Rovira on for Jeferson and Salazar and give the former a big pat on the back. He’s really stating his case for a first team spot.

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With fifteen minutes left, I bring Palacios on for Jaimes in a holding midfield role and he fairs pretty well until the final whistle confirms a 2-0 victory. I’m happy to see Romero back in the goals but Harold gets a special mention from me in the post-game talk. He was cautioned for almost the entire 90 minutes and while his original challenge was a tad reckless, he controlled the right hand side and didn’t put a foot wrong afterwards. Plenty of positives to take from yet another promising display.

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Asprilla and Jaimes are both in my office at 9:01am with issues relating to their game time. Jose is very happy with his recent involvement and just wanted to pop his head in to say thanks. Yuber on the other hand, feels his contract promises are not being fulfilled and he wants more game time. I have to admit he doesn’t get into this team often but who can he displace? Salazar is a rejuvenated player, Neumann is the future of the team, Nunez is a more talented player. I promise to give him a start against Boyaco Chico in a few days and tell him that once fixtures cool down, I might try some experiments with wide formations where he’ll get the nod. That seems to be enough for him for now but I don’t really want to be dealing with my rotation and squad players pestering me for more game time.

Speaking of pests, our arch-nemisis of a football club up in Barranquilla are stealing our limelight. Junior are the only other team with a perfect record and even though it’s early days, they are looking like our main competitors for the number one spot. As villainous as this sounds; they will not get in my way this time around.