Written by Iain Macintosh.
While putting together the book, “Football Manager Stole My Life,” my co-authors and I trawled hundreds of personal accounts of virtual chalkboard addiction. We spoke to games journalists, psychologists and actual, real life footballers who had been afflicted. We even went back and played innumerable seasons of classic Championship/Football Manager too. Just for research. Oh Christ, here come the sweats.
We never set out to help cure anyone. All we wanted to do was to let people know that they were not alone. That there were others like them out there, wandering this world in body while their minds were elsewhere entirely. Probably scouting the Eredivisie for 19 year-old wingbacks. All roads lead back to Holland.
What follows is an amalgamation of stories designed to show you what lurks in the shadows of this hidden world, a bit like those one of those videos about heroin that they used to show you at school. This is what can happen when you play Football Manager too much.
DAY ONE: You feel a frisson of guilt that you’ve just spent three hours on a pre-season campaign, but you shrug it off with a smile. It was fun, wasn’t it? You assigned most of the more mundane tasks to your assistant, because you don’t want to waste time on stuff like coaching, do you? That’s what coaches are for. You’re just happy enough to make a jokey bid for Lionel Messi and then play some games. And you did well too. There are now four Japanese second division teams who won’t forget your name in a hurry. Well done, you.
DAY TWO: The season didn’t start well and you think you know why. You were too casual yesterday. You just threw a team out, you didn’t prepare them on a game-by-game basis. You didn’t even work on set-pieces. Who are you, Harry Redknapp? While your partner is watching television, you devise an intricate corner routine that sends your strikers to the far post, hopefully dragging the opposition defenders with them, while the ball goes to the near post where your towering central midfielder lurks ominously. It pays instant dividends and you win the next game 3-0. You’ve never felt such a profound sense of satisfaction. This set piece is probably what Hawking meant when he described looking into the face of God.
DAY THREE: After reading an article about Manchester United’s ‘Class of ’92’, you resolve to pay more attention to your youth players. When your partner heads upstairs for an early night, you plough through until 1am, carefully tailoring individual coaching routines for every member of your U18 squad, teaching them new skills, assigning them new roles. They won’t all make it, of course, there will be some casualties. Not all can earn the fabled black card. But every youngster deserves a chance, an opportunity to make the most of their potential. And that’s what you’re going to give them.
DAY FOUR: Your partner is out late tonight. You don’t mind. In fact, you’re quite keen that they stay out longer because European qualification is still mathematically possible. You need to find an edge somehow. You take over the youth team completely and use them to experiment with a back three, leaving one defender to cover, using another to push up and support your midfield. This might be the x-factor you’ve been looking for. At 2am, you step away from the laptop and wonder if your partner is actually coming home. You pad up the stairs and check the bedroom. They’re already home, already asleep. You never even heard the front door.
DAY FIVE: You spend two hours at work reading about the history of your adopted team on WIkipedia. As you scroll down the screen, taking in the stories of the past, committing the names of heroes long gone to memory, you feel a sense of swelling pride and an increasing responsibility to the badge. For a moment, you consider adding your own achievements to the page, but you hold back. After all, you’re not that sad. When you get home, you get straight back to the grindstone, ‘attending’ an England U19 qualifier to see how a young transfer target copes with the pressure of a big game.
DAY SIX: Success! You’ve finished a season and booked your place in Europe. You click the button that delivers a short speech to your players, congratulating them on their success, but in your head, you deliver a far longer and far more personal one. You go through your players one by one, checking their stats, thanking them for their contribution. Then you hear laughter behind you. Your partner is standing at the door. You’ve been speaking out loud. You are told to stop being so silly and to come to bed because you have “real work” tomorrow. Clough probably had to bite his lip in the early days too.
DAY SIX/SEVEN: That would have been a sensible place to save and exit, but you just wanted to see how the World Cup went. After all, a number of your players will be involved and it’s a great place to scout for upcoming talent. You start to click through, but you see other teams making bids for players and you don’t want to be left behind. Quickly, you run through your shortlist and start firing bids out. But you can’t go to bed until you know if the bids were successful, so you keep clicking through. And through. And through. And then you hear the worst noise that any Football Manager can hear. Bird song.
DAY EIGHT: Your partner isn’t very well and you have to cancel a night out. You’re delighted. You pack them off to bed with a cup of tea and a packet of ‘extinction level event’ Cold & Flu medicine. While they snooze, you cruise through your second pre-season. You’ve got plans, you’ve got ideas, you’ve got targets to aim at. You know all this because while you were making a cup of coffee, you gave an extended interview to the Daily Telegraph’s Henry Winter within the confines of your own head. He seemed nice. If you ever write your autobiography, you have a feeling that Henry will be the man to ghost it.
DAY NINE: It’s all going so well. You’re gliding through games now, tweaking and shifting formations, confident that you know what you can reasonably expect from your players. In an open and far-reaching interview with The Mirror’s Oliver Holt, you explain the secret of your success: Trust. You trust these boys and they respond with consistently excellent performances. Of course, there was the incident with that young Belgian lad. He objected when you fined him for his dismissal at the Emirates, you argued and he ended up on the transfer list. Pour encourager les autres, you tell Holt. You both laugh heartily. Then you realise that you’re in the queue for the deli in Sainsburys and people are staring.
DAY TEN: Your boss calls. He wants to know why you’ve saved a Word document to the public server that appears to be a very long list of surnames with scattered comments like, “needs to work on tackling,” and, “might develop after a loan spell.” You tell him that it was an experimental staff assessment template and was something you had hoped to unveil at the next monthly meeting. He buys it and he’s impressed. Too impressed. Now you need to come up with an actual experimental staff assessment template because you’ll be unveiling it to the rest of the office at the end of the week. You tell your partner, but receive only a long sigh in return. That’s so typical of them. Sometimes it’s like they don’t understand the importance of European coefficients at all.
DAY ELEVEN: A terrible knee injury robs you of your goalkeeper in March. You spend the rest of the night watching your games through your hands as your rusty reserve stopper makes a hash of everything that comes his way. You hold an immediate inquest and conclude that the only way to keep your back-up players fresh is to manually control your reserve team. But it’s too late for this season. Your title hopes are dashed in a grim eight-match winless run, but you do at least reach the FA Cup Final. “Injuries can happen to anyone,” you tell ‘Geoff Shreeves’ as you work on the washing up. “In a way, it might be a blessing. It takes the pressure off and we’ll learn from this experience.” ‘Geoff’ purrs politely then lifts his leg in the air and licks his own bottom.
DAY TWELVE: This is it. It’s Cup Final day. You take a walk around the block to clear your head, imagining yourself to be strolling around the grounds of your hotel, idly chatting about the weather in an effort to calm your players down. And then it’s time. And because things have to be done properly, you put on your best suit and blast ‘Abide With Me’ through Spotify. That’s not overdoing it, that’s just enjoying the moment. Shaking hands with the door knob and pretending to introduce your team to Prince William; that was overdoing it.
DAY THIRTEEN: You argue with your partner about the amount of time you’re spending on the laptop. You make a spirited defence, claiming that Football Manager is cheaper than gambling, healthier than drinking and safer than most of the drugs. It’s a brilliant riposte and, had your partner still been in the house when you’d thought of it, it would almost certainly have won the argument. But if the house is empty, then there’s no-one to object to another few pre-season games, is there? Every cloud, eh?
DAY FOURTEEN: You look up briefly from a detailed report on a regenerated Peruvian right-back who’s been turning heads in La Liga. Where is your partner? It’s been quiet for a really long time. There’s an envelope on the kitchen table with your name on it. You definitely saw it on the last coffee run, but you didn’t open it. Maybe there’s a clue in there. Maybe not. It doesn’t matter. You’re just one player away from challenging for the title. And then you’ll be a winner. And then they’ll see. They’ll all see.