Third season in, I’m running away with the league title with Arsenal. 11 points ahead with 10 games to go, my new signing Antoine Griezmann is chasing club and league records for assists, and Alexis Sanchez is top scorer in the league. The supporters are singing my name, my family greets me with smiles.
Game against a lowly Crystal Palace, I lose Griezmann and Lukaku to injuries; heel and hamstring. Granit Xhaka collects his 10th yellow card and I’m about to lose him for the next couple of games. I move Alexis upfront, and he gets injured in training a few days later.
One point from the next four games, and Chelsea are now breathing down my neck; one point behind me with five games to go, with no recognised striker leading my line. Supporters that once adored me are now viciously calling for my head, and my family’s uncertainties grow. To top it all off, Laurent Koscielny, my skipper and my defensive talisman, requests to speak to me.
“I miss home,” he pleads.
I set my laptop aside, and head down for a walk, a cigarette, and salvation.
One thing you’ll need to know about the Football Manager series is that it swallows you whole. Your time, your patience, your everyday responsibilities; you’ll find yourself making all sorts of adjustments to your otherwise uninterrupted routine.
Your girlfriend will give you stares and attitude, questioning your motives over a game that you don’t even “play”. That’s where you you’d have had enough.
Game? A fucking game? It never is a game. It’s a duty. It’s an obligation. It’s an occupation. It becomes a legacy. One that will have you putting in more effort and brains than you would have for anything else before.
From setting up your scouts to get you the next best talent, to the data analysts in your backroom staff providing a Moneyball-worthy report on the effectiveness and capabilities of your players, and from scheduling the best training regimes, to picking your answers carefully in press conferences. All that and keeping the promises you’ll make your players? About strengthening your squad? Or making sure they get their preferred squad numbers? It’s tougher than ever to keep your wits about you.
And then, comes matchday. There’s nothing like the Christmassy scent of matchday mornings. Fitness reports, scout reports, tactical analysis, and pre-match press conferences will be the order of the day, but all seemingly irrelevant if you don’t end the day with three points.
There will be ways you could start your career on Football Manager; unemployed at first and going with a club that’s willing to take a shot on a nobody manager, or with a club struggling in the second, third, or fourth tier of a league and learning the trade while you rise that daunting and treacherous ladder of football prestige.
My route is straightforward. Starting with Arsenal, get Arsène Wenger promoted to Director of Football, and then working hand-in-hand to bring back the glory days to the Gunners faithful. All of that whilst still doing it right; by “promoting from within”, and doing it against the arse-itching nuisance of the Chinese Super League, and Brexit’s new non-EU nonsense, both that will add a new dimension to the series, and more headaches deep into the night.
The question that’ll remain after all the hours spent and notes scribbled down and cigarettes smoked, would be “what’s the end game?”, and frankly? I don’t know. But in an almost transcendental way, that keeps me going. It’s not so much the leaderboards and the competition you’re pitted in against other players worldwide like on FIFA. Neither is it any sort of prize money that could incentivise you in any way. You’re just… In a constant and intrepid battle to better yourself.
Winning a trophy one season will mean every club else strengthening their squads and setting their sights on you like drool dribbling beasts spending more money on the next best player. And of course, finishing a season trophyless will have you sweating in the end-of-season review with the board.
There isn’t a one-size-fit-all approach to Football Manager; it was designed to have your personality’s imprints all over your club; a simulator in the purest form. With Football Manager 2010, I went 38 seasons with Olympique Lyonnais, winning 32 league titles, and was surprised by the board’s (or the game engine’s) decision to name the stadium after me.
You’ve read that the devil is in the details, but all Football Manager’s ever done is teach me right from wrong, and on how to keep my supporters singing my song.