A Love Letter to Football Manager

… and Championship Manager.

 

So it’s that time of year again. I’ve re-followed @FootballManager on my personal Twitter account (you’ve got to maintain that follower ratio) and I’ve binge watched and binge read all of the new feature updates. I mean, I’ve literally got a preview stream from Football Manager as I write this article.

That must mean Football Manager is out this week. The beta release might be out by you read this but it is due, at the latest, by Friday with the full game release on November 2nd.

I fucking love Football Manager.

Football Manager picked me up whilst looking after my terminally ill grandmother. My multiple Champions League winning AFC Wimbledon side of FM 2008 definitely helped. Football Manager picks me up from relationship break ups. The frequency of hours I have clocked in are directly influenced by my relationship status. 2014, for example, was a good year for ignoring women. Jonathan Tah, Niklas Sule, Youri Tielemans, Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg, Eder Alvarez Balanta and Domenico Berardi were wonderkids, I was playing in a highly successful 3-4-3 system.

It’s always good when those players blossom in real life. I was the first to mention how Youri Tielemans was going to change the sport at the 2018 World Cup. However, the previous World Cup was a good hunting ground for me in the “I knew them before they were good” stakes. It’s the beauty of the game, I guess, in the same delight a hipster takes from being at a gig where the audience are outnumbered by the band. There I was, sprawled out across a flimsy chair in a bar on a ferry back from Amsterdam. Mexico were fighting Croatia on the television for a spot in the round of 16 in the 2014 World Cup. Guillermo Ochoa makes a stunning save. Ochoa was famous though, by now. He was clubless, did you know? Everyone knew who Ochoa was after he nullified Neymar and co. in a 0-0 stalemate the previous match. Mexico win. You see, I signed Guillermo Ochoa for my septuple winning Manchester United team on FM 2009. I knew him before he was good.

Just one of the many perfect memories of a video game of years gone by. The snow days taken up by fifteen hour sessions trying to perfect that dodgy 1-4-2-1-2 formation with a Beckenbauer-esque Libero. The nights of whacking the brightness down on your laptop and hiding it under your bedsheets at 3am when the sound of footsteps in the neighbouring bathroom sound out around the house. You know you’re going to pull a sickie the next day, you’ve got Monday Night RAW on in the background, a finger on the remote’s power button just incase your bedroom gets invaded. Any normal person rising in the morning, with the idea incepted in their mind of a sickie (you’ve got Geography followed by Science on a Monday morning, of course you’re going to pull a sickie) would wake up with the complaint of a stomach bug or a temperature or feign vomit in a toilet bowl and go back to sleep to wake back up in the afternoon.

The Football Manager player doesn’t do this. The Football Manager player pretends they’ve gone to sleep. They wait as they did the previous night, brightness on the laptop screen low, and wait until the parents go out to work until they ‘wake up’. They cheer in a hushed manner as Bobby Zamora comes off the bench to head a last-minute equaliser to force a replay in the cup against Millwall. You’ve just taken over Fulham, you’ve not honed in that tactical familiarity. Three years time, they’ll be in Europe, guaranteed.

The memories of completing the Pentagon challenge, the Journeyman challenge, the Unemployed challenge. The scalps taken in the Chinese FA Cup, the thrashings handed out in the Swedish Allsvenskan. All of it. There’s no better sight in Football Manager, or in life really, than that ping of an email first thing on a typically rainy June morning (gametime, of course) from your youth development lads. The youth graduate day. You put yourself the kettle on, that secret stash of chocolates and biscuits you bought out of your lunch money on a rare day actually at school and you pore through the youth graduates.

Let’s side-track here. Regens. A world where sixteen year olds knock about proud of their baldness. Seriously, 95% of players generated by the game are genetically bald. Maybe alopecia is a serious problem in the future that the Sports Interactive team are trying to alert us to.

-Anyway- You check and then you’ve got six 5* potential players. The Class of ’92 Mk.II have just rocked up in your youth team. Like the team where you could transplant Arsenal’s youth clique into the first team back in FM 2008, sign about two players in fifteen years and win every trophy. I’m talking Fran Merida and Henri Lansbury playing in creative roles behind Carlos Vela. I’m talking Justin Hoyte and Armand Traore defensively. Nicklas Bendtner as a second striker. Jack Wilshere. When he was good.

Then you’ve got the Gabriel Obertans, the Mamadou Sakhos, the Pablo Piattis. They fall by the wayside. I remember being excited to the point of explosion when Fergie plucked Obertan from France. Less said about him the better. You walk around, don’t you, telling people about this kid in Southern France – oh yeah, he’s gonna be the one to do it. Obertan’s the man to replace Cristiano Ronaldo. Then you leave with egg on your face after he’s palmed off to Newcastle and then to god knows fucking where now.

Football gets brought up in the pub. Some name gets thrown into the ring. “Nicklas Sule is going to be a game changer for Bayern this season”, you smile and think ‘yeah, I signed him for Man Utd in 2014 – I’ll tell you who is good – Dayot Upamecano from Leipzig’. You bite your tongue when someone asks if Colchester have made it to the cup’s quarter finals before and you remember they won successive FA Cup titles ages ago (in 2042). You go back home from the pub, you’re watching Bundesliga highlights. You’re internally celebrating each of Hannover’s goals in a 3-1 win over Freiburg and you catch yourself remembering: I do not support Hannover but you fondly remember when you led them to three Bundesliga titles in four seasons on FM 2017. You keep your eye on AFC Wimbledon’s scores, you tut when James Ward-Prowse hasn’t even made the provisional World Cup squad, you feel disappointed when your favourite wonderkid signs for a club in the summer.

I’m talking Eder Balanta going to Milan, Youri Tielemans to Monaco, Goretzka and Sule to Bayern. It’s bittersweet. You’re pleased that the boys, your boys, have progressed in your career but you’re annoyed, so fucking annoyed, for one simple reason. You cannot sign them in the first season. Everybody has their routines in life. You wake up, you go for a shower, you jump in your car and you drive to work. I, on the other hand, press start game and then immediately sign Goretzka, Tielemans, Sule (and Tah if your club is affluent enough).

 

THE FFB FOOTBALL MANAGER HALL OF FAME

Class of 99/00: Tonton Zola Moukoko

Class of 01/02: Cherno Samba, To Madeira, Mark Kerr, Mike Duff

Class of 03/04: Dagoberto, Freddy Adu

Class of 2005: Carlos Tevez, Anthony van den Borre

Class of 2006: Igor Akinfeev, Kerlon

Class of 2007: Ezequiel Garay, Valeri Bojinov, Vagner Love

Class of 2008: Vincent Enyeama, Craig Cathcart, Carlos Vela, Guillermo Ochoa, Rafinha, Sergio Aguero, Miguel Veloso

Class of 2009: Sergio Asenjo, Michael Mancienne, Oscar Ustari, Ever Banega, Dario Srna, Bojan

Class of 2010: Davide Santon

Class of 2011: Omer Toprak, Rafael Toloi, Matija Nastasic, Jack Robinson, Yann M’Vila

Class of 2012: Josh McEachran, Mateo Kovacic, Hervin Ongenda, Daniele Rugani

Class of 2013: Leon Goretzka, Lucas Romero

Class of 2014: Kenny Tete, Domenico Berardi, Eder Balanta, Nicklas Sule, Jonathan Tah, Emanuel Mammana, Youri Tielemans

Class of 2015: Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg, Donis Avdijaj, Geronimo Rulli, Gabriel Barbosa

Class of 2016: Richedly Bazoer, Thiago Maia, Renato Sanches, Malcom, Ricardo Kishna, Max Meyer, Ante Coric, Breel Embolo

Class of 2017: Matthijs de Ligt, Felix Passlack, Dani Ceballos

Class of 2018: Dayot Upamecano, Kai Havertz, Marcus Edwards, Angel Gomes, Moise Kean

 

You exploit the famous Corner Tactic Bug™ by snapping up Chris Samba, who has no real business being in your Real Madrid side fighting on four fronts on the continent and domestically, but he heads in 25 a season from corners so you justify it. You find yourself up until the early hours of the morning, with said live episode of Monday Night RAW on in the background, scouting centre backs purely by their heading attributes.

You find yourself on the production line. You find yourself spectacularly binning players of thirty years of age, regardless of whether their potential have shrivelled from 5* to 1.5* over time or whether they bang in 70 a season and are pivotal to the entire team cohesion. You have the youngest average age in the league, probably younger than the average age of your Under-23s team and you ponder: “I don’t have to sign anybody for 10 years” but you know you’re stil gonna buy a handful of 5* wonderkids. It becomes a habit. An obsession. You’re stood there, porridge crust on your collar from the morning, looking at computerised pictures of sixteen year olds. You make your money on the free transfer market. Bring them in for free in July, sell them high in January. Football is a business.

This loyalty to youngsters transcends the game. For example, I still think James Ward-Prowse is one of the best central midfielders in the world. Every Saturday at 2pm I find myself dumbstruck when Southampton don’t select him in the XI. On the other side of the coin, however, you have those players you will despise until you reach your grave. Erick Torres of FM 2013 in that superb Arsenal team who were going for a second Invincibles season, they were hunting for their third Champions League in five years. He’d score 15 a season but guaranteed, a hat-trick will be your receipt.

And you’re there, aren’t you, in the throes of a seasonal depression on one of those boring February Sunday nights, calculating the sheer THOUSANDS of hours across the last decade you’ve spent on this game. Some might say, wasted. Some might say the game lured me down the route of pulling sickies but by some miracle I have an MA. Some might say the game has dragged me from my social life but by some miracle I have friends, family and a child who (I think, and hope) don’t just spend time with me because someone is paying them.

I look back and say it was an education of its own, better than my own secondary school education. I look to the future and press that shiny little inviting PRE-ORDER button. I bid goodbye to my saves from the previous season, have an internal chat with my favourite regens from a save where I won a dozen Champions League titles by the 2080s.

I have the spiritual moment where I say a prayer, despite being quite athiest, and uninstall the previous year’s game as the new game downloads.

And repeat.

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