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.
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; Episode 14; How To Play Like Chelsea 04/05 In FM17; Episode 15.
MATT: I am not happy about this. I didn’t expect it to happen and nor do I want to be dragged into the shit show at Ibrox. I half thought it might be enjoyable to take over a Celtic side vastly superior to everyone else in the Scottish Premiership (and had obviously primed myself for that eventuality), but Rangers? After they so ruthlessly sacked Alex Stewart? If a man who can somehow transplant Catenaccio into FM17 can’t get enough out of this squad, I don’t have much confidence in my own chances.
— Bob Priestley (@BobJPriestley) February 8, 2017
Yet here I am, forced to call on my meagre experience of the latest iteration of Football Manager and revisit the addiction that blighted my youth. I used to be good at this game. So good that I once signed Jon Macken for Roma and started him up front in every game of a Scudetto-winning season just so I could prove to my friend, who was managing Lazio, how much better I was. If you’re reading this, Matthew Roberts, I’d like to remind you that I was essentially playing with ten men.
I don’t feel quite so cocky now, especially when I look at the table and see Iain Smugintosh’s Celtic are 15 points above Rangers and seven clear at the top. Jesus, Alex. What the hell were you playing at? In some ways I’m looking forward to this battle, though. I have very little lose: no reputation to speak of, in the game or otherwise, and very little expectation from a Rangers board still reeling from their previous disastrous appointment. Oh wait.
God loves a trier but this is ridiculous. It suddenly dawns on me that Alex faced an impossible job, handed scant resources (there’s still no money in the transfer budget) and told to work miracles in the club’s first season back in the big time. Nevertheless, it would be good to wipe the smile off Iain’s face. He suggests I take it slow, ease myself back in and familiarise myself with the Rangers squad and the task in front of me. I think about taking Iain Macintosh’s advice for all of 15 seconds and then decide to hell with it. Give me Gary Mackay-Steven on loan you bastard.
Iain didn’t even look up from his computer to explain his decision. And I had high hopes about this transfer. With a flair rating of 20 and little in the way of work ethic, Mackay-Steven reminds me very much of myself – the sort of maverick we’re going to need to turn this ship around. I try blackmail, reminding Iain that I’m the editor here and I won’t hesitate in spreading salacious rumours about him on the internet. “You wouldn’t dare,” he retorts. Just try me, pant sniffer.
It’s to no avail but I do snap up Wigan centre-back Jack Hendry on loan until the end of the season. He’s injured for the next four weeks but we desperately need more depth in that area. The squad looks very light on quality overall, but I note that every youngster in the Under-20s has improved considerably under Alex’s stewardship. Or should that be Alex’s Stewartship? I laugh at my own terrible joke and send him a consolatory message.
As I’m preparing to pick my first line-up for the trip to Aberdeen (who, by the way, are on the longest unbeaten run in the league after avoiding defeat in their last ten matches), there’s a sharp knock at the door. “Who is it?” I ask. “Steve,” the voice on the other side of the door replies. “Steve who?” I enquire. “Steve Ferguson,” the voice answers. “Who’s Steve Ferguson when he’s at home?” I ask once more. “I’m the club’s Player Liaison Officer,” says Steve Ferguson, the club’s Player Liaison Officer. “Isn’t this wasting precious word count?” He has a point.
As if I didn’t have enough on my plate, Joey Barton is itching for more first-team football or a move away. Considering he’s on wages of £20,000 a week, I doubt it’s going to be a quick exit, so I shove him in central midfield for the Aberdeen trip to give him a chance to impress.
As for the rest of the team, we line up in a lopsided 4-1-2-3 formation (or something). I’m worried about the threat of marauding full-back Graeme Shinnie on the left, so pull Barry McKay back but allow Harry Forrester to press on down the opposite flank. We’ll play cautiously with a structured counter-attack and try Rob Kiernan alongside new captain Danny Wilson in defence, as Philippe Senderos drops to the bench. The trio of Barton, Jordan Rossiter and Diego Poyet looks like a strong central midfield.
I pause to choose my words carefully in the dressing room after a comprehensive defeat. “Does anyone know where Steve Ferguson is?” I ask. Apparently he’s schmoozing in the bar. I storm up to the Pittodrie hospitality suite and grab him by the throat. “Barton’s unhappy is he?” I snarl. The other guests fall silent. “I can’t…breathe,” chokes Steve. “He made EIGHT fucking mistakes today, including giving away a last-minute penalty.” There’s a mix of confusion and terror in Steve’s eyes and, as I push him up against the wall, his pants darken at the crotch. “Get out of my sight.”
I calm down on the way back to see the lads. Aside from Barton’s 5.7-rated embarrassment, the rest of them put in a shift. It’s the least I could ask for. We looked set for a hiding in the first half, but switching to a narrower approach and keeping the ball away from Aberdeen’s dangerous overlapping full-backs, we got a foothold in the game and could have equalised through Rossiter and then Joe Garner.
“I’m going for it,” I tell Iain, who’s watching and enjoying every minute, as the clock ticks past 70 minutes and we trail 0-1. “It could end 0-3 but I’d rather ride a mustang into the fiery depths of hell than never know what it’s like to tame such a magnificent beast.” He looks puzzled. The game ends 0-3.
IAIN: I’m going to miss Alex, but I have to say that I am absolutely delighted to see Matt stepping into the breach. For months now, he’s been happily looming behind Alex and I as we break ourselves upon the wheel of this evil game, chuckling away at our mental disintegration, occasionally leaning over to tell us how well he’s been doing on his own save with Dundee.
This might look easy from outside, but when you’re in it…it’s horrible. The pressure is awful. No restarts. No shutting it down and walking away. You get one chance and if it goes wrong, the internet will not be shy in identifying your shortcomings. And Matt has all this to come.
— The Light Knight (@LightKnightFPL) February 7, 2017
Upsettingly, I have no time to enjoy the moment. Craig Gordon is out for the rest of the season. As cover, I have two senior goalkeepers that I don’t trust and one 18-year-old who will be good at some point, but probably not until 2020.
This is the sort of thing that can really banjax a title challenge and so I make an emergency philosophy breach and sign Eldin Jakupovic on loan from Hull. He is neither young nor Scottish, but he can at least catch and that’s more important to me right now. Unfortunately, he hasn’t played in months, so young Ross Doohan will have to make his third start of the season while Jakupovic has a game in the Under-20s first.
I always look forward to playing St Johnstone. I won’t forgive them for what they did to me on the opening day of the season. For the way they made me feel in that Travelodge in Sunderland. I will happily spend the rest of my life making them pay. As Matt acquaints himself with his new players, a process that essentially involves him shaking his head and shouting, “Oh my God! They’re all so BAD!” for nearly half an hour, I give my opposition a thorough scouting and discover that St Johnstone’s players are all very short.
There’s not one outfield player over 6ft tall. And when it comes to corners, they should be very vulnerable. The three men at the far post are Chris Miller (5ft 7), Steven MacLean (5ft 9) and then there’s our giant Murray Davidson (6ft). Well, I’ve got Nir Bitton (6ft 5), Dedryck Boyata (6ft 2) and Tom Rogic (6ft 2). And we spend two days working on attacking set-pieces. Of course, it’s interesting that St Johnstone haven’t conceded any goals from set pieces all season. But maybe that’s because no-one else has tried this. I tell Matt all about this, but he seems to have gone catatonic with stress.
It’s crucial that we string some wins together because morale has been seriously damaged by Moussa Dembele’s hissy fit. Leigh Griffiths is a fervent supporter of Dembele’s bid for freedom, probably because he’ll then be the unopposed first team striker. My refusal to sell has really upset him.
Two days before the game, he approaches me again, this time to ask why I didn’t fine Jozo Simunovic for his red card last week. Fucking grass. I tell him that this really isn’t any of his business. Griffiths is entirely unamused and his morale plummets to rock bottom. Two weeks ago I had two of the best strikers in the league. Now I’ve got two miserable cry-arses and I can’t play either of them. I hate this game. They’re both dropped. New signing Jason Cummings will make his first start instead. Nineteen-year-old Calvin Miller, who was just about to go out on loan, will sit on the bench.
I could not be more satisfied. I worried about losing two strikers to cry-arsing, but my third came through for me and scored the opening goal. I worried about Boyata filling in for Simunovic, but he played a blinder and scored the second from one of those far post corners we worked on.
Admittedly, he did give away a late penalty, but having worried about playing an 18-year-old Doohan in goal, the boy only went and saved it, didn’t he? It ends 2-0. A nice, comfortable win. My favourite kind. And now I can sit back and watch Matt away at Aberdeen. “Aberdeen are really good,” I tell him. “They battered me. I was lucky to escape with a point.” Matt says some very bad words.
MATT: Let’s take stock. Rangers are fifth in the table, six wins behind Celtic, morale is desperately low and the last manager was given all of five minutes to fulfil the board’s absurd expectations of winning the league. What else could possibly go wrong, I wonder. And then a bulletin pops up in my inbox. Arsenal have made a bid for Jordan Rossiter.
If I’m to have any hope of succeeding, I can’t afford to let Rossiter leave. He’s our best player. But this is Arsenal and the Premier League, there’s no way he’ll accept me turning down the Gunners’ bid. I think to myself ‘what would a good manager do in this situation?’ and scan the room for inspiration. Iain’s tongue pokes out the corner of his mouth as he scribbles down set-piece routines on a piece of scrap paper. I’ll have to go it alone.
I choose to be diplomatic and negotiate the hell out of the deal. In the end we agree a fee of £2.7million, which will likely rise to £5.25million, plus a 50% sell-on clause, and, best of all, Rossiter will stay at Ibrox until the end of the season. It’s good business, especially compared to Alex ‘Moneybaw’ Stewart handing Federico Macheda a £13,500-a-week contract. What a bluffer.
To end this miserable first fortnight in Glasgow, I prepare the squad for Dunfermline at home in the fourth round of the Scottish Cup. I hear they are considering appointing Alex as manager.
Iain asks if I’m okay, noting the speed at which the bitterness has set in. Before I have chance to respond he starts droning on about corners again. He’d die if he ever had to live in a windmill. “Is there really much point to that stuff?” I ask, more an attempt to humour him than anything else. He tells me to check the detailed stats for the Scottish Premiership, and there are Celtic, top of the ‘goals scored from corners’ column. I look up from the screen to see Iain trying to eat himself with a spoon.
And so to Dunfermline, for which Jason Holt replaces Barton and Lee Wallace returns from suspension to replace the suspended James Tavernier. Let’s just do a win, eh?
I’ll tell you something, you really feel the pressure playing this game when you know you’ll have to share the result with everyone afterwards. I would try and put that thought to the back of my mind, but Iain gladly reminds me as soon as Dunfermline score an undeserved equaliser with 13 minutes remaining.
It’s moments like this that can make or break a manager. I’ve already sent on Macheda and Andy Halliday, as well as that useless oaf Senderos, who, coincidentally, came on just four minutes before Dunfermline managed to score. All I can do is work with what I’ve got out there on the pitch. We switch to control, we go more direct, we fashion a last-gasp opportunity for Macheda and he sticks it away past Celtic loanee Leo Fasan in the opposition goal. TAKE THAT YOU MOTHER!
Exhausted, I collapse on the floor. I come to in Iain’s arms a short while later. “Now do you see?” he says. “Now do you see what it’s like?” “I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry for everything I’ve said this past half an hour.” “It’s okay,” he whispers, and a single tear rolls down his cheek. He knows this game has claimed yet another soul.
IAIN: Next up, the Scottish Cup and a trip to Dumbarton. They’re a semi-professional side, fighting for their lives in the second tier. Obviously, we’re going to respect them, but at the same time I have a lot of players who need a bit of exercise and a senior loanee goalkeeper who is now sharp enough to play. So lots of changes, but we are talking about replacing very good players with very good players, so we should be okay.
Yes, we’re okay. But we had a bit of a fright there. My new controlling, high line tactic went very badly wrong. It turns out that artlessly blatting the ball over our advanced backline is every bit as effective as the most complicated bit of total football.
Dumbarton get themselves back in the game, and deservedly so too. With half an hour to go and the score still level, I send on the big guns. Their resistance finally breaks, we score and we put the game to bed. Lesson learned. Take nothing for granted. I look over at Matt and remark on my good fortune. For some reason, he looks really disappointed…
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).