THE MISSION: Enter the world of Football Manager 2017 and beat your bitter rival to claim glory in the Scottish Premiership and bragging rights in Glasgow.
THE CATCH: The Everton challenge did not end well. Can Iain Macintosh bounce back to build a homegrown empire at Celtic? Or will Alex Stewart’s meddling Moneyballing ways bring silverware to Rangers? The Set Pieces’ money is on an Aberdeen treble…
Episode 1; Episode 2; Moneyball Rangers; Episode 3; Episode 4; Episode 5; Old Firm Preview Part 1; Part 2; A Message From The Board; Episode 6; 5 Things We Learned From The Old Firm Derby; Episode 7; How To Play Catenaccio In FM17; Episode 8; Episode 9.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Two hours into the first attempt to complete this chapter, and approximately three minutes after Alex suggested to Iain that he should save the game, it crashed. We won’t go into what happened first time around and what didn’t happen second time around, but it’s enough to say that Iain has now started smoking again.
IAIN: Hello again, old friend. The story of the season so far hasn’t been my tussle with tactics or Alex’s slow realisation that his goalkeeper has hands like Donald Trump, it’s been St Johnstone. From nowhere, they roared into an early lead and continue to pose a threat to what you might in other circumstances call ‘the elite.’
I respect them. I admire them. But I want to crush them for what they did to me on the opening day of the season, pounding me 1-4 at Parkhead. Weakened slightly by the lack of Scott Sinclair and Callum McGregor, I’m still reasonably confident of a result. We’ve won four on the bounce in all competitions and we haven’t lost a domestic game since…that day in August.
Well, I’m never going to turn my nose up at three points, but that was pretty much the bare minimum we could offer and still get away with a victory. Midway through the first half, Chopper Brown played in Leigh Griffiths, who nutmegged Steven Anderson and slipped the ball into the bottom corner. I was happy. I felt that it was the start of something cathartic. But it was the end. My assistant manager Chris Davies warned me about a bit of complacency in the ranks before kick off and here it was. We played the rest of the game in second gear. I am unamused.
ALEX: I seem to recall saying some time ago, in the early days of this challenge when I was green and carefree, that a game against Aberdeen would be a good indication of where my team was.
In those days, we were confident we knew how this would go – oh, the happy innocence of a young manager. Now, trudging through the relentless fixture list, the angry team meetings, the sight of Iain’s smiling face everywhere, we realise: we were wrong. And yet, Aberdeen at home, after two wins on the bounce and a new formation starting to bed in, it will show whether we’ve turned a corner. I just never thought we’d need to do that.
The formation stays as it is: I’ve learned one thing that matters in this game and it’s that if they don’t know where to stand when the match kicks off, we lose. Poyet and Tavernier are on the sidelines, so Crooks comes in to the box-to-box role and Rossiter shifts across, with Northern Ireland international Lee Hodson taking the right-back berth. He doesn’t have Tavernier’s set-piece skills, but he is a handy player and all he needs to do is win the ball and give it to McKay.
Three wins on the bounce, then. And may I share with you, dear reader, the sheer relief that comes with that. We won, yes, 2-0, but it was the manner of the victory that really pleases me. Senderos, the old rogue, thundered in a header from a corner to give us the lead and Garner scored too, but it was Senderos’ dominant performance at the back (8.6 and POM), ably assisted by Hodson, that was most refreshing to see.
We restricted a good, fluent Aberdeen side to three shots on target, while having three ourselves and fashioning out two clear-cut chances. It seems that the big Swiss benefits from playing in a back four with at least one defensively minded midfielder, and not being asked to learn confusing formation after confusing formation. And you’d never guess from looking at him that he’d be a ‘keep it simple’ guy, would you?
IAIN: An injury to Griffiths picked up on international duty means a return to the starting line-up for Moussa Dembele, but apart from that there are no changes. Perhaps there should be changes. This is the ultimate banana skin game: Top against bottom in top’s front room. My spidey sense is tingling.
And with good reason. Davies notes widespread complacency this time, a tendency to be carefree and lark about in the warm-up. I am fuming. I told them before the game that I expected a win. Apparently they do too. They expect it to be gift-wrapped. But even Dundee with all of their problems aren’t going to lie down for us.
James Vincent hits one from 40 yards out that smashes against the bar and back down into the six yard box, leaving Craig Gordon flat on his bum. I howl in frustration, Gordon gets to his feet with all the speed of a seven season Danish boxset and Paul McGowan ambles over to tap it home.
Teacups are hurled at half time. But nothing changes until the hour when I smash the glass on my Emergency 4-4-2 and use Kris Commons as an inside left attacking playmaker, a sort of slowly trundling family-sized tub of creativity that I hope will cause Dundee unexpected issues. It works. While Commons doesn’t actually do much, per se, his presence alone is enough of a distraction to make the room for Dembele and then Brown to score two quickfire, late goals. I feel for Dundee. They deserved the win, not us.
ALEX: Partick Thistle are Iain’s opponents in the Cup, but first they host us in the league. ‘Injure them’, says Iain, imploringly. ‘Injure them all. Or at least break their hearts.’
Partick play a pretty swash-buckling 4-2-3-1, with Lawless a rapid threat on the wing, so I am grateful to welcome back James Tavernier to right full-back to counter this. Tavernier, along with Wallace, is also my joint highest assist provider. Otherwise we are unchanged, with Poyet still inching his way back from injury. The continuity is pleasing, as the players increase their understanding of the new system. Their sense of relief at having dropped the catenaccio is, to be fair, palpable.
Tense, lacking in quality, and a bit too frenetic for my tastes, but we get a 1-0 win away to bring us to four victories in a row. Partick manage 13 shots but only four on target to our 11 shots, five on target. The possession is evenly split, though, and they still have two clear cut chances to our one.
Our defence keep their shape well though, with Wilson and Senderos again standing out for their aerial ability. Wallace sets up yet another goal, this time for flying young winger McKay, but for much of the game it’s a tale of failing to capitalise on good chances, with Macheda thumping the woodwork and missing the target altogether a few times.
Still, I’ll take grubby wins to nil that move us to third in the table.
IAIN: I have the strangest feeling of deja-vu as I prepare to meet Atletico Madrid at Parkhead. The sense that I’ve already played them before somewhere in an alternative reality and that I won with a Dembele penalty. But I shrug it off and get down to business.
Patrick Roberts has been poor, so he’s out and Ryan Christie, a central midfielder with the ability to play on the left, takes over. Christian Gamboa is exhausted, so loanee David Carmona steps up. AJ, still just 18, is tiring too, so McGregor will pair up with Brown in the middle. It’s not ideal, but with one game every three days, we just have to find a way to cope with it. A win would be nice. Failing that, if Basel could see their way to beating CSKA Moscow, that would be ace too.
It takes just five minutes for Antoine Griezmann to score and it feels as if it’s going to be a very long night at the office. But then Brown sets up Dembele and suddenly we’re back in it. In fact, not only are we back in it, we’re matching Diego Simeone’s mob punch for punch. And there’s more: Basel are beating CSKA!
And then Nicolas Gaitan spanks one in from 25 yards and we’re losing. As we restart play, CSKA take the lead against Basel. We don’t put another shot on target all night. CSKA hold out for the win. Champions League progression is no longer in our hands. We still have to go to Switzerland and win, but we also need to pray that Atletico can be bothered to beat CSKA. Otherwise, it’s the Europa League for us. Bleurgh.
IAIN: But let’s turn those frowns upside down with the joy that is a trip to Hampden Park. It’s the Betfr…BetBright Cup Final and only Patrick Thistle stand in my way. We beat them in the league and I expect to beat them here too. Mainly because I am upset about my European travails and I want to take it out on someone. AJ is back. Gamboa is back. Dembele hasn’t stopped scoring since he came back. Go out and bring me back that cup, gentlemen. I don’t care if it’s important or not. It looks shiny. I wants it.
That was absolutely brutal. They never had a chance. I want to be happy, but I feel a bit guilty. Every time we go forward, we score. There are two assists from Christie on the left. There are two from James Forrest on the right. We’re 3-0 up at half time and they’re down to ten men shortly afterwards.
The only reason we don’t score more than five is that I feel it’s not the done thing to push on for double figures in a televised cup final. That said, it would have been nice to keep a clean sheet. Complacency sneaking in again. But let’s not be fussy. Open up the trophy room. We have a new arrival.
ALEX: Hearts are good. Hearts scare me a bit. Connor Sammon looks a bit like Senderos, but the similarities end there: he’s good at playing football. Their tussle will go a long way to deciding the game and, while the lumpen Swiss has been playing well of late, I still feel the clanger is strong in him.
Nonetheless, I have a certain amount of confidence going into this one. Firstly, we’re at home. Secondly, I can put out what I am now is confident is my strongest line-up, as Poyet has returned to add guile to Rossiter’s midfield steel, and Tavernier, Wallace, and Wilson complete three-quarters of a good back line. Hearts are also strong at the back and Forrester hasn’t hit the heights of his first game again, but I’m hoping his creativity and McKay’s pace will feed Macheda and Garner and produce goals.
Well, there were goals alright. They just didn’t go in at the right end. We started disastrously, with Ozturk, one of the league’s best players, heading in from a corner to give Hearts the lead. From then on, it was downhill all the way with the pace and gay abandon of a drunk skier trying their first black run because fuck it, why not?
Sammon again played brilliantly, assisting Kitchen before pouncing on a weak Tavernier back pass to give Foderingham no chance. McKay scored a fine goal for us, and, to be fair, we had eight shots on target to their six, completed more passes and won more corners, and yet were never really in the game.
Our defence played poorly and theirs played well. Their keeper, Hamilton, also had a 7.4 game, which indicates to this straw-grasper that, had things been a little different, we might have won. But we didn’t and a good run of games came to an end. In previous eras, this might have prompted all kinds of soul-searching and tactical tinkering, but I’m an older, wiser, more cynical creature now. We’ll stick with 4-4-2 and damn the haters. We sink to fifth, though.
And so, we each have just one more game to play before the second Old Firm derby of the season. Join us live at 1pm on Wednesday to see how the head-to-head plays out.
Football Manager is widely available for download, but you know that already because you’ve bought it already. If you want to replicate this challenge, we’re using the release day database with six full leagues (Scotland, England, Spain, Germany, Italy and France).