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“Just Another Game!” A Journey Through A Football Manager Addiction

For me, it started early, the way it often does.

The cigarette manufacturers know the future depends on hooking the next generation whilst they’re still young, and to me that’s what this has been like. They got me when I was still just a kid and by the time myself and thousands of others realised what it was the Collyer Brothers had done it was too late. It was strong stuff they were pushing. I was an addict before I knew it.

In truth, I was just waiting to be hooked on their product. I had been waiting for something like it to come along for years.

I was already halfway in the bag over little text based football management games before Championship Manager hit the shelves. It had started with a minor title called Soccer Boss on the Amstrad CPC. By the standards of the time that game was a trip; you had the ability to name your club and rename your players. You started in the lowest tier of England and the aim was to reach the top flight. It was quick, it was simple, and it got under your skin although the most number of goals you could get in a game was four.

I devoted hours of my childhood to that game, and so when I moved up to the Amiga I was, instantly, on the lookout for its equivalent. Premier Manager was around at the time and it got me even more than Soccer Boss had. I loved it, through three iterations, which got better as time went by. Yet by the third I was buying out of habit. They had already been eclipsed.

Because when Championship Manager came out all opposition ceased to matter.

By the 2001 version, which had ten playable leagues, there would never be another football title in my collection. That was the game that got me through one snow covered January holiday at Stirling University, whilst the entirety of my student halls floor pissed off for three weeks, leaving me there alone. I bought a kettle, some good DVD’s and for almost the entirety of that spell got blissfully lost trying to turn Charlton Athletic into a Premier League giant.

So year on year, I’d not check out the other football management titles, I’d just replace my current version of this game with a new one and on and on it would go. When the format switched in 2005 to become Football Manager, after the Sports Interactive/Sega deal, the loyal fans hoped and prayed it would not lose any of its quality; it never did.

Instead, year on year it got better and better.

When it moved to the 3D engine in 2009 any hope I had of breaking the habit went to Hell. I’ve never looked back.

Because of Steam, I’ve been able to watch the progression of my addiction as it has unfolded since 2012. As a druggie might look at pictures of his life before and throughout the time his habit has grown – Year One; nice house, nice car, good job. Year Two: Unemployed as fuck, but in a not unpleasant haze. Year Three: Where’s all my stuff, and who is that scary guy in the mirror? – I look at the figures with a sense of head-shaking disbelief.

In that godforsaken first year of Steam keeping the stats I spent a mind-bending 2508 hours actually running the game. I’ve never got to that point since, perhaps because that number can scare the shit out of you when you actually break it down and rationally analyse it, but for all that the horror still flows from the annual totals; 2280 hours in 2013; 1813 hours in 2014; 1393 in 2015; 1383 in 2016 and 344 so far this year.

9721 hours of my life, since 2012, have been spent “in game.”

That’s not as bad as it sounds, of course – and how the fuck could it be? – because that includes time the game has been running as a background task as I work, (I like the odd game between articles or editing) but it’s still pretty goddamned ridiculous, especially when you consider that there are only 8760 hours in a year. Which means that over the last five years I’ve spent one of them – a whole year – in the middle of some sort of Football Manager career.

Add in how much time a person spends sleeping and performing other essential “life functions” and you know what? It’s, like, probably something closer to half my waking life in that time ….

I know a lot of people will find that pretty sad, as if I can’t possibly have a life outside of the game, but it’s just not true.

I am a fully functioning addict.

In that timeframe I’ve had two steady, loving relationships with women who are in no way insane; one is my current girlfriend, although that may change when she reads this article. I’ve launched numerous digital publications and run at least six major websites. I’ve published three books, written two screenplays and almost finished my next novel. I’ve had a busy, and enjoyable, social life.

But Football Manager has always been there, in the background, occupying at least some of my attention, drawing me in, sucking me towards it. Never have the words “just another game” been so loaded down with a double meaning. To some that’s all it is, and a pretty boring one at that, made up as most of it is in text based endeavours. To anyone who’s ever played it for more than an hour that phrase has a far deadlier connotation.

Start a season, anywhere, at any club, and that hour can go by before your team ever takes the field. It’s in that early stage when you make the big decisions; what tactics you will play, what training regimes to set up, which players look like they’ll make the grade and which ones you’re better off ditching before they let you down. Analysing the transfer list, looking for bargains. Preparing your scouts. Hiring and firing staff as required. Talking to the board and the press.

These are the key choices that will make the job to come easier, and in spite of yourself you do take them seriously because if you want to succeed you have to.

I’m a football fan, of course. I write about the subject every single day. When I say this to fellow fans who’ve never played an FM title (there are some, believe it or not) they often look at me like I’m crazy, but the very act of loading the game disk is, for someone who loves the sport, a risky proposition.

The second the scale of the thing reveals itself – and with it the knowledge that this is as close to the manager’s office, and the choices that go with it that guys like us will ever get – there’s a deadly attraction to seeing where the road takes you.

Analyse your first team squad. Spot that player the manager never seems to drop. Find some guy who can play in that position who the boss never gave a chance. That moment, alone, can make a devotee out of you. Promoting a kid from the reserves, throwing him into a tough match and watching him have a stormer … that can start the long process which ends in you tossing aside every waking moment you don’t spend earning a crust … and some players have been known to doodle team selections at their desks and during lunchbreaks.

Experiment with your formation and playing style; try a 3-2-5, playing deep, and hitting on the break. Watch as your players try to make sense of a tactical demand that they play short passing, with a high tempo, within a highly structured team shape. Better yet, see if your rival bosses can figure that out early or if it’ll get you goals as they struggle to work out just what the Hell it is you’re up to. They say a chess grandmaster will lose early pieces to a novice because he’ll be looking for a pattern where none exists … you too can try that at home, on the match engine. You’ll already be halfway to your first Football Manager Addict intervention.

Any computer game that has been cited in divorce proceedings is obviously inherently dangerous.

One that has made grown men don suits for an especially important, or poignant, match is one to be approached with caution.

A simulation so real it has inspired people to formulate interviews with reporters which never were and will never be, which has had people shaking hands with the doorknob to complete the illusion of meeting a rival manager before kick-off, which inspired one gamer to set fire to his bin to re-create a continental atmosphere and caused another’s wife to have a mini-meltdown when she came down for breakfast one morning to find him sitting, dejected, in the kitchen mouthing the words “I’ve been fired …” before having to tell her it wasn’t real, just a bad end to a particularly fraught “career game” … well it’s one that should be avoided unless you’re made of strong stuff and think you can beat the odds.

There’s one guy who planned his honeymoon so he could go and actually watch the club he had spent so many months running in the game.

There’s a celebrity singer who met his boyhood team and spent the whole time feeling pissed off at one of their players for no reason he could fathom, only to realise, later, that the guy had missed training in-game and he was holding it against him in real life.

I read a story in a university publication about a guy who basically flunked out on his degree because the game had him in its iron grip.

This isn’t a joke. Those are true stories. Those are real people, and when I look at those numbers I talked about earlier I realise I’m one of them, in my own way, and that I’ve spent time on this that I could have spent on having a more fulfilling life.

Except … all of it was fulfilling, just in a different way.

Winning the Champions League with Celtic, via a magnificent Timo Pukki (who in real life was a waste of a jersey) solo effort against Inter Milan during a balmy final in Istanbul was pretty damned fulfilling. So too was building my 2012 all-conquering Bayern Munich side, whose exploits – six league titles and four Champions Leagues in seven glorious seasons – will probably never be bettered by any team I ever run. It was very fulfilling constructing three Champions League winning teams at different clubs in one career game last year; first with Liverpool, then Juventus before winding up at Barcelona with an ageing Messi and Suarez. I simply moved Lionel to a slot behind the strikers and put Luis out wide and signed Dybala from my former club to partner Neymar up front and I was, again, the king of the continent.

In a parallel universe, there really is a statue of me outside Anfield, you know.

And for all the glories and failures at other clubs, those little achievements which would have meant so much to their fans and their players – taking over Premier League Derby with six games to go, eight points from safety and keeping them up in 2013; winning the FA Cup once with an unfancied Notts Forest side and getting to dedicate the win to Brian Clough at the press conference; securing the English Championship with Rotherham on the last day, due to a last minute winner and other stories like them, on and on – those moments are what make the game such a rush. Even the victories which don’t really belong to you – I once got the job at PSV a day before a league decider, which I won, and then got to make like I’d been there for the full run-in, and I’ve lost count of the jobs I’ve got where sides are on impressive cup runs which I got to close out as if they couldn’t have done it without me – still bring with them joy.

Tailor your managerial style to suit yourself.

Be an encouraging presence for your players or rule by fear. Be unpredictable, or Mr Dependable in relations with those around you. Pick fights with rival managers, and try to start new rivalries … it’s all there to be experimented with.

Perfect those techniques, build a mystique to rival Mourinho, and the world is yours.

I have taken over dressing rooms filled with monster egos and shown them, in the words of Keyser Soze, “what will really was” and cleared them out, not caring what the fans or the directors thought about it … and been proven right to have done so.

On the flipside, I have taken over title winning sides, changed the formulas which brought them dominance and so aggravated the players with my aloofness and demanding nature that I’ve seen them slide so spectacularly I left before I was fired, with my tail between my legs.

At the height of my God complex in one game I quit a job where I’d been a soaring success because I thought I stood a better chance of getting the vacant one I really wanted if I was also unemployed, only to be passed over. I took my feelings of frustration and spite to my next two clubs only for my unreasonableness in demanding ridiculously high standards – I once bollocked the team at halftime because they were only four up – alienated my footballers so utterly that my career nose-dived and I burned a hard-won reputation inside of two seasons.

Like many other players I’ve started at the bottom and clawed my way up. I have started at the top and gone hurtling down. I have made tactical changes so brilliant, in the moment, that I boasted to the media at the end of games that, yes, I really was the Special One and shortly after presided over displays so gut-wrenchingly awful I have had the board demanding to meet me and the press writing about it being a matter of time until I was sacked. And the bastards are usually right.

I have played strategy titles beyond count – they are amongst my favourite games – and tinkered with the Tycoon series. I have constructed gleaming metropolises with Sim City and Skylines. I have marched my people to blood and glory and enslaved entire populations whilst waging Total War. I have unleashed the full-scale nuclear holocaust in Defcon more times than I can count, writing off the planet, killing billions in a barrage of brilliant white splotches on the map … and I love all of it, but the thrill of running a provincial club in the lower reaches of the Beautiful Game is still the one I return to most, over and over again.

Because it’s football and I love it and on the nights when I’m focussed and determined and the work is done for the day and things are peaceful I put on the music and I know, I just know, that I am better at this stuff than Jose will ever be, that I can get more from Danny Ings than any boss ever has before and that I can make Efe Ambrose a Champions League defender by giving him the right encouragement and surrounding him with the right team-mates.

I know my old-school 442 can be tweaked to overcome Guardiola’s City in a Champions League group game, when all the odds are against me.

I know that I can play Thomas Muller in a slightly deeper position than normal in the German Cup Final because the moment will come when he gets a chance to play that killer through ball to Lewandowski for the match winning goal.

I know that playing a central defender up front and hoofing the ball up the pitch for the last fifteen minutes can pay dividends … because it has before. And before. And before.

I know if you reduce your width, play deep, tackle hard and pray that you can keep out Messi, Neymar and Suarez for 90 nerve-wracking minutes, and that if you marry that system to a decent midfielder and a fast striker and play the ball into space in those few minutes when you have possession that you can catch Barca on the break and change the course of football history … because I have.

What the Hell could be more fulfilling, for a football fan, than that? Than doing it better than those guys on the telly, the ones you know are only there but for luck and that you could easily have replaced but for a few minor quirks of fate?

If you’ve never played the game before but have ever sat in the pub and watched a match unfold on TV and thought “Why the Hell doesn’t he push one of his midfielders forward, or convert his full backs to wingers and try to stretch their defence that way?” then Football Manager is either something to be avoided, for life, or embraced with the fervour of a religious convert morphing into an inevitable zealot. Either choice probably means having to live without things that would enhance your overall time on this planet.

If you are, like me, hooked through the bag, then all of this will probably have occasioned some grins, but more resigned nods and an acceptance that this is a life choice we’ve made here, whether we knew that at the time or not.

From now until the close of business, until we join that big football community in the sky, we’re bound to this thing in all its many forms.

Like those bastards who manufacture the nicotine sticks, the swine at Sports Interactive have got us for the duration. There’s no breaking this habit.

Not even if we wanted to. Which we don’t.

Just another game? Why not?

After all, it might be quarter to three on a Friday morning, but I’ve just signed Andy Little, for Morecambe, on a free transfer and I just know he’s the player who’ll take us to League One.

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