The Sports Desk – Love, Lies & Silverware: A Football Manager Journey

Welcome to another addition of my weekly column, The Sports Desk. Today we have a very special feature written by Anthony Kyne, producer from HB Studios (The Golf Club 2), about being absolutely consumed by the soccer management simulation series Football Manager.

The game is lauded the world over, and has claimed hours upon hours from dedicated would-be managers. Kyne’s tale is one of happy family memories, an imagination fired by the magic of video games, and disappointment and sweet victory – if not necessarily in equal measure. Nevertheless, it’s been a journey worth taking. You’ll have to read it to believe it.

Love at First Sight
Since way before I started making video games, actually only about two weeks after we got our first family computer, I’ve been in love with football management games. As much as I love the FIFAs and Pro Evos of this world and the Half Lifes and the Far Crys, nothing sucks me into a world that blurs the lines between game and reality like a football management simulation. Below is a love story that is full of ups and downs, that’s hurt people and broken my own heart along the way, but it’s something I couldn’t live without!

It was just after the 1986 World Cup and we’d just gotten a BBC Micro. Space Invaders was consuming my time before and after school. Every Friday night my grandparents would come over. A couple of weeks after getting the BBC my grandfather arrived with his copy of Football Manager. My grandad had bought himself an Acorn Electron a few months before and bought the game. It was love at first sight!

I loved all things football, I loved the cassette cover with the FA CUP and the player with the 1982 England Admiral World Cup kit on. It immediately caught my imagination. Even now Kevin Toms’ Billy Connolly-esq face is ingrained in my brain. Every Friday for months and years after, a 50-year-old man with his eight-year-old grandson sat down and joint managed Tottenham.

I don’t remember any successes or failures. What I do remember was learning about players like Tony Woodcock, who’d retired when I was still too young to follow football, and places like Halifax, Crewe, and Shrewsbury and looking them up on a map after.

It was all text based, an even though it only had a small 24-player database and the players had two stats (skill and energy), I believed they were real. When the text flashed with a goal for Tottenham I could see in my mind Tony Cottee sliding it in from five yards. I’d then watch out for him more on a Saturday and I’d feel like I knew him when I saw him interviewed on Match of the Day that weekend.

From this point on, the seed was sown and there was no going back.

Grimsby Town – European Champions
The first Collyer brothers game and what would become the current Football Manager was Championship Manager. The CM 93 edition being the one with real names and the one that really pushed the genre away from a game and more into a way of life for football fans like myself.

This was a game so slow and taxing on my Commodore Amiga, that I can remember going out to play football with my friends while it processed all the data between seasons. The waiting immersed you even more, as you were left to ponder more than you normally would if you could just click continue.

I took over at Man Utd, – my team of choice in my teenage years. I was horrible. We finished eighth in the league, and I was fired. I had a brief spell at Hartlepool, but then got the chance to move to the bright lights of Grimsby Town.

I did equally as badly at Grimsby, and was fired in my first season, but due to a slight loophole in the game I reapplied for the job the day after I was fired and they re-hired me. This was the start of something beautiful.

My friend Barry had uncovered the African Pele, Nii Lamptey, and had told me about him at school. So I went home a brought him in. I also managed to pick up Robert Ullathorne – two guys that didn’t set the world alight in real life, but in the world of CM 93 and me managing them they went on to become world stars, climbing up the leagues, winning the Premier League, and eventually onto European Cup glory. To this day I still don’t think I’ve had a team as good as that Grimsby Town team.

Years later I went out with a girl who was from just outside Grimsby, and I felt a huge affinity to the town. I told her about it and how 15 years earlier I’d managed to become the hero of the town. She looked at me like I was nuts!

Sheffield Wednesday – Losing the Flo
As I was taking Grimsby Town to glory in my single-player game, me and a couple of friends – Barry and David – decided to start a multiplayer game on one computer. Every Saturday night for six months we’d convene at Barry’s house and manage our teams of choice. As you can imagine we were pretty cool teenagers!

My lasting memories from these games were the spacebar arguments – there was a belief going around the playground that if you pressed the spacebar when a player was through on goal it would increase his chances of missing his shot. Ludicrous I know, but in the ultra-competitive world of CM 93 at Barry’s house this was definitely bad etiquette and would end up in many an argument.

The other main memory I had from this game was my Norwegian forward pairing for my Sheffield Wednesday team – Jan Åge Fjørtoft and Jostein Flo. They struck up quite the partnership. I was playing a very long ball tactic into the target man Flo, who would either score or assist Fjørtoft. This propelled me to the top of the table and inflated Flo’s price into the millions. I was very proud of that signing and how much he’d improved his value from the half a million pounds I’d paid for him. Then he broke his leg in a game against Coventry and never really recovered. His value went down to 100k and he never reached the heights of his first season with us. We didn’t win the League, we went out of the cup in the semis. I brought in Dion Dublin from Man Utd, but he didn’t have the impact Flo had.

Looking back now, well into my 30s, I wish it was still acceptable for me and my friends to waste away our Saturday evenings for months on end on a single machine multiplayer game of Football Manager.

Bill Archer – I Hate You!
Since 2009, i’ve updated to the latest release of Football Manager year on year thanks to Kevin, my old house mate who pushes a new copy each year on my like a dealer in The Wire. I spend over 400 hours each year playing the game and I’ve had no success, and I mean none! I’ve made the playoffs twice, but that’s it! I’ve had a lot of arguments with girlfriends over the time spent in my fictional world, and I’ve even lied to friends so I didn’t have to go out with them and I could continue playing the game.

Since Football Manager has expanded into the non-leagues of English football I’ve been able to manage Dartford, my local team who I’ve been watching since I was eight or nine. Dartford isn’t a big club, but every year I have those dreams of playing the game with Dartford and emulating the success I had with Grimsby.

I’m more conservative now with age, and feel the need to balance the books more than I used to. The game has also expanded into a beast, and every fine detail of running a football team is there for me to tinker with. I manage and watch not only my first team’s games, but also the under-21s and -18s. With the match engine – something I feel myself and Steve Screech helped push the FM game into getting after putting a full 3D match engine in the Player Manager and Championship Manager series – the game is actually way more tactical than it has ever been.

In the FM 2013 edition, I was being particularly tight with the purse strings; I’d gotten Dartford to the edge of the playoffs a couple of times, brought the wage bill down, and was feeling like I was doing a great job. Injury problems hit in the fourth season, and just before Christmas we were 16th in the Conference Premier. The pressure was on, but I thought I’d be okay. But no, Bill Archer, the Dartford chairman, sends me a nice little email, with his face in the corner, telling me I was fired.

A few months later I was back home at my parents. There’s a shop at the end of the road called Archers, owned by Bill Archer. One evening I see him coming out of the shop and this feeling of absolute disgust with the man came over me. I then realized the reason for this was my fictional sacking in the game. Reality and fiction blurred again!

Bishop’s Stortford
FM 2014 and I couldn’t bear to manage Dartford after the sacking the year before, so I chose a random team in the Conference South: Bishop’s Stortford. They were a club I’d seen a few times against Dartford but had no real affiliation with. I do now!

I spent five seasons managing them, and in the process also spent 50 percent of my playing time modding the game. First off, it was using SortItOutSI.com to get me started, but now I love pursuing teams, getting their stadium pictures – inside and out, and dressing room and player pictures. All these little things help with the immersion, and are something you’ll see which has influenced The Golf Club 2 with the clubhouses within the front end. I’m a firm believer in immersion by osmosis, and the front end is a great way of doing that.

Anyway, I reached the playoffs with Bishop’s Stortford in the 4th season. It was heartbreaking and I nearly killed a good friend of mine Alberto, who works on Football Manager with Sports Interactive. The playoff final went to penalties and the penalty shootout screen either has a bug or isn’t designed as best it could be. I thought I was choosing my penalty takers, but I must have also been changing my team. When the play went back to the pitch my star striker was in goal and my keeper was taking the first penalty. My striker saved nothing and I ended up going out on penalties. I was devastated.

Silverware at Last
I got Football Manager 2016 on its day of release, and over time my hatred for Bill Archer has passed. I was desperate to get Dartford back in the Conference Premier where they belonged, and in the process become a legend in my own hometown, even if it is only in my mind!

I haven’t been so conservative with the money this time, I went straight in and bought a top-quality keeper and two solid ball-winning midfielders. Harry Weaver, only 19 and a Notts County reject, has been solid all season and my best signing in all the modern FM games. The midfielders added much needed competition and a bit of grit, and Dartford has already got some amazing attacking players with Andy Pugh, Jake Simmons, and Ryan Hayes.

It has been a great season, and although the board would have been happy with a mid-table position, we managed to win the league with a game to spare.

We have a trophy in the cabinet and a tough season ahead, but I want to celebrate. I just wish the people of Dartford knew what I’ve achieved with their team sitting in my office in Nova Scotia. I wish I could celebrate with my friends and girlfriend, but they just don’t get it. So I have to have a beer by myself, in a champagne flute obviously, and close my eyes and dream of the fans surrounding me on the pitch while Elliot Bradbrook collects the Conference South Cup and tells reporters that my influence on the training ground was the thing that brought the cup back home.

For more from The Sports Desk, be sure to check out last week’s column, where I talked to Monster Games about the return of the NASCAR Heat franchise. BTW, the Pro Evolution Soccer PS4 controller contest is closed. Thanks all who entered. Emails to the winners will be going out shortly!

THE TICKER
A quick rundown of some of the sports news from the week.

68 Things We Know About NHL 17

10 Downs With Madden 17 Designer Clint Oldenburg
I had a chance to sit down with the game designer and former NFL lineman to discuss a variety of topics from analytics to QB bootlegs. 

Madden Details Its Equipment Upgrades

EA Settles Lawsuit With NFL Legend Jim Brown

Patch Coming For FIFA Ultimate Team Glitches

FIFA Adds Partnership With Italian Team Juventus
EA Sports has done deals like this in previous years, and while Juve was already in the franchise’s titles, this adds a little extra presence for the club in the game such as more face scans (including stars like Buffon and Pogba) and Juventus stadium.