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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Go out there and make me fucking proud.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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But most importantly? It had to be Atletico Bucaramanga.

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

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

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

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

Finally, I’ve got my Bucaramanga back.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Capitulation (Episode 22 – Shep: Managerial Globetrotter)

“We are due a win… right, Ricky?”

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

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

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

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

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

“We are due a win… right, Ricky?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Revenge.

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Going South (Episode 21 – Shep: Managerial Globetrotter)

What an embarrassment of a football team.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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