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; Episode 16; Episode 17; Matt enlists the help of Alex McLeish; Episode 18; Pentagon Challenge; Episode 19; How To Play Like Brazil in FM17.
IAIN: After all the excitement of that gripping Old Firm clash and then 120 gruelling minutes of our Europa League triumph over Besiktas, my players are like a beautiful bunny-rabbit on the first day of mating season; they’re absolutely fucked.
In order to simply get through 90 minutes against Partick Thistle without casualties, I’m going to have to make seven changes to my team. That’s a team that is already missing its first-choice goalkeeper, Craig Gordon, and that’s lost Chopper Brown and Leigh Grassiths to acute cry-arse. I explain how bad this is to Matt, but he just stares at me, spits on the floor and then walks out of the room. I turn to Alex, but he hasn’t said a word to anyone in three weeks. He just sits. And he waits.
Partick Thistle 1 – 1 Celtic
If you’d offered me a 1-1 draw at the start of the day, I’d have spat on the floor and walked out too, but I’m quite grateful for it now. Naturally, our mix-and-match team woefully underperformed, not least because my assistant manager reported that many of them were deeply unhappy with Brown as their captain. This is a new development.
Thistle took the lead after seven minutes and I said some very colourful things that I’m not at all proud to have said. But after an aggressive sideline chat, they seemed to perk up. We won a penalty on the stroke of half time and I breathed a sigh of relief. A premature sigh of relief. Scott Sinclair missed it. I breathed another sigh of relief when Stuart Findlay was sent off. I also switched to 4-4-2, moved the line up, made everyone attacking and then doubled down and switched to overload.
Ten minutes later Stuart Armstrong, who has been nagging me about first team opportunities, got himself sent off too. Incandescent with fury, I maintained the overload status and didn’t even blink in celebration when Callum Paterson crossed for the Grass to score in the 89th minute. We’re only seven points ahead of Aberdeen. We can’t keep doing this.
MATT: It’s the morning after the night before and my head is in bits. Did that really happen? Did we really lose to St Mirren, ending our only hope of salvaging something from this miserable season, and with it, my job? I watch the game back to try and figure out exactly where we went wrong. I then spend the next two hours locked in the bathroom with a towel over my head, screaming obscenities.
This hurts. The players are as low as they have ever been, even during the worst days under Alex’s rule. I enjoyed watching Alex veer from crisis to collapse, but I can tell you it’s nowhere near as much fun being the one in the saddle. I desperately want to resign and go back to being the voice on the other side of the screen, gleefully telling Iain and Alex about all the hurtful comments flooding in beneath the live stream. But no, I have to see this through to the bitter end.
We can still qualify for Europe. The most slender silver lining left to fight for, like a slug trail glistening on chunky, cold cat vomit. It’s a massive task, in truth, with Robbie Neilson’s side eight points above us after beating St Johnstone 4-2 on the same day … on the same day we lost to Celtic. The memories are still so painful. The board have downgraded my job security to ‘very insecure’, also a reflection of my mental state, which brings no end of joy to a chuckling Alex. We simply have to beat Motherwell.
I ring the changes. We’re going 4-4-2, a direct response to everyone who called me a Cautious Colin – I assume in the Neil Warnock sense – against Celtic and St Mirren. Gary Mackay-Steven has finally succumbed to his injuries, so Harry Forrester comes in on the left wing with Joe Dodoo given a chance on the right. Chris Kane, who has been held back since his depressing attributes were revealed upon completing his move from St Johnstone, partners Macheda in attack.
Rangers 1 – 2 Motherwell
“Relax,” I told the players before kick-off. “Go out there and play your natural game.” Well, it turns out their natural game is to resemble steaming piles of freshly laid dog shit. And guess who just stepped in every last one.
Despite picking up two bookings within the first seven minutes, there was a brief moment when all was right with the world again, as Macheda steered us into an early lead. But you know what they say about hope: There can be no true despair without it. Five minutes later, Kane missed a sitter from six yards out. Two minutes after that, Luka Belic – who scored the winner against Celtic at Parkhead – cracked one into the top corner from 20 yards out. I reach for my towel again.
With Kane hauled off for Rossiter, the second half remained on a knife edge until the 75th minute. Then Halliday, who had been on a yellow since the first 30 seconds of the game, ploughed into another challenge and was promptly given his marching orders. Belic scored his second, I switched to overload, and nothing happened. Not a single sodding highlight in the last ten minutes. I’m done. This goose is cooked.
ALEX: I potter to the virtual job centre and am shocked to see that top of the list of insecure jobs is one M. Stanger of Rangers. What is it about this club that ruins perfectly respectable, talented gaffers? And Matt? Then I spot that the Clyde job is now available. Barry Ferguson has been booted out and I’m sure having another ‘Gers ‘legend’ take over is far from the Clyde board’s mind, but the side is in lowly League Two and they have a nice, maritime badge. Plus, it’s a job. They respond promptly, only to tell me that Richard Fox is in temporary charge of first team affairs and they’ll be giving him a chance.
Dumbarton! Dumbarton have a managerial vacancy and they are the first side to answer me with a straight “we’ll be in touch”. This is as promising as anything I have read recently. Millie makes me a celebratory hot chocolate.
Dumbarton have an elephant on their badge and the town itself has been noted for glassmaking and shipbuilding and the BBC Scotland drama studios are based there, which has Millie scurrying off to get headshots done. At this point, my browsing history looks like someone planning a series of Antiques Roadshow and, to be honest, I could probably become an expert in 18th century pottery, set up a business, and write a book before someone in Scottish football gives me a bloody job.
Or not: in fact, I must hurriedly reprioritise, because Dumbarton bring me straight in for an interview. I make a glitzy PowerPoint presentation, I talk about philosophies, positional play, forging a reputation; all they seem to want to know is how and why I fucked up at Rangers.
I tell them that I wasn’t given long enough – Millie nods sagely and I wonder how she’s managed to sneak into the interview with me. I promise the Board I get on with the fans. “They love me”, I say, desperately burying any trace of a memory of Ally McCoist. There are no Board expectations to discuss and, I’ll be honest, this is the Best. News. Ever. I’m thanked for my time and Millie gives me an encouraging punch in the arm as we walk out, which hurts a lot more than it should.
IAIN: After a week long rest, we invite Hibernian over to Parkhead for our Scottish Cup quarter-final. I’m still without Moussa Dembele, and I can’t play Chopper because everyone hates him, but all the usual faces return for this one. It’s a cup. And I like cups. We’ll take no chances here. Let’s just get the job done and move on.
Celtic 1 – 0 Hibs
In all my CM/FM lives, I have never seen a game quite like this one. We seem to start well enough, flowing forward with the wind in our hair, and then Hibs counter-attack and Erik Sviatchenko inexplicably attempts to cripple Martin Boyle, receiving a straight red card. It’s a disgusting challenge, absolutely needless, and a little ill-timed given that we’re only 72 seconds into the game.
I drop Nir Bitton into the back line and make him a ball-playing defender, pushing up into the midfield, but I lower everybody else’s duties from attack to support and I drop the line back a bit. We sustain a bit of pressure, but then, against his old club, Jason Cummings pokes home a James Forrest cross. All right, all right, all right. That’s something to defend. I was sure that ten Celtic men can hold out for an hour at home against Hibs, and I’m still sure of it now. Holding out with nine men is much harder though.
Just 36 seconds into the second half, AJ tries to kick Scott Martin’s kneecaps into the Clyde. Once again, the referee has no option but to show the red card. I am reduced to playing a 4-4-0 formation with a box-to-box midfielder as my most attacking player. I switch to defensive, I tell them to waste time, I change every personal setting to defensive or support. Somehow, we hold out for nearly 45 minutes for the win. I don’t know if I should be happy about this. We’re through to the semi-finals though, so that’s something.
IAIN: I don’t watch too much Italian football these days, so when I ask Alex if Fiorentina are any good, I’m a little taken aback when he starts laughing. I’m even more taken aback when he asks “Millie” to clear his diary so that he can keep laughing until home-time.
Yes, apparently they are quite good. And I still can’t play Dembele. At least not from the start. But it’s the home leg and I doubt I’ll get much joy in Florence, so I push them all up the pitch a bit and we’ll see what happens. If we do go out, I don’t tell them, it doesn’t really matter. However this goes, we’ve done very well to still be playing European football in March.
Celtic 1 – 0 Fiorentina
Good Lord. That is, without question, the best that Celtic have ever played for me. Almost everything went according to plan. And yet I’m heartbroken. We should have scored more. We will surely pay for our profligacy in Florence.
Sviatchenko hit our goal after just four minutes, almost as if he was desperate to apologise for that red card. I forgive you, you big daftie. But we had 66% of possession, we hit the woodwork twice, we had six either clear cut or half chances and an incredible 27 attempts on goal. I’d have taken a draw, but somehow a 1-0 win seems far more disappointing.
MATT: During the week I receive a message from the board telling me they’re reducing the percentage of revenue available for transfers due to high debt levels. After everything that’s happened at this club, they still can’t get the finances right. And yet I’m the one with my head on the chopping block.
I don’t even care anymore. I hold a team meeting, tell the players they’re fantastic, and morale improves. But I’m lying to them. I’m lying to myself. What I really want to say is that they’re useless bastards and they can all go to hell. Every last one of them. But, perhaps rather wisely, that hasn’t been included as an option in the game.
The days until my inevitable sacking drift by. We play Dundee away next. I should probably check where they are in the league. We have a new influx of youth players and Iain immediately tries to snap up the best of a bad bunch, Danny Stewart. He’s kicking me while I’m down and I’m just laughing maniacally, pleading with him to put the boot in even harder.
The injuries begin to rack up. Forrester, Tavernier and Dodoo are all ruled out. I’m informed we have the highest number of absentees in the league, which sounds like a good excuse if only I had the energy to employ it. Reserve team manager Graeme Murty clearly has his eye on my role, stubbornly refusing to play any first-teamers in midweek so they can build up match fitness. I watch him lose to Hamilton Under-20s, jeering from the sidelines. Some of the board members spot me and shake their heads, tutting to themselves as they walk away. If they had the money to pay me off, I’d be gone already.
Dundee 2 – 1 Rangers
As Iain says, when it goes, it goes. And this game is gone for me. I am completely done. It’s strange to think that only a few weeks ago I was on a winning run, picking up victories in four out of five successive matches. But then the Celtic game happened, Paul Hanlon’s own goal happened, and morale plummeted, reaching new depths after the cup defeat (on penalties) to St Mirren.
Missing our best player hasn’t helped. Barrie McKay made his long-awaited return against Dundee, but lamentably he had little impact as the hosts cruised to a 2-0 lead. By the time Macheda pulled one back with five minutes remaining, another defeat was pretty much sewn up. Iain and Alex know to say nothing at this stage. “Do you want the towel?” Iain eventually asks. “Yes, I want the towel.”
IAIN: If we don’t play him, we lack his leadership and fight. If we do play him, he scares all the younger lads. But now we have a solution to the Chopper Brown situation. He’s done for the rest of the season. Adieu, Chopper. Adieu.
The pace of fixtures is relentless. I haven’t got time to mock or console Matt because every three days we have a crucial, season-defining clash to contend with.
I’m losing scores of players to fatigue, but this week I’ve got four suspensions as well. Christian Gamboa, Sviatchenko, AJ and Armstrong are all on the naughty step. Still, not to worry. It’s not as if it’s Aberdeen at home, the only team that can realistically stop me winning the title, is it? Oh, what’s that? It’s Aberdeen? Well isn’t that just hold-you-down-and-kick-your-testicles-into-paste-upon-your-coccyx perfect.
Celtic 1 – 1 Aberdeen
This game. This bloody game. I swear it has become sentient. I swear that it is listening into the conversations, feeding off the bile in the room, growing stronger as our frustrations intensify, invoking hardship just when we can bear no more. Matt is a fraction of a man now. His eyes are like gaping sinkholes of misery. But, hey, he knew what he was getting into when he signed on. But I’m the Celtic manager. I shouldn’t have to suffer like this.
We are utterly dominant against an in-form Aberdeen side, but once again we do more damage to the post than the back of the net. Twice, we hit the woodwork, while making excellent chances with a breathtaking frequency. And then Aberdeen take the lead seconds after the restart with what proves to be their only shot on target. We continue to push for the equaliser, but nothing comes of it. It’s like a sickness has taken hold of the team. I can see them second guessing themselves. I urge them onwards, tweaking their instructions, driving them on. I put two up top. I switch to overload again.
And then Dedryck Boyata equalises from a last minute corner. All that mockery of my micro-managed set pieces, but they’ll always get you out of jail when you need them. I remark as much to Matt, but he’s busy trying to carve something into his forearm with a shard of broken glass. It looks like “NIAI EID.” It must be a Middle Eastern proverb. I hope it brings him strength.
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