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; Episode 10: The First Cup Final; How To Play Like Atletico Madrid In FM17; Episode 11; Episode 12; Iain returns to Everton; Episode 13.
IAIN: I hate playing Hearts. I don’t want to say it in front of Alex, but Hearts are probably the second best team in the league and we struggle against them.
I shouldn’t be worried though. We’re in great form and we haven’t been beaten since the opening day of the season. But Alex is stuck on the train and I’ve got time to make sure I do everything properly. While I await his arrival, I order two days of ‘defensive positioning’ in training, re-jig my set-pieces and welcome Kieran Tierney back to the bench. We’re Celtic. We’ve got this.
Hearts 4 – 1 Celtic
We haven’t got this. I don’t know why we haven’t got this, but we really haven’t. We had nearly 60% of possession and 20 chances, but we’ve been destroyed 4-1. I don’t understand.
We started well, we got men forward to support attacks, we worked their goalkeeper. And then, for the first time all season, we conceded from a corner. No bother. I have a new formation, a variant of the 4-1-4-1 with a higher line and the intention to control the game. And I also had Tierney, the league’s best full-back, to throw on. But moments later, it’s Tierney who gets caught out of position and suddenly Hearts were 2-0 up.
Now it’s at this point that you have to make a choice: Do you stick to the tactics that have produced a mostly strong performance, but that have garnered no luck whatsoever? Or do you mix it up in the hope of sparking a comeback? Off comes Nir Bitton and on comes a second striker, Nadir Ciftci. Ten minutes later, we’re 3-0 down. Sigh. Ciftci makes one for Griffiths with 20 minutes to go, but just as we’re getting back in our groove we concede our second goal of the season from a corner. What a time to develop that habit. We lose 1-4. I’m quite upset.
ALEX: Two wins from three fixtures have eased the pressure a fraction, but only a fraction. The Motherwell game saw the board’s confidence remain at ‘disappointed’ and my job security fall to ‘very insecure’.
Nonetheless, I have two home games before an away trip to Aberdeen, and my side are playing good football: ball retention is superb, we are getting plenty of shots on target, and it’s just a matter of time before we start to click and build a run of wins. Our best run so far is a mere four victories on the bounce – which even I’m happy to admit isn’t good enough – but we are on the up. I’m sure of it.
And so, to Inverness Caledonian Thistle at home. We retain the 4-3-1-2, with Rossiter in the playmaking role due to Poyet’s continued fatigue, and Halliday and Crooks alongside him. I push Tavernier up a little on the right to make use of his most natural position as a wing-back, while Dodoo keeps his place ahead of Macheda.
Rangers 1 – 2 Inverness Caledonian Thistle
Have you ever listened to Derek and Clive? It’s Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, utterly inebriated and horrible, mostly just swearing at each other. Anyway, it’s one of the funniest things I’ve ever heard. It makes me laugh until I weep, hysterical, shaking laughter, a total loss of control. It shouldn’t be amusing, it should be grotesque and stupid, but it gets me every time.
This game is that funny, but without the punchline. I’ll cut to the chase: we lose 2-1. Bearing that in mind, here are the numbers: we have 27 shots, nine on target, 61% possession, 628 passes completed of 731, and only miss six tackles. They have six shots, two on target, and complete fewer than 300 passes at 64% completion. Yes, we only win 56% of our headers, but seriously? Is that enough to throw away a game in which we enjoyed such utter dominance?
I’ve got nothing left after that. I can’t even remember how they scored, except I know, I just fucking know, that they were pulled-back crosses on the counter because that is how we concede EVERY SINGLE GOAL EVER. And nothing I do can negate it. I pull my full-backs back to defensive positions at 1-0. I shout at the team. I do everything you should do. I do more. And nothing works. It’s as inevitable as death but with none of the sweet release.
IAIN: Given that we didn’t actually play badly against Hearts, I’m loathe to make any changes. It’s Kilmarnock away and they are, with the greatest of respect, a bit shit. But they’ve beaten Alex before and they could easily beat me. Especially if we get complacent. We’ll stick to the counter-attack tactics rather than getting all cocky. Beyond that, there’s not much I can do.
Kilmarnock 0 – 1 Celtic
A win, and a fairly comfortable one at that. By rights, it should have been three or four, but given the circumstances, we’ll settle for one. It was Griffiths who scored, prodding home a low cross from James Forrest, very much our trademark goal. I hear Alex isn’t such a huge fan of that type of attack.
Forrest should have made it two in the second half when he headed off the far post and the ball bounced back off the near post and away. Callum McGregor managed to miss a sitter as well, but Kilmarnock couldn’t get through our lines and we were never in any danger. I’m still upset about Hearts though.
IAIN: The transfer window has opened and I have absolutely no interest at all in spending January rushing about after players. While Alex was pacing the office and making effigies of Robbie McCrorie a few weeks back, I was making bids all over the place. I’ve already completed my winter business. In accordance with my aim to develop young Scottish talent, I’ve spent the whole transfer budget on three young men with the potential to make a huge impact at Parkhead.
I know that I won’t be able to keep Dembele forever, so Jason Cummings arrives from Hibernian for £1.3m to prepare to take his place. He’s young, he’s quick he scores goals, he’s technically excellent. And he’ll be given the chance to train up, play with the Under-20s, and do it all out of the spotlight until the inevitable rush of bidders for Dembele in the summer.
Loanee David Carmona has done brilliantly whenever I’ve called upon him, but I need my own young right-back to cover for Cristian Gamboa – and Callum Paterson is perfect. At £2.2m, he’s not cheap, but he’s got everything he needs to play the attacking full-back role, plus he can throw the ball the length of a football pitch, too. You never know when that will come in handy.
Finally, a striker for the distant future. Just 18, Greg Morrison is very highly thought of by the scouts and £250,000 seems a good investment. He’s way down the pecking order, so don’t expect to see him for a while. In fact, I may pack him off on loan.
ALEX: Remarkably, I’m still in a job after the Inverness Caley Thistle debacle. And so I prepare for the next chance to fend off my P45 and start thinking about St. Johnstone at home.
I refuse to believe anything other than that my team will come good. I point blank refuse to change formations or style again. It’s absurd that I should even need to consider it. The teamsheet: Foderingham; Tavernier, Wilson, Kiernan, Wallace; Crooks, Poyet, Halliday; McKay; Garner, Dodoo. Rossiter is suspended. I deliver a stirring pre-match oration: get out there and spill some blood. Joey would be proud. The lads seem up for it. I have a good feeling about this.
Rangers 3 – 2 St. Johnstone
Until James Tavernier’s sixth free-kick of the season goes in, I am convinced we will lose. In fact, even after that, when St. Johnstone – the incomprehensibly good, stupidly overpowered St. Johnstone – pull it back to 3-2, I know, deep down, that we will lose. Even when we don’t, and I’m back in the changing rooms telling the team they did very well, I still can’t shake off the feeling that the referee will change his mind, drag us back out there, and we’ll concede two goals from whipped, low crosses.
That’s what this game does. It seeps into your marrow until you see defeat everywhere, even when the one place it isn’t is the scoreboard. Again, we are vastly superior to the opposition – though I’ve learned that counts for nothing. We register 10 shots on target to their four and complete 598 passes, or 82% completion with 58% possession. We even win over 60% of our headers for what might be the first time all season. It’s a fine performance and a deserved three points.
IAIN: Unfortunately my hopes of a quiet January are dashed. Our European heroics appear to have stimulated some interest across the continent. I successfully repel big money bids for my centre-backs, Jozo Simunovic and Erik Sviatchenko, but Borussia Monchengladbach’s swoop for Dembele turns his head until it nearly falls off. I try desperately to talk him to staying, but he’s not having any of it.
Fine. But I want £20m for him. Bordeaux decide to bid £5.75m, an offer I treat in the appropriate manner by blowing a raspberry down the telephone line to France. At least, I thought it was the appropriate manner. It turns out that the squad feel otherwise and they demand a team meeting. I tell them, patiently, as if I’m explaining what the moon is to a three-year-old, that we’ll be a weaker team without our top goalscorer and, mercifully, most of them understand. But morale has taken a big hit. Even the sale of Kolo Toure does little to raise spirits.
Amid all of this uncertainty, we have a game in hand to play. It’s our third away game in a row and it’s Motherwell, who frustrated me with a 0-0 draw last time we played them. As I’m still licking my wounds from Hearts, I’d almost take that right now. Griffiths can keep his place up front, given that he hasn’t tried to betray me like Dembele. That boy has made an enemy. An enemy for life.
Well, thank heavens for that. A thumping victory that lifts us seven points clear at the top of the table. Scott Sinclair starts the rout in the sixth minute and we could easily have been two up by then. Sviatchenko adds another before half-time, a twatweasel blasted home from close range. After that, and with Motherwell utterly flaccid, I bring two of the new boys on.
Eight minutes later, the two of them combine for our third. Paterson crosses, Cummings blasts home and the ball is in the back of the net. It’s just a shame that it hits McGregor on the arse on the way in and he claims it for himself, ruining the narrative. Cummings though, will not be restrained. He grabs another right before the end and even the dismissal of Simunovic for a nasty elbow can’t run my mood.
I turn around to tell Alex the good news, but he’s not listening to me. He’s just starting at his laptop and laughing. Laughing in a really strange way. I hope he’s okay.
ALEX: Next up, Aberdeen away. They are good. They’re second (we’re fifth), and they haven’t lost in a very, very long time. I delve into the tactics screen, setting up a defensive version of my 4-3-1-2, setting Wallace and Tavernier to DFBs and changing the mentality to counter. We might lose a little going forwards out wide, but the aim at Pittodrie is to escape with a point – anything more would be extraordinary, anything less would be deadly.
And then Iain says, “Sorry, mate.”
Sorry, what? He’s pressed ‘continue’, the FM equivalent of watching Sky News while I’m sat in the boot room, plotting with no WiFi. I’ve been sacked. I didn’t even get to Aberdeen. Fucking sacked. I sit quietly for a minute, then I gather up my notebooks, laptop, my signed copy of Inverting the Pyramid, and walk outside for a cigarette.
What just happened? I honestly thought I’d get one more game, but three wins and two extraordinarily unlucky defeats were apparently not enough to save me. The board didn’t even have the decency to speak to me one last time. As I leave, Barton lurks, gimlet-eyed and viciously cheerful, Billy Bremner to my Brian Clough. At least I don’t have to do a live stream with ‘Macintosh’ on Yorkshire Television. You know, I’ve never been sacked before in Football Manager. Not once. It’s a very odd feeling. I suppose in the next few days I’ll regroup, work out what happened, what went wrong, and where to go next.
Until then, my friends, pray for Frodo. That little dog is going to be walked to within an inch of his life.
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).