I confess

I wince to think of the things I could have achieved in the time I’ve spent on Football Manager since becoming addicted 20 years ago.

By Adrian Searle

This article first appeared in Issue 1which was published in September 2016.

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I have fantasised about being sent to prison, so I could just sit in a cell all day on my computer.

Imagine this is a support group. A sign pinned to the noticeboard in the corridor says Addiction Therapy in 72-point Comic Sans. We’re meeting in a grim windowless room in a community centre with terrible strip lighting and mottled peach wallpaper. Plastic stacking chairs have been placed in a circle, a tea urn bubbles in the corner. There’s a couple of recovering alcoholics clutching plastic cups, a coke addict rubbing his nose, two sex addicts giving each other the eye, and me. You spend a while trying to guess why I’m here. A gambler perhaps? A kleptomaniac? There’s nothing in my dress or demeanour that offers clues. After the others have each said their piece it’s my turn. You sit forward waiting for me to speak. I clear my throat, look at my feet in shame and say, ‘My name is Adrian and I’m addicted to Football Manager.’

For the uninitiated, Football Manager is a computer game. Each new release sells around one million copies worldwide. There is a huge online community who discuss the game every day and celebrity fans include popstars, comedians, actors and professional footballers themselves. Both David Moyes and Alex McLeish have admitted using it to identify potential signings. A book about the game, Football Manager Stole My Life, published by Glasgow-based Back Page Press, was an international bestseller.   

First released in the early 1990s, the Klondike era of computer game design, the football management simulation was designed by teenage brothers Ov and Paul Collyer in their bedroom in the small town of Church Stretton, Shropshire, close to the Welsh border. Originally called Championship Manager, it had no arcade graphics to speak of, but allowed would-be gaffers to take control of any football team in the English or Scottish leagues, selecting players, setting tactics home and away, making substitutions, buying and selling players and developing prospects from the youth team. Games played out via a text based commentary. If not given enough game time, used out of position, or not offered a pay-rise at the right moment, managers would have to cope with disaffected players, plummeting form and transfer requests.

What might have been perceived as a weakness – the relatively slow game-play of starting each season with several friendlies and then playing each fixture, including all league games, domestic and European cups, with the option of matches lasting everything from five minutes (edited highlights) to the full ninety, plus a full international schedule – turned out to be one of Championship Manager’s greatest strengths. The level of control and detail allows a player to synthesise all the emotional drama of a real football season but, unlike the real world and all its impotence, Football Manager offers the humble fan the chance to actually influence what happens on the virtual park. 

From its first incarnation the game quickly developed, new versions adding leagues from around the world and new features, including training set-ups, press conferences, pre-match mind-games and, eventually, realistic 3-D representations of the matches themselves in ever-increasing detail. What set the first Championship Manager apart from its competition was the use of real players, each with carefully and accurately scouted attributes. From the beginning, the game’s creators had the sense to contact fans from every team in Britain, asking them to fill out paper questionnaires on the physical and mental attributes of every member of their club’s playing staff and take a guess at each one’s potential for development.

This was a time long before a functioning internet and data had to be gathered by hand. But who knows a team’s players better than the superfans who travel home and away and even go to reserve and youth matches? Football Manager now has an army of 1,000 researchers covering every major league across the world, providing assessments of players long before they’ve come to the attention of the scouting networks of major clubs. At the heart of Football Manager’s success is this player database. For any football fan it’s an invaluable resource for building knowledge of football, both present and future.

Recent Celtic signing Moussa Dembélé was in a team I managed around four or five years ago. When Brendan Rodgers announced his capture I knew exactly who he was and roughly what the game thought of his skills and potential at the beginning of his career while still at Paris St Germain, where he’d been marked out as a future star. Checking the current version’s profile, he’s still highly regarded without necessarily having the world-beater potential originally assumed. Likewise, when my team, Aberdeen, signed 22 year-old Jayden Stockley in June this year and everyone shouted ‘Who?!’, I was able to get an instant assessment – doubtless from the game’s Bournemouth scout from whence Stockley came. It appears he is tall, approximately 6ft 2inches and, according to Football Manager, not particularly strong, but is a good header of the ball and can jump. Chris Sutton he’s not but, for the money, he could be a useful addition. For the wages of David Goodwillie, now at Plymouth in the bottom tier of English league football after being released, Aberdeen got Stockley and Miles Storey, also 22 years old, who scored a few goals on loan at Inverness Caledonian Thistle last season. Football Manager reckons Storey has great physical prowess but is nowhere near where he should be for his age in terms of technical ability. In other words, he’s another Josh Magennis. We’ll need to wait and see. Another season in the SPFL and the scouts may revise their opinion.   

I first started playing Championship Manager in the late 1990s. I can’t remember how I found out about the game but I do remember becoming addicted almost instantly. The best word to describe the experience is immersive. As someone whose first computer was a Sinclair ZX81, followed by a Spectrum, then a BBC B, this was a completely different approach to the standard hand-eye driven arcade games I was used to. The closest comparison was with the near-mythic space trading game Elite – a mix of spacecraft flight simulation, shoot-em-up, and a crash course in capitalism as players bought and sold food, weapons, slaves, narcotics and alien artefacts, trading between planets in order to buy bigger and better weapons with which to kill more aliens.

Championship Manager introduced me to the value of paying attention to my team’s youth squad. As a manager, unless you’re able to sell one of your stars for a Goodwillie-sized transfer fee (an injudicious £2m from Blackburn Rovers), you’re very dependent on your own youth system to provide talent. Blooding the exotically named and long-forgotten Dons defender Malcolm Kpedekpo or trying to unlock the enigmatic talents of Manchester United loanee Alex Notman were the key objectives in my early managerial career.

Different people play in different ways but, when a new edition comes out I’ll usually play one single career over the course of 12 months which can equate to around eight to ten full seasons. With any luck that takes in domination of the SPFL, success in both domestic cups, followed by headway in the Champions League. With the right signings (using money from selling one of the club’s best assets for big cash) a couple of seasons in the group stages gives a manager a war chest generous enough to dominate Scottish football. Within a few seasons the big boys come calling and, if you choose not to be a one-club-man, you can try your hand in the English Premiership, Serie A or more exotic destinations.

Sometimes, if I get bored I’ll quit a game as Aberdeen manager and start again at Stenhousemuir, my wee team where I first paid to watch football. Lower league management is a very different challenge, and mainly involves cobbling together a side from inexperienced free agents, 18 year-old loan players from bigger clubs and veterans whose legs have gone. Another great way to increase the depths of one’s football knowledge is by taking the helm at a lower league or medium-sized English club. Nottingham Forest and Leicester have always been favourites and have given me a bizarre connection with random football characters like Eugene Bopp, a midfielder from Bayern Munich who signed for Forest as a 17-year-old, leaving behind the much less fancied Phillip Lahm and Bastien Schweinsteiger, or Andy King, whose bit-part appearance in the Euros for Wales this summer brought a lump to my throat, having developed him into a great attacking midfielder in my Leicester side of a decade ago.

Football Manager also greatly improved my tactical awareness. Having tried every formation under the sun, I now understand much better the pros and cons of a 4-4-2 versus a 4-2-3-1, the importance of a poor team staying narrow to keep possession, and these days when I watch Aberdeen I can usually predict what substitutions the manager will make a good few minutes before they occur. This has increased both my enjoyment of football and my know-it-all smugness.     

My initiation as a virtual manager coincided with the birth of my second daughter. Although I loved her instantly, and love her still with a ferociousness that is a source of pride, surprise and occasional alarm, any father will tell you how tough the first five years of parenthood are. She wasn’t a sleeper and would wake at least twice a night till she went to school. So a combination of grinding fatigue and a dearth of baby-sitting talent on the Southside of Glasgow meant living with a seven-day-a-week curfew for more than half a decade. Despite all the positives of being a parent, which are many, I hereby confess that those early years could be stultifying. It was Football Manager that got me through.     

The season my daughter was born, 1999-2000, was a mixed experience for Aberdeen fans, the start of the Ebbe Skovdahl era. On the one hand, we signed some exciting foreign talent, including the mercurial forward Hicham Zerouali, killed in a car crash in his native Morocco at the age of 27 in 2004, and lethal striker, Arild Stavrum, for 16 years the Dons’ top scorer in the league and who bizarrely has since become a personal friend. That year we had a double cup run leading to two finals at Hampden, although both ended in embarrassing roll-overs. But in the league, our proud boast that Aberdeen was the only club outside the Old Firm never to be relegated was severely undermined when we came bottom after a risible campaign, only to be saved by the state of Brockville stadium, which prevented Falkirk from meeting Aberdeen in a play-off through self-serving SPL rules.

As a child of the 70s and early 80s, I’d grown up with the expectations of the Ferguson years and this was truly the nadir (although Steve Paterson’s cash-strapped tenure came close). For me, Football Manager offered the perfect escape. Working with the same players in a parallel universe, I turned the team around through a combination of strong leadership, cute tactics and some Harry Redknapp-style wheeler-dealing in the transfer market.

And this takes one to the heart of Football Manager’s addictiveness. What better way to relax after a hard day’s graft than to retreat into a virtual dimension where your team are, with a bit of effort, all-conquering heroes, forgetting that in the real world they’re still donkeys? Any psychologist will tell you that we all yearn for control, especially if we lack it at work or in our personal lives. Football Manager offers gamers the chance to be benign dictators of their own football cosmos.

Another compulsive attraction is the strength of the narrative. Goals are scored and conceded in extra time to win or lose championships. Star players get injured just before cup finals. While talented players flounce off to rival clubs for a paltry thousand pounds more a week, the reliable journeyman sticks with you, turning out solid performances week in, week out. You spot talented youngsters, sign them, nurture them, put an arm round them or boot them up the arse when they need it, and sometimes, if you’re lucky, they blossom into major stars, to be sold on for millions. You feel a huge amount of pride and ownership. You build clubs in your own image.

Football Manager, just like real football, is soap opera for men. There are the heroes and villains, tragedies and twists, underdogs and victims. But unlike real football, in the computer game you write your own script. And you are the principal character at the heart of the drama.

This is what has kept me devoted for almost 20 years. So, as we sit here in this windowless room, in a circle, under the grim fluorescent lights, addicts of different kinds to my left and right, I admit that my addiction to Football Manager has, on occasion, been out of control. I remember a family holiday abroad where I spent virtually every minute I could playing rather than engaging with my partner and young children. I remember being spotted by a friend driving into work during the morning rush hour, laptop open on the passenger seat of my car as a match (if I remember correctly against Dundee United) played out. Occasionally I’ve played for 18 hours solid with only the briefest of breaks. Train travel for work that should have been spent wading through paperwork was devoted to climbing the league. I have fantasised about being sent to prison, so I could just sit in a cell all day on my computer. It comes as no surprise to me that Football Manager has to date been cited in 35 UK divorce cases.

I wince to think of the things I could have achieved in the time I’ve spent on Football Manager. However, I console myself with the pleasure I’ve gained and the knowledge I’ve gleaned about Scottish football and the wider game. The good news is that, although I still play, it’s without the frantic, obsessive energy of my younger years. Well sometimes, at least

This article first appeared in Issue 1which was published in September 2016.

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