The absurdity and fun of the football management game
I’ve never been big into video games. I never got the idea of the shoot-em-up-type pretend-to-be-soldier games where you massacre faceless baddies to reach your mission objective, or games like Mario Brothers where you have to jump up hundreds of steps and collect little symbols which make you breath fire and collect points on your clubcard (or something). As a child, I loved FIFA games, but it became expensive to keep collecting every year with only minor differences. And I do enjoy driving racing cars around circuits providing my computer is quick enough to help me keep them on the road.
But I love football management games. In particular I’ve always loved Sports Interactive’s now-legendary series For me, they are the most realistic football games out there, simply because of the immersion. This centres on the fact that even if you are watching lots of little dots on a screen run around after an even tinier dot, it looks and feels like a real football match, and one you are no way in control of. I’m sure anyone who has played them will know of the pain of late equalisers for the opposition, to the extent of screaming and swearing at the computer screen in horror, or the joy of late winners. The games are also thoroughly researched with massive player and team databases – I remember when I first got one of these games, I spent hours looking up former Torquay players to see where their careers had taken them after Plainmoor (usually nowhere) – and you can keep going through many seasons on there, adding a brilliant counterfactual element which is always enjoyable to follow. The addition in the more recent games of features such as media interaction and team talks have only made it feel more like real life, although sometimes it is nice to just go with the simplicity of the older games.
I’ve recently started a new save (as they are known) on Championship Manager 4. It’s set in the 2002-03 season, although my one gripe is that although you start at the start of the season, the players and managers are from later in the real season, so it’s not quite as-in-real-life. I love the whole nostalgic air about it – the players I grew up with are nearly all at their peaks, while youngsters like Rooney and Milner are in their teens and just emerging. Joey Barton is in the reserves at Manchester City and has no potential (a rare error by SI in predicting his future, then). Messi is merely a misspelt version of the synonym for untidy.
I decided to start at Torquay – in reality, Leroy Rosenior had just taken the hot seat after Roy McFarland walked away. This was the peak of the Mike Bateson era, with large cost-cutting, as evidenced by my budget – my wage budget was £12,000 per week, with the current playing staff coming to just under that already, and my transfer budget was a measly £5,000, usually only enough to buy you Welsh non-league players. I also had no assistant manager, who is usually a very helpful tool to have in the game.
Having played CM4 loads of times before, I knew there were plenty of free agents available to sign up, so I set to work trying to persuade some of them to come here. My only problem is that I often neglect to take into account the effect signing all these players will have on my budget, and the players I signed all ended up on big wages. These included former England winger Stuart Ripley, former QPR defender Karl Ready, former Manchester United defender Chris Casper, former QPR defender/midfielder Mark Perry, Northern Ireland forward Kingsley Black, and former Chelsea midfielder and my new assistant manager Eddie Newton. I also loaned full-back Juan Maldonado of Arsenal for a season. The result was the wage bill increased by over 50%, but I was confident it would be worth it.
Most of the pre-set pre-season friendlies were up against low key Welsh opposition – Carmarthen Town, Caerleon Town, Haverfordwest County, Ton Pentre and UWIC Inter Cardiff. The results were mixed, which was disappointing. I experimented with 3-4-1-2 and 5-3-2 but settled on 4-3-3 in time for my first league match against Wrexham. It was a decent match – midway through the second half we were 2-0 up and cruising, but the introduction of pacy striker Hector Sam changed things, as the Trinidad international scored twice to level it up at 2-2, before we snatched it with a late winner. A midweek 1-0 defeat at Leyton Orient followed, before a 4-1 home thrashing of Southend, a team my scout said were strong in defence (obviously he hadn’t watched their 6-0 defeat to Oxford on the opening day!).
The first couple of weeks went quite well, picking up 3 wins and a draw as well as a couple of defeats. But then things turned around rather dramatically – defeat at Carlisle was followed by a League Cup exit at the hands of Division Two Chesterfield, and then a 5-0 hammering by Bury. This was followed by 4 more defeats, including 3-0 defeats to rivals Exeter and Bristol Rovers which really hurt, and narrow defeats to runaway title contenders Hull and Cambridge.
By the time we had reached 7 straight defeats, I feared the worst. We now looked like being stuck in a massive rut with the relegation zone looming large before us. I tried making alterations but nothing worked. It didn’t help that the players I’d signed at the start were all hopeless (unsurprising considering in reality none of them played in the Football League again), and the financial figures were also now looking bleak. All around me there were other managers looking insecure – Kidderminster, just above us in the table with better form, took the decision to sack Ian Britton. Back then in real life, Bateson was of course very trigger-happy, so I was expecting his virtual counterpart to be the same. Part of me was hoping I’d get the sack so I wouldn’t have to resign.
I guess two things saved me, though – low expectations (we were only expected to escape relegation, and nothing else), and the Football League Trophy, that infamous sideshow tournament for the lower teams. We were drawn against a strong team in Rushden, so given that it was a match I believed we were likely to lose in a tournament that wasn’t very important, I changed formation to 4-4-2, and completely changed the defence and attack by bringing in some of the squad players (as well as Michael Branch coming in on loan from Wolves). It worked brilliantly – we won 3-0. I was hoping it would be a morale boost for the rest of the squad, so I switched back to my main team for the next league game against Kidderminster, but it didn’t work and we were stuffed again. So for the next league game, a key game against fellow strugglers Bournemouth, I went back to the Rushden team and picked the defence and a couple of midfielders and attackers, despite them not being fully match fit. Once again, it worked, as we won 3-0 again.
It’s now November. Since the Bournemouth win, we’ve been on a roll – the run now totals 5 wins in a row, our best of the season. This despite injuries to 2 of my key players, Jason Fowler (out for up to 9 months with a cruciate ligament injury) and Martin Gritton (out for a couple of months with a groin strain), and my scout leaving for Swansea. Crucially this run has included 2 cup wins, in the FL Trophy and the FA Cup – even though it doesn’t matter from a survival perspective, it helps pay for the large wages of the guys that aren’t playing (some of whom I’ve now transfer listed and am hoping to sell in January), especially the FA Cup win which brought in £20,000. The other nice aspect of that was that it was a win over Bury, who effectively sent us into the terrible run with that thrashing. In the league, we’re now up into 16th, solidly mid-table, and I hope we can push on now to make the play-offs, which is definitely still a realistic possibility as it’s still early days. My ultimate aim is to stick with them as long as I can, and perhaps turn the Gulls into a Premier League force – hey, it’s a game…
Elsewhere in this counterfactual world of football, other chairmen weren’t quite as patient. Kidderminster were the first of 3 teams in my division to sack their manager – Bournemouth sacked Sean O’Driscoll shortly after we beat them, and bottom of the table Scunthorpe soon sacked Brian Laws as well, replacing him with Rob Newman. In the division above, Northampton sacked Martin Wilkinson. In Division One, Derby sacked George Burley after a dire start saw them in the relegation zone, and replaced him with Austrian Bernd Krauss. Burley then landed himself job of turning Walsall’s season around after Colin Lee took them to the bottom of the table before being sacked, while surprise strugglers Wolves sacked Dave Jones, who then took the Bournemouth job.
In the Premier League there have been no managerial casualties, although my money’s on Kevin Keegan to be the first – Manchester City have had a poor start to life back in the top flight and are looking likely relegation candidates. Also down there with them are Fulham, currently managed by Micky Adams who left a promising job at Division One Leicester to fill the vacancy before the season started. Newly-promoted West Brom are doing well, though, having topped the table briefly – they are still well inside the top 10, behind only the usual contenders. Newcastle’s league start hasn’t been great but their Champions League group form has, so it will be interesting to see if they can continue that.
It’s this creation of a virtual universe in which other leagues run, other transfers are made, and other managers are dismissed and hired that set the Championship/Football Manager series apart from the rest. Instead of being the centre of a storyline, you are just one small part of it, with loads of back stories and sub-plots. Even if you are out of a job, the game goes on without you. Other games simply don’t have the same depth or sophistication. The possibilities are literally endless…