I am a born-again Football Manager. I have been playing Football Manager 2008 regularly for the past month. (I’m avoiding FM2009 until I get a PC good enough to run the new 3D match engine without any trouble.) At first my intention was to play for just an hour or so per week. This has crept up and up to the point where I’m playing at least a match or two every day. At weekends, I’m playing for a couple of hours. I’ve been tempted to start a spin-off from this blog called FM Chronicles. But one blog is enough to be getting on with. I’ll restrict myself to just talking occasionally about Football Manager here.
FM2008 isn’t my first FM game. But it’s my first for a few years. I played Football Manager 2005 for a good while, back in the day. I was unemployed at the time of its release and after many false starts and sackings I managed finally to get Coventry City (who else) promoted to the Premiership. By that stage I was pretty much addicted. But things were brought to an abrupt halt when I got a job. I didn’t play my FM2005 career for a while, and just drifted away from the whole ‘scene’…
Before that my only previous experience of a football management game was 20 years earlier, in the 1980s. I was a fan of the original Football Manager on the ZX Spectrum. (It is playable online here.) It amazes me now how satisfied we were with so little. Back in 1985, this ridiculously primitive game was the epitome of management sim sophistication. Grown men salivated about it in the gaming magazines of the time. Seriously. How will we look back on FM2008 in 20 years from now? I do wonder.
Once again I’m playing as Coventry City in FM2008. This is mostly laziness. It’s been a number of years since I’ve followed the actual fortunes of the real Coventry City with anything like devotion (it must be a decade now since I last saw them play). But it’s easy to play with your hometown club, or any club whose players you know well. I know all the players and I know where they play. There’s none of the getting-to-know-you time that annoys me so much when starting with another club whose players are unfamiliar.
Starting in season 2007-2008 in FM2008, Coventry are among the weakest of the teams in the Championship. It’s a tough, tough challenge trying to get them out of this rut. So far so realistic. I signed a few likely lads in the August transfer window—among them one Nick Barmby, for £9000 from Hull.
He’s still only 33 years old. And he proved quite handy to start off with, grabbing some crucial goals and performing well all-round. The number of positions he can play in made him invaluable. He was easily my best player. Could I build my team around him and lead a charge up the table?
That’s the table after 24 games. That’s Coventry down there. At the bottom. I’ll be sacked soon—it’s only because it’s a game that I’ve survived for even this long. No matter. As with FM2005, this is going to be one of the ‘tutorial careers’. There may be a few more before I finally start having success.
There doesn’t seem to be any way back for me in this career. During an International break I scheduled a morale-boosting match against the reserve team. This is what happened:
Utter humiliation. And that’s how things stand right now. When I get sacked I’ll restart, again with CCFC. And then, if/when I finally get it right, I’ll start dabbling in Lower League Management, which is a whole other level of immersion.
As a game, Football Manager shouldn’t work. Sceptics’ favourite critique of the genre, that it’s like playing an Excel spreadsheet, is unfair in a lot of ways, but mercilessly accurate in others. The menus are anti-intuitive and confusing. It’s not clear where everything relevant is located. There’s an awful amount of fiddling and micro-management that goes on, particularly in the latest iterations of FM. And yet, as a game, it does work.
And it’s not just FM. Before there was FM, there was CM. Or Champ Man, as I believe it must be called…
Championship Manager 01-02—reputed to be the best-ever Championship Manager—has just been made available as a free download. You have to register there on the official site to get at the download, and then the download turns out to be a disc image that you have to mess around with instead of a standalone .EXE file (tut-tut), but it’s worth it. Boy is it worth it.
The first set of Champ Man games came out during a period when I had no computer of my own. Yes, there was a time just before the turn of the century when it was still quite rare for people to have computers in their homes. I heard about the CM games, of course. They had become a cultural phenomenon. Even non-gamers had heard about Championship Manager.
Its text-based matchday engine was something I had never understood. We are a visual species. Football is a visual game. How could text-only matches ever really work? How?
But text-only matches do work! After several matches, something clicked. I started intuitively following the action via the medium of that ever-changing strip of text. Not only that, I started enjoying it as much as—or more?!—than the 2D match in Football Manager. Browsing the CM forums over the past week, it seems that the text-only side of CM, coupled with the game’s greater simplicity overall, abstracts the game further into the player’s imagination. It makes you do more work to appreciate it, and thus your appreciation is proportionally greater. Or something.
There is still an active online community supporting the game. As a gamer, I think it’s quite something to see the evident love that so many people have for an avowed classic of the genre. There’s an active effort to keep the game updated with patches. There is a patch to bring the game bang up to date with 2008-2009 squads and competitions, but I’m playing CM01-02 with the original database. For now I prefer the nostalgia of 2001-2002, when my life was very different, and Coventry actually had some good players.
I managed to get CM0102 working on a USB stick and it is turning out to be a dangerous luxury. I’ve been playing it at work, and at home. At work it runs flawlessly from USB on the office’s XP machines. At home it runs—with occasional niggles—on my Vista laptop. Here it is running in windowed form:
(When I get a chance later, I’ll outline all the steps I took to get the CM01-02 download working on a USB stick. I’ll put them in the comments on this post.)
Many years ago now, when my first PC was still a distant dream, I asked a friend who often talked about his ‘Champ Man’ exploits just what the fuss was all about. He said that if he was deeply into a game of CM and he heard Radio 5’s ‘going around the grounds’ buildup to a bunch of real-life matches, he wondered why his team wasn’t being mentioned… I must have looked blank, because he then said it was impossible to explain properly: you just had to play it for yourself.
He was right. The other night I saw a preview on Channel 5 of some UEFA cup match, and the mere sight of a man in a football kit kicking a ball instantly made me think of my team. Or teams. I thought of my FM2008 team and the precarious position they find themselves in, thanks to my (mis-)management. I thought about my CM01-02 team and the big League Cup quarter-final that I’ve somehow got to (thanks to that amazing 2001 squad!).
Just this week, a work colleague who has never even heard of Champ Man—or its successors—caught a glimpse of it in ‘action’ over my shoulder. He said it looked like the worst game ever. I opened my mouth, thinking I would try to explain how wrong he was; then I closed my mouth.