It’s the 20th of May, 2056, and it’s the last day of the football season. Arsenal face an out of form Everton at Goodison Park needing a point to win the title. Their 117 year old manager Janis Hopkins broods on the sidelines as his injury-ravaged side take an early lead against the Toffees only to see their lone frontman Samuel Alvarez pull up with an injury, and then his team concede a goal just before half time. With no other striking options he has to look to ageing club legend Enrique, sat on the bench having only just returned from a 6 month lay off. He hobbles out onto the pitch after half time to warm applause. Fast forward 45 minutes and one corner of the stadium is roaring, a tiny raucous of red and white. Enrique their 4 goal hero is carried by his teammates, his legs having given out in the 85th minute. Grown men weep and supporters stream onto the pitch, and at home in my dressing gown I dance around the room like somebody slipped a pill into my evening cuppa.
Football Manager, man. It’s not just a game, it’s a relationship, and not a healthy one either. Some games draw you in with rewards and multiplayer competition, but Football Manager skips past amateur tactics and goes straight for the hole in your soul you didn’t even know you had.
To outsiders it’s difficult to see the attraction. To somebody hovering over your shoulder it just looks like a glorified spreadsheet, with a set of suspiciously similar-looking generated players being pored over with an expert eye, and in many ways it is, but in other ways go away mum it’s a LOT more complicated than that GOD you’re so annoying. Everybody’s an expert on football management when they’re 3 pints in and shouting at Mark Lawrenson and his stupid face, but short of printing off an Alan Curbishley bodysuit and hanging around grounds like the Phantom of the Opera nobody’s ever going to really get a chance to prove it.
Football Manager is the dodgy bloke in the trenchcoat beckoning you round the corner and telling you that maybe you can after all, just come with me, have a bit of this mate, and then that’s it: you’re done for. You’ve been kidnapped and then every last minute winner and Albanian wonderkid just makes you fall more in love with the beast.
Everybody has their stories. I remember a period in which Emmanuel Eboue, then Barcelona manager, initiated a feud with me that only ended 20 years later when he finally retired. He was succeeded by the young Chilean right-back who’d replaced him to end his Arsenal career about 40 years earlier. Every player has a tale of which tiny team they dragged up by their bootstraps to win the league 15 years later, and get enough in one place and people start exchanging tales like old war veterans, of heroism and courage.
Among the game’s devotees are the extreme cases – the true heroes. Those who settle down for the night with it and loudly commentate on every match with a wine bottle and those who pull on their suit and tie for the cup final and make sure to shake hands with the door handle just before their crowning glory.
There’s glory, but there’s anger too. I once threw a spoon so hard it stuck in the wall after Olof Mellberg scored a hat-trick against me – Olof fucking Mellberg! It still upsets me – and that was far from the only outbreak of insane rage the game has caused.
In the end though, it doesn’t matter. You keep coming back just for the moments of ecstasy that make all of the emotional torment worthwhile. I hate you, Football Manager, and I never want you to leave.