Friday, 18 December 2015

An Alternative Reality: A Championship Manager/Football Manager Dream Team

They say that you should never meet your heroes. Perhaps that should also say “you shouldn’t watch your Championship Manager Legends play in the real world.” On several games, Northern Irish International Danny Griffin was a go to guy if you needed a centre back that could bring the ball out from the back and also do a job as a holding midfielder. It was guaranteed that if you didn’t snap him up early he would always, without fail end up at Arsenal. It was sad then, that seeing the actual player up close and personal several years later playing for Stockport County, he didn’t quite stand out as much as I hoped he would. 

It’s been a while (cough *five years* cough) since we posted a Dream Team, but surely this makes it even more anticipated right? The inspiration for this particular entry came from watching the excellent, ‘An Alternative Reality: The Football Manager Documentary’ last weekend.

How much you get into a documentary can, to some extent, rely on how interesting you find the subject matter. In this case it was something that I have a definite emotional attachment to. As will become clear, Football Manager, or more accurately Championship Manager as it was known at the time, was an integral part of school, sixth form and then subsequently university days, all times when I really should have been doing something more productive with my time.

Despite reaching an age when I really have become old enough to know better, you know, since getting a job, buying a flat, getting married, I still dabble in the game, although it must be said that Football Manager 2008 is basically the latest version of the series in which I partake; more than enough detail to satisfy the football geek that lives inside of me, but simple enough that you can still plough through a season in a few sittings.

What I enjoyed in the documentary were the jumps between the ‘serious’ side of how the game is made, and the incredible database that it has cultivated which now has far reaching influence inside the game, to the perhaps more important – for me anyway – anecdotes from fans about “playing that one more match” despite it being three o’clock in the morning, imaginary press conferences in the mirror and creating elaborate back stories for yourself and the thought processes behind the decisions you make. I never personally got to the stage of wearing a suit for a cup final, but the fact that Matthaus Schnellinger, my German alter ego – a goal keeper that had spells with Borussia Dortmund and PSG before a spell in the NASL in America - was created, I think tells you all you need to know about how deeply ingrained the game became in my psyche.

There are many fantastic sites, blogs and books out there – including the outstanding ‘Football Manager Stole My Life: 20 Years of Beautiful Obsession’ as well as of course the documentary to enjoy, but consider the opening to this piece as my own little backstory to why I’ve decided to share my personal ultimate Championship Manager/Football Manager XI.

The beauty of the game is that everyone has that Inter Milan team that won seven consecutive Champions Leagues, or the Rochdale Team that they took to the Premier League by 2030, that had a 40 year old Freddy Adu in it. Everyone also has those players that have become legends to them – either players from the real world, or those created by the game to restock the playing database as veterans drop off the other end.

That again is what makes the game so great. In the documentary, the original developers talk about the fact that they wanted to create a universe where there was so much going on around you that you didn’t control and that then has an impact, be it direct or indirect back on you. While there are certain players – your Mark Kerr’s, Cherno Samba’s and Tonton Zola Moukoko’s of the world that became famous for all wannabe managers, there are equally those players who for whatever reason, and perhaps on just one of your games ever, turned out to be a legend personally for you. Along those lines, my mind always wanders to Tomas Rosicky who in one game where I managed Dortmund wracked up an obscene, and frankly system errortastic 9.29 rating over the course of a 50 game season or the rather more agricultural Leeds centre back Paul Butler who managed to score 20 goals from corners in a single season by repeatedly steaming into opposition keepers.  We all have those stories.

So, as a special festive edition and I suppose five year anniversary of the last one, I invite you to enjoy this Dream Team.

NB. Before I start, it’s probably important to note that the positions below relate to those in the game. Hence ‘DMC’ – Defensive Midfield (centre). It’s also important to note that I will try to remember the positions of players from old games as much as I can. For example, Taribo West was a centre back so *spoiler alert* I’m putting him in at DC. In the game he may have been a DL/C (keeping up at the back) but please don’t call me out on that. Please.

GK – Iain Lowe

Goalkeepers were always an interesting one in the game. Even if you had a really good one, with seemingly 20 for everything, they would rather sadly still let in goals. Or more commonly get a regular six rating regardless of whether your team won, lost or drew. Such is the life of a keeper really, their contribution to a team’s performance never truly appreciated. But when you do have a good one, one that won’t rush out of their goal at the drop of a hat or one that has an unfortunate habit of directing goal kicks straight at the opposing striker, you tend to keep hold of them for a long time. Arguably the best side I’ve put together was an all-conquering AC Milan on FM 2008, in which – don’t laugh – Dida was a bedrock for several years. He was then eventually replaced by Hugo Lloris before I knew who that was.

My choice though is Iain Lowe, an interesting note as he was a fake player generated by the game itself. Signed for an austerity busting £3,000 – even better than  getting someone on the ubiquitous free transfer – from Barnsley, he became a fantastic last line of defence for a Crystal Palace side that was built on playing youngsters and academy graduates as much as possible - the narrative over success – and who ousted club legend Julian Speroni from the team. Eventually became an England international, which for an outlay of three grand was pretty impressive.    

DR - Michael Lamey

I struggled with this one, I mean, no offence to Gary Neville, but right back is not the most exciting or glamourous of positions. I guess I could say Cafu, but then that would be because of the exploits of the real one, rather than his computer counterpart, so I’ve had to wrack the memory banks here.  In the modern game, full backs that can get forward and attack are seemingly far more valued than the boring ones that stick to the day job, and it’s probably fair to say that’s similar within the management simulation world.  After all, those rampaging fullbacks that get forward to score a few goals are going to linger longer in the memory than those bringing home a steady 7.1 rating each season. To that end, I did manage to convert Junichi Inamoto into a fairly decent fullback for Arsenal, although, that’s hardly that impressive really.  In the end I’ve gone for Michael Lamey, a Dutch fullback who was an absolute monster on the game, although you had to wait to sign him until after he moved to PSV for something like £25 million in a transfer that was locked down and inbuilt into the game.      

DL – Scott Chipperfield

Through a combination of factors, there just sadly isn’t the time now to sit down and play Football Manager these days, not least of which is that the current version is just a bit too much of a data and stats machine for me to handle, and that’s speaking as someone where that plays a part of my day job. What’s more, I’ve always thought that as the game gets more complex, there is less and less chance for the ‘system errors’ that enable a somewhat unknown to achieve cult like status which is a shame. But playing FM 2013, I did still manage to find someone that fulfilled nearly all of your criteria for a cult hero by also ensuring you are able to sign a player that can play in every position. The fact that man was 34 years old didn’t matter to me at all. Once again, in Football Manager, for me, it’s about the story rather than the sell on value. So half a million quid on an Australian left winger/wing back/fullback from the Swiss League ticked a lot of boxes.   

DC – Taribo West

For most people I know that have played the game, the first thing to do as soon as you take over a club is scour the free transfer list, because on certain games, there were some absolute gems hidden amongst the multitude of failed Manchester United youth team prospects and ageing Spanish midfielders. One such player was Taribo West – a go to man for everyone on CM 2001/2002. The beauty of good old Taribo was that he would improve any side at any level. I had him at the heart of an Arsenal defence as a regular just as I had him as the rock of a Falkirk one. And that was the other bonus, no matter what level you were managing at, he would always come to you. There are not many players that will do a job for you for any team, in any league and in any country but if you could get Taribo West, and without having to spend a penny, your chances of success went up exponentially.      

DC – Danny Griffin

They say that you should never meet your heroes. Perhaps that should also say “you shouldn’t watch your Championship Manager Legends play in the real world.” On several games, Northern Irish International Danny Griffin was a go to guy if you needed a centre back that could bring the ball out from the back and also do a job as a holding midfielder. It was guaranteed that if you didn’t snap him up early he would always, without fail end up at Arsenal. It was sad then, that seeing the actual player up close and personal several years later playing for Stockport County, he didn’t quite stand out as much as I hoped he would. Still, regular appearances in the Scottish top flight and 29 caps for Northern Ireland meant he wasn’t a bad player, it’s just a shame he never did make it to the Emirates after all.

DMC – Andrea Pirlo and Kostas Katsouranis

In Football Manager world being accused of ‘tactical inflexibility’ is a damning putdown. But while some love to tinker, and adapt formations and tactics to suit the occasion and their opponents, I’ve never generally had too much time for that, still scarred by sending a side to Old Trafford with a back five, playing deep, and set to time waste from kick off that conceded three in the first ten minutes.  That’s also maybe why I’ve not been as successful as some, but nonetheless, when there is a formation I settle on, I tend to stick with it, come hell or high water. And no other formation in recent times has been as comforting a blanket to me as a 4-2-3-1. Which is a rather long winded introduction to say that pretty much all of my teams – be it good ones or bad – set up with what I believe might be called a  double midfield pivot. Or maybe it’s not; I like to think of it that way anyway.
For me, it’s not just a case of packing the midfield with two destroyers – sort of your Gilberto Silva era Brazil – but rather one to win the ball, and one to play it. In terms of the ball winner, I was very tempted to go with royalty and chuck in King Osei – another mainstay of my title tilting Crystal Palace team on FM 2008 who I picked up for around a million from Fulham’s reserves or the famous Mark Kerr who features in the documentary as a legend for players of the game world over. My first midfield holder though is Kostas Katsouranis, a guy that I had at the heart of a pretty decent Benfica side I had, on either FM 2006 or 2007. Never missing a game, he was my Mr consistency who also usually managed to get into double figures for goals despite the defensive role I asked of him.

Andrea Pirlo of course is a player that would walk into many a real life dream team but a player who pioneered a position in the modern game that then translated wonderfully to the Serie A universe in Football Manager. Sitting in front of the back four, despite not being asked to do any tackling, pressing or chasing, he was tailor made for orchestrating attacks from deep and regularly breaking the 20-25 mark in terms of assists. Even in computerised dot form, effortlessly stylish.   

AMR – Alejandro Domínguez

Released in 1997, this version (Championship Manager 97/98) of the game included nine leagues from around the world, three of which could be run simultaneously, new competition formats to follow those implemented in reality, and many more tactical options. The game remains very popular amongst fans of the series, mainly for its simplicity compared to the huge, processor-intensive games that the series has since developed into.

Never let it be said then that Wikipedia doesn’t know what it’s talking about. When Championship Manager 97/98 extended the leagues that you could manage in to a mouth-watering nine, it was if all of my Christmases had come on once. This was just a drop in the ocean. Since then the game has been grabbing extra leagues from around the world like a European colonial power in the 19th century. The fact is though, that while this did lead to some pretty randomly entertaining games, often it wasn’t quite as fun managing in Hong Kong as you thought it would be, mainly due to a combination of quotas on foreign players, having no attachment to most of the teams and not being able to attract journeymen British players into going there. Despite all of that, and despite once again being up against a quota system and not the sort of money that you would think that Gazprom would have been pumping into their account in the real world, three successive Russian doubles at Zenit St Petersburg were largely won off the back of the mercurial Argentine Alejandro Domínguez. Cutting in from the right flank, he was a veritable goal machine, and became the Kevin Nolan to my Sam Allardyce that I then took everywhere I went thereafter.    

AMC – James Gould

Who? A bonafide legend, that’s who. Did he help me win things? Not really, although I think a Scottish First Division title counts. Was he the heartbeat of a Real Madrid, Barcelona or Bayern Munich side? No, but he was the creative hub of a mildly successful St Johnstone team. Was he a player that I’ve ever heard anyone else talk about when mentioning the Mike Duff’s, Kennedy Bakircioglu’s and the ‘Champ Man legends’ of this world – no. But for a man who was brought from Northampton Town and scored over 40 goals every season from attacking midfield on CM 2000/2001 he was bloody brilliant. And he was bloody brilliant because he was that personal discovery, that personal gem that no-one else talks about. He’s also the reason why on every game since I always have a player in the hole behind the front man. James Gould is my favourite Championship Manager/Football Manager player of all time.  

AML – Juanjo

It’s funny, the legend of James Gould (see above) actually grew out of a game in which Juanjo – the diminutive, extravagant Spanish winger that played for Hearts at the turn of the 21st Century was my original attacking midfield sensation. I didn’t expect much starting a game in which I was trying to take on the might of Celtic and Rangers with a squad consisting of Fitzroy Simpson and Gary McSwegan, but it ended up being a tidy little squad, capped off with a small piece of La Masia magic. Playing on the left side of a front three, the former Barcelona youngster Juan José Carricondo Pérez or ‘Juanjo’ for short was nothing short of a revelation. Regularly crashing in 25 a season, most from outside the box, it was always a disappointment that the Spanish national team scouts didn’t tend to make it up to Tynecastle and he never did make it into their national team.
He also became another example of a real life football phenomenon that then extends into the digital galaxy, becoming one of those players that only seemed to click for one certain manager. Following my very harsh replacement by the admittedly slightly more high profile Kenny Dalglish, the Spaniard retreated into his shell and was barely ever heard of again.    

ST – Ibrahima Bakayoko

I’ve often liked the idea of Walter Smith playing computer games. Maybe something like Unirally or Crash Bandicoot. Because seemingly in 1997, he must’ve been playing Championship Manager to have decided to splash out £4.5 million on Ibrahima Bakayoko. Indeed, that could have been seen as a huge bargain…as in, you never would’ve got him for that little in the fantasy Champ Man world. This was a man that simply put had unbelievable stats for a 20 year old you’d never heard of that was playing for Montpellier. Even Messi might have struggled to compete with his scores across every attribute. It’s fair to say that the real Bakayoko didn’t quite live up to the hype that the digital one did, but in game terms he was almost the second coming of Pele and a must buy for any self-respecting manager with a few million quid in his back pocket.

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