Once upon a time there was a little boy named Gary. Gary was ginger and therefore other kids should have picked on him, but because he liked football he got a free pass. Plus, his Dad was hard which absolutely helped.
Gary also liked computer games from an early age having been bought a Commodore VIC20 as a Christmas present to keep him occupied whilst his parents were busy. He grew very attached to both computer games and football, and utopia was mixing the two. Starting with Emlyn Hughes International Soccer, Gary became a champion of all things football game related, and for a while it meant the kids still failed to notice he was ginger.
I’ll drop the third person now, as I got older I saw football games develop. On the pitch action was ‘owned’ by Sensible Soccer and Kick Off 2, and latterly FIFA and Pro Evo. None of those games had a decent management element, but that didn’t matter. In 1993 I’d spotted the green box of Championship Manager in Micropoint (a now-defunct games shop in Lincoln). Thus started a love affair between man and game that threatened to derail my entire life.
Championship Manager was addictive, not addictive like heroin or smoking, I mean really addictive. It seemed so in-depth in 1993, with so many options and menus. My Dad often came in the room whilst I was playing it, asking ‘when do you actually get to play football?’ If only he knew. That was the beauty of the game, this wasn’t a test of your button bashing or something you’d get good at with practice, this was a test of your football knowledge, your tactics and understanding of players. This was a thinking mans game.
I lost many days to various editions of Championship Manager, and when I say days I do mean whole sets of 24 hours. For a short period my life consisted of getting up, avoiding any responsibilities at all and guiding Lincoln through the divisions. Eventually, after about 30 seasons, I’d get bored with winning everything and start again, always as Lincoln. It was a pointless existence to those on the outside, but it was quenching a thirst for knowledge like no other game. My knowledge of 1990’s lower league footballer is quite astounding at times, and it is all because I spent days staring at the screen whilst other lads went out trying to take local girls round the back of Horncastle Town Hall. Not me, my real love didn’t need six Diamond Whites before it’d let me play with it.
I’m not sure what it is that Championship Manager and latterly Football Manager get so right that it becomes so addictive. Maybe its the wealth of real life players, accurate stats and team information. I saw it as learning and playing at the same time, I read players previous histories and loved the real-life back story to the game I played. I used to be thrilled when a player I’d signed on the game made a headline in real life, and many a pub conversation would start with ‘I signed xxx-xxx on Champ Man the other day’. It made the layman feel as though he understood the game, it massaged the inner-manager in all off us. City doing badly under Phil Stant? They should employ me, I signed Bitencourt Chinquento as a lad and after playing three seasons for me he’s just won the World Cup with Brazil.
I spent days staring at the screen whilst other lads went out trying to take local girls round the back of Horncastle Town Hall. My real love didn’t need six Diamond Whites before it’d let me play with it.
As the game developed it became even more addictive, and I shared my love with others too. My mate Dave Adams was a big fan and we indulged our obsession together. Dave and I started a game together, he’d come around my house for hours and we’d sit, picking our teams and inevitably I’d win. I had to though, because I was cheating.
I confess, Dave was perhaps better at Champ Man (as we called it) than I was, so unbeknown to him I downloaded an in-game editor on a break at college (I say break, it was during a lesson on the HNC course I did, but that’s splitting hairs). Dave would come around and fiddle with his team for hours, then he’d go home and I’d load up the editor and ruin it all. He once signed Graham Coughlan from Blackburn, a defender in his early twenties, but when he came back the next day he was aged 42 and had suffered a back injury keeping him out for two years. I didn’t cheat when I played alone, that would be ridiculous, but against Dave it seemed reasonable. Dave found out sometime around 2010, and we still ‘laugh’ about it now.
As I moved from being a teenager to an adult, the obsession never subsided. I still maintain my ability to hold down a relationship from the age of 20-27 was purely down to me being able to play Champ Man, unabated, while she watched all sorts of garbage TV. I loved a Monday especially, whilst I blocked out (in no particular order) Hollyoaks, Emmerdale, Coronation Street, EastEnders and Hollyoaks Late, I could crack on scouring the Italian second division for the next big thing. It suited us both really, we could do what we loved in the same room without having to interact at all. Bliss.
Eventually I realised my addiction was getting serious when I purchased a lap top so I could play on my lunch break at work. I began to get back to my desk fifteen minutes or so late, and one time I even locked myself in the toilet cubicle to complete a vital FA Cup fifth round tie against Newcastle. I was then going home, neglecting to eat properly or do chores, choosing instead to plough the lower divisions of the Football League looking for the next Nii Lampety or the next Tommy Svindal-Larsson (Champ Man players will be feeling the love when they hear those names).
I began to get back to my desk fifteen minutes or so late, and one time I even locked myself in the toilet cubicle to complete a vital FA Cup fifth round tie against Newcastle.
In 2003/04 there was a split in the world of football management sims, and I took that prompt to ditch it myself. I had to claim back some time for myself, and with developers Sports Interactive moving to develop another game I called it a day. It wasn’t tough in the end, I just didn’t buy the next game. Championship Manager and Football Manager began to compete, and I just left well alone. Slowly but surely I got my gaming fix from FIFA or Pro Evo, but in short fifteen minute bursts. There’s rarely a ‘just one more game’ obstacle to overcome with those games, and eventually I just moved on. I still heard people talking about the game and how it had developed, but I chose not to pursue those discussions. For a few years I lost touch with Dave too which helped somewhat.
So why am I pouring this all out now? Sadly this last week I took a dangerous hit of the drug that once controlled my life. A generous blogger sent me a copy of Football Manager 15 after I voiced my curiosity as to what it was now like, and I didn’t see how it could possibly hurt to have a look. That was less than a week ago, and I’m currently top of the Vanarama Premier (as Lincoln, obviously) by just a point with ten games to go. Adam Campbell is killing me, he’s at Gateshead on loan from Newcastle and he won’t stop scoring, and my own strikers are firing blanks. I signed John Akinde after he fell out with Barnet, but now he’s broke his bloody leg and I’m relying on Jordan Burrow and Ben Tomlinson to play together. Basically, I’m hooked.
Now, as the magazine is going into its final stages before a print run, I find myself diving into my Football Manager game to watch the highlights of my latest match. There’s a game engine now, the 2015 version is probably far more basic than the current game (due out soon) but it is no less thrilling. Watching those badly designed players spray the ball around a half-empty generic stadium I get a sense of them being my team, my boys whose welfare is of my concern. My conscience soon kicks in and I’ll go back to magazine or blog for half an hour, knowing that the game is running in the background, waiting for some dumbass in his late thirties to ignore all the lessons he learned a decade ago and click ‘continue’ once again.
Football Manager is a great game, it’s a game that can cause rational men to irrationally despise a real life player that wronged them on their screen. Oh how I hated Lee Trundle for requesting a move not long after I smashed half of my budget on him one season. Luckily these games do offer a form of retribution: I added another manager, took over Trundle’s team and stuck him in the reserves to rot, before ‘going on holiday’ for a season or two. True players will know what I mean by that, and I had the added bonus of a team I could use to spark a bidding war for my other subs. Was that cheating? Well it isn’t aging Graham Coughlan by two decades overnight so I suggest not.
It can make us all arm-chair scouts too, thinking we know what our new signing will be like because he was ‘ace on Footy Manager’. I was thrilled when Phil Babb signed for Liverpool because I’d had him on Champ Man and he’d been superb. I felt like I had all the knowledge as I discussed his strengths and weaknesses, only to be reminded it was only a computer game. History proved me wrong there I guess, ditto Cobi Jones. When City signed Tony Battersby in the late 1990’s I was overjoyed, he’d risen to a £2.2m player with Notts County, and I truly believed we had signed the player that was going to reinvent football as we knew it at Sincil Bank. He was still winning European trophies for me when he joined Boston in real life.
Many people knock those who play as being ‘sad’ or needing to ‘get a life’, views they incidentally air on social media whilst they could be out ‘getting a life’. What they’re failing to understand is exactly why grown men want to spend hours of their life pretending to manage a football team for no reward and no physical gain. If you do understand it does sound ridiculous, but the point is you don’t understand.
Dave still plays too. We’re close again now (too close, he nearly sits on my knee on a match day) and I asked him his thoughts on being addict. His advice was simply ‘you’ll only learn when you find yourself buying the same players over and again for different teams. Then it is time to move on. Yeah, cheers Dave. I did wonder about asking if he wanted to start a joint game, but there are some scabs you just shouldn’t pick.
I pride myself on trying to learn as much about the beautiful game as possible. It pains me when I hear of us linked with a player and my first instinct is always to Google him. I used to know them all, I knew my Ricky Newman from my Mark Collis, my Ritchie Wellens from my Richard Walker. I didn’t get that knowledge by reading papers or football magazines focused on the top flight, I got it from ploughing the hours into a football game so great it can take over your life. Last night I went to watch Lincoln United and Loughborough Dynamo (in real life), and whilst I was there I actually thought ‘I must search Jack McGovern when I get in, see if he’s any good on FM15’. When I got in, amongst photo editing and getting a Daily Quiz online, I also played a crucial away game at Dover (3-1 win, get in), and as I closed my eyes to sleep for the night I was pondering whether to shift loan signing Aaron Wilding into a central position in the wake of an injury to Brice Wassi.
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