When I decided to revisit my earliest addiction I knew I was playing with fire. There’s no such thing as “one last game”. For users of Championship, and subsequently Football, Manager there is a very special bond between you and your team. They’ve been through a lot with you. Yes, they’ve see you rage-quit. Yes, they’ve seen you miss school homework, lie to your friends about missing birthdays and explain bags under your eyes to partners as “insomnia” but they’ve never ratted you out either. They were there were the last gasp winner to secure promotion in ’99. They gave their all in 2005’s relegation battle. The record-setting points total in 2009? They were there.
I loaded up Championship Manager 97/98 the old-fashioned way. Well, through a DOS emulator but I wanted to get to an old-fashioned system for maximum snail-speed loading, 256 colour nostalgia. “Name” it demanded. Ehhhhh, shit, think action movies, okay; “Cobra Hudson”. I picked Barcelona; I needed a quick hit of the transfer market and some Champion’s League action. I was only here for one season for the sake of this piece remember. No Conference battles with Dag & Red, just the high-life for one little season and I’ll quit again. A quick scan of the team revealed some obvious weaknesses. I needed a bit of beef in center-mid to allow Pep to do his thing and some sharpness up front because absolutely forget Ammunike and Giovanni. Let’s dive in, I thought…
The stripped-back, seemingly optionless menu glared back. I had become so used to having total control of every aspect of my club that this was odd, alien even. I was taken aback. Where’s training? How do I pay my groundskeeper?? Undeterred I quickly gathered myself and decided to delve head first into the murky world of agents and contract negotiations. Ten minutes later I had acquired the services of Effenberg (from Monchengladbach) and Montella (from Sampdoria) for a combined cost of a modern day Chris Smalling. Eh, that was…easy. A 19 year old Riquelme for 800k soon followed and my team was starting to look pretty spicy but I had no sense of accomplishment yet. Into the tactics menu. Wait, what? There is literally the little right-click draggy arrow and passing style, of which there are three. That’s it. I thought to myself that I’d be out of here within three games, that it was so unfortunate the later games had offered so much in terms of control that the old managing ways had fallen by the wayside waiting to die in a pool of school-boy tears, dreams and memories.
Five and a half hours later, at 1.30am on a Monday, I was sitting in the dark whisper-shouting “come on, come on, come on” as I faced Atleti away in the league. It was still only December and a sheet (I am not joking) of possible formations that I had drawn lay beside me lit only by the glow of the laptop screen, my only soundtrack the hum of my persistently overheating CPU. The text commentary flashed “Riquelme quickest to react” snapping me back to reality for a second because that’s patently ridiculous before the red and blue of the word “Barcelona” strobed in the middle. GET INNNNNN!!!! I stifle a scream. It’s back baby, I’m on a fucking roll, 8 points clear of Real going into Christmas. Woof, as James Richardson would surely say.
And then the draws start. Valladolid at the death, Gijon; 2 nil up at home, a Rivaldo missed penalty at Sociedad. As my advantage over Madrid dissipates my mood echoes, point by point by point. The darkness of the room suddenly apparent, I realise I am in a place that only football managers and maybe prisoners of war or something truly know. Your own players, your MEN. Where were you against Tenerife with our backs to the wall at a goal apiece eh Figo, eh? Abelardo, I forgave the red at Merida when we were 4 nil up but now look what you’ve done, you’re finished, finito, comprende?
The Champion’s League is my solace. Newcastle are brushed aside in the semi’s, a vanquished foe lying bloodied as I rest on my sword awaiting the next and final challenger to emerge through the fog of the loading screen. No. Real Madrid have beaten PSG and the mighty Patrice Loko. You could not write this. They wrap the league up with a few games to go, 6 points clear at the top. My record: W26 D12 L1 (one loss off Arsenal’s Invincibles actually, nice) Real Madrid: W29 D9 L1. We had beaten each other for our only losses. Fair play but I’m in for the big one. I want the jackpot. I am an anti-madridista and I will see you Francista bitches in the final.
My squad is obviously decimated by injury and suspension in the lead-up, but, like Sylvester Stallone in Escape to Victory (Cobra, see) I send out my rag-tag bunch of rebels. I would have played goddamn Chewbacca if I could have gotten him a work permit at this point. We’re 2 nil down at half-time and the hatred in this one is strong. I’m ready to rage-quit. I’ve been playing this fucking game for three days every evening, all evening, and they’re about to let me down AGAIN. I had been having a bit of a struggle with Sonny Anderson all season. He was intermittently good, had scored 16 odd goals but Luis Enrique and Montella were the real deal together. 21 goals each and both had high teens in assists most of which were to the other but they weren’t clicking tonight. Reluctantly I made the executive decision and with a chance the movie references were going to take over I dragged off Montella. Sonny provided a bit of strength which I needed up against Hierro (obvs) so I had a little word with him (yup, actually talked to the screen) and on he went. The next 44 minutes of the game are a blur so let’s cut to minute 89; it’s 2-2, Hierro’s been sent off for God knows what reason, as if I cared, and who rises highest in the box to (I would imagine) literally thrust the ball past the keeper with his genitals into the gaping net but Sonny muthafuckin Anderson…
Let’s face it lads, I’m back on the gear. World Cup 98’s about to start, I’m getting the beer in.