6th October 2001 in Britain. Osama Bin Laden had just gained global notoriety. The US government would launch military operations in Afghanistan the following day. The Conservative Party had recently elected Iain Duncan-Smith as its new leader after a second consecutive electoral landslide for the Labour Party 4 months ago. Kylie Minogue was number 1 in the singles charts with “Can’t Get You Out of My Head”, while the highest-grossing films of recent weeks included Moulin Rouge, AI Artificial Intelligence and A Knight’s Tale, with the release of Harry Potter & the Philosopher’s Stone just a few weeks away.
But this date is significant in the history of British television, as it was on this day that the first episode of Pop Idol was broadcast. 5.24 million viewers turned to ITV to watch the birth of a popular culture phenomenon. Simon Cowell was shown doing his first bit of TV judging, while Gareth Gates stammered his way through his breakthrough audition to become the Susan Boyle before Susan Boyle – if there had been YouTube, no doubt he’d have got millions of hits.
But in fact this is the reason I’m writing this – I’m interested not because of what it is, but because of what it isn’t.
I grew up with the first wave of twenty-first century talent shows, although I was slow getting into it. My mother was the first in our house – she got hooked very early into the first of them, Popstars, which followed Polydor’s Paul Adam, 19 Management’s Nicki Chapman and anger’s Nigel Lythgoe as they assembled a five-piece mixed gender pop band, Hear’Say, before shifting to follow the band as it went through the process of doing the things bands do – record songs, make music videos, and eventually sell records. Lots of them. The only problem was the substance itself wasn’t good enough to sustain the band beyond the initial gimmick, and it split up in October 2002, less than 18 months after their first single, “Pure and Simple”, went to number 1 by breaking the record the fastest-selling debut single of all time – in that time, the band had even been involved in another Popstars-esque show to find a new member of the band after Kym Marsh left to pursue a solo career.
Popstars was very different to its predecessors because it was more of a documentary than a talent show – it showed the formation of the band, which could have been any band, but just happened to have a lot more publicity. All the phone voting was in the future – the first element of responsibility in the public’s hands was buying the single. In hindsight, it was an intelligent idea, because it built momentum as it went along – as has become standard in this genre of television, it was portrayed as a journey, on which we would learn more about the individual contestants. The hysteria was ramped up by the time the band members and band name were shown being chosen, which had been a few months before the broadcast, but this was cleverly capitalised on by the literal unveiling of the band in front of the photographers and news cameras not long after. By this point, the show’s following had grown to the extent that it was now considered major news in the entertainment sector. Just a couple of weeks later, in March 2001, the single was released, allowing the hysteria to run riot in supermarkets around the country.
Pop Idol launched later that year, and was seen as a logical step. One can see this as being portrayed as a kind of “democratisation” of the Popstars format – instead of being decided by a bunch of elitists in suits (not that they were necessarily portrayed that way), the power to choose the winner was being handed over to the general public. Superficially, control over the show was now in the grasp of the viewers.
Thirteen years on we (at least those of us who would read something like this) are a bit wiser to the various tricks that talent show producers pull. We know that not all the audition stages are shown. We know they make millions from the phone voting, and that the judges have wrested back a certain amount of control of the decision-making. We know that editing is done to develop characters in particular ways, that we’re meant to think in certain ways, and that there’s a deliberate creation of narratives for the public to relate to, to create “good/bad guys” and get an emotional reaction from us. We’re even suspicious about the voting. In short, we’re a bit more aware of and cynical about talent shows, and we know it’s not necessarily a representation of reality, even if it claims to be.
Back in 2001, we as a society were a bit more naive. But at the same time, the producers of such shows were more naive too. When Big Brother first launched in Britain in the summer of 2000, it was still genuinely considered a social experiment. People didn’t necessarily think that the contestants were being chosen for entertainment value. It had more than an ounce of credibility. That’s how people began watching. With the passage of time, it has become more and more obvious that it was all being manipulated, and in turn has become more and more self-aware – the contestants get crazier every years.
Similarly, watching the first episode of Pop Idol, which you can now do yourselves via YouTube, is a surprising experience simply because none of the great clichés that we expect from TV talent shows aren’t there.
The first thing that struck me watching it (for the first time, as once again it took a few weeks before I joined the rest of the family in watching it) is there’s no music playing between auditions – the soundtrack is incredibly sparse. So are the sets – there are no massive jazzed-up sets as we would associate with The X Factor before it moved into actual stage auditions, or even the second season of the show as shown in the picture below.
In the first episode of the series, it’s just a table with a Pop Idol logo in a large bland conference room. The judges are critical but often constructive rather than openly nasty or intentionally nice. There’s an intelligence and a sensitivity about it, but they’re also willing to have a laugh without getting away from the seriousness of the issue – at no point do you think they’ll put someone through who isn’t good enough, as opposed to The X Factor where anyone auditioning over the age of 80 will probably get through out of pity.
And that’s perhaps the overriding feeling I have with this. I’m not saying this show wasn’t taking itself seriously, but there certainly isn’t the bombastic triumphalism of The X Factor or Britain’s Got Talent. Those two in particular stress the epic – everything is always emphasising the large scale of everything, and how it is getting bigger and therefore better. There are no massive words flashing up on the screen telling you how many million people auditioned, and nor is some O Fortuna-based classical composition playing to further emphasise the grandiose importance of what you’re about to witness.
Compare the introductions to the programmes. Pop Idol‘s seems almost futuristic, combining an electronic soundtrack with images of a water-based singer (who changes from male to female and vice versa) performing in an arena with planes symbolising the lifestyle of the Pop Idol. But the focus never strays away from that individual – it’s as if it is representing the personal quest of the performer as they bid to become a superstar.
The first X Factor intro from 3 years later is completely different. There’s no performer – it’s just a series of electronically-charged ‘x’s floating through the universe with flames erupting from the side for no reason. It’s very abstract (apart from the bit at the end where you see the crowd, who I assume are meant to represent the audience at a gig), but the whole idea of floating it through space stresses the epic – everything appears huge and expansive. Whereas the Pop Idol was going to be big in this world, the person with the “x factor” was going to dominate the universe. More recent efforts are less abstract but perhaps stress this even more, as well as making the most out of the latest HD-suitable graphics.
Basically, The X Factor wants to smash into your home right into your TV, and then blow its speakers with its awesome power. But Pop Idol was a bit more subtle and low key, and I think this reflects the forms of television that the genre was developing from. As with Popstars, the whole thing feels more like a documentary when you’re watching it, because of the way it was filmed and the lack of a soundtrack, hinting at the evolution process.
Also, as it was the first of its kind, nobody knew if it was going to be a success, so it was still a bit of a gamble, and I think there is an element of a lack of confidence in the show at this point. The producers lack the sure-footedness in what they were producing that they (collectively) would later develop in various other shows. The X Factor can get away with emphasising the epic because it has the self-confidence (and the money) to do so as it has had a stable huge following for a number of years.
With Pop Idol, things weren’t so guaranteed – they were starting from scratch. They didn’t know what the audience necessarily wanted, and, crucially, there were no tropes to tape into. By “trope” I mean the sort of clichéd stereotypes that talent shows are famed for using. As I mentioned earlier, a good example of this is the use music – they play a song which the viewer will identify that as a “sad song” (something slow and melancholy) or a happy song (something with a crescendo – Hoppipola by Sigur Ros is often used) to indicate a sad moment or a happy moment, or the difference between a serious contestant (again, slow and melancholy) and a contestant you know won’t be able to sing (light-hearted, perhaps brass instrument-based, something which makes you think “funny” immediately).
These days, so many of these audio cues are set up so that you the viewer make the emotional reaction the producers want – it’s the equivalent of those flashing “Applause” signs in a studio telling you when to applaud. It has become such an enormous cliché in talent shows that they could probably get away with not showing the end of a particular clip and people could still work out what would happen.
As well as this, there are various editing and selecting techniques – the “characters” (as that is what they are essentially developed into) that you are meant to think of as being stupid will be shown doing or saying something stupid, while the characters you are meant to cheer on are shown being emotional beforehand, often with the infamous sob story explained (and emotional music played over the top, obviously). It is a very formulaic way of producing a show, but people love it because it’s easy to understand and they don’t have to think for themselves.
This first episode of Pop Idol is a fantastic demonstration of what talent shows would be like if those tropes didn’t exist. There’s no music so you have to actually use your brain to think a little about whether or not the contestant in front of you will be good and will go through. Granted, it’s not totally free of that, as presenters Ant and Dec still act as guides, but with no audio cues, it has a very different feel to its successors.
For example, I was quite surprised that the first audition they showed was by a young man who looked like a would-be pop star who failed to impress the judges with his mediocre voice, and yet young stuttering Gareth Gates was able to wow them with his rendition of “Flying Without Wings” – perhaps a reverse of what people might have expected when they were introduced at the start of the episode.
I also found how the judges were introduced for the first time interesting – again, no epic music or police convoys as you get today. Instead they are shown doing their jobs – apart from Cowell, who they show as being a bit showbiz, driving around in his Jag, presumably because he is representing the music executive – even so, this is a more humble Cowell than the one we are used to. And when they each state what they are looking for, it’s not explained away with simplistic buzzwords and phrases – it’s actually presented as a little bit more complex, even if not particularly intellectual.
It is significant in hindsight that there were no singers on that first panel – instead there was a DJ (Neil Fox), a manager (Nicki Chapman), a producer (Pete Waterman) and an executive (Cowell). Cowell was probably the least well-known person on the panel, with Chapman familiar to viewers via Popstars, Waterman due to his success as part of the Stock Aitken & Waterman producing team and Fox due to his profile as a leading DJ on mainstream radio. These are genuinely serious music people who are meant to know how to identify a future pop idol, as opposed to the performers who dominate judging panels in the 2010s, often there as big name personalities or a potential source of controversy.
As a result of all of this, it feels more “scientific”, although they still talk about the artist requiring “the x factor” to succeed. Similarly, their feedback isn’t necessarily black or white – the individual judges do give more detail. As well as this, while Cowell is stated to be the chairman of the panel, there isn’t a particular “nasty judge”, another trope of talent shows – Cowell would take that role over time but this was an organic process due to his criticism and the media marking him out as “the nasty one”; indeed, Waterman’s comments could also be quite cutting. Later in the series, the judges would also get their own criticism from the contestants – in later years this hasn’t been shown as much, perhaps because the contestants are now more deferential to the celebrities that are doing the judging.
In general, while The X Factor feels like a massive monolith, Pop Idol feels less distant and more down-to-earth, and in some way it gives it a bit more authenticity – it feels a bit more honest. As with the original Big Brother, it feels purer – a genuine quest for talent that happens to take the form of a television show. It gives off the vibe that the decisions the judges are making are to try and find people who are talented performers rather than picking those who will be the most or controversial fun on the show. It is taking itself quite seriously but it doesn’t feel especially pretentious, whereas The X Factor is still trying to infer that it is an actual talent search even though any scraps of credibility it once might have had disappeared when Simon Cowell decided he would rather keep Jedward in the competition rather than a serious singer despite criticising them for weeks before.
Maybe it’s just because we are wiser to the tricks of the trade now or because it reminds me of a more innocent time where we (or at least I) didn’t think about these things as much, but even watching that first episode back with my analytical head on, Pop Idol doesn’t feel as cynical as The X Factor. While ultimately it was trying to look for a pop singer to sing pop songs for the masses in order to make millions of pounds rather than some kind of genuine artistic endeavour, it doesn’t feel like it’s a means to an end – I’m sure Simon Fuller was looking to make a lot money out of it because he’s a businessman, but it feels like a genuine talent search. While watching The X Factor today can often feel like an insult to one’s intelligence, I have to admit that I actually found this first Pop Idol episode quite interesting and enjoyable to watch, even if perhaps only from a nostalgic perspective.
I think what we see is a process of developing self-awareness – those producing these shows, be it the singing shows or the locked-in-a-house shows, became aware of what the audience liked, and focused in on that. What happened over the course of the shift from Popstars to Pop Idol to The X Factor is that the producers reduced a documentary about a search for new talented performers to its component parts – while with the early series you get the feeling that this is something that could have happened even if the cameras weren’t there, now you have no mistake that this is a television show and could not be anything else, which is a pretty sizeable shift.
In particular, there is what is now considered to be “the main attraction” – the bad auditions, where the viewer is invited to laugh at people who are clearly being exploited. We now know that these people have been told they are wonderful in early audition rounds, thus building up their hopes before performing in front of the judges. And yes, this was happening in this first episode of Pop Idol too. But it doesn’t feel as sneery – the judges are trying their best to be constructive.
In 2007, Pete Waterman told The Telegraph “When we did the first series of Pop Idol, we insisted that we did not set out to embarrass those people who did not understand the way it all worked. But, in my opinion, that’s where they’ve taken X Factor. I say that without having seen it – but knowing exactly what they are doing…Yes [it is inevitable that it developed that way], because it’s television. It’s now perpetuated across all the networks. I went to Sky last year with a proposition and they came up with a phrase I had never heard before: they said that nowadays it was all about jeopardy TV. They want people squirming on television. I was appalled by it. The bottom line is that it’s a cheap shot.”
This sums it up perfectly – when creating Pop Idol for the first time, the producers didn’t know what the audience wanted; after it, they knew exactly what they wanted, and reduced the show to that, cutting all the crap. Some may describe Pop Idol as dumbed down, but when compared to The X Factor it looks positively intellectual. The fact is it is, and always has been, mass entertainment, the aim being to get as many people watching as possible. And the best ways of doing that are making it simple and easy to understand, and getting an emotional reaction out of people. Therefore, in the eyes of the producers, The X Factor is better than Pop Idol, because it’s better at doing this – it doesn’t matter, for instance, that first Pop Idol winner Will Young has endured longer than any of the X Factor winners.
But this doesn’t change my feelings on this. Maybe, as I said, it’s because it represents a more innocent time – I was 10 years old, just getting into “old music” (i.e. anything before about 1998) for the first time, and didn’t think about whether or not things were as they seemed. But I can’t help but think Pop Idol feels like a more authentic talent show, and that it’s more entertaining than The X Factor because if you are being led to think a particular way, it is far more subtle than its successor, and not at all patronising – unlike watching The X Factor today, at no point did I ever feel like I was being told to think a particular way.
Many people despise reality TV, and with good reason. But in hindsight, Pop Idol seems almost respectable. Perhaps that shows us how far we have drifted away from the original idea. As with all history, it’s a reflection of our society today more than it is a reflection of our society in 2001.
And so my second season in Serbia has come to an end. I feel I’m starting to get to grips with this – not just with the team but aspects of the game, particularly team talks which I may have been making a hash of for ages without noticing. By the end of the season I had managed to avoid getting into a major slump – we were losing games, sometimes even convincingly, but we weren’t into the dramatic tailspin of the second quarter of the season.
Eventually we came up just short of European qualification, although I had resigned myself to defeat a few matches before the end when we were finding it particularly difficult to hold on to wins. It was a very competitive battle, with a number of teams surging up the table in the second half, and I assumed that with our inconsistent form, we’d inevitably slip down to an ultimately meaningless mid-table position – fine when you consider we were “expected” to be relegated and my official aim was to avoid relegation, but enormously disappointing considering we had been battling for a top 4 finish all season.
In the end, a couple of wins in the last few matches saw us leapfrog back up the table to take 5th, only a point behind Jagodina – with ties decided by head-to-head record, we were a point away from a Europa League spot, as we had won 1 and drawn 1 against them this season. What ultimately let us down, though, was not Jagodina’s surprise draw on the final day against Red Star, but a run of 4 defeats in 6 matches in April and May. Granted, this included defeats to Rad and Partizan, who finished 1st and 3rd respectively, but it also included a sloppy defeat to Sloboda Uzice – yet again we lost to the side who were bottom at the time, and conceded 3 goals in the process. I’ve no idea why this keeps happening but it’s daft. We also led a few games but came away only with draws or defeats, including the visit of Red Star. I’m particularly disappointed that we failed to beat the top 3 in a match this season – 1 win would have been nice as I don’t want to end up as a pathetic David Moyes-esque figure unable to get results against the top teams.
We had much less of a balance between home form and away form this year, which is a bit odd. Whereas last year we lost twice at home and 5 times away, this year we again only lost twice at home but this time had 7 defeats on the road. We actually had more wins away from home last year (9 vs 8 at home), but this time we won just 5 times away, versus the 8 at home. It’s odd how a change of league can create a shift like that.
I did the bulk of the contractual work during the winter break in order to snap up the best available players early, something I didn’t do last year because I didn’t know what league I would be in or what money I would have to spend. This should allow us to take a step forward. Out will go some of our older players – left-winger Nermin Useni has announced his retirement at the age of 34, although I wasn’t going to offer him a new deal anyway, and Tiago Silva, who is the same age but is on a much more significant £2,100 a week, is also going to be released. Betolngar, Ristanovic and Zdravkovic are the other first team players on their way, with plenty of reserves joining them. We don’t have financial issues but the 25 man squads put a limit on the players we can keep, so if they’re not capable of playing at this level, they’re going.
But while my initial signings focused on strengthening the midfield and both full-back positions, I’ve come to realise that actually there may be a hidden danger at centre-back. I noticed playing against the more talented sides in the league that we were susceptible on the counter, because those better players would just storm straight through the defence without my defenders making an effort to stop them. I think this is meant to represent my centre-backs not being quick enough. Coaches in the game never seem to pick up on what a problem pace can be – this is something I’ve noticed with a few teams – so Filipovic and Milunovic are still rated very highly, even though they aren’t the quickest. They will no doubt work great with a quicker centre-back alongside them, so I’m looking to bring another with more pace to do just that.
The good thing is the average age of the squad is coming down. Only 2 of my 6 signings so far is over 30, while some of the older guys I signed to add experience last summer are on their way out as they have either declined rapidly or had already dropped off before even arriving. The core of youngsters, most of whom were already here before I arrived such as Avramovic, Filipovic and Milunovic, are what the side should and will be built around. Pantelic will continue to get the starting berth as long as he keeps scoring, but Grujicic is an able replacement and still developing well despite a disappointing season this time around.
The future for the team looks very bright. If the players I have signed are as good as my scouts have told me (and that’s no sure thing), I think we can take another step forward next season – I could probably resign now and they would still do pretty well without me. It’ll be difficult to challenge the Big Two, but Rad have proven it’s possible to beat them. A top 4 finish is a realistic possibility. While this team have caused me a lot of stress and frustration of late, I think this is starting to come good and I don’t intend on leaving just yet.
Look only at the table and you would assume that I’d be happy with how the first half of my first season in the SuperLeague was going – 4th place, when I was only expected to avoid relegation, is pretty positive. But a look at the fixture list tells a different story.
Until our defeat to struggle BSK Borca in late October, we had been looking very good for a top 3 finish. We were virtually unbeatable – even our match at Red Star Stadium was a positive, as we only narrowly lost and played well. But the BSK Borca defeat, coming off the back of a couple of games where I seemed to be unable to motivate my players in the team talks (always a sign of trouble ahead) began the sort of chain reaction I always fear with FM – one defeat leads to another as you “drop off the cliff”, unable to do anything about it because the players first refuse to respond and then lose all their confidence.
The Vozdovac game was perhaps the key one as it cemented it as a longer run of form, followed by a thrashing at the hands of Vojvodina, which included Carboni getting sent off for a second yellow card for diving. That meant he missed the game at Partizan, where we again played well and initially took the lead thanks to Pantelic, but, as has so often been the case with this team, we weren’t able to hold on. It’s frustrating to get high ratings at that point, because the game bases all its reactions off what is a highly objective rating and yet you know your players haven’t done a good job as they’ve thrown away a win at a struggling side. I criticised them for it, which led to positive reactions at the time, but these reactions are often misleading as the players’ confidence remains damaged.
The draw against unbeaten Rad, with whom it has been difficult even for Red Star to live with this season, was a nice boost but we weren’t able to sustain it. We again drew over 90 minutes in our Serbian Cup quarter-final with OFK Belgrade, but lost on penalties. A humiliating defeat against Smederova left us 7 games without a win, our worst run yet, though it still felt like a carbon copy of our great start-turned-struggle of the first half of last season. But we managed to end this half of the season with a win, which gives us a bit more confidence and hope heading into the winter break.
In terms of the players, Pantelic has been every bit as good as I hoped, banging in 10 goals in 17 appearances. He may not have the highest average rating in the team but he has been the outstanding performer in the league. Those with a higher average are often those who played in my “cup team”, like Nermin Useni and Washington, who found the minnows in the early rounds easy pickings. The 6 ft 8 Brazilian striker hasn’t played in the league, though, due to the restrictions on foreign players, which make it difficult for him to break in ahead of the Silvas, Carboni and Barbosa.
My mind is already starting to turn to next season. Despite our terrible run at the end, we should now survive at the very least. Out of my 26 man squad, 20 players’ contracts are set to expire. Several of these are the wrong side of 30, including Tiago Silva, Useni and Darko Savic, and they will probably move on. I am also struggling to make a case for keeping Betolngar, who is a bit redundant now that we are only playing 1 up front, especially as he is so injury-prone.
On the plus side, I have already secured a further year’s extension for Pantelic, as even though he will be 35 by the end of the season, he probably has another year left in him at this level. Though so many of the players now have extremely low wages compared to the top earners (as low as £85 a week compared to Carboni’s £2,700), we have plenty of budget space for any further renewals if as expected some start asking for “big” money. I’ve also got goalkeepers Andrey Zaitsev and Sasa Stamenkovic, who joined on a free after I wrote my season preview, on longer contracts, which means I’m pretty set for keepers for a while.
Alongside this, I also have 14 players out on loan at the moment. Most of these probably won’t come to anything but at least they are out there gaining experience – maybe one or two will develop into ready-made replacements for the older guys. It’s a nice little setup here – much of the first team squad is under the age of 25 and is projected to develop further. We have a really good core of talented players and it should serve us well into the future.
Now that I’ve calmed down after our terrible run (I was furious when it was happening last night), I’m much happier about the state of the club – now that I know our financial position is secure and I have players capable of pushing on, I’m happy to stay for a while yet, and the board are happy with my performance. We definitely have the basics in place to challenge Partizan and Red Star into the future.
The problem is Rad seem to have got there before us – after finishing 2nd last year, they look like they’re on their way to the title this year, and so will be the first team since Obilic to beat both of the giants to the Serbian championship. With Nenad Milijas and Red Star breathing down their necks, though, it’s not over yet.
My second season at Mladost beckons. My application for CFR Cluj failed, which isn’t such a bad thing as the wage budget I was given was enormous compared to the players I can realistically attract, meaning I have a massive block of wage budget which I haven’t used – the 25 player limit to squads means I probably won’t use it for anything other than the mass of contract extensions towards the end of the season. I’ve also been allowed to bring in more staff to help with training – the players had been upset all year about the fitness training, so I’ve now signed two excellent fitness coaches which should help the players last during matches, something that was a bit of an issue last season.
But even though I’ve been allowed this spending, thanks to the larger prize money, increased sponsorship and TV money from playing in the top division, it still feels like a bit of a gamble – obviously there’s no guarantee we’ll stay up. I’m predicted to finish 15th, though I don’t think that this has anything to do with the signings I’ve made.
At the end of last season, I allowed 6 players to leave, including my captain and club legend Radojica Vasic, attacking midfielder Ivan Jovanovic, and both my goalkeepers, Slobodan Jankovic and Vladimir Lukic. This had always been planned even if I hadn’t been relegated, as most either weren’t up to the task or weren’t good enough any more – Jovanovic and Vasic’s performances dropped over the course of the season and my coaches were telling me they were past their peak. Meanwhile Jankovic, my regular keeper, made several mistakes and was probably out of his depth even in the First League. Further to that, I also sold midfielder Nemanja Stojanovic and left-back Joseph Kizito, who made the First League Team of the Year, for a combined total of £54,000 as neither were really cut out for the SuperLeague.
Some of these moves have been quite controversial with the fans, particularly allowing Vasic and Jovanovic to leave and selling Kizito. Perhaps I should have given them a chance, Kizito in particular, but I feel I have enough depth in those positions, and I’m restricted to 25 players in any case – I can afford better now.
And better is what I’ve got. I’ve concentrated on free signings and in particular more technical players. With the foreign player limit in the SuperLeague being 4 players in the match day squad (as opposed to 2 in the First League), I went a bit mad signing South Americans. In have come Argentine playmaker Roberto Carboni, Brazilian winger Edson Barbosa, Brazilian midfielder Alex Silva, and Brazil-born Bulgarian international midfielder Tiago Silva. I also signed young Russian keeper Andrey Zaitsev to be my new number 1, which means I can only pick three of the above in a squad at the same time, unless I go with Velimir Zdravkovic, my experienced number 2 keeper, whose kicking is excellent but reflexes are a bit shit. I’ve also strengthened my young defence with a couple of experienced centre-backs, Darko Savic and Milan Bogunovic, while young Partizan left-back Stefan Milosevic has returned for a second loan spell.
But all of this is relatively low key compared to my most recent signing. I didn’t really need another striker, as Grujicic, Washington and Betolngar are already OK and competing for 1 spot up front. But then I noticed that Serbia international Marko Pantelic was a free agent, having been released by Olympiakos, and seemingly no one was interested. The scout report suggested he wouldn’t be interested, and when I opened negotiations, he did the usual “this is going to have to be an amazing offer to persuade me to join”. But amazingly he accepted my offer.
Pantelic is vastly experienced, having picked up 44 caps and represented Serbia at the 2010 World Cup. He’s 34, so he is past his peak physically, but his finishing is still very good for this level. This is actually the first time he has played in Serbia since 2005, when he left Red Star for Hertha BSC. He’s easily the most renowned signing this club has ever made, and I’m a bit disappointed that it hasn’t sparked the usual surge of shirt sales that you often get from hiring big-name players. Whether or not he starts banging in the goals is going to make the difference to how well we do this season.
My aims for this season are to avoid relegation and do reasonably well in the cup – the board has set an aim of the quarter-finals, which might be tough considering we have to start at the Second Qualifying Round again. But if we can avoid the drop, which I’m confident we will (we need 8 wins, which, given the quality of player we have, shouldn’t be a problem), I’d quite like to push on and finish mid-table, though because it’s such a short season and competitive league, it may be close anyway – 9 points separated 9th with relegated 15th last season. This is a season for stabilisation, before a crack at the European places the following season if we stay up.
Well, it was a close run thing, but we did it.
After the winter break, we began the second half of the season in stonking form, winning our first 3 matches and surging back into the lead of the First League. But after that, old habits soon emerged. Defeat to Radnicki (NP) damaged confidence, and was followed by a frustrating run of 4 draws, which included failures to beat some really poor teams. Cukaricki once again provided the worst moment – a 2-0 lead once again dissipated against the side that would eventually finished bottom. We picked up the odd win but they were false dawns – this was terrible form, and yet somehow everyone else around us was screwing up as well, so we remained in contention.
After defeat to Teleoptik, who couldn’t get promoted but tried their best to spoil our season, we had won 2 of the last 12. We now faced a crucial final 3 games, against the teams that at the time lay in 13th, 5th and 1st. We picked up a rare and “professional” 1-0 win over Metalac and got a draw against Bezanija, to put ourselves 2nd with 1 match to go, though it was still enormously tight – defeat to Borac and we would definitely not get promoted, and even a draw probably wouldn’t be enough.
Thankfully, another grinding 1-0 win was enough. Vozdovac won their match to clinch the title, but 2nd is enough for me after what we went through in the second half of the season. In the end, we proved very difficult to beat (3 defeats in the last 18 is pretty good, in theory), but I’m still not happy with the way we threw so many good results away. This could have been so much easier, but while morale always stayed high, it was as if the players lost confidence and it was impossible to rebuild that.
But we had to get promoted – if we hadn’t, our financial situation was looking bleak. In the event, our bank balance has now been corrected by the prize money for finishing as runners-up and I’ve been offered a big budget for our attempt at the Super League.
However…I’m not confident we can stay up. I’ve applied to a prominent Eastern European club, and they are “flattered” to hear of my interest…
The last few matches for Mladost Lucani have been a source of great frustration. After a fantastic start to the season, where we went 8 matches unbeaten, I can feel it starting to unravel, and with the pace at the front remaining hot, for the first time I’m starting to have doubts about whether we can get promoted.
The first signs of trouble came at Cukaricki, who at the time were bottom of the league. We cruised into an early 2-0 lead and it seemed like another routine win. But FM13 has a habit of letting you take leads like this and still crushing your spirit. They scored just before half time and I told my players not to get complacent – they reacted badly and proceeded to conceded another 3 goals.
It couldn’t have come at a worse time for my Serbian Cup hopes, as we then travelled to SuperLiga side Jagodina. We created loads of chances but lost 2-0. We bounced back with another 2 wins, but then this was followed by an awful performance against Vozdovac, who were quickly becoming our first serious rivals for the title. We’ve been inconsistent ever since – putting 3 past Jedinstvo Putevi but then couldn’t score for the first time in the league against Timok, and then the dreadful showing against Novi Sad, who were without a win in 9 and yet we allowed them to stroll into a 3-1 lead, pulled it back to 3-3 and then blew it by conceding a free kick in the last minute which was promptly scoed; following that, wins against Teleoptik and Bezanija were followed by another meek showing at home to promotion contenders Metalac.
In fairness, the last few matches have been tougher, though we really should have beaten Novi Sad. But that’s no real excuse for the downturn in form – for those first 8 matches we looked unstoppable, but now our form is very mid-table, whereas our next opponents Borac Kacak are unbeaten in 7 and closing down on the automatic places. We’ve now dropped into 2nd place for the first time in a while – amazingly our other rivals kept losing at the same time as us, until we inevitably ran out of luck with the latest defeat. I’m not worried about Teleoptik as they cannot get promoted anyway, so if they finished in the top 2, the team in 3rd would go up automatically. But Metalac and Borac are closing the gap. It would be very annoying to miss out after that start.
It reminds me a lot of my Villarreal team, who had the talent and showed it to begin with but then faded badly after the first matches and the inconsistency became uncontrollable. I think it’s the game, but I would say that, though I have at least tried a few different formations.
However, we now have a 3 month winter break before facing Borac, something I hadn’t noticed when I signed up – that’s a bit annoying as it means organising another bunch of friendlies to keep the players fit. Luckily we don’t have any momentum to lose…
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I took roughly a month off Football Manager after my hissy fit. I’ve now started a new journeyman game with the intention of not cheating at all and letting the game do what it wants.
This is the first time I’ve started unemployed on FM13 – I started one on FM12 where I ended up managing 1981 Cup Winners’ Cup runners-up FC Carl Zeiss Jena, at the time in the 3. Bundesliga (but since relegated, thus becoming unplayable on FM13). Unfortunately the game fizzled out quite quickly. However, this time I am intent on sticking by it – no cheating, and staying with this game for a long time.
I decided to start with a few leagues selected from south-east Europe alongside the usual ones:
Brazil – 3 tiers
Bulgaria – 2 tiers
Croatia – 2 tiers
England – 5 tiers
France – 2 tiers
Germany – 2 tiers
Greece – 2 tiers
Italy – 3 tiers
Portugal – 3 tiers
Romania – 2 tiers
Scotland – 2 tiers
Serbia – 2 tiers
Slovenia – 2 tiers
Spain – 2 tiers
Turkey – 2 tiers
The aim is, starting with my reputation set at semi-professional player (though for the purposes of establishing a realistic and fun narrative, I’m thinking of myself as a Villas-Boas-type figure who has worked as a scout for a few years while taking my coaching badges), to learn my trade and build my reputation in south-east Europe, to the point where I can either return to England at a high level or enter one of the other top leagues. South-east Europe is that it generally has a good standard of football coupled with low wages compared to England, with a lot less work to do to reach the top of that country’s league.
In the event, I was offered 4 jobs straight away – Lincoln City in the Conference, Mirandela in the Portuguese Second Division North (despite the name, it’s the 3rd tier of Portuguese football), and RFK Novi Sad and FK Mladost Lucani in the Serbian First League (the 2nd tier of Serbian football). I quickly rejected the first two as it was the two Serbian clubs who offered me the highest salary and bigger budgets. After waiting for any further job offers (of which there were none) and a bit of research into the clubs, I chose Mladost.
FK Mladost Lucani are based in the town of Lucani in western Serbia. Unlike Novi Sad, they have played in the SuperLiga – they were regulars in the top flight through the mid-1990s, and most recently they won the First League in 2006-07, spending 2007-08 in the top flight before immediate relegation due to financial difficulties. In 2011-12 they just missed out on promotion again after finishing 3rd, finishing 8 points behind 2nd-placed Donji Srem. But this season, in reality, has been more difficult for them – they’re currently attempting to fight off relegation to the Second League. Their most famous player ever is Red Star defender and Montenegro international Milan Jovanovic (not to be confused with the former Liverpool midfielder, who is Serbian).
The First League is considered roughly between the English Leagues One and Two in standard. There are 18 teams who play each other twice, with the bottom 6 (!) relegated. The top 2 are promoted to the SuperLiga, which has long been dominated by the two giants of Belgrade, Red Star and Partizan – since the formation of an independent Serbian league in 1992, Partizan have won 14 titles (including the last 6) and Red Star have won 6, with only FK Obilic, champions in 1997-98 with backing from paramilitary leader Arkan, able to break their stranglehold, and even they have dropped way down the leagues in the years since. In fact, only one other club, Vojvodina in 2008-09, have broken into the top 2. This is Old Firm-esque dominance, and that’s before we even get to the matches between the two, known as the Eternal Derbies.
But for now, I don’t have to worry about facing either side. Getting out of the First League is the immediate aim, which seems a realistic proposition – the squad is largely made up of young Serbians with plenty of potential, and I was given a large wage budget, adding £2,000 a week on top of what the club was already spending, which, when considering the average wage at the club is roughly £150 a week, is very useful for adding depth. The only restriction is therefore the limit on 2 foreign players in the 18-man match day squad – helpfully one of those managed to obtain Serbian nationality, so I was able to add another.
In total I added 7 players on free transfers and loaned another youngster from each of the Belgrade giants. The initial focus was on signing a left-back, and this hole was filled by Uganda international Joseph Kizito, who also holds a Serbian passport from his years at Vojvodina and Partizan. At the age of 30, I was happy to pay the maximum-allowed £500 a week to bring him in. As back-up, I loaned highly-rated Partizan teenager Stefan Milosevic. I also added experienced attacking midfielder Ivan Jovanovic and a couple of other back-up players before the start of the season. My first choice formation, due to the lack of good wingers, was 4-1-2-1-2 with the option of 4-5-1
Pre-season went well, including a 2-2 draw with Sparta Prague. My first First League match was at home to pre-season title favourites Napredak Krusevac. Despite a red card for my key midfielder Marko Avramovic and the loss of my star striker Chad international Misdongarde Betolngar to injury, I held on for 1-1 draw. Betolngar was ruled out for some time, so I needed to add more quality up front – I signed Brazilian target man Washington, who made an immediate impact in my next league game against Banat Zrenjanin by scoring 2 goals. A 3-0 win against Banat was followed by a 2-0 win over Radnicki Nova Pazova, which put me 2nd in the table. I also won my first Serbian Cup match during the same period, taking me into the final qualifying round – the board’s aim was to make the first round proper.
The next home match against Kolubar Lazarevac saw the main highlight of the season so far – I fell 1-0 behind in the first half and didn’t look like scoring, but substitutions made in the second half inspired goals in the 80th and 81st minute to snatch a dramatic win, and in the process leapfrog Borac Cacak to go top for the first time. A few days later, a second Serbian Cup tie win put us into the first round, with the opportunity of being drawn against one of the big boys.
We’ve had a few injuries, and Kizito is just heading off on international duty with Uganda, but having brought in a few more fresh faces towards the end of August, including young Red Star winger Nikola Karaklajic, we have plenty of capable cover, and enough talent to rotate where necesssary. I have a good feeling about this squad.
If we do get promoted, I have my sights set on eventually challenging Partizan and Red Star for the title – even if either of those clubs make an offer for my services, I want to have at least one serious attempt at trying to break their monopoly at the top of Serbian football. With the young talent in the squad, I think I have a great platform to work from.