From Cali to Coventry: Interview with Boreham Wood’s Angelo Balanta

Boreham Wood may be 25 places below Sunday’s FA Cup opponents Coventry City in the English football pyramid, but winger Angelo Balanta is in confident mood ahead of the game.

Given their performance and result in the last round, Balanta and his teammates have every right to feel that a giant-killing could be on the cards.

The 2017-18 season has already been a historic campaign for the Hertfordshire club. In early November, The Wood came from behind to defeat League One side Blackpool 2-1 in the FA Cup first round, beating a Football League opponent for the first time in their 69-year history.

The National League club have the opportunity to repeat the feat when they face Coventry at the Ricoh Arena, and for Balanta – who has spent the majority of his career playing between the second and third tiers of English football – it’s another opportunity to prove himself on a bigger stage.

“Why shouldn’t we be confident about beating them?” says the former QPR forward. “We’re 11 games unbeaten, on a good run ourselves and we beat Blackpool in the last round.

“Obviously, we’ve got a difficult game against Coventry, but everyone is focused on what we need to do and it should be a good day out.”

A win against Coventry would send Boreham Wood into the FA Cup third round, setting them up for a potential glamour tie against one of the Premier League big boys. Should they reach that stage, an away tie would provide a welcome boost to the coffers, and for the players it would represent a chance to test themselves against the very best.

For most members of the Boreham Wood squad it would be a venture into the unknown, but that isn’t the case for Balanta, who made his debut in the competition as a fresh-faced 17-year-old for QPR against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge back in January 2008.

“That day I was named on the bench, which I was over the moon about,” he recalls. “I wasn’t expecting to play but I got the nod after about 70 minutes to come on; we were 1-0 down at the time.

“As a young boy that had grown up in the area (Balanta was raised a stone’s throw away from Stamford Bridge) and been a part of QPR for a long time, it was a dream come true to play against Chelsea.

“We lost 1-0 but it was just a good experience for me to be playing against the likes of Ballack, Drogba, Ashley Cole, Shaun Wright-Phillips. There were a few other big names out there as well, so it was just great to be out on the pitch.”

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Chelsea would go on to reach the Champions League final that season, and Balanta’s FA Cup debut against the Blues was no token gesture. At the time he was steadily making a name for himself at QPR, ending the season with 12 appearances and one goal in all competitions.

It wasn’t only at club level that Balanta was well thought of either. A matter of months after his Stamford Bridge cameo, Balanta – who was born in Cali, Colombia but raised in West London from the age of six – was named on the standby list for England’s Under-19 squad for the 2008 European Championship.

Ultimately he didn’t take part in the competition, but it is testament to his early promise that the eventual squad included the likes of Daniel Sturridge, Danny Rose, Victor Moses and Ryan Bertrand among others. No fewer than ten of that 18-man squad are currently playing in the Premier League, while Scott Sinclair has featured in the Champions League with Celtic.

Around the same time, Balanta recalls being offered the chance to train with Colombia’s Under-17s too, but because he had already turned 18 he would be unable to take part in matches. “That’s the only real interest they showed,” he concedes.

During his time as a professional at QPR, which spanned seven years, the club were twice promoted to the Premier League. Mark Hughes even saw enough potential in Balanta to offer him a two-year contract in the summer of 2012 – at the height of the club’s ambitious recruitment strategy under chairman Tony Fernandes.

But in the ensuing two years Balanta failed to make a single competitive appearance and was eventually released. At the age of 24, he had made only 29 first-team appearances for the R’s, all of which came between 2007-2010.

Reflecting on his time at Loftus Road, Balanta says: “There were a lot of factors as to why it didn’t work out for me. Mark Hughes gave me a two-year deal when they were in the Premier League but he left and a new manager came in and he maybe didn’t like how I came across to him or fancy me as a player.

“I had a lot of different managers who had a lot of different opinions so I think my progress slowed down in that sense. It was a learning curve for me. I was upset that I didn’t get more chances.

“At one stage I literally had eight managers in one year, so for a young lad working with that many different managers it was one heck of a year, you know.

“I think it held me back. As I said, every manager has different opinions and when they came in they probably wanted to bring their own players into the club so it didn’t really help me as a kid who had come through the ranks.”

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Balanta’s time at QPR was ultimately a story of unfulfilled promise, but he had done enough in loan spells with Wycombe Wanderers, Yeovil Town, and most notably MK Dons, to suggest that a career in the Football League was still his for the taking.

It was in three separate stints with MK Dons that Balanta feels he played his best football. At that time the club were competing for promotion from League One under Karl Robinson.

“The time at MK Dons was probably the best of my career, purely because I was playing regular football.

“Overall, we got to the play-offs twice. We were playing good, attractive football and fighting for things at the right end of the table. For a young player like myself you want both of those things.

“It was good for me and played a massive part in my development. I really enjoyed my time there.”

The Dons may not have made the final step into the Championship during Balanta’s spell at the club, but it was clear they were moving in the right direction with a talented manager and equally promising squad.

The 2012-13 season was Balanta’s last at Stadium:MK when he played alongside experienced pros such as Alan Smith and Jimmy Bullard, as well as Patrick Bamford, who went on to score 18 league goals that year.

Another young upstart, Dele Alli, was just breaking into the first team, and Balanta recognised his quality from the start.

“I’m not surprised by the level that Dele has reached. I trained with him many times at MK and he’s always had it. He’s always had that athleticism to get around the park.

“As a young boy then, you’d look at him and think ‘can he do it in League One?’ but eventually when he did get the chance he took it with both hands and has gone on to bigger and better things.

“He’s now one of the best prospects not just in England, but the world probably at the moment.”

Despite impressing in fits and starts at MK and elsewhere, Balanta dropped down to the National League upon leaving QPR, signing for Bristol Rovers.

A fruitful spell in the South West culminated in a move back into league football with Carlisle, but his failure to convince manager Keith Curle of his application led to another exit after a single season, this time to Boreham Wood where he has spent the past 18 months.

Although Balanta is enjoying his football again, it’s clear that he harbours ambitions of returning to a higher level before too long.

“First and foremost, I want to do my best for Boreham Wood this season. I do believe I’m good enough to play in League Two or League One but only time will tell.

“I just want to concentrate on doing the best for me and the club and we’ll see where that takes me.”

With Boreham Wood currently seventh in the National League standings, and facing an FA Cup tie against 1987 winners Coventry, Balanta has another chance to make a name for himself this season.

From Cali to Coventry: Interview with Boreham Wood’s Angelo Balanta
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