CM01/02: The Return (The Final Episode)

THE MISSION: You returned to Championship Manager 01/02. You rescued Everton. You won something. But seven years later the dream turned sour and, after a particularly humiliating Wembley defeat, you walked away. Now rebuild your reputation.

THE CATCH: You’ve played these games for over 20 years, you’ve written two books about them and yet, for some reason, you’re still not very good at them. 

PREVIOUS EPISODES: Pre-Season ’01; Pre-Season ’01 Pt2; August ’01; September ’01; October ’01; November ’01; December ’01; January ’02; February ’02; March ’02; April ’02; May ’02; Pre-Season ’02Pre-Season ’02 Pt2; August ’02; September ’02; October ’02; November ’02December ’02January ’03; February’03; March ’03; April ’03; May ’03; Pre-Season ’03 Pt1; Pre-Season ’03 Pt2; August ’03; September ’03; October ’03; November ’03; December ’03; January ’04; February ’04; March’04; April ’04; May ’04; Pre-Season Pt 1; Pre-Season Pt2; August ’04; September ’04; October ’04; November ’04; December ’04; January ’05; February ’05; March ’05; April ’05; May ’05; Pre-Season ’05 Pt1; Pre-Season ’05 Pt2; August ’05; September ’05; October ’05; November ’05; December ’05; January ’06; February ’06; March ’06; April ’06; May ’06; Pre-Season ’06 Pt1; Pre-Season ’06 Pt2;August ’06; September ’06; October ’06; November ’06; December ’06; January ’07; February ’07; March ’07; League Cup Final Preview; League Cup Final Special; April ’07; May ’07; Pre-Season ’07 Pt1; Pre-Season ’07 Pt2; August ’07; September ’07; October ’07; November ’07; December ’07 Pt1;December 07 Pt2; January ’08; February ’08; March ’08; April ’08; May ’08; The Wilderness Weeks; Aug/Sep/Oct/Nov ’08; December ’08; January ’09; February ’09; March ’09; April ’09

One thing struck me when I first arrived at Portsmouth. It struck me right between the eyes. This football club, I thought to myself, is absolutely fucked. Seventeenth in the table with a squad that barely look capable of surviving in the second flight, I knew that I had to act fast. Following Brian Clough’s conflicting adages that teams must be built from the back and also that strikers are the most important players, I spent nearly £10m on Petr Cech and Dimitar Berbatov. Then I picked up a nasty little bastard for the midfield in Adam Thwaites, two new centre-backs in Danny Gabbidon and the new Greek lad and more firepower in Stefan Moore. And now, five months on, look at the progress we’ve made.

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No, it’s not what I expected either. And yet it’s better than it could have been. We were really struggling in February, but a gradual improvement has given us a chance. But it’s not over yet. Not even nearly. This is the sharp end. This is where we sort the wheat from the chaff. This is where we turn boys to men. And, although we’ve come to the end of the road, still I can’t let go. It’s unnatural. They belong to me. I belong to them.

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Under this awful pressure, the first to flinch are Bastard Bolton, who unceremoniously sack Sam Allardyce with just three games to go. That’s a hell of a Hail Mary pass for whoever takes over, especially as they travel to Chelsea next. Caretaker manager Phil Brown will handle that one.

As for us, we’ve got Blackburn at home. They were in a bit of trouble earlier, but they’ve soared clear now. It looks like 39 points will be more than enough to guarantee survival. We have only 33. Ray Lewington’s side play weird formations with lots of running, but at this stage of the season, I don’t think there’s much point in fiddling around. We’re in good form, we’re scoring goals. We should carry on with our conservative 4-3-3 and not mess around. We’re not helped by Stefan Moore suddenly deciding that he’s unhappy though. I agree with him that the club is underachieving, but perhaps if he’d scored more than five goals in 14 appearances, that wouldn’t be the case? Footballers. You can’t live with them. You can’t have them fired into the sun.

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Discretion is the better part of valour, but there’s only so much of this conservatism I can take. The first half will be a nightmare for the Match of the Day producers. Hardly anything happens. We don’t make a single chance of any sort. They make a couple, both of which are comfortably collected by Petr Cech. If it carries on like this, I’m either going to lose or draw. I scan the half time scores. Hull are losing, Bolton are drawing and Forest are winning. I can’t afford to lose or draw. It can’t carry on like this. Whatever happens today, we have to play the last two games without the suspended Cech. We need to be in the strongest position possible when that happens. And so I reach for my trident.

Going to all out attack in a game like this is reckless and impetuous. But it works. Danny Webber scores in the 49th minute and Dimitar Berbatov scores in the 51st minute. Do we push on? Do we really put the game beyond Blackburn? No. That would surely be a mistake. We’ve scored with our only two shots. We can’t stay this lucky if we keep pushing on. With 39 minutes to go, I switch to the 4-5-1, ultra defensive formation that I call Helm’s Deep.

For some time, it looks a wise decision. We reach the hour, still with our two goal advantage. The 70 minute mark comes and goes. Then 75 passes without incident. By now, I smile, I would have gone Helm’s Deep anyway. But then Blackburn score. And then they awaken. The last ten minutes are ceaseless pressure. My stomach is gurgling audibly. There are no comforting moments when the clock ticks over and the screen stays blank, it is all Blackburn. I’m actually sweating through my shirt watching it unfold. Petr Cech makes save after save after save. Blackburn rattle up 12 chances. But none of them go in. We survive. I don’t how. But we survive.

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After that relief, more good news emerges. Rudderless Bolton were beaten by Chelsea. Hull were beaten by Sunderland. Nottingham Forest can only draw. The table looks quite positive. But the table is not to be trusted. The table is capricious. The table is a whore who will dance for a handful of coppers. Look not at the table, but hold your face to the light. And remember always that we’ve got Fulham away next.

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Obviously, with this all being quite exciting, Sky have moved us to the Monday night game. That means that we get to see Bolton drawing with Newcastle and Nottingham Forest miraculously beating Chelsea. When we play Fulham, we know what we need to do. We just need to draw. A single point would lift us to safety. Just a single point. But defeat would dash our dreams upon the cold floor and snuff out the light in our eyes. So, you know… no pressure, lads.

With Cech suspended, we’re looking to Paul Smith to save us. That doesn’t exactly fill me with hope. I didn’t buy a good, solid back-up goalkeeper because, by the time I realised that I needed one, I’d spent so much money that the board took away the keys to the kitty. Needless to say, we’re going for the 4-3-3 formation and we’ll react accordingly as the game develops. And in other news, my stomach is whirling so much that I think I might soil myself.

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After 12 minutes, we’re a goal down and I actually feel sick. It’s a long shot from Luis Boa Morte, but apparently goalkeeper Smith has, “gone walkabout”. Thanks for that, Smith. After 25 minutes, it’s apparent that we are dying out there. They’ve made seven chances, but thank God they’ve only put two on target, one of which went in. I cannot continue like this. We’re in all sorts of trouble. This messy compromise isn’t helping anyone. We can’t fall back, we’re already losing. We can only go forwards. We can only attack. With mist in my eyes and a sinking feeling in my stomach, I reach again for my trident.

With three centre-forwards, we look sharper. Thwaites and Moore go close. Then, five minutes before the break, Moore puts us back in the game with a powerful effort. Fulham, “look to take the game to their opponents,” which is not what I need with two full backs who are currently acting like wingers. We reach half-time, the score locked at 1-1. That’s all I need to survive. But there’s no margin for error now. We play Sunderland on the last day of the season and they haven’t yet wrapped up their title. They’ll batter us without blinking. I don’t like the sound of that at all. We need this sorted today.

In the second half, Moore quickly misses a sitter and I’m nearly weeping with frustration. Fulham come back, they rattle the woodwork. And then they withdraw Boa Morte for an old friend of mine, Thiago Motta. He wanted to be a striker at Everton, but I sold him because he wasn’t even nearly good enough.

The narrative seems set. This is the ultimate revenge story, isn’t it? Ex-player comes back to bite his boss in the bottom. But not in a sexy way. In a way that is far from arousing. Because this bite won’t indicate a developing sense of adventure within the confines of a trusting relationship between two consenting adults eager to explore the limits of sensory stimulation. No, this bite will mean relegation.

But first we have a corner. Fatih Dincer steps up to take it and aims the ball at the far post. It reaches Gary O’Neil who strikes it with fury. WHOOOSH! Danilo Vicente Aceval in the Fulham goal can do nothing to stop its passage to the back of the net. We’re winning. With 25 minutes left, we’re actually winning. I’m not falling back and inviting them on now. I’m not even returning to 4-3-3. We keep on keeping on. We hit the bar, we force saves, we pile forward. And then in the 81st minute, we retreat to Helm’s Deep. But it’s as if Fulham know that their race is run. They can’t summon up anything more. The clock ticks over without incident and Andy Russo’s whistle signals that our great escape is complete. I cry out, an incoherent bellow of joy and then I fall to my knees and hold my head in my hands. It’s over. We did it. It’s over. I work in an office with a glass wall. After a couple of minutes someone comes to see if I’m all right.

“I’m fine,” I say, blinking back the tears. “For the first time in weeks, I’m actually fine.”

“Riiight,” she says. “Can you stop being weird then? You’re upsetting everyone.”

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And so, against all odds and expectations, we end the season, and indeed this adventure, with a stress free afternoon at the football. Stress free for us, but not for Sunderland. They need to win to guarantee the title. And I’m in no mood to let that happen. No-one ever did me any favours, so I’ll be damned if I’m going to go soft now. Over the past eight seasons, I’ve toyed with the idea of caution, but have generally opted to roll the dice and see what happens. Sometimes it’s worked and we’ve done incredible things together. Sometimes it hasn’t, and you’ve all laughed at me. In that spirit, we bow out of Championship Manager 2001/02 with the trident.

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We score with the first move of the match. Sunderland, quite possibly feeling the nerves as they approach their first title in 80 years, give the ball away and Stefan Moore hits a fierce shot into the bottom corner. We hold onto the lead until the break, but then Dean Howe lobs Paul Smith and it’s all square. Sunderland are back in the hunt. Meh. Like I care. But within seven minutes, Dimitar Berbatov has hit his 10th goal of the season. Appalling when he first arrived, it’s fair to say that the beautiful Bulgarian wastrel has settled into his groove now. The Black Cats have no response to that. We see out the win and commiserate with them at the end. Once again, John Toshack’s Manchester United are the champions. He may hug me for this. I hope he does.

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It was all about the run-in. After that devastating defeat to Nottingham Forest on February 11, we went on a stunning streak of form, even if it didn’t always feel that way at the time. Seven wins in 11 games were enough to push up out of the drop zone and into a final position of 16th place, nine points above Bastard Bolton. Portsmouth are safe and have a far better squad than they did when I arrived. My work here is done.

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This has been an extraordinary adventure. Eight seasons, over 100 episodes and more twists and turns than you would ordinarily expect from a 15-year-old computer game. There’s no question that the new Football Manager games are bigger, better and more immersive in every way, but CM01/02 will always have a special place in my heart. And they will live forever now, my boys. Federico Magallanes. Danny Senda. Li Tie. And yes, even you, Cherno. We did some amazing things out there.

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It has to end now, I’m afraid. After so many seasons, the league is filling up with regenerated players. It’s now no longer an exercise in nostalgia, it’s just one man telling you about his computer game, which is really only one step up from one man telling you about his dreams. We’d rather take this opportunity to bow out now than allow the series to plateau and fade from sight. But we have all sorts of plans for a sequel that will be bigger, brighter and hopefully even better. And so, that leaves me with just one thing left to do…

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Championship Manager 2001/02 is freeware. If you want to replicate this challenge, or make one of your own, or even just indulge in some nostalgia, you’ll find all the links you need here. We’re running leagues from England, Spain, Italy, Germany, Holland, France, Portugal and Scotland and we used the 3.9.68 patch that uses 02/03 data because we felt that was safest. And so it proved. Can you imagine how much it would have hurt if the game had just ground to a halt and we couldn’t take it any further? I’d have been livid. It happened to me once on the patchless version. I was doing the chapter on a ten year simulation of CM01/02 for Football Manager Stole My Life and the bastard thing just wouldn’t go past 2005. I’d spent hours on it. I was furious. Still all’s well that ends well, eh? 

CM01/02: The Return (The Final Episode)
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