Still Playing: Football Manager

Football Manager

The football itself isn’t the draw with football, is it? I mean, sure there are people who watch it purely out of an appreciation for the sport, but they’re seen as a little bit eccentric at best, don’t you think? They’re the kind of person about whom you’d say “They love football so much, they’d even go and watch a game in the park”. The underlying implication being that no football at all would be preferable to football badly played and stripped of context.

No, it isn’t the thrilling prospect of watching Grant Holt blunder into their team’s offside trap that has fans religiously flocking to the grounds week after week. Rather, it’s the sense of community and belonging it brings. The intangible feeling that the fates of yourself and your club are somehow intertwined; the notion that you’ve given so much of yourself to the cause that you’ve earned the right to refer to your team’s antics using the pronoun ‘we’.

And, of course, you watch it for those rare, rare moments – the last minute goals, the sprawling saves, the point-blank miss from your ex-striker – that make all those wet, dreary midweek 0-0s worthwhile. Football, like many sports, consists of long, drawn-out periods of monotony punctuated by flurries of action. This is why you have to fall in love with a club before football can get its claws into you; for the crescendos to resonate, they have to matter. Having this cultural competency is the difference between seeing football as a bunch of blokes kicking around a pig’s bladder, and naming your first born after your club’s anthropomorphic mascot.

And by extension, it’s the difference between seeing Sports Interactive’s Football Manager series as simply a collection of bar charts and stats and seeing it for what it actually is – one of the greatest story telling devices in all of video games.

Let me illustrate this point by telling you about the time one of those rare, rare moments happened to me. This isn’t going to be a story of success, you understand – one of the genius things about Football Manager’s design, I think, is that it’s really easy – any semi-competent player can transform Rochdale into a European powerhouse within ten years. It’s a flatterer of a game, and deep down I don’t think the fanbase would have it any other way.

Instead, this is a story of glorious defeat; of failed heroes and heroic failure. This is the story of a 2-1 home defeat to Liverpool.

A little background before we begin; this particular save file saw me take control of Notts County, a cash-strapped club with the potential for growth, but one that found itself toiling in the basement division. After a rocky start to management, I decided to cut the majority of the squad’s journeymen and rebuild using cast-offs from the country’s top teams. Jack Cork and Nuno Morais joined from Chelsea; Ryan Garry and Wojciech Szezesny were fished out of Arsenal’s dustbin; Peggy Lokando and (the now sadly deceased) Miki Roque moved south from Liverpool.

Before long, my fledglings began to gel and Notts would go on to comfortably claim the League One title. Indeed, they gelled a little too well – the Magpies would go on to squeak into the play-offs in their inaugural season in the Championship, and ultimately triumphed. This gave me the unenviable task of leading a team of cast-offs and misfits into action amongst the country’s elite. While the paltry £2.25 million transfer budget allowed me to raid Man City’s reserves for Ishmael Miller and Kasper Schmeichel – shrewd moves, I reckoned – there were holes all across the squad.

In the event, Notts managed to keep their head above water for most of the season (as I told you, it’s an easy game), but could never quite break free of the relegation pack and found themselves just a few points above the drop side on the final day of the season.

Despite facing 2nd placed Liverpool on the final day, I wasn’t unduly worried – 17th placed Ipswich were at home to relegated Sunderland, true, but 18th placed Charlton needed to win big to overhaul us – and they were facing an on-fire Arsenal team who had themselves recently qualified for the Champions League.

Of more concern was Notts’ injury woes; first-choice defencemen Jack Cork and Ryan Garry both suffered knocks in training, which in conjunction with other existing injuries meant I was forced to hand Premier League debuts to full-backs Gary Silk and Austin McCann, two hapless endlings from the League Two days.

The were problems up front, too; top-scorer Ishmael Miller strained his ankle in the previous week’s defeat by Wigan, and although he had somewhat recovered, he was in no shape to start the game. As my only prolific scorer, I was forced to name Miller on the bench and go with the misfiring duo of DJ Campbell and Radwan Hamed. These were not good omens, to say the least.

And so it proved within five minutes of the vital clash, played before a rabid sell-out crowd on a sweltering May afternoon. Defensive midfielder Nuno Morais sliced a routine clearance into the air in his own half which was ceased upon by Liverpool’s Steven Gerrard, who threaded a pass through to Theo Walcott in the area. The striker, more clinical than his real-world counterpart, gleefully slotted the ball past a static Kasper Schmeichel with aplomb.

Early injuries to Steven Gerrard and Aaron Lennon briefly raised hope of a Notts comeback, but Notts were dreadful up and down the pitch and Hartem Ben Arfa dragged the Magpies deeper into the relegation mire in the 60th minute with a beautiful curling shot from outside the area. Now 2-0 and with little chance of salvation – indeed, Notts had only managed one tame shot on target in the entire game to this point – the attention now turned to the fates of our relegation rivals.

One of Football Manager’s finer points is the way you can go into as much or as little detail as you fancy, and still have roughly the same amount of the fun. On this occasion I’d elected to have the division’s other scores displayed in a side-bar – and the news wasn’t good. While Ipswich’s 1-0 lead – a lead they’d go on to keep comfortably – was expected, no-one could have predicted out-of-sorts Charlton to blaze into a 4-1 lead against Arsenal. It was a combination of results that left Notts marooned in the relegation zone of the live league table on goal difference, and needing a three-goal swing to escape it.

Notts huffed and puffed, but the rest of the match began to peter out as the team began to succumb to the inevitability of it all. And then, in the side-bar, a minor miracle in injury time; Thierry Henry had scored a brace in the 87th and 89th minutes to leave Charlton hanging on to a precarious 4-3 lead. As it stood, Notts were still relegated, but only now on goals scored. The home crowd new what this meant and communicated the message to the players on the pitch via the medium of roar – a consolation goal would be enough keep us up.

With that, Ishmael Miller limped on in place of McCann and the team reverted to an all-out attack 3-4-3 formation as they went in search of that elusive goal that would keep them in the division. But come the 93rd minute that goal had yet to come, and the news filtered through to the Meadow Lane crowd that Charlton and Ipswich had held on to their leads.

With seconds to go and with whistles echoing around the arena, uncomely midfielder Dominic Blizzard received the ball inside the Liverpool half and desperately launched it forward, as per team orders, in a rather inelegant fashion. And that’s when it happened. Defensive midfielder Nuno Morais – the same man at blame for the first goal – somehow split the Liverpool defence and rifled past a despairing Chris Kirkland for his first goal in over two years. Meadow Lane erupted in celebration, and the Charlton fans – celebrating on the pitch just seconds before – sunk to their knees as the cruelty of their fate began to sink in.

I remember this chain of events as vividly today as I did on the cold, January morning they occurred  over five years ago now. Despite only ever seeing the action unfold as played by tiddlywinks, every goal, every celebration, every tear of joy from the home fans and every tear of sorrow at the Valley is burned indelibly into my mind.

And it’s such an easy thing for me to visualise because far from being fanciful, this kind of absurd drama is a commonplace occurrence at the crunch end of the season – from Sheringham and Solskjaer at Man United to Jimmy Glass at Carlisle to the Bryn, the police dog that saved Torquay in 1987 by biting their right-back, football folklore is full of unlikely heroes, and in my mind Nuno Morais – last spotted playing in Cyprus – will forever be part of that list.

And what made the moment all the more special? Is that I created it. Football Manager gave me the stats and the sheets, it’s true, but I was the one who added the flourish that made it so glorious. You only have to read back the text report that followed Morais’ last-gasp goal: “Notts can celebrate all they want – it’s unlikely to make difference now” to know that Football Manger’s game engine knew nothing of the import of the goal.

Books are my favourite kind of media because they allow you to do something that visual media denies you; they give you the chance to create characters and moments and universes in your head using only a text as a source material. I used to love Infocom’s Zork games for giving me an even more interactive extension of that pleasure, but if we are to finally admit to ourselves that the text adventure genre is never coming back, then as a storytelling device, Football Manager is a more than adequate replacement. It’s only stats and sidebars to those that don’t understand what it is that makes football fans tick.

So enjoy the new season, and remember – when you’re 4-0 down to Grimsby on a bracing January evening, remember why you do it. For those rare, rare Nuno Morais moments.