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Operation: Spearhead (Episode 7 – Shep: Managerial Globetrotter)

We slot our swords into their sheaths, bloodied, battered and bruised.

This is probably the most stressed I’ve been in a very long time. Nacional away is probably the most daunting fixture in Colombian football and maybe even South American football as a whole. Yet here we are, facing them just a couple weeks into our first season. Sometimes, being thrown in at the deep end and told to swim can be a good thing but this is like being pushed into a lake with bricks tied to your feet. I won’t even have time to celebrate if we pull a shock win out the bag as we play Deportes Tolima a few days later and Atletico Junior on the weekend.

Going into this game, we’re still unbeaten and anything other than a loss would be appreciated but that’s wishful thinking. Junior have won all four of their games so far and it’ll be interesting to see whether they can still boast that impressive record tomorrow as they play Independiente Medellin today.

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Looking at Nacional’s start, they are expectedly flying. They haven’t even conceded a goal yet and while I’m buoyant about our start so far, this could be the game that shoots me back down to the harsh reality of this job. The game that yanks my head from the clouds and make me contemplate the mammoth task that is moving this Bucaramanga side forward. Being honest, I’d even take a 1-0 loss right now.

Our eleven is debatably our strongest with Cufre starting on the left of the defence and Fabio with his forward runs on the right. Our strongest midfield, again debatably, starts with Cardenas coming up against his parent club. Apparently, those awful loan clauses  that restrict loanees playing against their actual clubs aren’t that popular round this part of the world but I’m not complaining. This also lets me put Rovira on the bench with him likely to come on at some point in the second half. The duo that make up Rolls Royce are up front. I know I said it wasn’t sticking but giving out nicknames feels like some sort of coping mechanism. I’ve even taken to calling Ricardo ‘Gervais’ due to a mixture of his name, startlingly quirky laugh and receding black hair. He doesn’t get it but Steve Morison does. That’s all that matters at the end of the day.

Nacional are playing a 4-1-4-1 which I’m guessing is to battle our midfield heavy formation whilst having that extra width. It’s a smart decision and it very nearly makes me rearrange my whole game day plan but I refrain. Let’s fucking have you.

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The first half hour of this game is like a game of ping pong except less exciting. Seriously. It’s all back and forth but there’s no penetration into the 18 yard boxes apart from some ambitious crosses. But in the 33rd minute, Rodriguez gives away a free kick about 45 yards out and Nacional bodies load into our box. Dayro stands over it and whips a ball up and into the mixer. The ball skims Marlon’s questionable mo-hawk as he mistimes his jump by half a second and it falls perfectly for Campuzano to sweep past Ramos to make it 1-0. It’s their first shot all game but we’ve only had 1 shot so far ourselves and I can’t even remember it. It’s harsh but we have to avoid the trap of pushing for a goal and leaving ourselves exposed at the back.

Never mind. Just 6 minutes later, Dayro is the architect as he cuts back and plays a series of passes before hitting a shot first time from just inside the box but Ramos flings an arm up to whack it away for a corner. Nacional take it short and pass it around in the corner until Hernandez gets space to scoop a cross into the middle for Bocanegra to glance a header past Ramos and double their lead. 2-0 down at the break, there’s no better time to make a change so the uncharacteristically quiet Salazar makes way for Nunez. I also take the risk of asking the lads to push for a goal quickly in the second half which can hopefully get us back in the game.

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In the 53rd minute, my tactical nous is evident as Ramos plays a goal kick short to Torres. We knock the ball around until Quintero picks up the ball about 10 yards into our half. He looks up and plays an unreal ball to the opposite side for the run of, who else but Fabio. He takes a great first touch inside which wrong foots the wingback and passes inside to Romero. He hears Nunez shout and flicks the ball off the outside of his boot for him. Nunez does brilliantly well to control within a triangle of green and white before hitting a thunderblot past Monetti to make it 2-1. It’s a lovely strike from the Argentine and that’s exactly the impact every manager wants from an attacking substitution. We’re back in the game.

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With 20 minutes left, Dayro and Hernandez link up on the touchline with the latter getting the better of Cufre with silky smooth footwork. The ball is put into the box and with Torres and Cardenas both tracking the near post runner, Moreno darts in from the edge of the box unmarked to flash a header home. I make another change with Steve Morison getting the nod for Cardenas. I tell Nunez and Romero to stay wide while Morison plays behind Rangel.

There’s absolutely no impact so in the 78th minute, I decide that this is a good time as any to try out something different. I’ve spent a lot of late nights attacking a whiteboard and trying to think of new projects and different formations. Most are bizarre creations that Dr. Frankenstein would turn his nose up at but this one is my first beautiful monster. Operation: Spearhead.

It’s basically just a 4-2-4 which will most likely be used when we’re in dire situations such as, I don’t know, being a couple goals down with 10 minutes left. I know it doesn’t exactly break any boundaries or tread untouched ground but this is founded with desperation in mind. Plus, giving it a cool name makes it seem more daunting. Imagine your team is strolling to a casual 1-0 win and the opposing manager, who’s knowingly just within earshot, bellows “Operation: Spearhead is a go!” Literal chills, right? Anyways, it’s a maiden flight for this experiment and Rovira comes on for Quintero to give us some more legs in the middle. I have to tip my hat to Quintero though as he has again shone through with another solid shift.

Despite our eleventh-hour flurry of crosses, we’re not able to find the back of the net as Operation Spearhead’s anti-climatic unveiling finishes at 3-1. It’s not been the best game or our best performance but I didn’t expect a result here. Obviously, I would have liked to take something for our troubles or even close the deficit to a single goal but I’m honestly not too fussed. I am slightly frustrated that Nacional’s second and third goals came from poor man marking on the other hand so I’m planning on addressing that issue in training. As the French say, ‘comme ci, comme ca’. Or as the Spanish say, erm… meh?

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A bit of good news to wash it all down now. I have a meeting with Gabby Gomez and his agent the next day about his extending his contract and things go pretty swimmingly. He agrees to add another year onto his current agreement which means he’ll be with us until the start of 2020. He doesn’t ask for a wage increase which makes the £3’500 signing on bonus more of a thank you gift than anything else. I’m happy to see our captain tie himself to the club for another year as it speaks volume about his belief in myself and what the club can achieve under our joint leadership. Gabby is somewhat of a journeyman as he’s played for 16 different clubs in 7 different countries in his time as a footballer. The most games he’s played for one club is only 48 out of his 410 appearances and considering he’s only a few short of that figure for Bucaramanga, it’s safe to say he’s settled and could maybe retire here. I’d love for him to reach the big 500 with us but at 33, he might decide to call it a day short of that figure. 450 would still be a nice celebration.

Looking at our next opponents, Tolima are pretty doing well with the one loss against Millinarios a couple weeks ago the sole blemish on an otherwise perfect start. We need a result to get us back on track and keep camp morale relatively high. A win here would really pick us up before we play Junior on the weekend.

Speaking of which, today’s team has been picked with one eye on that fixture. Delgado gets a chance for redemption in goal with Gonzalez and Palacios in between Cufre and Vallecilla. I’m asking Vallecilla to play in unknown territory as he’s only ever played on the left but I’m confident enough in his ability to believe he can do the job for us today. Rovira comes in for our captain and with a vacant vice captain role, Quintero gets the armband as a reward for us recent showings. I take him aside before the team talk to tell 1-to-1 that he’s exceeding expectations. In dumbed down terms so he can understand of course. Asprilla comes in behind Morison and Romero.

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We kick off and play on the front foot for the first quarter of an hour. It pays off in the 17th minute when a Cufre cross is headed out of the box by a Tolima defender. Rovira battles and nods it back to Cufre who opts against a second cross by passing sideways to Morison. His first time pass finds Rovira who turns and passes to Asprilla. He spins in motion with ball and feeds Quintero into the box. Cesar sidefoots the ball across his body towards the top left and even though the keeper manages to get a fingertip to it, it’s not enough to push it away from goal as it bounces out after hitting the joining of the net. 1-0 up and Quintero is relishing the responsibilities of a captain. A quick second would be appreciated.

On the half hour mark, a Tolima attack breaks down and gives us time to counter. Romero gives it to Quintero who plays a great ball over the top for Asprilla. He jinks inside and chips a cross in for Morison but Torijano gets there first. It falls back to Asprilla but his snapshot flies a yard wide of the near post. The last chance of the half comes in the last minute as Tolima take a page from our book and hit us on the counter after we pile forward for an attack. They’re actually 2-on-1 as Marco Perez takes the ball forward. Gonzalez is the man back and he manages to make me feel all warm and fuzzy as he leaps in with a crunching, yet fair, tackle to end the attack and the first half. I make sure to catch him on the way inside and give him a pat on the back as that tackle was straight out of the 80’s. The message at half time is to carry on the way we’re playing as we’re holding possession well and look likely to double our goal tally before long.

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With an hour of the game gone, Cardenas intercepts a Tolima pass that’s entering our half and dribbles forward before sweeping a pass to Quintero. He looks up and sees Morison running into a big gap between the two centre backs and fizzes a ball through to him. Steve still has a lot to do still as he controls the powerful pass before hitting a shot from just inside the D across and into the top left hand corner. I jump up and celebrate just as much as any Bucaramanga fan as I’m buzzing that he’s off the mark as he kneeslides right in front of the away fans. I have to say that I’m a sucker for rattling fans and while he’s not exactly Jamie Vardy, that strike wouldn’t look out of place in the Premier League. We have the two goal cushion now but that doesn’t mean we can be complacent.

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In the 67th minute, Vallecilla and Quintero make way for Gomez and Rodriguez. Quintero receives rapturous applause as he hands Gabby the armband but he runs right over to Morison, insisting he take the role as captain. I don’t intervene as I want to see how it pans out and Steve was Millwall captain for a while so he knows how to lead from the front. It seems like a bad omen as when the ball is thrown back into play, Escobar knocks the ball past Rodriguez and bursts down the line with blistering speed. His cross is an awkward one for both parties as it’s a difficult height and speed but Gomez casually volleys the ball back to Delgado. Luis clearly wasn’t expecting it as his first touch is dreadful and allows Perez to react and take a shot which luckily hits the post and falls kindly for Cufre to hoof up the pitch. To be fair to our keeper, I wouldn’t have expected Gabby to pass it back and he managed to put the striker off enough to miss; but surely you just put your laces through it?

With 15 minutes left, I make my final sub with Salazar coming on for Cardenas. Asprilla looks shattered but as he’s not in the picture for the Junior game, Cardenas gets to watch the rest of the game from the bench. In the 82nd minute, Tolima really start throwing the kitchen sink at us and manage to work their way into our box after multiple attempts. A deflected cross puts Gonzalez off balance when preparing to clear leaving Perez to square across to Escobar. He has an open goal but Palacios flies in with an outstanding block to deny a certain goal.

Tolima manage to find the back of the net in the 91st minute when Banguero shoulders a Gomez clearance to Orozco. He controls in mid-air and flicks a lovely backheel pass behind Cufre for Banguero to latch onto. His cross is a dangerous one that’s an inch too high for Palacios but the perfect height for Carrascal behind him to put a great header into the side netting. It’s only a consolation goal as Morison boots the ball back to Delgado from kick off and the ref blows as Luis smacks the ball into the air. I would have liked the clean sheet and I bet Delgado would have too but apart from his one lapse of concentration, he played pretty well. Morison got his first goal, Quintero was excellent again and we won our first game at the Alfonso Lopez. I really cannot complain.

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Something that knocks my new found confidence is the fact that Junior made it five wins in five games with a 2-0 win over Leones so we’re really up against it as we visit Barranquilla. It says a lot when a point would be an achievement.

Ramos and our three usual starters are back in defence. El capitano also returns with Nunez playing behind the same strike force that started midweek. Rangel is on the bench against his parent club today as the impact sub as it would be unfair to drop Morison after a solid performance last time out. It’s a strangely misty day at the top of Colombia and walking out into the packed Estadio Metropolitano Roberto Melendez is probably the most intimidated I’ve ever felt. One player that’s been highlighted by myself is Teofilo Gutierrez, the Junior striker that’s scored four goals in as many games. I’m expecting the lads at the back to be very busy today but hopefully we can strike with some fast, fluid breaks.

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Sometimes in football, you can have the best plan, the best players and be undone by a moment of sheer brillance. 9 minutes in, a Barrera strike is deflected off Gomez out for a Junior corner. The same man takes the outswinging corner which looks poor as it swerves further and further away from the danger zone. The 21 year old winger Luis Diaz runs back to connect with a bicycle kick that flashes perfectly through a series of bodies before nestling into the bottom right corner. As he wheels away in celebration and slides on his arse into the corner flag, all I can do is shrug. All any of my players can do is shrug. I even lock eyes with Julio Comesana, the 8 time appointed Junior manager, and shrug. He shrugs back as the 45’000 Junior fans finally bring the sound down from deafening to tinnitus inducing. 1-0 Junior.

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Five minutes later, we show we’re not gonna stand down and accept a spanking. A quick passing move leaves Romero in space to lay off Rodriguez for a cross. It’s a tempting ball for Morison to attack with a great header but Viera backtracks and pulls out an equally great save, acrobatically tipping it over the crossbar. Our first corner attempt is a deep ball which is headed straight back out of play by a Junior shirt but the second comes to the front post for Romero to met with a glancing flick on. Viera leaps back and tries to flick the ball over the crossbar again but it instead hits his own goal post before bouncing over the line to bring the score level. Viera is unlucky as that was a very difficult shot to stop and he did brilliantly to get anything on it but you have to give credit to Romero as he worked every neck muscle to direct that header. We could be on track for a goal-fest here.

Or so I thought. The rest of the first half is uneventful until the second minute of added time when a Gomez interception allows us to counter. After working the ball across the pitch, Fabio plays Nunez down the far touchline. Maxi demonstrates his vision as he cuts it back between the two chasing defenders. Morison just beats Cantillo to the ball and slips Romero through 1 on 1. The keeper is off his line quickly and closes the angle well though, meaning Romero can only put his effort into his trailing leg and out for a corner. It’s a decent corner that’s cleared as far as Nunez who passes to Gonzalez. He toepunts a pass to Gomez who plays a cheeky chop pass back to Nunez who hits a low drive goal bound but it’s pushed away for another corner. This Cardenas corner is a poor one however as he tries to place it back post but ends up putting it out for a throw that isn’t taken due to the half ending. I would be totally okay with the game ending now and skipping out of Barranquilla hand-in-hand with our solitary point but I really think we can nick a goal and hold out for a shock victory. We’ve only had about a third of the possession but we’ve been lethal on the counter attack with the pace of Nunez being vital. The same eleven jogs back out with the same instructions as you don’t fix what isn’t broken.

A couple minutes in the second half, a deep Junior free kick is nodded on by Piedrahita and Diaz tries his luck with an arguably more ambitious overhead kick but it bounces into the ground and out for a goal kick. You have to respect the effort but you only get those once in a blue moon.

In the 62nd minute, I make my first change with Salazar coming on for the tired legs of Cardenas. He doesn’t get much action in the first 10 minutes of his showing but in the 73rd minute, a Ramos kick is headed down to him by Morison. He pings a first time ball for Gomez to chase and even though Pico gets there first, Gabby uses his body to bully him off the ball before slotting Nunez in. He has to take a touch into the box as he has Pico nipping at his ankles which unfortunately gives Viera time to slide in and hold before he can get a shot off.

In the 78th minute, an Escobar cross can’t find a red and white shirt but they hold possession on the edge of the box. Cantillo scoops it up to Sambueza who nods it on to Ruiz. Now Ruiz is completely free to volley it home from 12 yards and make it 2-1 but it rolls down his shin and curls away from the goal by a good few yards. I celebrate our first showcase of luck this game by completing a double sub with Rangel and Palacios coming on for the goalscorer Romero and Gonzalez retrospectively.

Five minutes later, Junior are really pushing us as an easy on the eyes passing move from them accumulates in Hernandez tapping a pass into Ruiz who tests Ramos with a near post effort but it’s comfortably pushed away for a corner. I call Rangel over and tell him to spread the message to park the bus once we’ve cleared the corner. Which we do with relative ease.

In the final minute of added time, I can hardly believe that we’re going to be the first team to take something from a Junior match-up. Bodies are being flung in front of crosses and shots alike. I bite my tongue as I see Diaz take off on a weaving run before passing to Cantillo. He’s got half a yard of space from 10 yards and hits a strong effort towards goal but Ramos parries it away. The danger is far from over as he pushes it into the path of Sambueza who hits it first time from 6 yards. I’ve already submitted to the heartbreak as I turn with my head beginning to slump. But, I notice something in my peripherals. My eyes shoot back up. Now somehow, someway, Ramos scrambles to his feet, leaps across his goal-line and follows up with a sprawling save to swipe the ball off the line and deny them a late, late winner.

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The resulting corner threatens with the last kick of the game being a scuffed Castaneda volley over the bar but once the ref blows his whistle, I finally exhale the breath I’ve been storing for the last 2 minutes. Junior had more shots and a much bigger chunk of possession but we defended valiantly, attacked with lightning speed and wholeheartedly deserved a point. That Ramos double save could easily be the moment of the season. In my opinion, this is our best performance yet as it showed grit and commitment. We’ve battled to the last breath and as we slot our swords into their sheaths, bloodied, battered and bruised: the lump in my throat painfully retracts. Pure, unadulterated pride.

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The media is an entity I’ll never understand. Following our heroic showing behind enemy lines, you’d think they’d dedicate the back page to our performance. Obviously not. The prominent Santander paper decide to run a piece about Rangel and his lack of goals. He hasn’t scored in the league yet and actually hasn’t scored since my first game in charge but the media try and twist some narrative that Morison has came in as a teachers pet and is forcing him out the picture. I invite Michael and Steve to my office together to address and disspell it.

“Can you believe this, Steve?” I desperately shout at him while tapping the paper like a mad man. “What a load of bloody bollocks. I thought leaving Europe would get us away from this, all the shitty press and their shitty stories.”

I stuff the paper into my bin with my foot. I dismiss Steve so I can speak to Rangel privately. He seemed upset at first but it seems my psychotic rant and limited Spanish vocabulary has reassured him that he’s part of my plans and that a goal will come his way soon. Ricardo knocks on my door and barges in excitedly before I can even stand up.

“Gervais, you better have a good excuse for interrupting me.” He’s bouncing like a giddy child as he stutters on his words and taps on the Bucaramanga badge on his jumper before I usher him to spit it out.

“The Jaguares game. It’s full. All the tickets are gone, we have sold out!”

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The Big Man (Episode 6 – Shep: Mangerial Globetrotter)

Standing on the sideline for 20 fucking minutes to play the dying embers of a lifeless draw.

My hunt for a target man is well documented. Despite only being 5’10 myself, I feel like I resonate with them. Not being bullied by defenders, leaping up for a header, being the focus point of a team. All the things I love about football. But, according to my scouts, there’s no fucking good ones in the Americas. Whether that’s down to the quality of the players or the quality of my scouts I don’t know. It could easily be both combined but either way, I’m tired of waiting. I’m going solo and buying a striker on my own. And somewhat of a household name of a striker at that.

Now Peter Crouch has decided he wants to retire at the end of the season and he wants to do that at Stoke. No matter how much pushing and begging I do, he doesn’t budge. How selfish of him, he’s only 37 years old and what better time to up and move across the world with your wife, two kids and newborn son than right now? Crouchy might not want to sit on a 12 hour flight with those long legs but a Championship striker at the back end of his career is the niche I intend to tap into. Those older lads looking for one last adventure before they hang up their boots.

There’s plenty of options in that big pool of fish. I even debate offering the controversial Nile Ranger a chance to redeem himself away from the vultures that make up the English media. He’s very strong and even though I should hate the bloke, I can’t deny he was and maybe still is immensely talented with a football. I choose not to however as bringing a multiple offender to the world capital of cocaine is asking for trouble on my part. The one that I stick with and throw my money at however is Leon Clarke. The Blades striker fits the bill perfectly. A physical presence at 6’2 and just shy of 200 pounds, ambidextrous and a knack for putting the ball into the back of the net. There’s lengthy negotiations with Sheffield United as we both seem to want that extra bit of leverage to say we’ve won the deal. It’s back and forth for the best part of an hour until Chris Wilder stalls with £1’250’000 on the table. There’s also somehow a 10% sell-on clause involved and while I’m unsure that’s something Sheffield should be pushing for in a deal for a 33 year old, I leave it alone. If that’s the wagering chip that gets this deal over the line, so be it.

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Sadly, it’s all in vain as they come back a few days later asking for £1’500’000 which is just too much. If we agreed on that figure, there would be no room for movement when talking to Leon directly which I imagine we’d need to convince him. For that reason, that deal is deemed dead. But as they say, when one door closes, another one opens. A second, much more affordable deal has been in progress behind the scenes. And boy, am I excited.

£400’000. That’s all they wanted for a club legend who played over 200 games, scoring almost 100 goals. A measly £400’000. Yes, he may be 34 but he’s still a hard worker, he’s still 6’2 and he still knows where the goal is. I can definitely get a good couple years out him yet. He agrees to just £4’300 with a £20’000 signing on bonus and another £50’000 once his goal tally reaches 10. As much as I love having money, I hope that payout comes as soon into his 2 year contract as possible. The board seems happy with a big(gish) name joining the club and while the fans have no clue who he is, the majority seem to accept my stamp of approval with open arms. The main man takes the number 15 as number 9, 10 and 11 are all taken. As cameras flash and we maintain a firm grip on each arm of the yellow and green Bucaramanga shirt, I can’t help but beam with happiness. Welcome to Bucaramanga, Steve Morison.

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As happy as I am to have a fellow Brit to rant with and prevent myself from going insane, he’s not going to be starting our next game. Leones are the team we will face next and these lot are actually one of our closest opponents with only a short 8 hour coach drive between us. We’re still waiting to play at Estadio Alfonso Lopez unfortunately as we’re the ones who have to undertake the journey this time round but our next game against Deportivo Cali will be our first home game and our first game against one of the big boys.

Cufre gets his first start as he comes in for Gomez with Nunez replacing Salazar. Morison is on the bench ready as I didn’t want to chuck him straight in at the deep end but he will get some game time as I’d like him to start against Deportivo Cali. I was originally considering dropping Rangel but he’s supported Romero so well, it would be very harsh of me to drop him now. He does need to start scoring himself though as his only goal so far was the first against Atlas almost a month ago.

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100 seconds haven’t even passed by the time Diego Sanchez receives a ball from Córdoba. He waits for the run and gives it back to Córdoba who plays a first time pass back past Marlon Torres where Yessy Mena lashes it into the roof of the net. I don’t really react apart from a curious raise of the eyebrows. 1-0 down already in what’s about as far from a good start as you get. We haven’t even touched the ball.

The game fails to keep to the high-octane standards of the first two minutes as it’s a tedious affair until the half hour mark. As the game ticks into the 30th minute, Quintero has space in the middle to pick out an gut busting run from Fabio on the right hand side of the pitch. He hits a perfect back post ball for Rangel to volley home if not for an outrageous save from Cadavid which parries the ball over for a corner. It’s a poor corner but we keep pushing and 10 minutes later, it’s Quintero starting the move again. After battling around the midfield to win possession, he dictates the move until Nunez plays the ever-overlapping Rodriguez down the wing. Fabio puts another superb ball into the middle where Romero climbs above Restrepo and nods home the equaliser. That’s his third goal in two games and he’s scored one with his right, his left and his head now. I know Restrepo isn’t much of an aerial match at only 5’10 but credit where is due; he’s on bloody fire. The half finishes 1-1 and I spur the lads on to keep up the late momentum we were gathering.

In the 52nd minute, a Rangel header clips the crossbar after an early cross from Gabby Gomez. It looks like we’re going to be punished on the counter as Leones come back at us with pace. The move capitalises with Mena peeling away from Torres to reach a hopeful ball behind. It works well as he finds plenty of space for a shot which is very strong but Ramos leaps to his right and snatches the ball away from the top left corner. A truly breathtaking catch from the man in between the posts.

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Now I’m not one to deny that I’m somewhat short tempered. You might think that football management is the worst career path for me with this information but I can normally contain it. But when I have time for three separate substitutions to warm up and the ball STILL has not left the field of play? I cannot be more annoyed. I tell Morison to warm up in the 70th minute with Gomez getting his orders a few minutes later. But in the 85th minute when Salazar is told to warm up, I almost lob the fucker onto the pitch myself. 22 minutes the same ball was in play for and absolutely fuck all happened. When they finally come on to a chorus of ironic cheers, lead by myself might I add, my attacking focus has no impact. The game finishes 1-1 and the second half should never have happened. I almost feel a sense of shame as I spent the last week glamourising the Colombian league to my British counterparts and even if Leon Clarke or Nile Ranger signed, that would have been their first impression. Standing on the sideline for 20 fucking minutes to play the dying embers of a lifeless draw.

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After I’ve had time to cool down and we’re strolling through the night back to Bucaramanga, I look back and realise that even though it was a boring game, a point is fair sharing. A great bonus is the fact that as our game was the late Friday night kick-off, we currently sit top of the league. Albeit for the best part of 18 hours but that thought does send me to a dreamy slumber for the remainder of our journey.

Following the anti-climatic debut from our second signing of the window, I take another look into the transfers happening in Europe. Liverpool sign young full back Grimaldo which shows they are finally addressing their defensive weaknesses. Deadline day comes around before long and there are some interesting deals which catch my eye. Cagliari fork out £10’000’000 of their Barella money to persuade Andy Carroll to join them in Italy while the promising young German winger Julian Brandt joins Tottenham’s formidable attacking line-up. Forestieri joins Bournemouth for just under £9’000’000 which I think is a great little signing. It’s nice to see him step up to the Premier League and I think the Cherries are the perfect team for him to do that.

In some saddening news, Marlon Torres pulls his groin in midweek training and will be consequently absent from our first home game against Deportivo Cali. It’s a really kick in the balls as Torres has silently impressed me and when partnered with one of the stronger and older lads, he really shines.

Now the transfer window has been and gone, we still have about £800’000 sitting around gathering dust. I arrange to meet with Oscar to discuss using our left over transfer funds to start building a youth set up, invest in facilities and hire a quality scout to find us some talent.

“Connor, I am interested and pleased to see you are keen in getting a youth system up and running but the figure you are using would take all the money we have. We need that for transfers in the summer and renewing contracts.”

“Oscar” I sigh. “You task me with producing a youth player without so much as a scout. You ask me to turn a profit while bringing in players who can help us stay in the league and reach higher. I can’t do it all.” Alvarez looks at me with a sympathetic smile. “That’s why I have already invested the money myself. I have hired a Venezuelan, Lisandro Gallardo to scout across Santander for the next six months. A contractor will start building a new training pitch and updated facilities next to the stadium tomorrow and I will find you your local superstar. Just imagine the media when he starts ey?”

Oscar gazes at me with his mouth agape but all I can offer is a half-hearted shrug of my shoulders. “If you set me a target Oscar, I will meet it. You set me targets that cannot possibly align, I will use my best judgement. Players will sell in the summer and we will find talent with Gallardo’s help. Everything will be fine, just trust me now Oscar.” I turn and walk away, momentarily glancing back to check if he’s breathed but the chairman remains inert. I may have killed of the chairman but I have injected life into the club. He will thank me in the long haul. I hope.

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Putting the focus back on the pitch, Deportivo Cali won their first two games against Millonarios and Independiente Medellin. A couple big game wins worth of momentum doesn’t really bide well for us but I’m quietly optimistic we can take something from this game. The side to take on the Los Verdiblancos is a somewhat changed side. Gabby Gomez is slightly further forward with Rovira acting as the holding man. Asprilla comes in at attacking midfield with Morison getting his first start next to Romero. My hope is that Morison can drop deep to get the ball whilst Asprilla and Romero make runs either side of him. There’s a warm rainstorm and it’s coming down hard so as well as battling one of the best teams in the league, we have to navigate the difficult conditions. Great.

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The first chance comes pretty quickly and it’s a Bucaramanga one. Fabio is working hard again as he skips past Cali’s wide man and plays Morison in. Steve cuts back and puts it in for Romero who meets the cross with a good header but the keeper gets down to hold. We look relatively comfortable and keep using the width to put crosses in but in the 20th minute, we hit a big speed-bump. Romero goes up for a header and comes down awkwardly, landing on his shoulder. He gets up after a brief time of the floor but he keeps rolling the same shoulder he rolled against U.N.A.M which makes up my mind for me. Rangel comes on a few minutes later even though Sergio is adamant he can play on. I can’t risk him aggravating any potential injury as he’s been electric for us.

The remainder of the first half is all in the midfield with the occasional venture into each other’s third simmering out before any real threat can be fashioned. Rovira picks up a yellow late into added time so I swap him for Cardenas to bring more attacking intent. Gabby drops back to his usual defensive position and I tell Rangel to stay up top at all times and play on the shoulder to run in behind when possible. Hopefully, Cardenas can spot and pick the pass to unlock what’s been a solid Cali back four.

10 minutes into the second half, our captain plays a woeful pass forward and loses the ball. Carbonero turns and glides past Asprilla before playing a lofted ball up for Macnelly Torres. He brings it down nicely and lays it off for Carbonero who connects with the sweetest low drive from the edge of the D that skims the blades of grass before cannoning off the inside of the post into the back of the net. I can only force breath through pursed lips and applaud as that was a wonder strike. Any abnormally longer blades of grass were sliced by that ferocious strike and Ramos is helpless to watch that fly past his outstretched glove. 1-0 to Cali.

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In the 64th minute, a give and go from Steve Morison lets Rodriguez ping a ball for the Welshman to chase onto. His cross bounces high off the shoulder of the Cali defender and Asprilla does well to put the keeper off just enough to mess up his clearance punch. The ball rises high in the air again for Rangel to attack the rebound but unfortunately, Rosero Valencia gets there first. Or so you’d think as Valencia manages to scuff his header backwards and into his own net past the flailing hands of Vargas. It’s a total stroke of a luck to counter a potential goal of the season contender but I’m not complaining and neither are the sea of yellow and green shirts. Even stevens.

About five minutes pass when Cali win a free kick on the far side. It’s put into the mixer and there’s a game of ping-pong after the delivery. It falls for Didier Delgado to slot through Cabrera but the ball bounces up off his ankle bone into Ramos’ hands. Another example of us riding our luck as my initial appeal for offside was incorrecting with Fabio playing him just onside. The game filters down pretty quickly with the message to park the bus being spread with 10 minutes to go. Cufre replaces Asprilla as we switch to a 5-4-1. Morison gets cautioned in injury time but we hold out for a second successive 1-1 draw. It’s another remotely uneventful game, only notable by a moment of complete brilliance and a moment of complete luck. Deportivo dominated possession with around 65% of it across the 90 and we only had one shot, which wasn’t even our goal. We are extremely fortunate to escape with anything in what’s been a very poor first showing to our home crowd.

There are some positives though. As well as keeping our unbeaten record and staying in those vital top eight spots, the physios say Romero is fit and ready to go as his injury is minor bruising. I give him a quick apology as he did say he was good to carry on but better safe than sorry. Plus, we’ll need him for our next game which is Nacional away. No rest for the wicked.

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Kick-Off (Episode 5 – Shep: Managerial Globetrotter)

It started with my team spontaneously combusting and ended with me renting a flat in Sunderland. Scary stuff.

First things first. Congrats to the Colorado Rapids for winning the American Challenge Cup. They kept their momentum after demolishing ourselves in good fashion and beat Veracruz 3-1 in the final. Victory might taste sweet now but the Rapids are the first team in my long list of teams that I seek revenge against. My personal vendetta itinerary.

Anyway, let’s focus back on us. There’s just a week and a half until we kick off in the Primera and getting ready for the season is our main focus. J-League side Urawa Reds bid £370’000 for Aguirre fresh off the plane; it’s declined pretty easily. He’s our only decent keeper under 35 so a polite rendition of ‘fuck off’ is given. Club America receives the same response the next day after lodging £510’000 for our captain with Monterrey completing the trio of expletives when they offer the exact same amount for Gabby. Just fuck off.

One offer that does make me scratch my chin and ponder however is Polish side Jagielloia Bialystok asking to take Jeferson Torres on loan for the season. Playing in the top tier in an European league is a big deal but I feel like Jeferson has a part to play for us, especially when rotation is ripe later on in the season. I turn it down and offer them another promising young holding midfielder called Jose Jaimes but they aren’t too keen on the idea. Worth a try.

All these transfer offers coming in have me hassling my scouts for updated reports and potential future signings. There’s no news on a striker that fits my clincial, strong target man mold yet unfortunately. But, there has been a breakthrough on the wing back front.

21 year old left back Braian Cufre. Currently turning out for Velez Sarsfield in his homeland of Argentina, Eugenio is confident he can slot into our team seamlessly already. Reading his report, it’s hard to argue why. Reasonably quick, a bit of muscle and the engine needed in a modern fullback, he definitely ticks all the boxes. Not to mention that his room to improve is virtually uncapped. When I contact Sarsfield about making an offer, they tell me they are unwilling to sell but upon further investigation, Eugenio finds out that he has a release clause of £1’000’000. So I offer it and bypass a stand-off with the club completely. Try and stop me now.

I have a video call with Braian and his agent. Everything goes swimmingly. He wants to be a rotation player which is exactly what I had in mind. He agrees on just £1’600 a week with a £10’000 bonus for signing on. His agent does try to slap on a release cause which is double of what we’ve paid for him but I audibly snarl upon that suggestion. Does he really think I’m that stupid to allow a release clause so he can be sniped against my will? Does he think I’m Velez Sarsfield?

Luckily, his agent backs down as Cufre seems very keen to join the club which makes me happy. I honestly thought it would be harder than this to convince him but I’m guessing my willingness to pay his release clause shows my faith in him. The contract is drafted, the papers are signed and he takes the #3 jersey.

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Yes, I may have overspent right now but I can guarantee it will be worth it in the long run. He looks like a great addition already and the perfect candidate to take over from Rodriguez when he returns to Aguilas next summer. Welcome my first signing, Braian Cufre.

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Closing my first deal of the window spurs me on to have a look around and see what transfers have been happening elsewhere. There’s not that many of note in all honestly but a couple do catch my eye. The first is Albanian full back Elseid Hysaj moves to Barcelona for £23’500’000 in what I think is finally the perfect replacement for Dani Alves. The other is young Italian midfielder Nicolo Barella joining Brighton from Cagliari for £16’700’000. A signing for the future to say the least. Even if Brighton can’t hold onto him for longer than a couple seasons, I’m sure they’ll turn a decent profit on him.

The 21st arrives quickly as my life for the week prior is just repeating a cycle. Waking up an hour before walking to the Alfonso Lopez. Staff meetings, training and the odd bit of media coverage. A slow meander to a nearby restaurant to collect my pre-ordered delicacies and falling asleep after reviewing clips of our Primera A opponents. It might sound tedious or somewhat mundane but this is as far out of my depth I’ve ever been in my life. Having some structure to follow and minimal surprises suits me just fine.

Game day. The only time I second guess the starting eleven that’s been set in stone for weeks is as I shoot up from a sweat drenched bed following a nightmare. I can’t remember the details but I’m sure it started with my team spontaneously combusting and ended with me renting a flat in Sunderland. Scary stuff.

Our team for Pasto is exactly the same as the team that started against Atlas 2 weeks ago except Ramos takes his well-earned spot in goal. I can’t justify playing Delgado after his awful first half showing against the Colorado Rapids. It’s a very overcast day in Pasto but that hasn’t deterred the fans from coming out in numbers and filling the Estadio Departmental Libertdad. We’ve even got a decent Bucaramanga following which is surprising considering it’s a twenty hour drive. While the last few lads are tying boots and sorting shinpads, I feed Ricardo my pre-game talk. To be fair to him, he delivers it passionately and seems to get the lads pumped up. It wasn’t anything special and half of it was ripped straight from Braveheart but who cares. I take a deep inhale once the changing room has emptied and head towards the beckoning roars of eager South American fans. Let’s win this and get the season started.

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The first chance of my competitive tenure is a Pasto one. In the 11th minute, a deep corner from Hernandez is met by de la Cuesta at the back post who puts a bullet header onto the woodwork. It’s quickly cleared but fuck me, that was too close for comfort. That close call seems to kick us into gear however and we start taking a hold on the game. 10 minutes later, Rangel cuts out a Pasto pass and lays it off to Salazar. He chips a pass to Quintero who plays Romero on the spin. He takes a touch into the 18 yard box before hammering it past the keeper and into the top left corner. It’s a beautiful finish from him and I’m happy to see us looking lively, responding rapidly. Celebrations in front of the away fans are short but sweet. There’s still plenty of football to play but for now, it’s 1-0.

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It takes another 20 minutes for another spell of noteworthy play when Marlon Torres takes the ball forward like a Colombian John Stones, weaving round the desperate lunges of the Pasto front line. He smacks the ball forward for the run of Rodriguez but his ball hits Rangel’s back. It falls nicely for Marlon to take a second bite of the apple with a ball swung in for the back post but it’s an inch too far for Fabio to connect with a diving header. We keep up the high pressure and are rewarded when Rodriguez forces a mistake before linking up with Rangel. After a couple of short passes, the wing back fizzes a pearler of a ball behind for Salazar. Copete does well to stop Kevin’s low cross from falling to Rangel but Romero pounces on the poor touch and toe punts the ball home from 8 yards for his second. A nice cushion before half-time and a brace from Sergio makes me a very happy manager. In fact, all I can do is smile and clap to my team at the interval. I really need to learn Spanish.

Pasto don’t want to give up without a fight as a few minutes after kick-off, they display some easy on the eye passing triangles before squaring across to Rodriguez who releases a shot that’s caught well by Ramos. He hasn’t had to do much, and that’s a credit to our strong back line of course, but the occasional wonder save is much appreciated. Shortly after, more delightful hold up play from Rangel leaves Romero to be played round the back. He tries to pick out the run of Salazar but Alcatraz lives up to his name by guarding his goal with a valiant block. The ball manages to bounce up for Salazar to chest down and strike past the keeper but it rattles the crossbar.

Just after the hour mark, Gonzalez continues his outstanding form with a last ditch sliding challenge to stop Pasto forward Rodriguez from getting a shot off. His long ball up the pitch is nodded down to Romero by his strike partner. He hooks a ball over to Salazar who lays it back into the run of Rangel. He tries to put a cross into the box but it’s cleared by de la Cuesta as far as Cardenas who smacks a volley wide. That’s his last kick of the day as he follows Salazar and Harold Gomez off the pitch with Rovira, Perez and new signing Cufre coming on for the last half an hour. Rodriguez switches to right back to accommodate for our debutant.

With 15 minutes left, a Ramos goal kick is flicked out to the wing for Rovira. He bursts away down the byline and carries it a whole 40 yards before drilling a low ball into the box. Rangel leaps over the ball after hearing a Romero shout but it’s in vain as he scuffs the ball into the ground and all momentum is lost. He really should putting that away and claiming the match ball with that golden chance. Luckily for him, he’s not left to regret it as the game ends at 2-0 with no further chances except a late free kick from Perez landing on the roof of the net.

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It was a game with limited points of interest but we made sure to finish anything we could. Actually, that’s a statement both supported and dispelled by Romero. His second shown that killer instinct as he sprung into action by exploiting a Pasto error but he also had a couple openings where he could have completed his hat-trick. Regardless, we’ve kicked off the season with a win and I couldn’t be happier. Roll on Leones, roll on next week, roll on the rest of this season.

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American Challenge Cup (Episode 4 – Shep: Managerial Globetrotter)

There’s plenty of positives to cover the cracks. For now.

“I totally get it” I sympathetically smile as the words leave my mouth. “Only you know if the time’s right, you know your body better than any physio. Just make sure you give it your all until you hang up your boots at the end of the season.”

Delgado looks at me blankly with an awkward expression on his face. We both look to Ricardo as a cue for him to translate. As he speaks in Spanish to Delgado, the need to learn the language pokes it’s head out of the back of the mind. I can’t go far with this team without at least a loose grasp of Spanish. Ricardo’s not so subtle budge snaps me out of my thought process. I stand up and reach out to shake Luis’ hand.

“Muche merde Luis.” He responds in a similar manner before backing out my office. With Delgado retiring at the end of season and multiple players in the final year of their contract, the way this club has been run seems to be a bit of a mess. Even when disregarding the whole loan situation, vital players such as Gabby Gomez and Perez have less than 12 months to go. While they are obviously important, they still need to earn a new contract like everyone else.

Anyways, the American Challenge Cup. Held in Mexico, it’s a bi-annual affair composed of two groups. After each team in both groups have played each other, the top two teams advance into the semis then the finals. It’s fair to say pretty standard stuff in comparison to the Primera A. I’m excited for this tournament as not only is it good practice and a learning experience for both me and the lads, but the champions could walk away with a healthy reward of around £1’200’000. This would literally double our transfer budget as Oscar has informed me any winnings will go straight into our transfer budget. On top of that, winning a tournament like this in a foreign country could boost brand exposure. To summarise, a good showing in this will undoubtedly be a big boost for a club like us.

Now who will we be facing I hear you ask? We’ve been drawn into a ‘unfavourable’ group. We will face Club Universidad Nacional (U.N.A.M), Tijuana and Atlas. For those unclear, these are all Mexican sides so my plans of exposing ourselves to a foreign following may go down the drain if we beat the hometown clubs. We play Atlas first, followed by Tijuana and close the group stage against U.N.A.M.

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In the other group, Argentinos Juniors join us as the only other South American club. I feel like there’s no need to mention where they are from. They will play the final Mexican team in Veracruz and will also be matched up against the San Jose Earthquakes and Colorado Rapids from the MLS. As cringeworthy as the American club names are, I wouldn’t mind playing a game against either of them. It would be a welcome bonus to converse to some native English speakers, even if they spell and say almost everything wrong.

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While on our short flight north, the fixture list for the Apetura is announced. Our first game is away to Deportivo Pasto while our first game as hosts will be against our third game of the season against Deportivo Cali. February is looking like a difficult month as we play Santa Fe, Nacional, America da Cali AND Junior. That’s four of the five teams who are strong odds to finish in the top eight. Our final game of the Apetura isn’t an easy one either as we welcome Independiente Medellin to the Estadio Alfonso Lopez.

Before lights out in our hotel, Caballero knocks on my door asking me to consider him for the Atlas game. I’m eager to get to bed as it’s been a tiring day so I sleepily nod my head and shut the door. He’s 100% not playing but my man management has to start somewhere and a few white lies can’t hurt.

The reason he’s 100% not playing is because I’m going with exact same eleven me and Ricardo noted a week ago. Delgado in goal with a centre back partnership of Torres and Gonzalez. Harold Gomez on the right and Rodriguez on the left. Captain Gabby Gomez commands from holding midfield while Cardenas and Quintero are either side of him. Salazar starts behind our attacking duo of Romero and Rangel. I’m tempted to call them Rolls Royce, due to their initials, but the last thing this dressing room needs is me trying to shoehorn in another English phrase. They struggled with ‘put a name on it’ for Christ sake.

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Just 4 minutes in, we’re looking lively as Marlon Torres out-jumps Trejo and nods his clearance to Quintero. He flicks a header of his own on to Rangel who squares to Romero. Calderon pushes out of the Atlas line to close down, leaving Quintero space on the near touchline. He controls before placing a deep ball for Salazar to head back across goal and clip the post. Quintero can’t reach the rebound as it’s booted clear upfield. Positive signs so far.

Not even 10 minutes later, we’ve got them on the back foot as Cardenas intercepts a Gouea ball forward . He takes an awful touch which manages to work out as a pass to Gomez who turns and drills the ball to Quintero. Neat one touch passing from him and Romero leaves Rangel 1-on-1. He keeps his cool and whips a shot round the keeper for my first goal as Bucaramanga manager. I leap up and fist pump the air as he wheels off to celebrate. It may look like over-reacting on my end but this tournament could be huge for us. I’m going to take every goal as if it was a goal in the league. Great build up and a tidy finish from Rangel. 1-0.

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Atlas come right back at us as in the 17th minute, Vigon collects a loose ball and passes to Trejo. He spins and lays off Reyes who connects well with the shot but it just skews wide of the near post. This chance seems to help Atlas spring into life as they really start dominating the game after that. After about 10 minutes of solid possession, a really nice passing move from them accumulates to a Trejo snapshot hitting the side netting. It looks like Delgado had it covered but you can only handle this level of pressure for so long before you get punished.

In the 33rd minute, we defy the odds and actually double our advantage. Aguirre clears a Salazar cross but only as far as Gomez. He holds off Reyes after a difficult first bounce and plays a one-two with Quintero on the edge of the box. Our captain wastes no time as he caresses the ball into the bottom right to make it 2-0. It’s a very good time to score as Atlas were really growing into the game. If we keep it like this until the break, I’ll be over the moon.

The final chance of the first half comes from an in-swinging corner from Cardenas. Gonzalez climbs at the front post but the keeper scrambles across goal to palm clear. The ref blows his whistle shortly after and brings a close to what’s been a very solid Bucaramanga half. Atlas may have held the majority of the ball but they keep trying diagonal balls over to their wingers which Harold and Fabio have been heading away for fun. I internally debate whether to leave the team as it is but decide to make the one change with Nunez replacing Salazar for the second half.

We keep pushing for more goals not long after kick off when a ball over the top from Cardenas is cut out by Aguirre. However, Rangel uses his strength to budge him off balance and shoot but a great reflex save from Hernandez denies him a brace. Atlas aren’t disheartened however as in the 56th minute, Reyes, Trejo and Vigon exchange passes fluently before Trejo strikes from just inside the box. He beats Delgado but the ball rattles the underside of the crossbar before Rodriguez can clear. I can’t help but feel lucky.

With 25 minutes to go, we win a throw in at the halfway line. Fabio takes and Cardenas delightfully flicks the ball over his head with his knee onto Rangel. Michael shields the ball until Fabio overlaps. He looks up and plays a ball round the back for Romero. A lucky bounce off his standing foot makes Aguirre misstep but there’s no luck involved in the strike as Sergio laces the ball across Hernandez into the bottom right for our third. After the celebration, Rovira and Vallecilla come on for Cardenas and Harold Gomez retrospectively.

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Another double change follows five minutes later when Mojica and Palacios take to the field. Gabby Gomez is applauded off the pitch by the away fans and even a few Atlas fans. He’s been magnificent today. We change to a 4-2-3-1 with a defensive focus for the remaining 20 minutes. My final change shortly follows with Perez replacing Man of the Match Romero.

Atlas do manage to pull one back 10 minutes from time with another swift passing move. Reyes dinks a ball into Vigon who wraps his boot round a volley that nestles into the bottom right. Delgado’s clean sheet is gone but it’s a great way to lose it. A scuffed Perez chance in added time is the last chance of the game in what’s been a great first performance. I have a couple worries about the fitness of this team as some players were tired after 70 minutes but overall, there’s plenty of positives to cover the cracks. For now.

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The other game in our group between Tijuana and U.N.A.M finished 2-1 to the former, meaning a win over them in two days time will most likely progress us into the knockout semi-finals.

My first and only port of call in our sole day off is listing Jose Jaimes up for loan. Apparently, there’s rules in South America regarding immediate transfers of players signed in the same window. This mean Cabellero can’t be loaned out and Pernia can’t be sold until the summer. Which is great.

For our game against Tijuana, I basically want to start our second team a.k.a most of the players who came off the bench against Atlas. Ramos gets the nod in goal in his turn to show me why he deserves to start. Palacios replaces Gonzalez next to Torres with the full backs retaining their places. Rovira comes in for Quintero despite his solid performance last time out. Nunez partners Rangel up top as I’m interested to see how the typical big man, little man partnership works.

*Meta-Note: I upped the difficulty from this game on to Ultimate as the Atlas game felt too easy.*

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It takes a little longer for the first chance of this game as it’s the 10th minute when Rovira releases Nunez down the far side. He cut backs and crosses to the edge where Rovira arrives to volley a few yards over. Shortly after, Tijuana are the ones attacking when Gamiz cuts out a Salazar pass and finds Lucero upfield. A lovely first time pass behind for Angulo is followed up by a low ball across the face of goal which forces a strong save from Ramos.

In the 24th minute, Rangel passes to Nunez who manages to hold off the defender well despite being vertically challenged. He plays a reverse ball for Rovira who is through on goal. He bombs forward but with the defender catching, he has to shoot from around 20 yards out. He catches it well but it just rises over the bar. Half an hour in, we do break the deadlock when Palacios puts in a brilliant challenge on Lucero before switching the play to Salazar. He plays a nice give and go with Rangel which creates the space to float a ball into the middle where Cardenas leaps high to power a header home. 1-0 to the good.

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In the second minute of added time, the ref is glancing at his watch as Rodriguez hoofs the ball forward. Rangel takes it down nicely and tries a chipped ball over for Nunez. Munoz gets there first but his poor touch allows Nunez to burst round him and take the ball towards goal. He holds Munoz at an arms length before slotting the ball into the bottom left. I sit back with the smuggest grin on my face as Nunez is mobbed and hugged by his team-mates.

As the lads trail in at half-time, I wait at the door until they are all seated before putting both thumbs up. “Bueno.” I mutter. “Moy bueno! Brillante, perfecto!” The players look side to side worringly as I stop. I rearrange my tie and clear my throat. “Ricardo, tell them to do the exact same again please.”

A few minutes into the second half, a great block from Gabby Gomez is followed up by a questionable parry out for a corner from Ramos. It’s whipped in to Topo who lost his marker in Salazar but Ramos gets down quickly to push it out for another corner. It comes to nothing as it’s punched out by Ramos. With half an hour to go, I take both Harold and Gabby Gomez off with Gonzalez and Quintero taking to the field. Quintero doesn’t take long to make an impact as he curls a lovely ball round the back for Salazar with his first touch but the shot is a poor one.

In the 65th minute, we win a corner which Nunez goes over to take. He puts a pinpoint ball to the front post where Gonzalez climbs and flicks past the flailing arms of the keeper. That was way too easy for him to extend our already comfortable lead in what must only be his second or third touch of the match. Romero and Perez replace Rangel and Salazar before the game restarts.

Tijuana’s frustration really shows as they have a number of desperate long distance efforts sail high and wide over the next 15 minutes until one is deflected away for a corner. The intital cross is headed up into the air by Romero but the second ball is nodded goalwards by Castillo. Gonzalez sprints across the goal-line and heroically leaps to block a certain goal with his head. He glances over as the ball is in the air to lock eyes and nod his head in a ‘I know that was cool’ manner. Love that from Dairin.

The penultimate minute of normal time sees the final chance of the game as Ramos holds onto his clean sheet with an outstanding low save from a driven strike. The game finishes 3-0 and it’s another great performance. We actually had a lower amount of shots and less possession but we scored our 3 shots on target. Clinical stuff from the lads with all areas of the pitch chipping into the goal tally. I really liked the Rangel and Nunez partnership, they linked up well. But it will be hard to ignore Romero’s performance against Atlas. Decisions, decisions.

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Elsewhere, U.N.A.M and Atlas play out a 1-1 draw meaning that we are guaranteed to advance into the knockout stages. This really gives me the freedom to play any fringe players and experiment with the line-up.

The first incoming transfer offer of the window comes from Turkish Super Lig side Trabzonspor for Jhon Perez. They offer £700’000 which is a lot of money but we can’t afford to lose him for under his value. My million pound counter offer is rejected so negotiations are closed.

Palacios asks to keep his place in the team and I happily oblige as I’m planning on playing him regardless. The game against U.N.A.M. is going to be my 4-3-3 play-time. Ramos is in goal after impressing me much more than Delgado did. Aguirre is on the bench as I intend to play him in the second half. Quinones starts with Vallecilla on the left of defence while the right half of defence against Tijuana remain. Quintero is our captain for the day as Gomez isn’t starting. Jimenez partners him with Mojica in front of them both as an attacking midfielder. Asprilla’s out on the left, Filigrana’s on the right and Romero is the lone striker. It sounds like he’s isolated when worded that way but Mojica, Asprilla and Filigrana are encouraged to overlap and intertwine to avoid just that. On paper, we’ll look like the triple threat at Liverpool but let’s hope it works out like that in execution.

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It’s a bit of a slow burner as the first 20 minutes are mainly a midfield battle but on cue, Mojica collects a poor Cabrera pass which bounces to Rangel. He does well to wait before slotting Mojica in 1 on 1. The ball is a touch too heavy but Mojica gets there first, only to be denied by the onrushing palm of Magana. It deflects back to Mojica off Quintero’s stomach and he taps home but celebrations are cut short as the offside flag is raised so the goal is disallowed. It’s the correct call from the linesman but it would have set us up nicely if he got that one wrong.

Five minutes later, a textbook slide tackle straight out of the 80’s from Harold Gomez wins possession. He follows it up nicely as he plays a long ball all the way over for Quintero of all players to run onto but Cesar drills his shot off the bar. The last action of the half is worrying as Romero stays down holding his shoulder after challenging for a header. He insists he can play on but Rangel takes his place as a precaution. Sergio seems a bit ticked off but I’d hate for him to aggravate it more or hinder the team in any way. As he walks off with one of the physios, I stress about the thought of losing him through injury. He’s looked great so far and with only one fit striker, I’d have to change my game plan for the entire season.

It’s scoreless after what’s been a pretty quiet half of football. While nobody has exactly done anything wrong, I make a triple change with Gonzalez, Rodriguez and Gabby Gomez replacing Quintero, Harold Gomez and Palacios. I’m hoping the fresh legs at the back of the pitch will keep us one step ahead defensively.

Well that fucking backfired. U.N.A.M’s corner after a Gonzalez block is put in to the front post. The header from Alustriza hits the woodwork but Hernandez reacts first to stab home and give them the lead. You would think I’d be frustrated but with it being the first time going 1-0 down, I’m intrigued to see how the team reacts and tries to get back into the game.

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The answer is they don’t. The rest of the match is all U.N.A.M. A particular spell between the 70th and the 75th minute highlights some defensive frailties as Ramos has to bring out a series of outstanding saves. Shortly after, a venomous strike from Barrera dents the post. Aguirre tugs on my trousers like an upset toddler reminding me he should have played the second half. I mutter ‘siento’ apologetically while I notify the fourth offical. He finishes the game in goal with Mojica also coming on for Cardenas in the last 10 minutes.

We do have one last chance to snatch a point in the 90th minute when Jimenez sprays a long ball out wide from the center circle. Asprilla turns on the burners to catch the ball and keep it in touch. He puts a decent ball in between the two centre backs for Filigrana to meet but his header glances a couple yards wide. The ref brings the game to a close immediately after and I sigh a defeated sigh. We’ve lost our first game but at least the scoreline was respectable. We really challenged in the first half but couldn’t pick ourselves up after going down early in the second half. Overall however, we can enter the knockout stages with our heads held high.

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Tijuana beat Atlas 2-1 in the other fixture but due to our superior goal difference, we go through top of the group.

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Veracruz topped their group undefeated while our next opponents Colorado Rapids also took 6 points. In all honestly, I would have rather we came second as I think the Rapids are a stronger side but we need a big challenge sooner or later, and I did say I wanted to play one of the MLS teams at some point. I’m not really sure what I want to be honest. Except a win. I want a win.

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In eagerly awaited news, Romero has only bruised his shoulder and will be out for just under a week. A wave of relief is an understatement. He may even be safe to come off the bench if we reach the final. In arguably even better news, Alvarez contacts me to let me know that £310’000 is available as a reward from the tournament organisers for reaching the knockouts. This brings up our total transfer kitty around £1’600’000 now so we’ll definitely look into the market once we’re back in Colombia.

During preparation for our semi-final, Ricardo pulls me aside to tell me he’s signed me an agent. I appreciate the gesture until he walks round the corner. I can only describe him as flamboyant. Arms swinging, wide grin, over-exaggerated movements. This guy can only be from one place.

“Ahh, bonjour!” Of course he’s French. During the small intervals he stopped talking, I managed to find out his name is Pierre Pinot. You really couldn’t make it up. From his short monologue, he seems to be quite ‘head in the clouds’. Talking about managing the biggest clubs and even international management one day. He might help me get better contracts at some point however I decide to play along. If he thinks he’s helping me, chances are he will actually help me at some point. Even if it’s by accident.

Game day arrives and I’ve decided my experiment with wide players was a bit of a flop. It wasn’t catastrophic and I envision a time in which it will return but for now, we go back to our normal formation. Delgado is back in goal despite Ramos impressing in the last two matches. Our strongest line of defence is available so all of them are playing. Rovira comes in for Salazar with Cardenas playing further forward. Rangel and Nunez are together again up front. I thought those two would be trying to score past ex-Everton veteran Tim Howard but he’s on the bench today.

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10 minutes in, a Torres clearance header is picked up by Boateng who plays it forward to Acosta. He can play a simple pass into the box and even though Delgado comes out to close down the angle, Giles Barnes manages to slot it under his arm and into the back of the net. 1-0 Rapids.

Another ten minutes pass before the next chance when Torres heads another cross away but this time, it drops straight to Cardenas. He turns away from Nicholson at speed and finds Nunez around 25 yards out. He sets himself before blasting a dipping shot onto the post. Harold Gomez is there first for the rebound but he scuffs it miles over the bar. A couple minutes later, Nunez is the provider when he puts a cross towards the box. It’s a poor cross in all fairness but Rangel runs back on himself to half volley an effort towards the top corner. Macmeth casually plucks the ball out the air and holds to slow our new found momentum.

The final 10 minutes of the first 45 are hectic ones. In the 36th minute, a deft flick on from Barnes lets Gashi run wide and put a ball into the danger zone for Nicholson to nod over Delgado and double their lead. Not even five minutes pass before they get a third as Hairston threads Nicholson down the near side. He plays a little chip to the front post where Barnes is there to flick on after Harold mis-times his leap. Delgado spreads himself to block but the ball deflects off the inside of his elbow and in to put us 3-0 down. It really isn’t our day at all.

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Or is it? Right from the restart, Cardenas takes off on a weaving run and finds himself out wide. He even manages to put a good cross into the box where Gabby Gomez awaits but the ball bounces off his head into the side netting. I would give him the benefit of the doubt and say it was an unusual heading technique but he literally stood still and let it hit his forehead. I tiresomely look to Rangel as that’s where he should be, that’s where he’s been thriving in training drills. He would have finished that nine times out of ten.

I try to express my disgust at the first half performance but I can’t. I could easily rip into them in English. Tell them Stevie Wonder would have seen more passes, tell them a paraplegic would have made better movements, a number of witty insults listed in my mind but these fuckers have to speak Spanish.

“Mierda!” I shout into an eerily silent changing room. Ricardo even jumps slightly as I erupt. I point a finger at Delgado. “Meirda!” My finger drags over to Harold Gomez. “Meirda!” I cover the entire team with one fluent wag of my finger. “Muy mierda! Ricardo, tell them the changes on this sheet while I go and puncture my eyeballs with a pen.” My assistant smiles, presumably not understanding the severity of my last sentence, and begins to speak as I turn and walk out the room.

Ricardo should have told them to take up a 4-2-3-1 for the second half with the aim of a constellation goal and minimising embarrassment. Asprilla replaces Quintero, Nunez moves out to the right while Cardenas remains behind Rangel. As the lads run past me out onto the pitch, the phrase ‘cero-cero’ echoes after them. We might be in Spain but a first half as shit as that needs a Sunday league catchphrase.

Things are looking much better as we control the play and put pressure on the Colorado defenders for the first 10 minutes of the second half. But we get shot back down to earth in the 56th minute as a Wynne ball from inside his own 18 yard box is flicked on by Hairston. Nicholson chases and crosses to Gashi who thunders a header into the very top right corner. Four fucking nil and, not to point fingers, but it’s Harold Gomez at fault again. A ball from that far back should not be catching him out. Vallecilla replaces him out of frustration. Salazar also comes on for Cardenas.

In the 63rd minute, Nunez tracks back and bullies Castillo off the ball on the half way line. He passes to Rangel who evades Acosta’s slide with a nice drag back and plays into Asprilla. He runs across the centre backs and nips past Wynne’s challenge before smashing home. It’s a cracking goal but at 4-1, it’s surely too late for a comeback.

With 20 minutes left, I decide to go all out and change to 3-4-1-2 with Perez, Jeferson Torres and Palacios all being subbed on.

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A few minutes later, a game of head tennis in the Rapid’s midfield is interrupted by Salazar. Nunez gathers the loose ball and plays Rangel down the right hand side. He squares it back for Nunez once level with the 6 yards box but another breath-taking save from Macmeth denies us a second goal. The ball is parried out to Perez who does well to hit the ball low and hard but again, Macmeth somehow gets across to hold the ball before it crosses the line. Even I have to applaud that, outstanding goalkeeping.

The game sizzles out from there and as a result, it finishes 4-1. It was a really poor first half followed by an above average second half. I’m disappointed to leave the tournament and Mexico in this way but Colorado Rapids deserved the victory. If they play like they did in the first half in the final, they’ll lift the trophy themselves.

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On the bright side, another £440’000 tops up our transfer funds taking our total to around £2’000’000. As well as an extra three quarters of a million, we’ve got an invaluable learning experience which is always welcome. A few players, such as Asprilla, have really shone while others have let me down. But we’re only four games into what’s going to be a long and lengthy season. We fly back to Colombia with our first game in 11 days and a somewhat subdued spring in our step. Bring it on.

Atlético Bucaramanga (Episode 3 – Shep: Managerial Globetrotter

A nice mix of experience and youth, physicality and technicality balanced evenly.

It’s only when I stop off the plane at the Palonegro Airport that I realise just how hard living in Bucaramanga is going to be. Managerial induced panic attacks aside, we sit less than 500 miles from the equator. The predicted forecast for January is exactly the same as February. And March. And each of the other months. Give or take a few days of rain, the weather will remain between 20°C (68°F) and 27°C (81°F) all year round. I’ll most likely be climatised by the time the Apetura begins but right now, as a pale hyperbolic Brit: I want to die.

Upon arrival to the airport, following a slightly extended search from Colombian airport security, I’m greeted by the first team coach/translator holding a sign with ‘Mr. Shep’ scrawled in red marker pen. A wide grin spreads across his face as I step within touching distance.

“Ah Shep, it is a pleasure to see you once again” he bellows excitedly, gripping my hand in an equally enthusiastic handshake. “We were going to send a taxi but I thought ‘No, no, that will not do!’ and decided to collect you myself. Welcome to Santander!”

I smile back and avoid using what I think is his name in any of my short responses until we are seated in his battered and bruised Toyota pick up. The car sparks into life on his second attempt but he turns to me before we set off. “My name is Ricardo by the way. Ricardo Perez. I could tell you did not remember Shep but do not be afraid! My… myy, er… what is the word, I understand you mentally even though you do not speak?”

“Telepathic” I mutter.

“Yes, you see? You understand me and I understand you, we are telepathic. With this power, we will always be on the same book.” It takes me a few seconds to correct him on the phrase but his spirited manner doesn’t deflate. He continues to talk and talk until about a minute of interrupted discord has emptied his lungs.

“Listen, Ricardo. I share your level of passion and anticipation for our new working relationship but right now, I’m sleep deprived, I’m jetlagged and I haven’t ate in twenty-four hours. I’m happy to carry this on tomorrow morning when I’m fresh and fed but for now, can we just, talk as friends and not colleagues?” I feel a wave of guilt looking at Ricardo’s pouted bottom lip but he manages to force a smile.

“Of course. Rest your eyes, it will take half an hour.” The rest of the drive is a little awkward but I pretend to be asleep for the majority of it. The car clock just ticks over to midnight as we pull up outside an apartment building which is easily 20 stories high. Even though it’s night, I can clearly see the vibrant colours of yellow, green and red splashed at each level. We ride the elevator to Piso 18 multiple times to take all my luggage up and arrive at 18b. Turning away from the questionably dingy and faded blue door, Ricardo turns and hands me the key. “First month is courtesy of the club. It’s a little expensive but it’s worth it, I promise.”

Any mild frustration about being ditched with a flat I didn’t pick are quashed quickly. The apartment is a tad small but surprisingly nice. Well furnished, nice worktops, a little tattered but nothing unbearable. Ricardo eagerly ushers me over to the sliding door that leads out onto the balcony. He pulls out his phone and jabbers in Spanish for a couple seconds before leaning over the railing. All of a sudden, a huge floodlight around half a mile away flickers on in the distance followed by two more, illuminating the strikingly coloured stands of the Estadio Alfonso Lopez. It’s truly a beautiful sight which is just walking distance away. As I spin to thank Ricardo, my door clicks closed. I stare out at my new workplace while my food cooks, eat and fall asleep in preparation for my first day and meeting my squad.

I wander down to the stadium around 3 o’clock local time. My body clock is still six hours behind so I only wake an hour prior to the training session. Meeting all the players is a series of awkward encounters as only a few speak English and those that do? They speak very, very little. I will make an attempt to learn Spanish but Ricardo provides me with a few key words to get through this training session. So, after one training session and some analysis from my right hand man, I write up an assessment of the squad:

– Goalkeepers:

Luis Delgado – At the ripe age of 37, Delgado is a Bucaramanga native who has is heavily experienced. An all round solid keeper who’s won the title with Millonairos, he’s looking like first choice to me.

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Nelson Ramos – Another well seasoned, all rounder choice in net. Also surprisingly good at free kicks, might come in handy at some point.

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James Aguirre – Younger (26) and smaller (5’11) than the previous two keepers, Aguirre is another decent keeper option and still has some room to improve.

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Manuel Loaiza – The weakest option in between the posts, Loaiza is only 23. However, even with the guidance from veterans Delgado and Ramos, I don’t see him building much further.

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 – Wing-backs:

Fabio Rodriguez – Loaned in from Rionegros Aguilas until July 2019, the 32 year old is exactly want you’d expect when I say a good left back. Good speed, good tackler. He’s caught out by runs more often than I’d like but he’ll most likely start in my defence.

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Harold Gomez – Another old fashioned wing back, Harold is a likely to be on the opposite side of Fabio regularly and will undoubtedly do the job asked of him 9/10 times.

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Marvin Vallecilla – Almost a carbon copy of Gomez but on the left hand side, Marvin will be a handy rotation player to fill in with things get hectic.

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 – Centre-backs:

Marlon Torres – Marlon looks like he’s gonna be a great player with big things ahead of him. Already strong, good in the air and most importantly a tough centre back, I can see him starting most games under my tenure.

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Dairin Gonzalez – What Dairin lacks in pace, he makes up for in strength. He is an absolute unit who stands at 6’3 and I’m sure he will bully opposition attackers and keep them at bay.

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Jeison Palacios – Jeison didn’t blow me away but he didn’t disappoint me either. He just doesn’t have any area in which he excels right now. A strong 3rd choice behind Torres and Gonzalez.

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Jeison Quinones – Only 20 years old, the other Jeison has a bit of speed to him for a centre back but failed to impress in other areas. I might give him so one-on-one training to help him develop as he might have a future here.

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Henry Pernia – A bit of strength is Henry’s only positive battling a long list of cons. He doesn’t seem to have any footballing awareness and he’ll probably be sold as soon as possible as he doesn’t have a place here.

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 – Wide Midfielders:

Maximiliano Nunez – Arguably the most talented out of our 3 foreigners, Maxi is very fast, agile and decent with the ball at his feet. The Argentine is able to play down the right or up front and he definitely offers something important to this Bucaramanga squad.

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Yuber Asprilla – The namesake of one of my favourite Newcastle players from our golden era, Asprilla looks like the perfect super sub. Playing on either wing or an advanced central position, his lightning speed could open games up late on against tired back lines.

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Yilmar Filigrana – Very middle of the road right sided winger. Okay speed, good dribbler but lacking elsewhere.

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Johan Caballero – Johan didn’t set the pitch alight and there’s a few gaps in his game but he’s only 20 and I’n confident he will grow. He’s likely to go out on loan if possible.

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 – Central Midfielders:

We have an array of players to play in the middle of the park so I’m going to split them into two categories.

 – Holding Midfielders:

Brayan Rovira – What a player we have here. Unfortunately, he’s only ours for the season as he’s loaned in from Nacional. Hard working, strong tackling, ball pinging holding man at just 21 years old? Yes fucking please.

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Cesar Quintero – Another very viable option who can control games. With a 6’2 intimidating frame, Cesar is impressive physically but surprisingly good with the ball at his feet. Ricardo tells me he can also do a job out wide as an ‘anti-winger’ (think Stoke Arnautovic) which is something I can utilise throughout the season.

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Gabriel Gomez – Gabby Gomez is probably the one player I knew prior to research about the club. Capped 149 times for Panama, Gomez is a remarkable player for 33 years old and is definitely the natural leader of this team. Captain material personified.

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Juan David Jimenez – Slightly less rated by Ricardo than the aforementioned midfielders, Juan Jimenez looks like an mediocre option to come in. He’s likely to cover for the better midfielders in lesser games and come on as a sub.

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Jeferson Torres – While Jeferson lacks in his techincal game, he’s a workhorse who will give his best 100% of the time. He’s only 21 too so again, a promising choice for the future.

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Jose Jaimes – Jose is just a bully. He may be 20 but he’s 6’4 and very strong. He most likely won’t get a look in for us so he’s another one on the theoretical loan list.

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 – Attacking Midfielders:

Sherman Cardenas – Sherman is probably our best player. And he’s not even ours. Another loanee from Nacional, Cardenas is a great dribbler with a touch of flair and a knack for set pieces. He has a decent shot on him too and will be the main playmaker in this team until the end of the 2019 Apetura. Makes me wonder how strong Nacional’s team is if they can afford to loan this level of player out.

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Jhon Perez – A solid attacking midfielder we actually own, I’m looking forward to seeing what he can do for us. He doesn’t have a particular area in which he excels but ticks all the boxes he needs to.

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Kevin Salazar – Kevin is yet another player that’s loaned in but his parent club is Santa Fe. He’s ambidextrous, a great playmaker and at just 22, I can’t help but feel Santa Fe will thank us for how much he’ll develop in this season.

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Harrison Mojica – All I can say is wow. This guy is the game changer in my opinion. Scarily fast, freakishly agile and a tendency to throw in a skill or two in his weaving runs, Mojica can terrify defenders for us. But, of course, he’s on loan from Deportivo Cali for the season.

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 – Strikers:

Sergio Romero: Sergio isn’t exactly what I want in a striker but he’s exactly what you need. He’s not slow, he can run with the ball, use both feet and seems to finish his chances adequately. For now, he’s perfect.

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Michael Rangel: Rangel is your stereotypical number 9. He’s not the fastest but boy does he know where the goal is. Strong, a lethal right boot and dangerous in the air, he’s looking like the talisman tasked with scoring the goals for us this season. Beaming ear to ear as I watch him flick a header home, Ricardo informs me he is also on loan from Junior. Give us a fucking break.

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So just in case you weren’t keeping count, that’s 6 of the 15/16 players in contention for a spot in the starting XI who will be leaving us at the end of the year or halfway through next. A memory of the club’s financial hardship emerges from the rear of my mind and I begin to worry. Transfer funds will most likely be low. Albeit, more than I’ve had to spend in previous jobs but too low for this level. Are my signings merely going to be replacements for outgoing loanees and not actually improving the squad?

Overall however, this squad is a very strong squad. A nice mix of experience and youth, physicality and technicality balanced evenly. Any additions I can make will be a bonus obviously but so far? I like what I’m working with. Me and Ricardo discuss our best starting line-up and apart from a slight disagreement on the formation, we come to a mostly collective decision.

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To make use of our almost excessive amount of quality central midfielders, we’ll play a narrow 4-1-2-1-2. This thin diamond will highlight our strengths as we can use quick, delicate passing to build up the attacks . I’ve advised the strikers to drag wide if they feel they can create space as the midfield has license to get forward and make up the numbers in an attack.

When defending, I want to keep a relatively high line with a narrow shape. I’ve advised the defenders to retain said organised shape until an opportunity arises to pressure the opposition like a loose ball or a heavy touch. Ricardo advises me to load the box on corners so we’ll have a high number of players to attack the ball.

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In terms of personnal, it was a toss up between Delgado and Ramos as they’re both very solid keepers. Rotation is looking likely in-between the sticks. Gonzalez and Marlon Torres are paired up with Rodriguez and Harold Gomez besides them. As I mentioned Palacios is a solid third choice centre back while the wing backs pick themselves. Gabby Gomez takes the holding midfield spot with the captain’s armband wrapped firmly around his bicep. Cardenas and Quintero play behind Salazar who’s tasked with playmaking duties. Our only two strikers in Rangel and Romero finish our starting eleven.

Oscar Alvarez and the board arranged a meeting with me to discuss targets, expectations and my transfer budget late at night so come January 1st (tomorrow), I’m in the know.

Alvarez suggests a play-off semi final for both the Apetura and the Clasura but he makes sure to know that this will be a bonus and not an expectation. He isn’t expecting fireworks from us this season but wants me to help build a squad capable of pushing for more next season.  Oscar is visibly upset when he tells me about the lack of fans at recent games, especially in the Clasura last season so he wants me to try get Bucaramanga some exposure with a run of high attendance games. He also mentions producing a youth player and try to intergrate him into the senior team but he follows this up by telling me that we don’t have any youth scouts. So I don’t really know what the fuck he wants me to do there but again, he states that it’s not a big deal. The big objective he gives me is obviously related to the finances of the club. He wants me to make the club money this year. He gives a figure around £2.5 million which, looking at our squad and the amount of loanees we have, is going to be difficult to do without completely dismantling the squad. I smile and nod knowing that he’s basically asking me to rob a bank.

Now the transfer budget. I wasn’t expecting a huge amount by any stretch of the imagination and in all fairness, it’s not exactly awful. I’ve been granted the equivalent of around £1’300’000 to spend. Alvarez emphasises that this can be adjusted in regards to wage budget so if a player is demanding higher wages, an amount can be knocked off the transfer budget to accommodate and vice versa. It’s reassuring to see some flexibility regarding transfers as considering the club’s financial predicament, I was certain an amount was going to be provided and virtually set in stone. Oscar finishes the meeting with a simple statement which solidifies his trust in our relationship:

“If you want them and I can afford them, we will sign them.”

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And with that sentence ringing in my ears, I draft up our top 3 priorities in this transfer window:

  1. A striker. Having two out-and-out strikers and deciding to play two up front won’t work. Even if we change to a sole striker, only having one as cover is worrying. Preferably an experienced, strong centre forward to really lead from the front.
  2. A wing back. Similar to our situation at the other end of the pitch, we’re in short supply and I don’t really fancy playing three at the back. Rodriguez is also on loan until next summer so maybe a younger signing to come in as understudy and develop this season.
  3. An attacking midfielder. Three of our four players in this position are on loan. Salazar and Mojica will leave at the end of the season but Asprilla and Nunez can do a job there too. Not as urgent of a problem yet but something to keep in mind as we progress through the season.

Now I don’t have any exact players in mind which is why I arrange a get together with the clubs talent scouts to discuss where I want them looking for potential signings. Chief scout Adan Luna will remain here in Colombia while Bolivian Eugenio Villalba heads south into Argentina. I debate sending Brazilian Afonso Cabral to my home country of England but I back my own knowledge and research of the English leagues so heads up to the USA for his business. I’m hoping we can convince some of the South Americans playing up there to come back home and ply their trade for us. Plus, scouting in our own league not only helps view future signings but also helps me highlight key players for our opposition.

Ricardo comes into my office as the scouts leave. “Shep, I wanted to wait until you were settled more but you look pretty comfortable now. We have been invited to three pre-season tournaments. All of them pay around the same amount of money for winning so…” He lays three envelopes on the desk in front of me. “Take your pick.”

I dramatically cover my eyes, sprial my finger upwards and back down onto the envelope in the middle. He slowly drags the envelope from under my finger, gradually opens the envelope and clears his throat.

“The American Challenge Cup. Pack your bags, we fly to Mexico tomorrow!”

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Colombian Football 101 (Episode 2 – Shep: Managerial Globetrotter)

It’s undoubtedly more complicated than any league in Europe.

Packing for a holiday is stressful. Packing to move house is even more stressful. Now combine the two and replace your Spanish holiday island with the North East of Colombia. I can already sense the sympathy.

I largely underestimated how much I had to do when I somewhat impulsively took this job. Taking over the reigns of a top tier football club is hard enough but add the pressure of learning a new language and moving over 5000 miles to the other side of the globe. It’s a mammoth task and one I’m almost positive will break me at some point. I won’t fall at the first hurdle by missing my flight however as I arrive at Heathrow 3 hours early. As I pull out my trusty laptop, it dawns on me that I don’t know the first thing about Colombian football. Obviously I know a few teams and a bit of history about Bucaramanga but in terms of format, external competitions or relegation, I’m honestly clueless. I connect to the free wi-fi and officially kick off my journey by googling ‘Liga Aguila’.

Now I wasn’t expecting a simple format where you play each team twice and that’s it. I knew there was some funky differences but it’s undoubtedly more complicated than any league in Europe. The league even has multiple fucking names. Liga Aguila, Liga Postobon, Categoria Primera A. So make sure you keep up.

Liga Aguila/Postobon/Primera A – A (Not So Brief) Summary

A season is split down the middle with a ‘mini-season’ either side of June and July. January to May is called the ‘Apetura’ (opening in Spanish) and August to November is called the ‘Finalizacion’ or the ‘Clasura’ (ending or closing in Spanish.) As I mentioned before, there are 20 teams each of which play each other once in your standard round-robin format. After each team has played one another, the top eight teams advance to the knockout stage. This is a relatively new change from a few seasons ago when the top eight would split into two groups with the winners of the groups playing a home and away tie to decide the champions.

But we weren’t here a few seasons ago so let’s focus on the current format we’ll be dealing with. The top eight will be drawn into home and away ties with each other. The four winners of the ties will progress to the semi finals where the two finalists will play each other two more times with the winners on aggregate being crowned the champions. As the season is split into the Apetura and the Finalizacion, there is potential for two different champions in one season of Colombian football. There strangely isn’t an ‘ultimate champions’ play-off if this scenario comes up, which is more often than not. I can’t help but think that a huge commercial opportunity is being missed there but hey, I’m just a manager.

I wouldn’t blame you if your head is a bit rattled by this system because I felt a stint of hangover deja-vu with the headache it gave me. There’s only a few more details so bare with me. The fixture list you receive in the Apetura will be the exact reverse in the Finalizacion meaning the first team you play at home in the Apetura will be the first team you play away in the Finalizacion. Also, relegation to the Categoria Primera B is bizarrely decided by the lowest average points over the last three seasons? I have no clue either.*

Finally. and most importantly, the champions of the Apetura and the Finalizacion will qualify for the following years Copa Libertadores, the South American version of the Champions League.

The Copa Libertadores is one of the most prestigious club competitions in the world, if not the most prestigious. And I don’t say that lightly. South Americans are known for their passion so nights in the Copa Libertadores are some of the best atmospheres in the world. Many players from Brazil, Argentina, Chile and even my new home Colombia have been quoted as saying they’d rather win the Copa Libertadores with their hometown club than win the World Cup so this tournament is a big deal. And my vision is to see my Bucaramanga team win it.

Let’s not get ahead of ourselves as we have to beat the teams in the league to get anywhere near the likes of River Plate, Colo-Colo and Palmeiras. I glance at my watch and see it’s still 2 hours until the flight so I decide to do some in depth research about each team in the Liga Aguila, Primera A, whatever the fuck it’s called.

Alianza Petrolera

From: Barrancabermeja, Santander

Ground: Estadio Daniel Villa Zapata (Cap: 10’400)

Last Season: 10th in Apetura – 18th in Finalizacion

A relatively new team at the tender age of 26, Los Petroleras don’t have that much history to recite. They only have the one trophy in the cabinet, the 2012 Primera B trophy which granted them their first ever season in the top tier the following year. They are our also our closest geographical rivals in a spread-out division so I’m looking forward to playing them.

America de Cali

From: Cali, Valle del Cauca

Ground: Estadio Olimpico Pascual Guerrero (Cap: 35’400)

Last Season: 7th in Apetura, Semi Finals – 6th in Finalizacion, Semi Finals

A much older and more successful club, America de Cali share a nickname with Manchester United as Los Diablos Rojos (The Red Devils). They picked up this nickname in the 30’s for being described as ‘playing like devils’, with the devil being added to the club crest shortly after. They have spent 65 of their 91 years as a football club battling in the top flight, being the third most successful team in Colombia with 13 top flight titles. The most recent of these titles was added in 2008. America de Cali have a fierce local derby with Deportivo Cali and competitive rivalries with some of the biggest Colombian clubs (Millionaros, Santa Fe and Atletico Nacional).

Atletico Huila

From: Neiva, Huila

Ground: Estadio Guillermo Plazas Alcid (Cap: 27’000)

Last Season: 15th in Apetura – 10th in Finalizacion

Runners up twice in the last 12 years, Huila are another young club at just 27 years old but wasted no time in trying to establish themselves at the top level. They only have two Primera B titles to their name in their short history and with their performances from last season in mind, it’s safe to assume they won’t add a first Primera A title soon.

Atletico Nacional

From: Medellin, Antioquia

Ground: Estadio Atanasio Girardot (Cap: 40’050)

Last Season: 1st in Apetura, Champions – 3rd in Finalizacion, Quarters

This lot are the big boys of Colombian football. They added their 16th first tier title last year, beating Deportivo Cali 5-3 on aggregate making them the most successful club in Colombian football history. Nacional are one of the two Colombian teams to win the Copa Libertadores but are the only side to win it twice (1989 and 2016). Due to the colour of their crest and kit, a lot of their nicknames revolve the phrase ‘El Verde’ which translates literally to ‘The Green’. Newcastle cult hero Tino Asprilla and Arsenal keeper David Ospina both plied their trades at Nacional before being snapped up by European clubs (Parma and Nice retrospectively). If there’s anybody to beat for the title this season, it’s Nacional.

Boyaca Chico

From: Tunja, Altiplano Cundiboyacense

Ground: Estadio La Independencia (Cap: 20’600)

Last Season: 5th in Apetura, Champions (Primera B) – 9th in Finalizacion (Primera B) – Tornea Aguila Champions

Boyaca Chico are an extremely new club, being founded in just 2002. In that time however, they have won Primera A, B and C titles which is somewhat impressive. You might think that as the 2nd tier champions, they’d be an easy side to play but they have spent over 80% of their time at the highest level so I’m cautiously wary of Los Ajedrezados (The Checkered). They are a millennial club who are still somehow very experienced.

Deportes Tolimas

From: Ibague, Tolimas

Ground: Estadio Manuel Murillo Toro (Cap: 28’100)

Last Season: 17th in Apetura – 5th in Finalizacion, Semi Finals

Tolima have had a some poor luck in the league as they’ve finished runners up 6 times in their history but only have the sole title, which was won 15 years ago. Their performance last season really define how competitive this league is. After winning just 5 of their games in the Apetura, they came out swinging and finished just 1 point away from the top spot in the Finalizacion before knocking Apetura champions Nacional out in the first knockout round. These seem like a mixed bag but they also give me hope that our lot in Bucaramanga can turn things around if things start sourly.

Deportivo Cali

From: Valle del Cauca

Ground: Estadio Deportivo Cali (Cap: 52’000)

Last Season: 6th in Apetura, Finalists – 14th in Finalizacion

Celebrating their 105th birthday this season, Deportivo Cali are the equally successful rivals of cross town club America de Cali. Winning nine Primera A titles and finishing runners up a whopping 14 times, Deportivo Cali have been in the premier division of Colombian football for almost 70 years and have rooted themselves as a massive club in recent times. Midfield legend Carlos Valderrama appeared 150 times for Los Verdiblancos in his career. I’d be very surprised if we don’t see them in the deeper end of the knockout stage this season.

Deportivo Pasto

From: Pasto, Narino

Ground: Estadio Departmental Libertad (Cap: 20’660)

Last Season: 3rd in Apetura, Quarters – 15th in Finalizacion

Playing out of what seems like a very official sounding stadium, Pasto have only won one Primera A title back in 2006. Unfortunately for them, it doesn’t look like they’ll be changing that any time soon. An away day to Pasto won’t be an easy task however as they are situated in the very south-west of the country whereas Bucaramanga are directly opposite in the North East but I think this is one of the teams we can pick up points from to try reach the knockout stages.

Envigado F.C

From: Envigado, Antioquia

Ground: Estadio Polideportivo Sur (Cap: 11’000)

Last Season: 19th in Apetura – 11th in Finalizacion

Cantera des Heroes. The quarry of heroes. How fucking cool is that nickname? They’re also known as ‘The Orange Team’ which is on the complete other end of the spectrum so I know which one I’m going to use. Envigado is renowned for their youth development with stars such as Fredy Guarin and even James Rodriguez beginning their careers there. Their current squad is made up of homegrown players except for fellow Englishman George Saunders so it’ll be interesting to have a chat with him. They’ve spent 26 of their 28 years in the top flight, finishing as Primera B champions in the other two so they’re definitely a first tier club.

Independiente Medellin

From: Medellin, Antioquia

Ground: Estadio Atanasio Girardot (Cap: 40’050)

Last Season: 2nd in Apetura, Quarters – 9th in Finalizacion

Independiente share their home ground with local rivals Nacional and while they are successful in their own right, they don’t share their trophy cabinet. Primera A has been won six times, four of those coming in the last 15 years. They also finished runners up four times in that time period so they are undoubtedly a dangerous side. After being knocked out of the Apetura last year by eventual finalists Deportivo Cali, they will be looking for another title this season. An interesting story upon research is in 1989 when Medellin had a goal which would have won them the league disallowed for offside by a linesman. A fan then hunted down and assassinated said linesman. I expect the refs to be a tad biased when we come up against these.

Jaguares de Cordoba

From: Monteria, Cordoba

Ground: Estadio Jaraguay (Cap: 12’000)

Last Season: 5th in Apetura, Quarters – 8th in Finalizacion, Quarters

Jaguares are the youngest team in Primera A at just 5 years old. Well technically. The owner initially founded a club called Girardot F.C in 1995 and multiple name changes/relocations later, Jaguares stuck in 2012. They won Primera B in 2014 and despite their finishes last season, they seem to be a very middle of the way team.

Atletico Junior

From: Barranquilla, Atlantico

Ground: Estadio Metropolitano Roberto Melendez (Cap: 46’700)

Last Season: 12th in Apetura – 1st in Finalizacion, Quarters

Junior’s nicknames don’t really make sense. ‘El Equipo Tiburon’, ‘Los Reyes de la Costa’, ‘Tu Papa’. The translations of those are ‘The Shark Team’, The Kings of the Coast’ and ‘Your Dad’. Really, look it up. Your dad. Anyways, Junior is a huge, huge side and as you might guess, they sit right on the coast of the Atlantic at the tip of Colombia. Since the turn of the century, Junior have finished in the top two 9 times and considering how strong they look on paper, it wouldn’t surprise me if they get to double figures by the end of 2018. Shark team indeed.

La Equidad

From: Bogota. Capital District

Ground: Estadio Metropolitano de Techo (Cap: 10’000)

Last Season: 13th in Apetura – 7th in Finalizacion, Quarters

The Insurance Team isn’t a nickname I’d be over the moon to hold.  But being ranked in the top 100 clubs in the world by the same IFFHS that put Liga Aguila 11th in the world; that’s not a bad title at all. They haven’t won the league in the 35 years of existence but did finish runners up 3 times in the space of 5 years not too long ago so like Tolimas, these are another mixed bag.

Leones F.C

From: Itagui, Antioquia

Ground: Estadio Metropolitano Cuidad de Itagui (Cap: 12’000)

Last Season: 6th in Apetura, Quarters (Primera B) – 4th in Finalizacion, Champions (Primera B) – Torneo Aguila Finalist

Despite being founded back in 1957, this is Leones first ever season in the top tier as they played in amateur leagues for almost fourty years. Following a quick rebrand a few years back of course. Coming up as the best aggregate team in Primera B, the media backs these to be the team most likely to finish bottom which is a fair enough assessment but we won’t take it easy against them. We can’t take it easy against anyone, especially the ‘lesser’ teams.

Millonarios F.C

From: Bogota, Capital District

Ground: Estadio El Campin (Cap: 36’343)

Last Season: 4th in Apetura, Semi Finals – 4th in Finalizacion, Champions

Officially founded right out World War 2, Millonairos are the second most successful Colombian team with 15 Primera A titles. Because of their table topping antics, they are fierce rivals with both America de Cali and Deportivo Cali as well as Nacional. However, despite their domestic dominance, they are yet to win the Copa Libertadores and have failed to in any of their 17 appearances in the competition. Considering their solid performance last year in which they were crowned the second champions of the season, getting anything against these will be a bonus this season.

Once Caldas

From: Manizales, Caldas

Ground: Estadio Palogrande (Cap: 28’680)

Last Season: 16th in Apetura – 17th in Finalizacion

I distinctively remember the name of this team as 2004 was the year of surprises in the footballing word. Porto winning the Champions League, Greece winning the Euros and Once Caldas winning the Copa Libertadores. You’ve got to love this game. Since then, Caldas won back to back titles in 2009 and 2010 but had a largely disappointing season in 2017 finishing miles away from the top eight both times. They do have an strong team so I’m expecting them to bounce back and be up there this time around.

Patriotas Boyaca

From: Tunja, Altiplano Cundiboyacense

Ground: Estadio La Independencia (Cap: 20’600)

Last Season: 11th in Apetura – 16th in Finalizacion

Celebrating their 15th anniversary, Patriotas share stadiums with Boyaca Chico and are yet to add any silverware to their cabinet. Widely regarded as distinctively mid-table, it’s difficult to imagine a world where Patriotas set the world alight. But as I mentioned, nobody is to be underestimated.

Rionegro Aguilas

From: Rionegro, Eastern Antioquia

Ground: Estadio Alberto Grisales (Cap: 14’000)

Last Season: 14th in Apetura – 20th in Finalizacion

Another very young club follows in the Colombian roster. At just 10 years old, they haven’t had much time to win trophies but won Primera B in 2010. Even though they are nicknamed something as cool as ‘Las Águilas Doradas’ or ‘The Golden Eagles’, they finished rock bottom at the end of last season. I can’t imagine them having the Midas touch this season either with most already predicting a similar finish.

Independiente Santa Fe

From: Bogata, Capital District

Ground: Estadio El Campin (Cap: 36’343)

Last Season: 9th in Apetura – 2nd in Finalizacion, Finalists

It seems like sharing stadiums in something common in the built up cities of Colombia which, while cost and space effective, it loses some of the ‘home’ feeling. Los Cardinales are the penultimate club in the 20 team Liga Aguila roster. Santa Fe have won 3 of their 9 titles in the last five years, finishing runners up in the Finalizacion last year also so they are obviously one of the bookies favourites to pick up a title this season. Estadio El Campin is going to be a tough place to visit for sure.

And last, but certainly not least…

Atletico Bucaramanga

From: Bucaramanga, Santander

Ground: Estadio Alfonso Lopez (Cap: 28’000)

Last Season: 8th in Apetura, Quarters – 19th in Finalizacion

My new boys had a disappointing second half of the season which lead to the managerial vacancy after the sacking of Jaime de la Pava. Bucaramanga have never won Primera A, only finishing as runners up once in 1997. The 2018 season will be their 60th year in the top flight. They have won two Primera B titles with the most recent just 3 seasons ago. Their sole appearance in the Copa Libertadores was a short one as they were knocked out in the Round of 16. Hopefully that’s not an omen for any future appearances under my guidance.

Some positives about Bucaramanga however is their performance in the Apetura last year and the fact Estadio Alfonso Lopez has been renovated as recently as 2017. Freshly laid Bermuda grass and vibrantly patterned seats located smack bang in the centre of the city. We do share the stadium with Primera B side Real Santander, who were pipped to promotion last year by Boyaca Chico, but the stadium is firmly our own.

Bucaramanga are a club with some well documented financial issues so I’m not expecting a small fortune to be handed to me upon arrival for new recruits which is good in a way. My skills as a manager should be tested as I’ll have to scour for some bargains, wheel and deal to the best as my abilities and most importantly, get the best out of the players already there. Los Leopardos will turn 70 next year and I’d love to give Bucaramanga some silverware as a present.

Sparing a second glance away from my screen is as many hours, I see people lining up at the gate. I shut down my laptop, inhale deeply and join the queue. A strange impulse to turn and sprint the other way spreads like a virus but I fight it. Walking down the tunnel to boarding the plane feels completely normal but the final step onto the plane is different. I momentarily pause, only to be ushered on by a member of the cabin crew. I walk the aisle, load my carry on into the overhead rack and strap myself into my seat. No turning back now.

*This won’t affect us as the Categoria Primera B is not in FIFA 19.

Unemployed (Episode 1 – Shep: Managerial Globetrotter)

But I expected it to be easier to get at least a bloody interview.

1 day since mutual termination – 20/07/2017

This is exciting. I haven’t had so much free time since, forever. Now was the right time. A few jobs are about but nothing that really gets me going. A few emails here and there won’t hurt but there’s no rush yet. Time is on my side.

14 days since mutual termination – 02/08/2017

No replies yet. My CV hasn’t exactly done the rounds but I would have expected at least a rejection email by now. Yes, it may be a bit bare with just the two clubs on there but if they do the research, surely I’m worth a shot. I’d obviously be a risk but in the world of football management, who isn’t?

26 days since mutual termination – 14/08/2017

Finally! A response. An offer for an interview with Aldershot. Is the train easier than the car? It’s over 250 miles away so setting off the day before and staying the night is probably best. But the train is probably cheaper than a hotel and petrol. Right, get the calculator ou… hang on. Why do I care, I need to prep! Practice questions, background research, a 5 year plan. I’ve got work to do.

31 days since mutual termination – 19/08/2017

Well that was disappointing. I thought it went well, my views aligned with the board. But lone behold, a phone call today stating “I wasn’t quite what the club was looking for at this point in time.” What the fuck does that even mean? You need a manager, I’m a manager. You wanted a young, relatable leader? You just interviewed him. Never mind, there’s plenty more jobs around and I’m positive the emails and calls will come in soon. The floodgates have opened.

2 months, 17 days since mutual termination – 06/10/2017

Fuck me, I’m bored. You can only click refresh and copy and paste the same cover paragraph so many times before you want to rip your hair out of your skull to clone your own football team to manage. Considering my general football ability, we’d be a pretty shit team to manage so the quicker that idea is scrapped, the better. All the jobs in England have basically filled so maybe a venture overseas is needed to kick-start my career.

Even then, all the leagues are well underway and if any manager gets sacked due to poor form, what are the chances they’d pick me over a safe gaffer with a wealth of experience. I don’t know what the last 80 days have been but now is when the true waiting game begins.

3 months since mutual termination – 19/10/2017

A quarter of a year has passed since I shook hands with the chairman before walking out of the Stockport job with my head held high and my expectations held higher. Since then? One interview. A few questions over the phone don’t count as an interview, it almost felt like they were testing if I was seriously applying.

I’ve applied abroad. Not just Europe, I mean abroad. J1 League and K League over in Asia, the Saudi Pro League in the Middle East. I’m really desperate now, literally scouring the world for any vacant positions. Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t expect to waltz into a League 2 club, win the league and get nabbed by a Championship club the following season. But I expected it to be easier to get at least a bloody interview.

4 months, 19 days since mutual termination – 08/12/2017

A breakthrough! A Colombian club by the name of Atletico Bucaramanga got in touch for a phone interview. Try saying that name after a few pints. Speaking of beer, the main attraction for this club however is they are in the top division of Colombian football. The very elite 20 that make up the Liga Aguila, named after Colombia’s most popular alcoholic beverage, the league deemed the 11th strongest league in the world according to the International Federation of Football History & Statistics. None of that fifth tier business I’d put up with at Aldershot.

Doing a bit of research into this club is difficult on English search engines as there’s little material that isn’t in Spanish but I’m interested. And so are they. That’s all that matters.

4 months, 21 days since mutual termination – 10/12/2017

That went really well. They’re eager to meet me in person. There’s just the small stumbling block of the Atlantic Ocean but I need this job. I’ve forked out £500 for a flight to Medellin from Heathrow and another £80 for a flight from there to Bucaramanga. I may be putting all my eggs in one basket but this is the only basket available. And I’m running out of eggs.

4 months, 26 days since mutual termination – 15/12/2017

Trust me to leaving my fucking laptop at home. Brought my charger but not my laptop. Regardless, it went well. Even better than the tele-interview. Is that what they’re called? Phone interview maybe? Anyways, the language barrier may have masked the negatives from my point of view but the translator present, who turned out to be the first team coach, seemed to be positive about the meeting. Ricardo I think his name was. Or was it Richard and I’m just being an assumptive casual racist?

I’ve had offers for an interview over in Asia but after visiting Colombia, I think this is the one. Also, I have no money left. So this has to be the one.

5 months, 4 days since mutual termination – 24/12/2017

I’m not in the merry mood at all. It’s been almost 2 weeks since my interview with Bucaramanga and not a word since. There’s no news of an appointment as far as I and Google Translate can interpret from Colombian media so I’m really left scratching my head. I’ve been working part-time at a local Chinese as a delivery driver, which is a far cry from where I expected to be by Christmas. Spending all your money on flights to Columbia may seem stupid in hindsight but at the time, it seemed like the ultimate show of dedication. However, you do get free food so swings and roundabouts. Hopefully Santa brings me a football club to oversee.

5 months, 6 days since mutual termination – 26/12/2017

Travelling home, likely with a dangerous amount of alcohol still in my system, I felt my lowest. Nursing the hangover from hell (probably a normal hangover for normal people who get them regularly) and wallowing in post-festive self pity, I truly reflect on the last 5 months for the first time. As I’m debating other career paths to tide me over to the summer, I open my email to see a number 1 sandwiched between parentheses next to the inbox tab.

My heart races as I note the email address: oscar.alvarez@atl_bucaramanga

Subject: Bucaramanga Manager Position – Welcome Aboard.

A New Page (Episode 21: A Lincoln Legend)

The epitome of unity and understanding.

A loss on the first day of the season means very little. In the bigger picture that is. If the team feels like getting their losses out of their system in the first month or two, that’s fine by me. That being said, I really won’t enjoy it if we lose two or, god forbid, three on the bounce.

To give me some encouragement about the season ahead, Rafael Barbosa decides to join up with the Imps for this season on the Monday after our loss to Blackpool. He claims the number 13 jersey which makes me ask whether he believes the number is unlucky. Of course, the bloke only speaks Portuguese so I have to whip out Translate on my phone for him to type an answer back. The emotionless, monotonic voice takes me by surprise.

“I believe that this number is unlucky as people think it is unlucky. I make my own luck.” I didn’t know it till he said it but that’s the right bloody answer. We share a mute handshake/hug combo before introducing him to the squad.

In an almost hilarious twist, James Wilson picks up a cut on his head which, according to my medical team, rules him out of selection for the Sheffield United game. Despite my protests and multiple attempts at calling him a wimp, the argument about the severity of cut and further potential damage prevails. Load of rubbish if you ask me.

I’m taking the cups, especially the Carabao and Checkatrade, as chances to try new formations, positions and personnel. For our game against the red half of Sheffield, Sam Walker starts in goal with Bostwick partnering Nelson as a centre back. Eardley replaces Gergo on the right but now is where it gets interesting. We’re playing a 4-1-2-1-2 wide with Woody holding as he loves to put on a show in the cup games. Barbosa gets his debut in a Lincoln shirt behind an Ivan Toney and Ellis Harrison strike partnership. Toney is going to play on the shoulder today and try to use his explosive speed to give us the upper hand.

Sheffield United on the other hand are playing a defensive 5-2-1-2 with Leon Clarke and Billy Sharp up front. Before the game starts, I turn to Batesy and cross my fingers.

“Let’s up those lads up top don’t sharpen the Blades today, ey mate?” He sighs and sits down with a disappointed look on his face. While my management is constantly praised, my sense of humour is being majorly underappreciated. My notice is being handed in unless this changes.

Just 4 minutes in, Rowe shows hes up for a battle today as he puts in a crunching yet fair tackle on Leonard before passing forward to Harrison. He lays the ball into the new lad Barbosa who waits for the run before giving it back to Ellis. He touches onto his right foot before striking across goal but a set of good hands push it away. Baldock is under pressure from Danny and clears for a throw in to avoid giving up possession in a dangerous position.

15 minutes later, Valerio intercepts a Stevens pass, starting a string of passes along the halfway line before Barbosa plays a through ball to Toney. He fakes outside before cutting back inside and finesses from the edge of the box but it’s a good height for Blackman to save. The ball remains in play but Harrison fouls Stevens chasing down the ball. The aerial battle from Blackman’s free kick is won by Clarke but the ball flies past Evans to Ellis Harrison. The ball finds it’s way out to Dickenson who plays Rowe in the middle first time. He flicks it on to Barbosa who feints past a flat footed Basham before lacing a shot a yard over the joining of the post and the crossbar. It’s very close to a splendid debut goal for the loanee.

In the 35th minute, Sheffield decide they want to play some football now with Stevens charging down the byline. He picks his pass between the right side of our team, Esposito and Eardley, to find Evans. He plays it to Clarke who turns Nelson too easily and threads it back to Evans. He hits it first time, looking for the far corner but Sam Walker plucks the ball calmly from it’s path mid-air. Brilliant stuff from him.

In the last minute of the half, Brook switches to Stevens who hops a Eardley challenge on the touchline. Nelson comes over to cover but consequently leaves Leon Clarke open to receive the pass. He works it back out to Stevens who hits a perfect driven ball in for Billy Sharp to run in and just clear Walker’s trailing leg with a sliding shot and make it 1-0. It really is one of the worst times to concede as I see multiple heads drop. I try my best to fire them back up at half-time but it could be a lost cause. I replace Esposito with Stewart as he’s ran himself senseless in the first half.

From the get go, Sheffield are throwing players forward to try and grab an early second but, like many decisions in football, it can either pay off or you can be made to pay. Rowe collects the ball in the 62nd minute after blocking a pass and smashes it up to Barbosa. He sweeps it to Toney who plays an open Stewart down the right. Stearman catches him as he enters the 18 yard box so Cameron turns back on himself and passes to Barbosa inside the D. He puts it into space on the right hand side of the box for Rowe to run in and put a floating low ball in for Harrison to delicately direct into the bottom left past the hopeless Blackman. 1-1 and we’re right back in it. Rowe’s legs are looking a bit heavy however so I bring on Pett for the rest of the game.

10 minutes after our equaliser, Stewart tries to heads a Baldock cross clear but instead heads it at Sharp. There’s a tussle in the box between them both before Sharp swings at the ball but Walker is down quickly to push round the post for corner. A few minutes pass before Sheffield have another corner which is whipped in to the unmarked Basham who volleys towards the top right corner but an insane reaction save from Walker keeps the score’s even again. What a game he’s having.

With 5 minutes to go, Pett gives away a free kick and picks up a yellow card but I decide to make use of the break in play. I bring on Ollie Palmer for Barbosa who gets a warm reception from the away fans. He’s done really well today considering it’s his first proper run in English football. Harrison drops back behind Ollie. The free kick is whipped in but it’s headed out to Toney by Bostwick. He passes it up to Harrison who only has the one man to beat but decides to wait for the Palmer overlap to his right before advancing too far forward. Ollie gets into the box and turns Baldock inside out with some neat footwork before curling a shot into the bottom left. That’s if a outstanding full stretch save from Jamal Blackman hadn’t pushed it just round the post.

The regulation time comes to a close with the scoreline still even so added time is needed to find a victor. We have used all our subs so the team remains as it is for the next half an hour.

Shortly after the game gets back underway, Stewart steals the ball from Stearman after pressuring Baldock to make a pass. He runs into the box and is hacked down by Stearman just as he swings his foot back to shoot. No red card but a yellow and penalty is rightly given. I don’t know why but I agree to let Ellis Harrison take the penalty, against every fibre in my body telling me not to. He runs up and hits it low to the right but of course Blackman dives the right way and palms it out for a corner. What the fuck is with this spot kick voodoo?

We’re not made to mull over missed chances or saved penalties for too long when in the 98th minute, Stewart heads a Nelson knock down out to Woody. He just beats Lafferty to the ball and passes it to Harrison. He plays it sideways to Stewart who runs at an angle before pulling out a ridiculous one legged roulette to completely eliminate Leonard from the game and the rest of his footballing career. He looks up and spots Toney who is playing perfectly on Coutts shoulder. The ball bounces up off his left foot awkwardly but Ivan adjusts his body to smoothly sidefoot a volley home with his right into the bottom right. It’s an amazing bit of play and it gets a standing ovation from the away end. I’m truthfully a bit hot under the collar after seeing that skill from Stewart. 2-1.

Half-time comes and the lads are feeling a lot more confident than the previous half time. They want to push for another so I tell them to do so with caution.

In the 108th minute, Pett darts inside and plays a gorgeous ball over Lafferty for Stewart on the far side. He half volleys the ball into the front post where Palmer connects with a half volley of his own that flies into the back of the net. A two goal lead with 10 minutes left? Sounds like park the bus to me.

The 120 minutes finish and a unintentionally smug grin is plastered across my face. Today was a real show of grit and hard graft to battle through added time and win comfortably. The subs really helped turn the game, don’t get me wrong but everyone else held their own and didn’t look out place compared to their fresher compatriots. A great performance all round.

During that game, Tom Pett picked up a yellow card which apparently earns him a suspension. I’m not sure why but I wasn’t planning on playing him anyways so I don’t appeal the decision.

Similar to last season, I turn my attention over the next few days to tying some of our important players as a lot of them have less than a year left on their current deals. After a couple days of non-stop meetings with agents and players, I get most people to commit to the club for at least another 2 years. Details below:

  • Josh Vickers till 2021 (£3’000 wage increase)
  • Gergo till 2020 (£500 wage increase)
  • Eardley till 2021 (£1’200 wage increase)
  • Habergham till 2021 (£350 wage increase)
  • Woody till 2021 (£800 wage increase)
  • Captain Bostwick till 2020 (£100 wage increase w/£20’000 bonus for 15 appearances)
  • Esposito till 2024 (£2’600 wage increase w/£300’000 bonus for 25 goals)
  • Palmer till 2021 (No wage increase and suggests to be a sporadic player due to new signings, another reason I love this bloke)

Bozhikov was the only player to reject new terms but it wasn’t done with any haste or anger. I’ll try again later into the year to keep him around for another year or two.

In what proves a controversial decision with Batesy, I accept a loan offer from Doncaster for Ellis Chapman. He is a good player but I just think we need someone who can help cover Freckles with the same ability as him right now. Ellis is a player for the future but we need to bring in a defensive midfielder for reinforcements sooner rather than later.

In what’s a uncanny Carabao Cup draw, we are hosting Bristol City in the second round. Just days after we play their locacl rivals and Ellis’ old team Bristol Rovers. Asides from that, it’s a good home draw where we’ve avoided some of the huge teams but still have a tough game that will sell tickets.

In just our first away game of the season, we have the infamous trip to Burton Albion. They have some solid players and are not to be underestimated but I really want a win to get us back on track.

Vickers is back in goal with Wilson starting after his tragic head cut has miraculously healed. Bostwick and Woody are together in the middle with Barbosa starting out on the right and Oztumer returning behind Ollie Palmer. It would be a huge first win away against one of the relegated sides if we can pull it off today.

For the first half hour, both teams are pushing and playing decent football but with no end result. There’s been a couple desperate swings and frustrated shots from ourselves and Burton but to no avail. In the 35th minute, Rowe challenges for a ball after a Burton throw and manages to get a pass to Bostwick. It’s driven to Barbosa’s feet who lays it off to Palmer. Ollie pulls off a cheeky heel chop pass to give it just enough for Oztumer to take in his stride and smash it past the keeper, just inside the near post. It’s a lovely assist from Ollie and a venomous finish from Erhun. A no prisoner mindset could really open this game up cause god knows it needs it.

Half time comes and goes and it’s not until the 57th minute when another chance arises. A Bostwick switch is read and cut out by Qalinge who brings it down and hits it to Liam Boyce. He controls before shocking everyone inside the Pirelli Stadium by unleashing a screamer from 25 yards that swerves inwards then back out into the very top right corner. There’s nothing Vickers could do about that as it’s an unstoppable strike to bring the scores level. Where the fucks he pulled that from?

In the 64th minute, Rowe passes inside to Palmer who lets it roll to Barbosa. He spins his man in a flash and hits a powerful strike but a strong save denies him a first Lincoln goal. 10 minutes pass and with fifteen minutes left, I ask the team to push for a winner. And they do just that. Not even a minute after my instruction gets out, Bostwick heads a Flanagan clearance down to Oztumer. He spreads the play out wide to Barbosa. Ollie leaves his marker to come short and slots a return ball between the defence. Barbosa runs into the box and puts a low ball into the danger zone where Oztumer pips Mcfadzean to the ball and slides home past Bywater’s foot. A brace from him today and we’ve restored our lead. I bring on Anderson and Toney for Barbosa and Rowe.

I make a defensive change with Sam coming on for Dickenson in the 80th minute and we manage to hold on throught a panicked finale to claim our first win in League One. Oztumer will grab all the headlines and rightly so but the team worked well today. The last goal is a perfect example of that. The epitome of unity and understanding.

Chapman rejects the opportunity to join Doncaster on loan as he doesn’t feel ready to leave his home town just yet. He is only 17 to be fair to him but a loan move would have done him a world of good. In a arguably more exciting bid for a Lincoln player, Derby County offer £1’200’000 for Harry Anderson. While he’s been pushed down the ranks by Rowe, Valerio and Stewart, he’s going to get a lot more playing time as the season kicks on. He will be a vital part of the busy periods this season so Derby’s offer is rejected. Plus, he’s still at the tender age of 21 with his best years ahead of him. A bigger price is needed for a player of his promise.

Looking forward into the not-so-distant future, we’re going to have a busy and tough week ahead. After hosting both Bristol clubs in the league and the cup, we travel to Rotherham who will be looking for an early push towards promotion after missing out on the play-offs last season. That’s just the day after the transfer window slams shut too. Not a lot of people know it but I am still eyeing up one more deal before midnight on the 31st. And whilst it won’t be doomsday if I don’t get somebody in, who doesn’t love a deadline day deal?

League One (Episode 20: A Lincoln Legend)

Little Lincoln City are not to be pushed around.

Spirits are at an all time high after our return from Germany. Danny Rowe is back where he belongs for the foreseeable future, we’ve won back to back promotions and our trophy cabinet has the first contribution from yours truly. Life is good.

In world football, my good mood rises even higher as Belgium beat their European neighbours Germany in a thrilling 3-2 World Cup final. Germany took the lead through Toni Kroos while a double of set pieces from Eden Hazard, a penalty followed by a free kick, gave them the upper hand. Germany equalised with 15 minutes left through Leroy Sane. It was in dramatic fashion that Belgium confirmed their status as champions of the world through a Vincent Kompany header in the 2nd minute of added time. It’s nice to see this generation of Belgian talent coming to fruition on the big stage while knocking the Germans down a peg too.

Moving back to matters at hand however, Charlton offer £730’000 for Billy Knott which I seriously consider. He is a good impact player and he had his moments last season but with that sale and the winnings from the tournament, I could bring in a bigger and better improvement. I have a conference call with some reps at Charlton and negotiate the price tag up to £860’000. The ball is firmly left in Billy’s court now as to what he decides to do from here. Either way, I still have Oztumer, Pett and even Joel Cooper who are capable of taking his position. Bolton boss Phil Parkinson decides to take up on my offer in Germany to ‘keep in touch’, with a £570’000 bid for Gergo. I swiftly decline as I have no intention of selling either of my free agent revelations.

In a piece of business I’m happy to do, I accept £230’000 for want-away Matt Green from Crewe. I leave him to talk with the club and he seems happy that there’s clubs interested in him so I hope it goes through for his sake.

Now there’s time in your career as a manager where you’ll be taken aback by something. Whether it’s your star player handing in a transfer request or your main striker missing a sitter. On the 26th of July, I was gobsmacked by Fulham’s bid for Josh Vickers. £1’800’000. It’s huge, huge money which I actually laugh at when I first hear the figure. I bring Josh in to talk about the offer and he seems happy whatever way this goes. He’s comfortable building with Lincoln but wouldn’t complain if I took the money and ran as he’d be a big London club with at least another 10 years of football ahead of him. I decide to stand my ground and show little Lincoln City aren’t to be pushed around. We’re not a selling club.

On the 31st of July, to close what has been a crazy month, Matt Green officially departs for Crewe. The lads seem quite upset that he’s left and to be honest, so am I. I actually trained with Matt for a couple sessions when he joined Darlington on loan for a month years ago so I’m sad to see him go. But I make it my mission to reassure the lads that a new signing will come. Very soon in fact as I have a meeting the next day with a manager to finalise some details.

In a brightly lit high street restaurant, I meet up with none other than Champions League winning and, more importantly, Newcastle United manager Rafa Benitez for dinner to discuss loan move for Ivan Toney. I originally wanted Adam Armstrong in but Rafa seemed certain that after a positive season with Blackburn, he was going to get a chance with the main team. After a casual chat and a drink or two with our food, we come to an agreement on a one year loan with the wages being split right down the middle. This will cost us 14.5k a week, making him one of the highest paid players in the club but he has the experience of this league and could be a huge second string player for us. We just have to wait for Ivan to decide if he wants another season in League One or whether he can chance his arm higher.

On the 1st of August, Dorrian meets me to tell me his objectives for this upcoming season in further detail. He thinks that a mid table finish is possible but he isn’t expecting another cup run like last season with a obtainable Round of 32 stage the target for the FA Cup. Looking past the short term projections, he’s wanting to see an increase in season ticket holders over the next 3 seasons which is entirely possible if we play the way we did last season.

Bolton decide they want more and come back in another bid, this time for our captain Michael Bostwick. £420’000 is rejected and as I’m about to leave the office, I strangely get a phone call from a Hellas Verona representative inquiring about taking Harrison on loan? He’s obviously turned a few heads internationally at the World Cup but it’s still an abnormal request. The following day, Billy Knott departs for Charlton but passes the inbound Ivan Toney on the way out. He happily takes the available number 10 left by Matt Green for his year spell at the club.

Elsewhere in the transfer market, Manchester City have splashed the cash yet again in what many are calling the David Silva replacement. Koke signs for £56’500’000 and I can really see him settling in at Manchester with Silva’s veteran guidance. Over in Germany, Bayern Munich have signed Benfica wing back Alex Telles for £37’000’000 to further strengthen their back line which will now be: Alaba, Boateng, Hummels and Telles. Scary.

While I’ve said multiple times I’m a man of my word, I’m also a tight Northern bastard. Hence why I’ve delved into the loan market again for Billy Knott’s replacement instead of splashing the cash. On cue, welcome Rafael Barbosa, a 22 year old Portuguese attacking midfielder playing in his home country for Sporting Lisbon. I can only haggle for another 50/50 wage split but it’ll only put us another £5’000 a week out of pocket which will keep Dorrian very happy. He stands at 5’8 but he’s very fast, agile and overall an exciting little player to watch. Plus, he has an afro so you can’t ask for much more in a signing. He wants to take time to think about moving away from home as he’s actually never left Portugal which I understand. He says he’ll have an answer for us after our opening game of the season.

There’s been another couple huge deals in the world of transfers with Nainggolan joining Atletico Madrid to replace Koke for virtually the same amount of money, take a couple million pounds. Pedro gets one last big move not long after his 31st birthday when he jets over to Turin to join Italian giants Juventus for £35’000’000 which is a lot of money for a winger who’s over 30. He is also a part of a transfer domino chain as he is dubbed Cuadrado’s replacement who also joined Atletico for just under 23 million.

By the time the Blackpool game arrives, Sincil Bank has completely sold out. Blackpool have finally got a new owner to take over who has invested a fair bit of money into the squad. Hopefully, the seasiders finally get their club back on track but not today. Not against us.

Rowe, Oztumer and Dickenson all start to claim their professional Lincoln debuts. Nelson and Toney aren’t so lucky as they take a seat on the bench. I start Harrison up top over Palmer as I want pace. A quick start to this season to get us up and running. Michael Bostwick comes to see me before the game in a pretty emotional state to tell me how thankful he is. He never thought he’d get a chance to lead a team out to a game in League One after leaving Peterborough but all that matters is he’s got the chance today. The smell of freshly cut grass pierces my nostrils as chants do the same to my eardrums. Let’s get started.

The first shot we experience in  League One is one of our own when a Valerio long shot stings the palms of the keeper 9 minutes in. We don’t seem like we’re all there when Clayton plays the rapid Dolly Menga in behind 10 minutes later. Luckily, his first touch is too big and gives Vickers times to close him down. He does manage to slot the ball round him but it’s a good couple yards wide of the far post.

The rest of our first half in the third tier is eventless. Cautious is the word I’d use to describe the football so far so I tell the lads to apply some pressure to Blackpool and make them the team for the taking before they do the same.

In the 59th minute, some slow build up play finishes with Valerio passing it in to Harrison. He knocks a simple backheel to Oztumer who messes up his first touch but gets a shot off. It’s not troubling the keeper however as it’s nowhere near either corner of the goal. Dolly Menga is the man causing problems today when Turton spots his run down the right in the 67th minute. Vasil isn’t able to close him down quick enough as he whips a cross to the front post for Vassell to climb and lob a header over Vickers to score. It’s hard to deal with a man who that’s quick but I bring on Anderson and Toney for Rowe and Valerio in an attempt to bring some fresh pace to the game ourselves.

With fifteen minutes left, Bostwick picks up a frustrated yellow card so I bring on Freckles to avoid any further punishment. I want everyone attacking from now. The last chance of the game comes in the 87th minute when Freckles heads a goal kick up to fellow sub Anderson. He switches to Oztumer who plays Harrison into the box. He turns back and puts it square on a plate for Ivan Toney but he lashes it off the post. He really should have scored there and announced himself to the Lincoln following. The game finishes 1-0 and we start our new league campaign with a demoralising loss after some positive signs in pre-season.

As a wise footballing god once told me: “It’s only up from here, right gaffer?”

The European Continental Shield (Episode 19: A Lincoln Legend)

I don’t say it lightly; at least a bombing run would have livened this game up.

Even though I gave Batesy some stick about it last season, the pre-season tournament really set us up to have a good season. It helped me know who to pick, whether my system was actually going to work and in general, there were some good games of football. I mean who can forget Freckles’ thunderbolt? With the overlooking eye of a somewhat smug assistant manager, I review the three invitations to tournaments we received. The choice isn’t that hard as I want to play English teams and the only tournament that could tick that box is the European Continental Shield. Bolton are attending the tournament held over in Germany and in what’s some better news, we are drawn in the same group as our English counterparts. Of course, Ellis won’t be available for selection as he’s over in Russia representing his country.

Now while Bolton need no introduction, the other two teams that make up our group most likely need one. Duisburg are a 2.Bundesliga side that have really yo-yo’d up and down the top three tiers of German football. Since the start of the millennium, they’ve had 2 seasons in the Bundesliga, 3 in the 3.Liga and 13 in the 2.Bundesliga. They reached the final of the DFB Pokal in 2011 but they were battered 5-0 by Schalke. They are a very middle of the road team but then again, so are we.

Our other opponents are Sint-Truiden, an Belgian Pro League side. They have been in the highest division of Belgian football since the 14/15 season in which they were promoted as champions and have managed to solidify themselves in the league since. Sint-Truiden as a city is only small with around 50’000 people living there but has a very rich history. While it has history in it’s own respects, it was also where the infamous Heinz-Wolfgang Schnaufer was posted during World War 2. I’ll avoid the history lesson but he was a night pilot for the Luftwaffe and remains the highest scoring night flying ace to exist with over 120 aerial victories. But we don’t care about clinical Nazi pilots, we care about clinical footballers. And with Arsenal loanee Chuba Akpom returning to London a few days prior, I know nobody in this side. But I know everybody in my side. And that’s all that matters.

Even though we’re in Germany just a couple days into the window, there’s already been a big signing which is unusual for this early in a window. Alejandro Gomez joins Italian giants Juventus for £46’000’000. As if they needed any more attacking talent. In a somewhat frustrating set of events, I get a panicked phone call from the Bulgarian national team head coach Petar Hubchev requesting Vasil be called up to international duty after a defender suffered an injury. It’s annoying as I really wanted to rotate in this tournament, especially round the back with a couple new defenders joining the squad but I suppose it gives Nelson a chance to prove his worth.

In our first game of the new season against German host Duisberg, Curtis starts alongside his fellow newbies Sam Walker and Brennan Dickenson at the back. Oztumer also starts either side of Valerio and Stewart with Ollie Palmer up top. Joel Cooper’s on the bench today with the intention of getting half an hour of game time. If he impresses me, he may be in the starting eleven for our next match.

It takes fourteen minutes of football before we craft our first chance of the season and it’s an unlikely one to say the least. Oztumer has a free header from the penalty spot after a Stewart cross in but it’s too central and caught easily by the keeper. You can’t really blame him for not practising his headers, he’s the smallest player on the pitch by half a foot.

Just three minutes later, Valerio shows why he’s one of my favourite players as he tracks his man across the pitch before sealing out Frode brilliantly. He immediately passes forward to Erhun who spins to face goal. Bolmeyer drags out to cover but leaves the gap for a pass in to Palmer. He lets it run through his legs to juke his man and while his effort is well hit, it’s always serving wide of the far post.

We do get a reward for our first half dominance in the 36th minute when Valerio gets it out wide and drills a ball into Oztumer. He threads a pass behind for Ollie who cuts back and rolls into space for Oztumer to collect unchallenged. He opens his body to curl a shot effortlessly into the top left. It’s a great debut goal from the man who’s shone brightly so far. We go in 1-0 up at half time.

It takes a while for the second half to get going. To be honest, it doesn’t actually get going at all. It just meanders along at a steady pace. There’s not a chance until the 71st minute when Dickenson comes in with a sweeping tackle and plays a little chip over for Stewart to counter. Palmer runs down the left and holds off Bolmeyer to get a run into box. He knocks into Oztumer who has his shot blocked and slips trying to react to the rebound. Maurer takes a poor touch when collecting the ball and has to slide to kick the ball away from Lincoln players and  to avoid a corner. Unfortunately for him, this puts it right back in the box. The keeper dives to try and push further away with his foot but it falls neatly to an open Valerio Esposito to half volley into the net and make it 2-0. I push Gergo forward into midfield with Esposito and Stewart going off for Anderson and Eardley. I also bring on Joel Cooper who’s rocking the number 18 as it’s the age he’ll turn this season. Each to their own I suppose.

I make another sub with 10 minutes left as Woody comes on for Freckles who is turning 33 soon. His fitness will naturally start declining and as a result, he won’t be completing many games this season. He’s still a massive player but it might be an idea to look for a fresher holding midfielder for the future.

The second half ends as it began: with absolutely nothing happening. It’s a very solid performance from Lincoln with new signing Erhun awarded the Man of the Match on his debut. It’s well deserved in what was a very promising start from him. Our defensive recruitments were not called on often but did their jobs when they were needed. I’m a happy manager as I take a deep inhale of the German industrial air. Here we go again.

I’m even more of a happy manager when I find out that Bolton lose 2-1 to our Belgian opponents Sint-Truiden. While I always want English teams to do well in any competition, bar Manchester United, that result means that a win against Sint-Truiden would basically confirm our progression out of the group stage. The prize money would also help reimburse a healthy amount of funding back into the transfer kitty after Bob’s thai-bride esque purchase of a scout.

The few days between our opening and second game in the tournament are hectic. The first incoming bid of the window comes in and it’s for Sam Ham. I reject £400’000 as he’s definitely worth more but with 3 wing backs and Vasil able to play out wide, I could be tempted to part ways for the right price.

That same night, just before lights out, Matt Green comes to my room door and asks to leave as he wants regular football. I’m taken back somewhat as he was injured for a lot of the season but I can understand where he’s coming from. His two challengers are the club’s player of the season and the club’s record signing. He’s obviously going to be playing third fiddle, if that’s even a saying, to Palmer and Harrison and with his 32nd birthday approaching, it might be the right time to cash in. I tell him he’ll be on the transfer list by tomorrow and begin eyeing up a replacement for a sub striker.  A couple Premier League players on loan come to mind and would certainly bolster our attacking options. I send a group text to all my scouts to look for a new striker that could slot right into our starting eleven.

The day before the Sint-Truiden match, an Ipswich representative flies over with who else but Danny Rowe to continue negotiations on a permanent deal. We agreed in principle on a staggering £860’000 with 10% of any sell on fee. While it’s a lot of money, he’s already proved his worth to the squad and bringing him back into the mix would be a thing of perfection.

Now while Danny is tempted to play hard ball, it’s hard to ignore how keen he is to rejoin Lincoln. He wouldn’t have flown over here himself if he wasn’t. It doesn’t take long for us to find a middle ground and put pen to paper. We meet on a 2 year deal for £11’500 a week which is only a £500 increase from his current wage and a nice £100’000 fee for signing on. He was pushing to keep his same wage but take a 200k bonus after he scored 10 goals but it’s easier to pay an extra £500 a week across a couple seasons. I surprise the lads with his arrival as I didn’t tell anyone about my intent to bring him back permanently. Everybody is very pleased to have him back in the dressing room and when I’m expecting him to ask for his loaned number of 26, he picks the number 14 from the list. A new number for a new chapter. Welcome back, Danny.

There is a bit of a fuss trying to get him signed on in time to enter the competition but luckily, the tournament board is quite lenient and has let other teams bring transfers in. He gets his first start on the left hand side with Knott replacing Oztumer as Billy was a bit annoyed he didn’t start the last match. I bring in Eardley over Gergo with Vickers flaunting his number #1 inbetween the posts.

It doesn’t take long for Rowe to show why I was desperate to bring him back. 2 minutes in, he runs down the touchline before chopping onto his right and whipping a cross to the edge of the box. Valerio rises to nod over to Knott who volleys elegantly into the bottom right to give us the lead. It’s a goal that’s easy on the eye to take us 1-0 up.

In the 16th minute, Dickenson plays Rowe down the touchline who puts a dangerous low ball into Palmer at the front post. Goutas slides in to divert a tap in away but the loose ball rolls to Valerio at the back post who can only hit the side netting with his wild swing. 5 minutes later, Knott is fed down the right hand side by the man on a mission, Danny Rowe. He tries to run it inside but Teixeira gets in well with a tackle. The ball rolls to Woody to retain possession. He knocks it back to Rowe who is much further forward now. He stretches to play the ball into space for Valerio. A defender comes to close him down but he digs his foot into the ground to play a lofted ball back to Rowe. He jumps well but his header bounces off the near post out for a goal kick. He was inches away from kick-starting his Lincoln career.

The last chance of the half goes to the Belgian outfit when Dickenson fails to deal with a back post cross, leaving Abraham’s scissor kick to really test Vickers. He palms it out for a corner and deals with said corner coolly. I don’t change anything at half-time because there’s nothing that needs changing. Don’t fix what isn’t broke.

5 minutes from the restart, a Rowe cross is headed upwards then punched out by the keeper. Knott headers to Valerio from the edge of the box who controls and tries to lash home from a tight angle. It’s blocked by Teixeira but the rebound falls for Knott to hit on the spin with a lot of power. It flies past the keeper who didn’t even have time to think about saving it. Billy looks over at me with a chuffed grin. Yeah you’ve grabbed your brace but I’m not going to drop Erhun on one game mate.

In the 61st minute, an Eardley throw in leaves Woody open to unleash a sweet strike from 30 yards but an acrobatic fingertip save denies him a replica of Freckles goal last year. 10 minutes later, I pull out a rare triple change with Anderson, Oztumer and Sam Ham all coming on to finish the game.

There’s one last chance in the 89th minute when Oztumer weights a through ball in for Palmer but his shot is well saved by the keeper. The game ends not long after and it’s another comfortable 2-0 from the lads. I could get used to this.

The other game in our group between Bolton and Duisburg was a stalemate as it finished 2-2. That means we are guaranteed to advance through to the knockout stage regardless of the result in our final game against Bolton. While they’ve only took a couple points from their games, they’re still a solid side that sit higher up the English football hierarchy than us so it’s a game I’m taking seriously.

Sam Ham and Walker are drafted back into the side with Freckles taking the role as captain for the day. Stewart’s been complaining about the lack of football he got at the end of last season so I bring him in on the left. Matt Green starts up front despite his transfer request as I want to keep him fit in case he doesn’t move.

It’s a very slow start from the attackers and it doesn’t help that both defences are standing strong. It takes half an hour beofre either team can break through their other’s back line when Alnwick puts a free kick to the pitch and Freckles win the header. Oztumer gets his foot up to take it away from Henry but the ball spins away, luckily to Green. He waits to play it back to Oztumer who cuts inside of Brockbank and curls past the keeper into the far side of the goal. It’s another great shimmer of talent from the new man to push us closer to a 100% record so far.

In the 43rd minute, Nelson boots the ball clear and Green flicks a header out wide for Stewart to run onto. He performs a couple of stepovers before cutting inside and passing into Green. He inches it on for Woody to try and score but Alnwick saves well from close range. We come in 1-0 up at the break and I bring on Anderson in Rowe’s place for the second half as Danny’s run himself ragged.

In the 49th minute, Woody is played down the right hand side and passes inside to Green. He pings it out to Anderson who gives Oztumer a bit of a suicide pass. However, he does extremely well with some clever footwork to get the ball out of his feet and shoot with his preferred left foot but it’s a yard wide.

Another 15 minutes pass until I play Bostwick at centre back with Gergo moving up the pitch to make room for Eardley at right back. No impact on the game whatsoever so with 10 minutes later, I bring on Cooper for the goalscorer Erhun. Again, no impact at all as we see out the game against some hard Bolton pressure. That’s three wins out of three to get our season off to a flying start.

After checking with Bob that a few hundred thousand pounds has went into the club, our semi final is set up against the other German side in the competition, Dynamo Dresden. Steering clear of another World War 2 history moment, Dresden is a large city housing close to 600’000 people. The football team is not to be underestimated either as they are one of the more successful sides in German history. They have fell down the pecking order in recent years with their most recent piece of silverware being the 3.Liga title in 2016.

I want to start the season off with my first piece of silverware as a manager, even if it is some pre-season cup. I know it means nothing to Arsenal who win that bloody Emirates cup every other season but it means a lot to little Lincoln. That’s why I field what I would say is our best side to ensure a place in final.

Now when I say this, I don’t say it lightly; at least a bombing run would have livened this game up. I flash back to the period of games in late March/April and think how lucky I was to watch us steal a 1-0 win with the third chance of the game. I’m not exaggerating when I say literally not a thing happened. Even a double sub at the interval was uninspiring. Batesy even fell asleep for some of the second half. Before you know it, penalties are upon us. I’ll save the time of spending any more time on this game than it deserves. Benatelli steps up after Esposito takes our 5th penalty and blasts it off the post. We’re through to the final, which is all that matters but by god was it boring.

*Meta-Note: This game was genuinely so boring, I forgot to screenshot the full time result. I was so eager to leave that game ASAP.*

Already looking forward to the final to keep that bore-fest in the past, St Truiden will meet us again after a 1-0 victory in their game. We’ve already beat them once but we need to go out and win big. The trophy is dangling in front of us now but we need to get that killer instinct I talked about and take it back to England with us.

It’s hard to avoid keeping an eye on the World Cup as it’s such an amazing spectacle. However, there’s no time for anything except woe as England and Ireland are knocked out in the quarter finals by Brazil and Germany retrospectively. I’m not too keen to rush Harrison or Vasil home, both of which finished 3rd in their groups. On the last day before our final, Italy are knocked out by Belgium in the semi’s so we’re guaranteed an intriguing final nonetheless. I watch the Belgium game myself and it gets me thinking about international management. It would be a great experience if I was given the chance to take over a national side but for now, my focus is Lincoln City.

The next morning, the League One fixtures are announced with Blackpool being our guests on the opening day of the season. We play the relegated Burton Albion the following week with us playing hosts to Bostwick’s and Oztumer’s old side, Peterborough on the final day. We also draw the red side of Sheffield away from home in the first round of the Carabao Cup which will be a difficult game to say the least.

I’m strangely relaxed when naming the team sheet as I’m quietly confident. Walker starts in goal with Palmer back up front being the main inclusions since our last match. The rest of the selection is pretty standard. I’m normally shouting and pacing when giving a team talk in a game like this but I’m subconsciously trying a different approach.

“Let’s go win a trophy.”

10 minutes in, Bostwick plays the overlapping Dickenson down the left who puts a peach of a ball to the near post for the Surrey-born giant Ollie Palmer to power a header into the top left. 1-0 and Ollie’s opened his account for the 18/19 season with a trademark finish.

We adopt a Mourinho style of football to try and cool Truiden pressure. We win the ball, pass it sideways and slowly build forwards before sprinting back into shape again. It’s not our type of game however and it gets thrown out the window in the 38th minute. It’s the same passage of play with a Dickenson cross from a Bostwick through ball finding Palmer but this time round, he can only head it into the side netting. Half time comes before you know it and we’re doing pretty well with a goal advantage.

In the 53rd minute, Palmer holds up play following a Bostwick pass and slots a ball through to Erhun. He manages to get a shot off but it’s saved down low with the rebound going straight to Stewart facing an open goal but Dussaut slides in heroically to stop a certain Lincoln second.

In the 65th minute, I bring on Esposito and Knott for Rowe and Oztumer who’ve been quiet today. To be fair to them, any forward football has been down the left hand side. With 15 minutes left, I make a formation change to a narrow 4-1-2-1-2 with a diamond in midfield. Chapman replaces Stewart in the middle with Valerio getting the nod to finish the game up front next to Ollie. I also replace a tired Dickenson with Neal Eardley as he’s earned a rest.

5 minute after the changes, Chapman receives the ball from a throw and passes to Woody. He hits it inside for Valerio who fakes one way before passing out to Gergo. It’s a little ball over the defender that sets Woody to volley a cross into the path of an open Ellis Chapman who has a whole goal to nod the ball home. It’s a truly gorgeous bit of play that Guardiola would be proud of. 2-0.

In the 86th minute, the game is dead and buried. Woody plays a 1-2 with Valerio and threads the ball behind for Knott. He puts an early cross to the back post for Palmer to half volley into the ground and seal the trophy. Truiden do get a constellation goal when Gergo accidentally trips Teixeira in the box for a penalty. Sam Walker dives the right way but Boli’s strike just squeezes under his right arm. His clean sheet is gone but it really doesn’t matter.

Bob is ringing within moments of the full time whistle to congratulate myself and the squad. I get my medal after some brief celebrations but all I care about is that trophy. You’d think the European Continental Shield would have a shield but they go for a standard trophy bizarrely. They really missed a trick there. Seeing the lads lift it, champagne spraying the lot of them. That’s the takeaway moment from our couple weeks in Germany. But now, I’m hungry for more. Everybody is.