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 battle between Celtic and Rangers has already defeated Alex Stewart. Can Matt Stanger clean up the mess at Ibrox and wipe the smile off Iain Macintosh’s face?
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; Episode 20; Episode 21; How To Play Like Roma 00/01 In FM17; Episode 22; Episode 23; How To Play Like Julian Nagelsmann’s Hoffenheim; Episode 24: The End.
MATT: I said I wouldn’t continue but Football Manager has a way of dragging you back in.
It’s the little voice in your head that starts by saying “just one more game” at 2am on a school night. The next thing you know you’re cancelling dinner plans and missing grandma’s funeral. She would have wanted you to be happy, though. And that means taking Fleetwood Town into the playoffs while you sit in your pants and brush crisps off your bare chest.
It was inevitable then, that despite a miserable six months in charge of Rangers – finishing fifth in the league and being eliminated from the Scottish Cup on penalties by St Mirren – I felt a cold, slimy tentacle wrap around my ankle as I swam for the surface.
My blue boys had just been thrashed 4-0 by Iain’s treble-winning Celtic side, morale was rock bottom, and Alex couldn’t even look at me. But when I attended the end-of-season boardroom meeting, hope stretched out its sweaty palm once more.
That was all it took for my brain to begin whirring. What if we could turn back the clock, banish the memories of last year, and restore some pride at Ibrox? We’ve already planned a new FM17 Project head-to-head challenge, which we’ll kick off very soon, but there was nothing stopping us from carving up this save so that Iain, Alex and I could press on individually.
I gleefully retired Iain from the game, picturing how smug he would be about the eulogies that followed. Celtic hired former Real Madrid captain Fernando Hierro as their new manager, and he immediately lost a number of the stars behind Iain’s success. Moussa Dembele joined Lyon for £6.25m (rising to £10m), Erik Sviatchenko moved to Dynamo Kyiv for a similar fee, Man City plucked Kieran Tierney, while I saw a £300,000 bid for Stuart Armstrong accepted.
Hierro didn’t piss about bringing in replacements, signing 11 new players including the impressive trio of Levante striker Deyverson, Nurnberg full-back Tim Leibold and Sporting Lisbon loanee Matheus Pereira. He also used his contacts at Real Madrid to sign promising forward Mariano and tie up a loan deal for Luca Zidane.
With a host of new talent now assembled, Celtic held genuine aspirations of winning the title in style, rather than a repeat of the 1-0 wins that dragged them to the championship in the previous campaign.
I also had faint hopes of mounting a challenge, however, and was encouraged by the board paring back their ambitions to a Europa League spot. This much more realistic expectation would enable necessary changes to be made at Rangers as I joined Hierro in a transfer market frenzy.
In the network game there was never enough time for serious recruitment but now I could shamelessly wheel and deal without sarcastic comments from Iain and Alex. Joey Barton, the mutineers’ mutineer, was quickly offloaded to Nancy on a free, while a further 12 players, including top scorer (and, crucially, highest earner) Federico Macheda, also departed.
The only exits I hesitated over were two of our most talented prospects, but Robby McCrorie and Liam Burt brought in £2million from Chelsea and Liverpool, funding a significant overhaul.
The Chris Kane Experiment, which sounds like an early ‘80s synth-pop band, came to an abrupt end as he joined Kilmarnock.
And with that, it was time to focus on incomings. Alex had already tied up pre-contract deals for Liam Boyce, Gedion Zelalem and Jordan Archer, yet with all the outgoings we needed half a dozen new first-team regulars plus strength in depth.
In total 18 new faces arrived, including Middlesbrough youngster Johnny Burn, who didn’t play a single minute because I cancelled his loan as soon as I realised I could bring in Cameron Carter-Vickers from Tottenham. It’s that sort of forward planning that caused the board to give me another chance.
Only three players commanded fees, Armstrong joining from Celtic (for £300k) along with Swansea’s young Scottish striker Oliver McBurnie (£400k) and Chelsea playmaker Lucas Piazon (£2m).
Man City’s Bruno Zuculini, Chelsea’s Cristian Cuevas and Fulham’s Jack Grimmer all provided considerable value on free transfers, with Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Houssem Aouar arriving on loan from Arsenal and Lyon.
It was time to get to work.
As far as debuts go, McBurnie’s four-goal haul in the BetFr…BetBright Cup is one of the more impressive I’ve ever seen. It may only have been Berwick Rangers, the Barcelona of Scottish League Two as they’re known, but it was the most comprehensive performance of my tenure up to that point. And with Barrie McKay laying on three assists, there was plenty of reason for optimism ahead of the big kick-off in the Scottish Premiership.
What’s that? Oh fuck.
Collapse In Form
Thankfully the loss of McKay, who also missed a chunk of the challenge against Iain, was mitigated by Maitland-Niles’ loan. Well, as mitigated as anything can be by one goal and one assist in 32 appearances.
Soon our encouraging early form gave way to a rut even worse than the one I found myself in after replacing Alex, as Rangers were knocked out of the League Cup by Motherwell on penalties at the start of a 12-game winless run.
I can only surmise that with all the new signings the team struggled for cohesion, but switching the training routines and adapting the tactics brought no respite in a truly depressing three-month period.
The nadir was a 3-1 home defeat to St Johnstone in which we had two players sent off in the first half-hour. The other nine held on valiantly until the last 25 minutes, but when Lawrence Shankland scored the winner I was ready to smash another laptop against the wall.
The only thing worth smiling about during those dark days is when Alex, who for some reason I couldn’t retire so lived on as a ghost in the machine, received his p45 from Dumbarton on my in-game birthday. Even in death he’s still failing at FM17.
Unsurprisingly, I was also up for the chop, and, having witnessed how quickly Alex’s Rangers spell unravelled after his chat with the board, I didn’t hold much hope of turning things around.
I was given a month to make a vast improvement, but wins against Ross County and Dundee United were sandwiched by home defeats to Partick Thistle and Kilmarnock.
I have no idea how I wasn’t sacked at this point: we hadn’t won at Ibrox since the start of August, we were the lowest scorers in the league, and morale had dropped to a level where the players would only speak to me through David Weir.
“David, please can you ask Lee Wallace to pass the sugar.” “Lee, please can you pass the boss the sugar.” “David, please can you tell the boss to fuck off.” It was embarrassing for everyone.
It was time to make changes. I had tried almost every tactic conceivable during our terrible run, but the only thing the players could be trusted to do was keep the ball. Perhaps it was something to build on.
Going back to basics, I packed the midfield and started McBurnie or Liam Boyce (who failed to score in his first 12 matches – thanks Alex) as a target man in a 4-4-1-1 formation.
We slowed down the tempo and looked to get forward down the flanks, with attacking full-backs Cuevas and James Tavernier encouraged to overlap and put crosses on Boyce’s bonce.
A win away to Hibs, who were flying after promotion and sitting in second place behind Celtic, was the turning point, spurring the team on to seven successive victories. At this stage I was re-reading Inverting the Pyramid, spending hours analysing data every night, and had Opta on speed dial (before they filed a restraining order).
I was so deep into tacticking that I assigned individual roles to each player, increased set-piece training and even worked on corner routines. Looking back, it probably shouldn’t have taken me nearly a year to figure all this out.
Nothing could stop us now (apart from Celtic, who Rangers still haven’t scored against in six meetings under my management).
Hierro’s side beat us 1-0 at Parkhead thanks to an early strike from Ryan Christie, but that was soon forgotten in the preparations for a rematch against St Mirren, who we faced in the Scottish Cup fifth round for the second time in two seasons.
The defeat on penalties following 120 goalless live-streamed minutes was probably the lowest I’ve felt playing any iteration of Football Manager. As one viewer commented, you could see the moment my heart split in two as Jordan Rossiter missed the first spot-kick.
But this time things would be different. This time the fixture list was full of green. This time we had a plan and a formation, and when I made substitutions I gave the players a word of encouragement before sending them on. This time I (sort of) knew what I was doing…
St Mirren 0 – 6 Rangers
John Sutton, Jack Ross, Kyle Hutton, Rocco Quinn. Rocco Quinn, can you hear me? Your boys took a hell of a beating! Your boys took a hell of a beating!
The Berwick Rangers result is no longer the best display of my Rangers reign. We ripped St Mirren apart from start to finish at *looks up St Mirren’s ground* the succinctly named ‘The Paisley 2021 Stadium’, Aouar smashing a hat-trick, McKay claiming a brace, and McBurnie grabbing a goal and two assists.
Six-bloody-nil. I’ll never have to fret about that penalty shootout again.
Between mid-December and the start of April, the 1-0 loss to Celtic was our only defeat in 19 matches. With a couple of manager of the month awards in the bag, *brushes shoulder*, the board were keen to discuss a new contract.
Suddenly it was all coming up Stanger…but then we had to play Kilmarnock in the Scottish Cup semi-final.
Much like in real life, everyone has bogey teams in Football Manager. In three meetings before the cup semi-final, I had lost to Kilmarnock at home and drawn twice away.
The 2-1 defeat at Ibrox at the start of December really should have been the end for me. Gary Dicker, whose own goal once helped to save my job in the challenge against Iain, scored an 85th-minute penalty before McBurnie stole an equaliser three minutes later. As I urged the team forward to find the winner, Kilmarnock countered and Souleymane Coulibaly stroked the ball in the net with just seconds to play. I made what can only be described as the sound of dying elephant, wailing at the injustice, at my idiocy for playing on with Rangers, at all the hours I have poured into this save with nothing to show for it.
You can see why I was nervous about the semi-final, and, when Lee Wallace scored an own goal after half an hour, my anxiety went through the roof. When Diego Poyet then missed a penalty to give us the lead in the second half, I was ready to go for a long walk in the woods. But no, I had to see it through, and thankfully McBurnie, my sweet prince Oliver McBurnie, scored in extra-time to send us to the final.
Thank god it’s not Celtic, was naturally my first thought. They had lost to Kilmarnock in the fourth round, instead focusing on the Europa League where they were narrowly eliminated 2-1 on aggregate by Atletico Madrid.
Hierro had sewn up the title in his first year in charge, however, so despite lifting Rangers to second place in the league, the Scottish Cup was our only remaining chance of silverware.
If you could ignore the paltry amount of ‘goals scored’ here, that would be just swell…
The Cup Final
There’s nothing like a first-half red card for the opposition to let you know it’s going to be your day in a cup final. Still, if there’s one thing I’ve learned about FM17, you make your own luck in this game.
When Aberdeen’s Grant Gillespie was booked in the 12th minute at Hampden, I quickly changed opposition instructions to mark the defender tightly, close him down, and go in hard. The fuse was lit and soon Gillespie went off with a bang.
We like to do things with difficulty here at Rangers, however, so when Adam Rooney equalised three minutes after McBurnie gave us the lead, I didn’t even raise an eyebrow or utter a single ‘fuck’.
Aberdeen were struggling in the heat of the occasion, and it was only a matter of time before Craig Storie walked into the same trap as Gillespie. A stunning strike from Zuculini and McBurnie’s second wrapped up a 3-1 win and claimed the silverware our form in the second half of the season deserved.
The Next Chapter
Am I pleased? Relieved is a better word. The challenge against Iain was painful, but I was always certain I could make a fist of it at Rangers with a full pre-season.
This should only be the start. Next year we have European football to enjoy, a trophy to defend, and a title to fight for. I won’t rest until we have beaten Celtic to the league…or at least scored against them. I want to be in Tottenham’s position, hammering their rivals on the grandest stage in football.
Let’s kick on and bring the title back to Ibrox next season. Surely I’ll have the board’s backing again and we’ll strengthen for our fight on four fronts.
What’s that? Oh, for fuck’s sake. It wouldn’t be Rangers if it were easy.
If you know you can do better, then join us for the BetBright FM17 Cup. We’re hosting a UK-wide tournament in April and want you to take part. There’s £5,000 on the table for the winner.
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).